Francois-Leon Clergue was born on December 23, 1825, in Lavaur, France. He was the first of three children born to Jean-Louis-Clergues and Rosen Amilhau. Both of his younger siblings died before Francois. His sister, Marie Jeanne, died in 1872. His brother, Ciprien-Celestin, died in Istanbul while serving in the armed forces, living a few days before succumbing to a severe wound received in battle.
Francois was baptized as Francois-Auguste Leon immediately after his birth. The baptism was followed by his father consecrating him to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By the time Francois was six, he was already expressing his desire to become a priest when he grew up. He was a kind and pious boy, and no one seemed to doubt his future vocation. There were times that his parents and close friends even called him “the little pope.”
Francois began his religious studies in Toulouse when he was 11. He received his First Holy Communion at 12 (the standard time frame for that era) and received his clerical tonsure on May 22, 1840.
As he moved onward toward the priesthood, he began going out in the evenings evangelizing the homeless on the streets and in alleyways or wherever he might find them. He founded the Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament and the Brotherhood of Prisons. After some time, he also founded the Brotherhood of Hospitals.
Francois was ordained to the priesthood on September 21, 1850. He was only 24 years old and had already accomplished much.
Father Francois Clergue celebrated his first Mass at his hometown parish. The bishop then appointed him as an assistant priest at St. Gaudens parish. During this time, he began going about the countryside looking for farmers who had fallen away from the faith, determined to evangelize them.
While establishing his reputation as the priest from St. Gaudens who always talked about Jesus, he began seeking out the poorest people in his parish. He also sought help to repair the chapel and planned on refinishing the Stations of the Cross, so as to help the faithful to pray this devotion, one of his own favorites.
He also tended to the material needs of the poor as best he could, providing them with firewood and food. He slept on the floor as an act of penance, giving his mattress to others to use.
Father Francois also had no hesitation in confronting danger. When a cholera epidemic erupted in 1854, he waded right into the heart of the stricken town. He stayed, tended to the ill to the best of his abilities, and did not leave until the danger had passed. Surprisingly, he never contracted the disease.
While still in St. Gaudens, Francois felt God was telling him, “You will be a Capuchin.”
Father Francois followed this new call and, on May 27, 1855, entered the Order of Friars Minor to begin his novitiate training. He was vested in the brown habit and given the new name of Anthony, in honor of Anthony of Padua. His parents and friends were against his decision, but he was steadfast and made his solemn vows on June 13, 1856.
Father Anthony Francois Clergue was able to travel to Lourdes in July of 1858. He met Bernadette Soubirous, who had seen Our Lady, and was so impacted by her genuine spirituality and peaceful demeanor that he began promoting pilgrimages to Lourdes.
Father Clergue preached to 97 pilgrimages in Lourdes and helped care for those who attended. He would spend entire nights in the confessional hearing confessions from the many who were returning to the faith. He became known as the “Stretcher Bearer of Souls” in Lourdes.
He also effectively started missions for the homeless and needy, conducting over 700 of them in Lourdes and towns nearby.
Father Francois, besides helping increase the popularity of Lourdes pilgrimages, brought countless people back to the faith. He was recognized as the priest who walked from town to town carrying a small backpack and wearing a worn-out cassock. He slept two to three hours a night and only on the floor. His missions would last about three weeks and always ended with the Stations of the Cross. When asked why he wore such a shabby cassock, he replied, “I want to remain as poor as possible.”
In early February 1907, while visiting a priest friend, Father Clergue took ill. His condition deteriorated quickly, and he received Extreme Unction. On February 8 at 5 am, he said softly, “Know that I am going straight to Heaven! Never listen to the Devil. Me, I have never listened to the Devil, so I am going to Heaven.” He closed his eyes and died.
On January 23, 2020, Father Anthony Francois-Leon Clergue was declared a person of Heroic Virtue by Pope Francis and elevated to the ranks of the Venerable. He now waits for his Beatification. We ask him to pray for us all.
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