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Jacques Fesch: A Saint Who Killed

Recently I read that Pope Benedict XVI met with the sister of a candidate for beatification. The amazing part of the story is that the candidate was a convicted murderer who was given the death penalty. It was while he was in prison that he experienced the journey from atheism to faith, from darkness to devotion and deep spirituality. In this season of Advent, season of hope, what more beautiful image of hope can his story illustrate for us? Here is a short biography, from internet, of this future saint JACQUES FESCH.

Jacques Fesch: A Saint Who Killed
Executed for murder in 1957, the Church is considering his beatification.
“Only five hours to live! In five hours, I shall see Jesus.”
As day dawned over Paris, a slim, dark-haired young man stepped through a doorway into the courtyard of La Santé Prison. Surrounded by guards, hands and feet shackled, he walked to the guillotine erected in a corner of the yard during the night. He was pale but otherwise calm.
On the scaffold, he asked the priest beside him for the crucifix and kissed it. Before the blade fell, he uttered his last words: “Holy Virgin, have pity on me!”
The date: October 1,1957.

Jacques Fesch, a 27-years-old playboy, was beheaded for the murder of a police officer following a bungled robbery.
Yet many Catholics in France now believe that the killer died a saint. Thirty years after his execution, the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, signed a decree that may one day see him beatified.
The story begins near the Paris Stock Exchange on February 25, 1954. During the evening rush hour, Fesch arrived with a friend at a office of Alexandre Silberstein, a currency dealer in the Rue Vivenne. Om the previous day, Fesch had arranged to change 2 million francs into gold bars.
Silberstein asked his son to bring the gold from the safe. With the young man out of the way, Fesch pulled a revolver from his briefcase, pointed it at Silberstein, and demanded the cash from the till. His friend, meanwhile turned and fled.
As Silberstein tried to reason with him, Fesch hit the dealer twice across the head with the revolver butt. He grabbed 300,000 francs and ran.
Once outside, he tried to melt into the crowd on the busy street – but Silberstein recovered very quickly. Running from his office, he shouted to passers-by that Fesch had robbed him.
Now, with a crowd at his heels, the thief took refuge in a building on Les Grandes Boulevards. Minutes later, he re-emerged, attempting to play the part of an innocent citizen. Immediately someone cried, “That’s him!”
By this time, Jean Vergne, a 35-years-old police officer, had arrived at the scene. Vergne drew his revolver and ordered Fesch to put his hands up. Instead, Fesch reached inside his raincoat pocket for his own gun, and fired three times. Vergne, a widower with a 4-year-old daughter, was shot through the heart.
Enraged, the crowd chased the killer into the Richelieu-Drouot Metro station. Fesch, still firing, wounded one persuer in the neck before he was finally surrounded and overcome.
The public was shocked to learn that Vergne’s murderer was no common criminal, but the son of a wealthy banker, Georges Fesch. Jacques, born April 6, 1930, had idled his way trhough school, then travelled to Germany with the army. After he completed his service, his father found him a well-paying job at the bank, but he soon tired of it.
Georges Fesch had never taken much interest in his son, who was closer to his mother, Marthe.
Eventually, Jacques’s parents parted.
After the stint at the bank, Jacques had no real occupation. He sailed boats, rode horses, drove fast cars, and hung out with a band, where he tried to learn the trumpet. In a civil ceremony at age 21, he married Pierrette Polack, a neighbor’s daughter who was expecting his child. His anti-semitic parents were horrified: Pierrette, herself Catholic, had a Jewish father.
A daughter was born, but Fesch continued to see other women.
With one of these he had an illegitimate son, Gerard, whom he abandoned to public care. Soon after, Jacques and Pierrette separated, but remained friends.
Bored and restless, Jacques Fesch now conceived a grand plan. He would buy a boat, sail away to the South Pacific, and a start a new life in the sun. For this, of course, he would need money. He petitioned his parents first, but, for once, they refused.
Very well, he would get the cash for himself. He would rob Alexandre Silberstein.
That his mad scheme might go wrong seems not to have occurred to Jacques. Sitting in court with a bandaged head, his mood was defiant. He said he was only sorry he had not carried a submachine gun.
Later, to the chaplain at La Santé Prison, he declared, “I’ve got no faith. No need to trouble yourself about me”.
But Paul Baudet, his defense attorney and a deeply spiritual Catholic, resolved to fight, not only for his client’s life, but also for his soul. At first, Fesch viewed the lawyer’s efforts with amused disdain. He called him “Pope Paul” and “Torquemada” (after the infamous Spanish inquisitor).
Fesch had another advocate in the tough-minded Dominican chaplain, Père Devoyod, and in Brother Thomas, a young Benedictine who knew Pierrette and wrote regularly from his monastery. Fesch’s mother-in-law, Madame Polack also cared for him as for a son.
From the outset, Fesch had a little doubt that he would face the guillotine. Yet, despite his bravado, he was afraid. He was also sick with guilt at the trouble he had brought upon his family. Yet he remained a skeptic, until the night of February 28, 1955, when he experienced a sudden and dramatic conversion. He wrote an account of it two months before his execution:
“I was in bed, eyes open, really suffering for the first time in my life … It was then that a cry burst from my breast, an appeal for help – My God – and instantly, like a violent wind which passes over without anyone knowing where it comes from, the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.
“I had an impression of infinite power and kindness and, from that moment onward, I believed with an unshakeable conviction that has never left me”.
Fesch was to spend another two and a half years in prison.

During that time, he lived a life even more ascetic than the rules demanded. He went to bed at 7 each evening, gave up chocolate and cigarettes, and took only a half-hour of exercise each day. To Brother Thomas he wrote, “In prison there two possible solutions: You can rebel against your situation, or you can regard yourself as a monk.” Though he suffered periods of depression, his fear of death was now supplanted by an even stronger feeling – the fear of dying badly.
Meanwhile, the legal process ground slowly on. More than three years after his crime, Fesch finally came to trial. Baudet argued that the shooting had not been premeditated, but was the act of a frightened man facing a hostile crowd.
Fesch himself now expressed remorse for the murder of Jean Vergne and for the grief he had caused the officer’s family. This feeling is also shown movingly in his letters and in the journal, published after his death, which he dedicated to his daughter, Veronique.
Neither Baudet’s eloquence nor Fesch’s remorse moved the court. At 7:45 p.m. on April 8, 1957, Jacques Fesch was sentenced to death.
Though he continued to live an intense prayer life, Fesch did not find it easy to accept his fate.
Since his crime was unpremeditated, he believed that he did not deserve to die. He was tempted to hate those who were sending him to the guillotine, but he overcame the temptation. “May each drop of my blood wipe out a mortal sin”, he wrote.
News of his conversion began spreading, and some began to show sympathy for the repentant killer. His final hope lay with the French president, René Coty, a man known for his humanity. But Coty was under strong police pressure not to show mercy, especially at a time when police officers were being murdered by Algerian terrorists.
“Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him,” the president replied to Baudet’s personal appeal. “But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger.” He asked that Fesch accept his death so that officers’ lives might be saved.
Coty admitted later that he passed a sleepless night before Fesch was guillotined. As the president lay awake, Fesch wrote in his journal: “The last day of struggle, at this time tomorrow I shall be in heaven! May I die as the Lord wishes me to die…Night falls and I feel sad, sad…I will meditate on the agony of Our Lord in the Garden of Olives, but good Jesus, help me! … Only five hours to live! In five hours, I shall see Jesus.”
Gerard, his abandoned son, was also on his mind. He pleaded that the boy should be well cared for.
The publication of Fesch’s journal and letters created widespread interest among the French public, and touched young people especially.
Those who seek Fesch’s beatification point to his mystical experience, his fervent spirituality, his self-conquest, and his victorious battle against the demons of bitterness and despair. But the move to beatify him has created controversy.
“Where are we headed, if we start beatifying criminals?” demanded a police union chief. Another, while accepting fesch’s sincerity, warned that the proposed step might encourage offenders to use conversion as a ploy to avoid punishment. One editorial predicted dryly that Fesch would become the patron saint of gunmen, who would in future pack a votive medal of St. Jacques along with their Magnum 357s.
Vergne’s daughter, now a lawyer, has refused to comment publicy, but privately has met with cardinal Lustiger.
Frequently, Fesch is likened to the good Thief on Calvary. “Nobody is ever lost in God’s eyes, even when society has condemned him,” Lustiger has said. He wishes to see Fesch beatified “to give a great hope to those who despise themselves, who see themselves as irredeemably lost”.
An edited version of an article published at Solidarity Mission.