When it was Eugene’s turn to be the director of the prison charity for the week (“Semainier”), he went to extraordinary lengths to force the prisoners to go to Mass. Leflon, quoting the minutes of the meetings, explains
“On the fourth point, however, the directors were exceedingly more cautious. They agreed that the irreligion of some of the prisoners is blameworthy, but, since coercive measures are not within our powers, it seems more advisable to be doubly zealous in exhorting the prisoners to fulfill a duty that is very necessary and indispensable for people in their situation. They advised that each Semainier exhort “all the prisoners to fulfill their obligations as Christians by attending divine services.”
This did not deter Eugene de Mazenod. At the session on January 20, the last point was again brought to the floor and, this time, the directors decided to take measures to increase the attendance of prisoners at Sunday Mass: It has been decided to make a number of tags, equal to the number of prisoners; these tags will be printed with the seal of the organization, and carry the word “soup”; on each Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, as the prisoners leave at the end of Mass, the Semainier will give each prisoner, who will have assisted at Mass, one of the aforementioned tags, which will be returned at the distribution of soup; he will strictly see to it that soup will be given only to those who return the tags to him, testifying that they were present at the Mass which will have been celebrated in the prison chapel.
The adopted measure worked out poorly, and, at the meeting of March 24, “Demazenot fils,” the outgoing Semainier, denounced the tricks practiced by the prisoners in circumventing the system. After stating that “everything was orderly during the week,” and that “ the bread was of good quality,” Eugene added:
Would that I could also give a favorable report concerning the eagerness of the prisoners to fulfill their Christian duty by attending Mass. There is a group of men in the prison who believe that they are above this precept. I have seen at Mass only two of those who, in prisons, think themselves the higher class, and look upon themselves as being superior to those they call the scum, simply because they were able to pay the six centimes needed for being assigned to a room. As for the so-called “scum,” most of them heeded my exhortations. However, since this did not include all of them, I felt it my duty to learn who the delinquents were, in order to impose the prescribed punishment upon them.
This is how I went about making sure that they did not escape my vigilance. I had a list of prisoners drawn up and took the trouble of calling out their names, one after the other. Each one was permitted to leave only after I had called out his name, and those who did not answer the roll call had a small check mark put after their names, and they did not share in the distribution of the soup, which took place in my presence. The astonishment which this measure caused proved to me that this method is preferable to that of the tags, which they had found ways of circumventing. The only precaution necessary is to keep an eye on the one who has charge of distributing the soup, since, by giving double rations to the comrades of those whom we have judged it proper to punish, he would render our precautions useless.
But, inasmuch as every advantage resulting from this just severity would vanish, if all of us did not follow a uniform mode of action, I beg my colleagues not to let their zeal slacken the least bit in regard to this measure.
Thus, on his own initiative, Eugene inaugurated a system of control which he took for granted all his colleagues would follow.” Leflon I p. 285
No doubt that the young nobleman’s intention was good, but his method of achieving it certainly left a lot to be desired. Eugene’s discovery of, and his relationship with, the Crucified Christ would change his approach radically and teach him to treat the poor with dignity and respect.
“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.” Laurence Sterne