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Why Regis? The Legacy of St. John Francis Regis

Mr. Steven Turner, Regis Head of School, shares an abridged version of a talk he presented on the legacy of St. John Francis Regis on January 25, 2023 in this Head of School blog.  To watch a recording of the talk, visit our Regis Live page.  

“Why Regis?” in today’s context is about exploring the legacy of a 16th and 17th-century Jesuit who lived a relatively short and simple life and could have easily faded into obscurity yet whose name somehow has come to grace schools and colleges, fancy hotels, and a large chain of hair salons. Why is it that Regis’ name has lived on? And why is this school named after him? 

Jean François Regis was born, the son of Jean and Marguerite Regis in Fontcouverte, France on January 31, 1597. Young Regis’ mother died in his very early years, and his father remarried relatively quickly. He was a sensitive young man who struggled in his studies and got into trouble despite making every effort to please a stern teacher who did not seem to understand young children. When a different teacher took over, young Regis excelled, and in 1611, he was ready to enter the College of Beziers, which was run by the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. Regis studied in Beziers for five years, and here, as one biographer puts it, “he really began the work of making a saint of himself…Regis must have become a great saint, or, if he would make no efforts in that direction, he might easily have become a great sinner.” Amongst the boys at school, Regis was not especially popular, and he was even initially disliked. He preferred reading or going to Church to participation in sports. 

In 1616, Regis entered the Jesuit novitiate in Toulouse, and he took his vows two years later. After a course in rhetoric, Regis went on to teach grammar at three different colleges for the next ten years. He returned to Toulouse in 1628 to study theology, and he was ordained a priest in either 1630 or 1631. In 1631, he was given his first assignment, teaching at the college in Pamiers, south of Tolouse and near the Pyrenees. He would be there a year before heading back to Toulouse to enter his probationary period, and in 1632, he became a Jesuit. He made a brief return to his hometown to take care of some family business, and then set out for Montpellier, where he would become a fully-formed Jesuit in 1633 and teach until 1634. Between 1632 and the conclusion of his time in Montpellier, Regis was known for working with the poor and marginalized including impoverished women and orphans. This is how St. John Francis Regis came to be the Patron Saint of Lacemakers—by teaching women how to sew and embroider. He also established hostels for them and arranged for their general care and feeding via a group he established called the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. 

Regis was also a fervent preacher who was out to win souls for the Catholic Church, and certainly first and foremost on his mind, for Heaven. He spoke passionately on the beliefs of the Catholic Church and the beauty of the faith. In 1633, Regis was invited by the Bishop of Viviers to come to the Diocese for just this reason. He was an effective preacher not only because of the passion and confidence he conveyed, but also his simple and direct style. 

From Regis’ writings, we know that he always wanted to work with native peoples in North America, most specifically in Canada and the northern United States. This ended up being a dream unrealized, though. John Francis Regis traveled all over southern France by foot, often in rough and mountainous terrain and poor weather. After hearing a reported 9,000 confessions between September and mid-December of 1640, he planned to travel to the little hamlet of Lalouvesc to say Mass on Christmas. He had premonitions of his death prior to his departure, yet nevertheless, he set out on December 23 with two companions. They walked through a winter storm and had to take shelter in a decrepit barn overnight to get out of the elements. By the time he arrived in Lalouvesc, Regis was feverish and had pains in his chest, but despite being ill with pneumonia, still heard confessions and said Mass on Christmas. On December 30, it became evident that he was dying, and after giving his final confession to a fellow priest, he died from pleurisy on December 31 of 1640 at the age of 43. He was laid to rest in Lalouvesc, and the vicarage of the original church in which he died has been turned into a Chapel. Lalouvesc is home to a basilica, constructed in the 19th century, years after his canonization as a saint. This is where the relics of St. John Francis Regis currently reside. 

How exactly did a man who lived for only 43 years and spent only the last nine or ten of those as a priest, and only a fully-formed Jesuit for the last seven of those, rise to such a position of prominence within the Catholic world and within the Jesuit order? To take it a step further, Regis did most of his work in rural areas in the south of France. His “jobs,” if you will, were “Grammar Teacher” and “Missionary,” and the people with whom he worked existed largely on the fringes of society. 

Shortly after his death, little Lalouvesc became a pilgrimage site, welcoming many visitors per year. Various miracles were recorded near his shrine; everything from the blind regaining site to paralytics walking. Requests for a start to the process of canonization came to the Vatican from the local government of Viverais, the provincial government of Languedoc, various groups of clergy, two different Kings of France plus one French Queen, one King of Spain, and several Cardinals. In response, the Vatican took testimonies of Regis’ virtue and these various miracles in 1672, 1698, 1699, 1701, 1702, and 1703, collecting over 120 depositions. Pope Clement XII canonized Regis on April 5, 1737. Notably, his canonization happened just 32 years before Philippine’s birth. For Philippine, Regis would have been celebrated as a recently canonized saint, which likely would have made him in vogue. 

There are a total of 54 Jesuits that have been canonized, and it is reasonable to say that John Francis Regis comes in somewhere in the top five, or even in the top three, in terms of having his name associated with Jesuit institutions, whether they be schools, colleges, parishes, or the like—certainly in North America. St. Ignatius Loyola takes the top spot, which is reasonable as he founded the order. St. Francis Xavier comes in a strong second, as he was also amongst the founding seven. So there are five remaining “original Jesuits” who don’t seem to occupy the place of honor that Regis does within the order. Why is this? The answer here is perhaps a simple one: only one of those remaining five is also a saint, and that’s St. Peter Faber, who was not a saint until Pope Francis canonized him in 2013. 

Here’s where we enter the realm of conjecture. So many of the Jesuit institutions that bear Regis’ name are located in North America. In fact, the number of places named for him are disproportionately in this country. We can recall that one of Regis’ unfulfilled dreams was to travel to the New World to be a missionary to the native peoples of the U.S. and Canada. The fact that he was a saint who was so interested in the New World could be an explanation as to why he is so specifically popular here. 

The next question is why our school, which is not a Jesuit school, is named for him.  This name is due to the significant devotion St. Rose Philippine Duchesne had for John Francis Regis. Philippine shares in an 1818 letter she wrote to Madeleine Sophie: “My devotion to St. Regis began…as I conversed one day with a nun whose patron he was. I often prayed before his relic. His labors, more hidden than those of St. Xavier, were more like those I should be able to undertake, and for love of him I taught the poor.” What we do know from Philippine’s later letters is that it is St. John Francis Regis whose image she had placed in the chapel in Florissant, Missouri when she made it to the St. Louis area. The other significant revelation in her words here, though, is that Regis is a saint to whom she relates and like whom she aspires to be. She says that his labors are more like those she herself would undertake, and she claims that this is why she taught, and specifically why she wanted to teach the poor. Further, we recall that Philippine had a particular desire to minister to the native peoples of the U.S. and Canada, which was exactly what John Francis Regis had wanted. What we don’t know is whether that desire of Philippine was independent of Regis’ unfulfilled goal or inspired by it. 

Interestingly, these are not the only parallels between the lives of Philippine and John Francis Regis. Both also lived during times of religious upheaval. Our school’s name is rooted in Philippine’s particular devotion to John Francis Regis. Founded in 1991, our Regis was the dream of three families who had daughters at Duchesne and were looking for a similar Sacred Heart experience for their sons. What better name to choose for our school, the first Sacred Heart school in the U.S. exclusively for boys, than that of Mother Duchesne’s go-to Jesuit hero?

St. John Francis Regis was a man who lived a saintly life, and who was always destined for Heaven. The fact that he ended up with the recognition he earned is a little bit of a surprise, given his birth in a small town, spending his whole life in rural France, working with the disenfranchised and undesirables of society, and his untimely death at the age of 43. His name is used widely at religious and non-religious institutions, predominantly in North America, due to a desire to work with Native Americans, but at the same time, despite the fact that he never actually set foot off the European continent. Despite such obstacles, he became a darling of Jesuits, a French celebrity, and the main squeeze, in religious terms, of one Rose Philippine Duchesne. We as a school are proud to bear his name, as are other institutions of learning, hotels, and hair salons. St. John Francis Regis, pray for us.