Christian (Old) Catholic priest in the United States, first Bishop
Ordinary of the CCRCC, President and Organizer of the American Catholic
(Community) Church Council.
Most Reverend J. René Vilatte (1854-1929)
- 1854 Born on January 24, the son of Joseph René Vilatte,
a Parisian business man, and Marie Antoinette Chaurin. His mother passed
away (in 1857) when he was very young. He was brought up in the Department
of Maine, by his paternal grand parents who belonged to the Petite Église,
a Catholic minded type of French Community Church movement dating back
to the Napoleonic era.
- 1867 Brought back to Paris by his father. Trained by the Christian
Brothers for the teaching profession. Graduated in 1870.
- 1870-1871 Military service at the time of the Franco-Prussian
war. Served under the celebrated Bergeret. Saw the horrors of the Commune.
- 1871 Hired by the Hull School Board in Western Quebec, Canada.
Taught at Saint Anthony School for boys under Father Louis Reboul, O.M.I.
He was a celebrated missionary to the lumberjacks and presided at the local
school board. Vilatte assisted Father Reboul at Notre-Dame Parish Church
as a catechist. He also learned Latin at the time. He entered the Order
of Christian Brothers to be able to continue working with Father Reboul.
- 1876-1877 Time spent in Namur Belgium at the Christian Brothers
noviciate. While in Belgium, he found out the his protector, Father Reboul,
had died on March 1, 1877. He returned to Canada and entered college there.
- 1878-1880 Studied philosophy at the College of The Fathers of
The Holy Cross in Ville Saint Laurent, a suburb of Montreal. Father Vanier,
one of his teachers wrote " he was a charming man, generous, pious,
respectful and had a lot of friends"
At that time in his life, he met Father
Charles Chiniquy (right) (1809-1899),
the Quebec reformer who had founded the French-Canadian Community Movement
in the United States (registered in Kankakee District Court, Illinois (1859),
under the name Christian Catholic Church). Vilatte joined Chiniquy in Montreal
and worked in his Franco-Canadian interdenominational mission movement,
under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church. He was sent to Saint Hyacinthe,
Quebec as a teacher and catechist at Saint John Church with Rev. Moïse
Boudreau, a disciple of Father Chiniquy.
At the suggestion of Father Chiniquy, he (Vilatte) entered the ministerial
training program offered at McGill University by the Presbyterian Church
and graduated in 1884.
- 1884-1885 Sent to Green Bay, Wisconsin,
he worked as a lay missionary to the Belgian and French-Canadian colonies
of Brown County. Father Chiniquy went there to support his ministry and
preached in Green Bay, Fort Howard and Marineette (October 1884). At that
time Vilatte was asked to serve as pastor at Calvary French Church, Green
Bay. His talent as a preacher brought many people to the church, not only
from the Green Bay, Brown County area, but from the northern French-speaking
colonies of Door County; where an independent catholic movement had been
initiated at Desert, Wisconsin, among the Belgians. Mr. Édouard
de Bekker (right), the president of the
movement came to see Vilatte in Green bay and asked him to become their
pastor. He presented the situation to Father Chiniquy
and it was felt favourable to get in touch with French reformer Hyacinthe
Loyson (left). He had been a Christian
Catholic (Old Catholic) rector in Geneva and was close to Bishop Edward
Herzog, the Swiss Bishop. He recommended Vilatte to him. Following a tutorial
training program under Bern University Professor E. Michaud, Vilatte passed
an comprehensive examination in Christian Catholic theology and was ordained
to the priesthood on June 7th. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral
of Saints Peter and Paul in Bern.
Vilatte returned to Wisconsin with the support of the Robillards, a French-Canadian
family, and settled in Little Sturgeon, Door County, where he celebrated
his first mass on June 27. The Robillards lent him a log cabin which served
as chapel and rectory. He called his mission 'Good Shepherd'. Here is a
description made by Rev. S.J. French:
"Landing there, walked south along the lonely
shore of Green Bay for about three miles where you will find a small house
facing the bay, a log cabin clapboarded over the logs, with a crodd arising
from the centre of the ridge-pole. This at once is the rectory and chapel.
Its overlook is most lovely. It is entered by door in the middle of the
front side. Entering the door we are in the middle of holy poverty. The
seats in the chapel are rough planks resting on temporary structures, the
altar construction likewise, which is concealed by plain white muslin frontal.
The top is covered with fair linen cloth, the altar ornaments are made
of wood by the priest himself, and their roughness concealed by a coat
of paint or folds of white paper. A platform a few inches high does duty
for foot pace and on the floor surrounding the altar and foot pace is tacked
a strip of crash towelling. This is the chancel. The sanctuary lamp is
a taper in a tumbler of oil resting on a bracket nailed to the window frame.
An equally rough lectern completes the furniture. For vestments, a cheap
set of white Roman pattern with a chalice and paten.
"The office and bedroom of the priest are opposite.
Here there is no attempt at a credible appearance, except that as a chapel,
all is scrupulously neat. In the office, a small cookstove and pine table
covered with enamel cloth. Over the table is a rough shelf containing a
few books, small crucifix and photographs of Bishop Edward Herzog, Père
Hyacinthe Loyson and Dr. Eugene Michaud. A similar shelf in the bedroom
contains a few more books. On the floor is no sight of carpet, on the bare
logs of the house no coverings but whitewash" (The Living Church 10-24-1885).
At this time Marcel Pelletier joined Vilatte as a lay missionary.
(Editor's Notes : Reading the above, we see how simple Vilatte lived
in his mission territory. There were few creature comforts and like many
other pioneer priests, he made a sacrifice to live among and minister to
the people of God in North-eastern Wisconsin. I believe that this is what
Bishop Brown saw, when he visited the station. Vilatte was a humble man
and many people saw this.)
- 1886 Out of the mission
station grew a parish of 140 people, in only a few months, including the
Desert/Brussels congregation. The need for a larger permanent church was
felt. Between January 23 and march 22, Vilatte gathered the sum of $4,500
preaching in Chicago, New York, Boston and Baltimore. He was given a piece
of land in Gardner, a few miles from Little Sturgeon. At this location,
the Church of the Precious Blood of Jesus (right)
was started. The Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac, Bishop J.H. Brown, presided
at the ground breaking ceremony. Brown was supportive of Vilatte's ministry
and supported the ministry until his death in May 1888. He wrote to a colleague
in New Jersey that he regarded Vilatte and the French Canadians as "Uniats".
Part of the money gathered by Vilatte was used for the printing of catechisms
and prayer books. They were published in New York in the French language,
based on Swiss materials.
- 1887 Jean-Baptiste Gauthier (right), a friend and colleague of Vilatte from the
French-Canadian Chiniquist mission movement, joined him and Marcel Pelletier
in Gardner during the summer. He had ministerial
training from McGill University (Presbyterian College) and had been working
as a teacher and catechist in Illinois since 1885. He was a former Christian
Brother and was teaching in Ottawa when Vilatte was in Hull, with Father
Reboul, on the Quebec side of the river. On July 7, together with Marcel
Pelletier, they formed the religious order called the Society of the
Precious Blood (left) and made it known
in a pamphlet that was published in Gardner, under the title The Society
of the Precious Blood: A Presentation. This publication brought two new
members: Henri Neville and Erasmus Proth, both admitted in the month of
- 1888 The Belgian Independent Catholic congregation in the Desert/Kewaunee
area turned into a parish and a permanent church and rectory were built
in Dyckesville, later called Duvall. The parish church was put under the
patronage of Saint Mary, Mother of the Lord. Vilatte moved there with Brother
Proth. Father Ernest de Beaumont, a priest of the Anglican Church also
joined the order and became pastor of Precious Blood, Gardner, and was
assisted by Brother Gauthier, at that time, Brother Marcel Pelletier and
Brother Sylvio Fournier also assisted. A seminary was established in Sturgeon
Bay, in the month of September.
- 1889 Brother Gauthier was
ordained a priest in Bern and appointed pastor of Precious Blood Parish
in Gardner, at the end of October. There were about 1,000 people in the
Movement at that time: 235 in Duvall; 240 in Gardner; 40 in Menominee (Michigan),
plus a dispersion made at the following places and numbers of families:
Green Bay (5); LaGrande Baie (22); Marinette (5); Robinsonville (4); Stevenson
(5); and Valin (25). At the suggestion of Mr. Édouard de Bekker,
an assembly of clergy and delegates was held in Saint Mary's Church, Duvall,
on November 16, for the purpose of putting in place the Church structure
called for by the faith and order commonly shared by the French speaking
independent catholics. The assembly used a working document called "A
Sketch of the Belief" that had been prepared by the Society of Precious
Blood religious and had been published in Duvall on July 7 under the signature
of Vilatte, superior. It formed the basis of the "Duvall Faith &
Order Declaration" which is still observed today by some of the Old
Catholic based Canadian Churches. It was at this meeting that Vilatte was
elected to the office of Bishop.
- 1890-1892 Support for Vilatte's
consecration came from the Independent Catholic Church of Sri Lanka, Goa
and India, through Father Bernard Harding, a priest in Roman orders who
had been a missionary there (then called Ceylon) before joining the Society
of Precious Blood in 1890. Upon his recommendation, synodal council members
were in touch with the bishops of that church and in particular, Bishop
Antonio F.X. Alverez. The Bishop gave
a positive answer to their request and stated that he had to consult with
the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius Peter III, to whom he owed his
obedience, and with his colleagues, the Syrian Malabar bishops of India.
The patriarch gave his permission for the consecration in a bull that was
issued in Mardine, on December 29, 1891, and the ceremony tool place in
the Cathedral of Our of Good Death, in Colombo, on May 29, 1892. Indian
Malabar bishops, Mar Paul Athanasius (Kottayam) and
Mar Gregorius (Niranan, India). acted as co-consecrators.
U.S. Council, William Morey acted as official witness. Returning to Wisconsin,
Vilatte established his see at Duvall and used saint Mary's as his pro-cathedral.
Vilatte ordained Edward Knowles on August 15, for an English speaking mission
in West Sutton, Massachusetts, Published the book, Ecclesiastical Relations
with Foreign Churches, written in collaboration with synodal officers G.
Barrette, E. De Bekker and A. Marchand. The document deals mostly with
the difficult rapports with Anglican Bishop Grafton of Fond du Lac and
the Old Catholics in Europe, following Vilatte's episcopal election in
- 1893 Vilatte wrote and published
an Encyclical to Bishops of the Apostolic Succession, mostly to respond
to false accusations made by Bishop Grafton re: his episcopate. Opened
new parishes St Joseph in Walhaim, Kewaunee County, Wisconsin. Admitted
a new Society of Precious Blood member, Louis A. Fournier.
- 1894 Contacts initiated with synodal members of the Polish Catholic
Church, centred in Cleveland, Ohio. The leader was, Father Franciszeck
Kalasweski, rector of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Cleveland, this
church and its members joined with the Wisconsin Synod and came under the
jurisdiction of Vilatte. Also, the first women was admitted to the Society
of Precious Blood, Sister Mary, of Chicago. Others admitted were Brother
Albert Messenge of Gardner and Father Florent de Menlenane, appointed to
St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Duvall.
- 1895 The Cathedral Church of
St. Louis of France (right) was erected
and blessed in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The episcopal see was transferred
there from Duvall. Father J. Lebourt, a former Roman Catholic priest, is
admitted to the diocese and appointed pastor at Gardner.
- 1896 Fr. Gauthier began his ministry in Quebec, Canada. He was
accompanied by Brother Stephen Côté, of the Society of Precious
Blood, after a short time, Brother Côté went to Montreal to
start a work there.
Vilatte published a small missal which was the English version of the French
Prayer Book (NY 1886), and St. Peter in Rome, a booklet documenting the
Syrian Orthodox Apostolic Succession. A second women admitted to the Society
of Precious Blood, Sister Ann. of Chicago. Father Theadore de Latte, a
former Roman Catholic priest is admitted to the Diocese and appointed to
Vilatte also proceeded with the following ordinations:
- For The Polish constituency: V. Gaurychowski and C. Grzybowski (August
- For The English constituency: Edward Donkin (October 26)
- For The French constituency: Nicholas Pleimling (December 24)
- For the Lithuanian constituency: Anthony Pilzak (date unknown)
- 1897 Ordained and appointed to St. Louis Cathedral, Green Bay:
Father Paul François, a Haitian, who was trained by Vilatte to establish
the Church in his country.
- 1898 Father Stefan Kamminski, pastor of Holy Rosary, Buffalo,
NY, was consecrated for the Polish constituency by Vilatte. In that same
year Vilatte ordained to the priesthood on April 19: Fathers François
Minguy and Claude G. Reader.
- 1899-1900 Bishop Vilatte left the management of the jurisdiction
to Vicar General François Minguy of Duvall. He went to Europe. There
he had a retreat at the French Benedictine Abbey in Liguge. He visited
friends and relatives and then moved on to Italy. There he became acquainted
by Father Paulo Miraglia-Gulotti, the leader of an independent catholic
movement in Piacenza. Bishop Vilatte consecrated Gulotti a bishop on May
6. In the same year, he went to Llanthony Abbey in Wales and ordained the
monk, Father Ignatius to the priesthood.
- 1900-1906 Along with Sister Ann (Chicago), Bishop Vilatte established
the Ontario mission of Our Lady of The Lake in Gawas, County of Algoma.
In 1901, he appointed Father Claude Reader in charge and moved on to Quebec.
There he spent time with Father Gauthier in Maskinongé County. At
that time Bishop Vilatte transferred his Episcopal See to Montreal (1902).
There he lived with Father Côté on the street now called President
Kennedy. Shared in the Montreal Mission ministry and celebrated mass at
the Anglo-Catholic Church of Saint John the Evangelist. That year, he ordained
Édouard O'Neill to the priesthood.
- 1907-1908 Placed Father O'Neill in charge of the Canadian missions
and returned to France to help with the establishment of the Gallican Church.
He lived in Paris and ministered at the Legendre Street Church. From the
Gallican movement originated the French Chapter of the International Council
of Community Churches. Bishop Maurice Cantor is the General Superintendent
and resides in Mont Saint-Aignan, Normandy. The Primate of the Gallican
Church is the Most Rev. Thierry Teyssot. His see is in Bordeaux.
- 1909-1922 Back in America he ordained
to the priesthood Father Casimir F. Durand
(right) (to succeed Bishop Vilatte
as 2nd bishop ordinary of the Christian-Catholic Rite of Communuty Churches)
at the Polish Notre-Dame church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1909 then
in 1914 assigned him to ministry in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He established
the American Catholic Church Council, the jurisdictions and groups which
had come out of his episcopal ministry or were under his oversight. Among
them were French and English speaking constituencies, a Polish ordinariate
under Bishop S. Kaminski
and an Italian ordinariate under Bishop Paulo M.
Gulotti (Gulotti had left Italy and moved to New York City). Vilatte designed
the 'Council' based on the Faith and Order Declaration and the Episcopal
Succession of the Christian Catholic Church Rite. It was published in a
booklet form, under the name An Order for the Apostolic Reunion in America
(Chicago 1909). Vilatte also wrote the Episcopal oath that was to be adhered
to by the bishops. It later became part of the 'Council' Constitution.
Letters Patent were issued by the State of Illinois in 1915. Headquarters
were established on North Mulligan Avenue in Chicago. A parish was dedicated
to Our lady was opened the same year in the same building and offered services
in English, French and Polish. It was ministered by Fathers Frederick Lloyd
and Leon Zawistowski.
Frederick Lloyd was consecrated on December
29, 1915 by Bishop Vilatte, representing the English people, Carl Nybaladh,
was consecrated by Lloyd to represent the Swedish people and on September
23, 1921, Vilatte consecrated George A. McGuire to represent African Americans.
- 1922-1929 Vilatte resigned from the 'Council' in 1922 and was
succeeded by Bishop Lloyd. From Chicago he went to France; lived for three
years in Paris; and in 1925, entered the Common Observance Cistercian Abbey
of Port Colbert, near Versailles. He died there from a heart attack on
July 1, 1929 and was buried the following day in Godard Cemetery, Versailles.
Contrary to what most Independent Catholic writers say, he was not buried
as a layperson but with full honour and dignity of a Church Bishop. Abbot
Janssens of the Cistercian monastery ordered that he lie in sate in his
episcopal vestments and mitred. (Ref. B. Vignot, Les Églises parallèles,
Le Cerf, Paris, 1991, p.36).
Requiescat in pace.
May he rest in peace!