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

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One Response to SOUP TACTICS

  1. Eleanor Rabnett, Oblate Associate says:

    Oh Eugene! I want to say “good luck with that!” And I wonder how many times I have done something similar for I know that I have not always escaped from being sometimes self-righteous and controlling. I am hard pressed to think of much else this morning. Every experience of God alters forever how we shall see ourselves and all others.

    I keep returning to “Through the eyes of our crucified Savior”. Yesterday during our free time I went to one of my favorite spots and sat at the foot of an incredibly large Oblate Cross which is in the gardens. Our morning had been filled with a talk and reflections on ‘a new and steadfast spirit: Christ-Centred’ and I just wanted to ‘be’ there. I share the short meditation I wrote following my experience there for it colours even how I sit here with Eugene this morning.

    ‘Your most perfect body hangs silent on the cross – with the muscles and ligaments pulled tightly on your arms. I notice my Beloved that your hands are open with the last two fingers of each hand curled inward towards open palms wherein there is a large stake and the other two fingers straight out against the wood of the cross. Your body – I can count each rib. Your legs out straight with one foot on top of another and again a stake. I have avoided looking at your head and face but can resist no longer. Your hair is long and there is a crown of thorns digging in so that it will stay there – not a crown at all but an instrument of pain and torture – perched there for all to mock. I would rip it off if I could, but I am quite powerless as I stand below and look. I notice that your beard is trimmed and neat and it does not seem to belong in this picture. I dare to look at your face, really look at your face and search out your eyes. Most precious love, your face has been ravaged and looks like death. To look into your eyes at this moment is to look at darkness, pain and death. You are bloodied and dirty – it is all too raw. And my heart breaks because for the first time ever I see up close and personal that it is for me that you look as you do. It is for my sins, for my weaknesses and wounds that you look as you do, that you died as you did. I have known this all my life but at this moment it has touched me in the deepest way possible. My tears that I am unable to control simply stream down my face and onto my jacket. I am powerless to stop them or even wipe them away – I do not think that I want to try. I cannot look away and can only sit here torn apart, raw and bleeding on the inside. To look upon your ravaged self on this cross you who are most cherished, you who are my most beloved.

    So I sit without turning away. I will not leave, I cannot leave for that would be to forsake you just feel more at ease. There is an emptiness inside me. As I see you now will forever haunt who I am. I am not without hope but even still I cannot escape what I am experiencing. I am struck with an overwhelming sense of myself – I am a sinner. It is thusly that I sit. Most precious Lord have mercy on me – forgive me.’

    So as I start this day I ask St. Eugene to pray for me.

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