Father Gabriel Deshayes
Gabriel Deshayes was born on 4 December 1767 in Beignon, not far from Montfort-sur-Meu, the birthplace of St Louis Marie de Montfort, in Brittany. He studied for the priesthood in Saint-Malo and Dinan, but, when the time came for his ordination to the priesthood, the French Revolution was already under way, and he had to be ordained in secret, in Jersey, by the Bishop of Tréguier, who had fled there from the Revolution. Returning to France, Father Deshayes ministered clandestinely in various places in Brittany. When the revolutionary persecutions began to wane, he was appointed parish-priest of the parish of Saint-Gildas in Auray, in the diocese of Vannes. There, in 1812, he became better acquainted with the Missionaries of the Company of Mary, and with the Daughters of Wisdom, who had established a community in Auray to care for deaf and dumb people under the guidance of Father Deshayes. While he was parish-priest in Auray, Father Deshayes was also instrumental in the founding, along with Michelle Guillaume, of the Sisters of Saint-Gildas (Sisters of Christian Instruction). In 1819, he founded, with Jean-Marie de la Mennais, a new congregation of teaching Brothers, the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Ploërmel.
Meanwhile, in the community of the Missionaries of the Company of Mary, Father Supiot had been Superior General since 1792, but by 1806 he was feeling very tired and wished to resign. Father Duchesne was appointed as his assistant, and became virtually the Superior General in 1810, when Father Supiot was relieved of all administrative responsibilities. Father Duchesne's formal election as Superior General took place in 1816, two years before the death of Father Supiot on 12 December 1818. Perhaps suspecting that his own death was near (he suffered from a heart disease), in 1820 Father Duchesne invited Father Gabriel Deshayes, who had already shown an interest in joining the Company of Mary, to come to Saint-Laurent to be his assistant. Then he died, somewhat unexpectedly, on 22 December 1820. Immediately the members of the Company of Mary and of the Daughters of Wisdom invited Father Deshayes to become their new Superior General. After obtaining the permission of his bishop, Father Deshayes accepted, and was officially elected as such on 17 January 1821, at the age of 54. He was to hold this post until his death in 1841.
The 20 years of his Generalate were to be very fruitful years. First of all, he worked hard to increase the number of members of the Company of Mary. In 1820, at the death of Father Duchesne, there were about 8 or 10 priests and 5 Brothers. There had never been very many more than this since the death of St Louis Marie himself. But now Father Deshayes used his good relations with the bishops of the region to try to attract new recruits for the missionaries. He also started a Minor Seminary in Saint-Laurent. The numbers of missionaries gradually increased until by his death in 1841 there were 26 priests in the Company of Mary.
But it was the growth in the number of Brothers that was most extraordinary. While in Auray, as we have seen, Father Deshayes had been very concerned about the education of children, and for that reason had founded (or co-founded) two religious congregations there. When he came to Saint-Laurent, he brought with him two novices from his foundation in Ploërmel, and a short time later brought a few more. These he mixed with the lay-brothers already living in the house of the Holy Spirit there (some of whom seem to have been involved in some form of teaching, or at least in catechism classes, while others were more concerned with manual work in the garden and around the premises). The whole group became known as the "Brothers of the Holy Spirit". In the next two years, Father Deshayes attracted many more to join the group, so that by the end of 1822 there more almost 40 of them. The rule of the Missionaries of the Company of Mary was no longer suitable for this new situation, and Fr. Deshayes had given them for a "directory" the rule followed by the Brothers of Brittany. Besides this, because in order to teach in schools they had to have legal approval, he had them officially recognised from 1823 onwards, under the title of "Brothers of Christian Instruction of the Holy Spirit". Through this pragmatic approach, the Brothers of the Holy Spirit became a group almost distinct from the Company of Mary, while retaining the same superior general: for the Brothers, the vows had the greatest significance, while the Fathers continued not to make any at all. As the number of Brothers grew, community life was not without its difficulties. In fact, even though, from time to time, all of them set their hand to manual work, there were in effect two different categories of Brother: those who taught in the schools and those who did not; we might refer to the "manual" Brothers and the "teaching" Brothers, or, as they called themselves, the "Work Brothers" and the "Class Brothers". There was growing tension between them when Fr. Deshayes was absent, and, as time went on, he came to the conclusion that it was necessary to separate the two categories. In 1835, the teaching Brothers (along with a few of the others) took up residence in the house where the attempt at a minor seminary was established in 1823. The house was called "Saint-Gabriel", in honour of Fr. Deshayes, and from then on, to distinguish the two groups, they were known as the "Brothers of the Holy Spirit" and the "Brothers of St. Gabriel".
Fr. Deshayes was the sole superior of all of them, but towards the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that the teaching Brothers of St. Gabriel would have to be given full autonomy, and that their leadership should be entrusted to one of them. Apart from a few nostalgic ones, who would have preferred to keep the Congregation under the authority of the Superior of the Company of Mary, the "Brothers of Christian Instruction of St. Gabriel" gained their full independence with the death of Fr. Deshayes. The first Superior General was Brother Augustin, who was one of the two novices who came from Brittany in 1821.
It was under Father Deshayes that new Letters Patent were obtained for both Congregations (1825). He was also responsible for the preparation of a new Rule for the Company of Mary and a return to the profession of Vows (1834); for initial steps in the Cause of Beatification of Montfort (1829); for the development of the Daughters of Wisdom; and for the development of the work of Missions and Clergy Retreats, which could also be extended to lay men and women. In 1832, Fr Julien Hillerau was appointed Bishop first of Smyrna then of Constantinople. During Fr Deshayes' Generalate, the Daughters of Wisdom grew from 778 to 1668 religious. The Company of Mary, when he died at the end of 1841, numbered 26 priests and 42 Brothers.
Father Deshayes died on 28 December 1841, leaving behind him an immense contribution to the Company of Mary and the Daughters of Wisdom, as well as the independence of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel. It is for this reason that he is often seen as the re-founder of the Company of Mary, and certainly of the Brothers of St Gabriel. His tomb is still to be seen in the Cemetery of the Daughters of Wisdom in Saint-Laurent.