James Kent Stone Father Fidelis of the Cross, C.P. Reflections of His Descendants
by L. Denis de Cazotte
When Father Robert Carbonneau asked me to write a reflection on how our family remembers Father Fidelis I hesitated because none of his living descendants ever knew him. Yet he was one of my great-grandfathers. My brother Jacques and I heard of him by our grandmother of course, and by our father. We also read the Smith’s biography and An Awakening and what followed. Would the radiance of his huge personality allow me to describe the impact he had on our parents, and even on the lives of those who haven’t met him such as Jacques, his children and I?
There were these eyes, these keen penetrating eyes, that seemed to be popping out of the portrait, a photograph behind our grandmother’s shoulder, as Jacques and I, small children, were playing at her feet in her bedroom. We often looked at the severe face. Rather, I should say, he was watching us! There was something disconcerting about it, almost daunting. Unlike the numerous other pictures hanging on the walls or sitting on the piano, this one was striking. At first we couldn’t understand what made it so. Then it became clear that there was an inherent contradiction between the habit, a monachal robe with a shield representing the instrument of the Christ’s passion, and the face. It was the portrait of a priest who looked like a general! We couldn’t but ask our grandmother: “Who was that priest?”
Each time the answer was identical: “A good God loving man, a member of our family. One that you should respect.” She would then adroitly change the conversation to some game we were playing or lead us to the dining room for tea. This was during the nineteen twenties and early thirties in Paris at our grandmother’s apartment along the Seine river. Forgetting our question we would stuff ourselves with those wonderful pastries.
As the years went by, upset with the political situation in France, she left for Switzerland. She found a beautiful property at Versoix along Lake Geneva. It was the second time she was leaving France, both for political reasons. The first was in 1906 when the anti-religious policies of the government drove her out of her mind. She had then returned to San Francisco with her French husband, Charles de Cazotte, a diplomat, and her son Michel. Years later, a widow, as her son and daughter-in-law, our parents, had decided to live in Paris, she followed them. In 1936 though, she couldn’t cope with the red banners stamped with the hammer and sickle that hordes of workers were waving under her windows, singing “The Internationale.” The borders of Switzerland are breakers that protect the strong rollers of international politics and conflicts from hitting its shores. She was happy there and so were we who spent our vacations with her.
It was at Versoix, the summer of 1939, that we heard who was the priest of the picture. A glorious sunny Sunday. The family was on the terrace under a large linden tree watching a parade of white sails. Our grandmother was doing some embroidery work. Our parents had a book and a paper in hand but were heatedly discussing the ills of the Nazi regime and the chances that another war against Germany would break out. Our grandmother had had enough of it. All of a sudden she broke in. She pointed to the Mont Blanc in the background, lying high in majesty capped with snow, surrounded by its court of smaller peaks and hills and said loudly: “Children, while you’re looking at the breathtaking beauty of this landscape, you ought to know that the priest in the portrait who intrigued you, climbed every mountain that you can see including the Mont Blanc and many others! Besides it is time for you to know that he actually was my father.” Then she told us the rest of the story: his conversion, the death of his wife, her mother, her adoption by the O’Connors, the Passionists, etc� This was a fantastic piece of information that left us wondering for days. I should add that it still does.
When September came and war with it, we all got separated during five long years: our father in an officer’s prison camp in Silesia, us in France and our grandmother in Versoix. Our preoccupations then were not with the genealogy of our family but mere survival. Yet there is no doubt that my brother and I had been shaken by the news that we had a priest for great-grandfather and that he was a missionary, also we were told pretty much a saint. We read his biography and the “Awakening.” It got us thinking.
It was not only a good piece of conversation, as one of my nephews recently told me, but the subject of profound interrogations. Letting aside Fidelis’ life as a missionary and as a Provincial, matters for the Passionist Order to look into, we were troubled, as I assume, most people would, by the two facts of his conversion and his giving away his little girls for adoption, others might say and have said “the abandonment” of his children.
Fidelis himself explained both facts. The conversion he treated at length in his book An Awakening: he answered what he felt was the irresistible call of Pope Pius IX in his Letter Apostolic of 1868. Yet it remains a matter of amazement. How does the scion of an old New England Protestant family, a descendant of dozens of Anglican ministers, and by his mother of the Rogers – James Rogers, the first Protestant martyr – and of the Rogerenes, convert to Roman Catholicism? That was a thing for the Irish and the Italians! One has to admire the strength of character of the man who went against centuries old family traditions, thus greatly antagonizing his loved ones and his best friends.
The giving away of his two girls is even more difficult to understand. Fidelis explains it clearly in his correspondence. Being widower of a beloved wife, having lost since one daughter, he prayed The Lord searching for answers. He thought he found them in the Scriptures: Matthew X 37, 38, XIX 29, Mark X 29,30, Luke XIV 26. It sounds simple but one can imagine the spiritual agony that the man went through.
Our grandmother, we knew, felt betrayed. She was eight years old at the time of the adoption and naturally very fragile. Her father had told her and even sworn that he would never abandon her. She abstained from talking about him but kept his portrait on her dressing table. When she talked about her Mom and Dad it always was the O’Connors, those who had adopted her whom she loved dearly.
Our father had met Fidelis in San Mateo in 1921. He was then only seventeen: the man impressed him tremendously. The authority that emanated from the saintly monk struck him. Our father had the greatest respect for his grandfather.
My brother Jacques has more than that. He has Fidelis’ portrait in his study and tells me that “his searching eyes are my conscience.” In his prayers he dialogues with his great-grandfather, asking him for advice and to intercede on his behalf with The Lord.
For his children, now adults, Jacques wrote a few pages on members of our family. It isn’t certain that they were read by all. The fact is that the subject “Fidelis of the Cross” was kind of taboo and not a matter for discussion at the family table. I broke this by my question to them. They were quite astonished and treated the matter with much respect, but they had only more questions. No one expressed judgement, arguing the difference of times and relying on the judgement of Fidelis’ superiors in the Church.
As for me, I feel humbled by the story of Father Fidelis, moved by his spiritual sufferings and the force of our Lord. When the Spirit falls on you, as it did on Paul on his way to Damascus, whatever people may think, the only possibility is to greet Him and surrender.