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An unlikely saint: Jacques Fesch was a murderer; now he’s up for beatification

Jacques Fesch

JOEL ROBINE | AFP

Larry Peterson - published on 07/14/21

It's never too late to find God's grace.

A proper way to introduce this man’s story is with the following two verses from the Gospel of Luke: 15: 23-24, recounting the return of the Prodigal SonTake the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” 

On February 24, 1954, Jacques Fesch murdered a policeman and wounded three others nearby. It was no mistake. In the process of trying to steal from a currency dealer, things did not go well. Jacques was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. On October 1, 1957, he was executed.

Jacques was born into a wealthy family. His father was a successful banker from Belgium. He was also an artist and an atheist and had little to do with his boy. Jacques, raised a Catholic by his mom, was somewhat of a dreamer. He was also lazy and showed no ambition for anything. His parents divorced when he was 17. Jacques became self-absorbed, and his misconduct became so poor that his school expelled him. His father gave him a job at his bank, but Jacques, who had already abandoned his Catholic faith, began to party and get into trouble. 

Jacques’s girlfriend, Pierrette, became pregnant. When Jaques was 21, he and Pierrette were married in a civil ceremony. He resigned his position at his father’s bank and began to carouse and do nothing meaningful. He ignored his wife and baby, and fathered another child with another woman. 

Jacques was now 24 years old. He had a wife, a daughter, and another child with his mistress. He was overwhelmed and asked his rich father if he would buy him a boat to sail to Tahiti. His father refused. Desperate to escape the life he had made for himself, Jacques Fesch got a gun and attempted to rob the currency dealer. 

The dealer’s name was Alexander Silberstein. Fesch hit him over the head, but Silberstein managed to sound the alarm. A policeman named Jean Vergne was nearby and ran to the scene. Jacques, running from the scene, turned and fired wildly back at the oncoming officer. Jean Vergne died at the scene. Three bystanders were wounded. Jacques Fesch was captured minutes later as he attempted to run into the Metro. 

The crime created a sensation. Headlines about the atrocity exploded all over France, and the slain officer’s funeral procession was on all the television newscasts. The newspaper followed Jacques’ trial, and the “soap-opera” atmosphere held the nation spellbound as it worked its way to a conclusion. On April 6, 1957. Jacques Fesch was condemned to death for his crime(s). The method of execution in France was death by guillotine.

Jacques was held in solitary confinement at La Sante Prison in Paris. When the prison chaplain first approached the condemned man, Jacques sent him away. But the chaplain kept trying, and the two eventually became close. During this time, an old friend of Jacques’ was ordained a priest. He began to visit him. The third cog in Jacques’ wheel of conversion was his attorney. His name was Baudet, and he was a devout Catholic. 

With God, all things are possible

The three men worked together as instruments of the graces flowing from above. The condemned man began to examine his life. Accepting the pain and anguish he had caused for so many, he underwent a conversion. Jacques returned to his Catholic faith, embracing it with all his heart

Jacques now considered his cell a cloister. He read the spiritual biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Therese of Lisieux. He was in frequent touch with his family, especially his brother and stepmom. He kept a spiritual journal that would one day capture the imagination of many. He reconciled with his wife the night before he died. On October 1, 1957, almost six months after sentencing, Jacques Fesch was executed for his crimes.

Jacques’ wife, Pierrette, and his daughter, Veronica, tried to publish his letters as an example of redemption. At first, no one was interested. But with the help of a Carmelite nun named Sister Veronique and a priest, Father Augustin-Michel Lemonnier, they published his works. From the 1970s until today, these works have served as an inspiration for many.

On September 21, 1987, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, opened a diocesan inquiry into the life of Jacques Fesch. In 1993, his cause was formally opened in Rome, giving Jacques the title of Servant of God.

We opened with the two verses from the Prodigal Son, a gospel about forgiveness. We will close with another two verses from Luke, which reflect the most remarkable conversion of all time. The Good Thief, Dismas, said to Jesus while hanging on his cross:

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 42-43

With God, mercy and forgiveness are eternal.

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