Born on Oct. 29, 1864, in Saint-Céré, Occitanie, Toussaint Vayssière (as he was initially known) became an orphan at the age of four and was raised by his aunt. He received his first call to priesthood at the age of 10, while serving as an altar boy during a funeral.
He entered the neighboring minor seminary of Montfaucon and then the grand seminary of Cahors, where he decided to join the Order of Preachers, touched by the missionary fervor of St. Dominic.
Vayssière received the habit at the Dominican Convent of Toulouse, where the Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic in the 13th century, taking the religious name of Marie-Étienne. This took place in 1887, when he was 22 years old.
The unspeakable joy he gained from his vocation and his theological studies, however, was rapidly darkened by a terrible ordeal that would change his life forever. In 1888, he was diagnosed with cerebral anemia, a condition that plunged him into a state of physical and mental fatigue and affected him considerably until his priestly ordination in 1892.
“This ordeal, which took the form of a deep depression and fatigue, broke him at the beginning of his religious life, which could have led him to scrape by, to live in a very basic way,” Fr. Bonino said.
“On the contrary, it spurred him to fully accept the trial and to try to turn it into a gift of love for the Lord.”
Vayssière was appointed guardian of Mary Magdalene’s Grotto of Sainte-Baume, in the department of Var in Provence, in 1900. It was there, where he spent more than 30 years, that his true spiritual stature emerged.
Reduced to a hermitic life of prayer and solitude, although he had always wanted to dedicate his life to preaching, he chose to embrace his situation of great poverty and destitution.
His attitude, according to Fr. Bonino, reflected a sense of the absoluteness of the primacy of God.
“In the great Christian tradition of abandonment to the divine providence, he adhered with all his heart to God’s will, convinced that it was the only way to make his life fruitful, and that we can commune with God through every event of our life, that nothing happens outside of providence,” he said.
Bonino added that, although his condition didn’t enable him to develop a systematic teaching, Vayssière would recover enough strength over time to become a great director of souls.
During his three decades of service at the Grotto, in addition to being a moral and spiritual point of reference for countless lay people and clergymen, Fr. Marie-Etienne enriched the site through several large projects. He also founded the nearby spiritual retreat house, Nazareth du Sacré-Coeur, in 1929. In addition, he helped to inspire the creation of a secular institute, L’Oeuvre de S. Catherine (“The Work of St. Catherine”), which would become Caritas Christi in 1937.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
In this sense, he is considered one of the inspirations behind the rise of lay orders in the 20th century, and, more generally, one of the pioneers of the universal call to holiness, as he was convinced that holiness was for everyone and used to grant a great spiritual freedom to those he accompanied.
“He had the sense of the greatness of religious life, but for him, holiness was this union of every moment with God’s will, and that, lay people can do it, too,” Bonino commented. “Then Vatican II emphasized that, but it was far from being obvious at that time.”
Another prophetic trait, according to Bonino, was Vayssière’s constant remembrance that God had to remain the center of every human action.
“It is comparable to what Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote in God or Nothing one century later: Christianity can produce great things in the intellectual or social field, but these things are vain if one forgets that nothing is more important than God,” he said.
“It sounds a bit steep, but it is necessary to recall it these days.”
Vayssière’s exemplary life led him to be elected Dominican Provincial of Toulouse, first at the 1932 chapter and then for a second mandate in 1936. At a crucial and very sensitive time in the history of France and the entire world, on the eve of World War II, he devoted his last energies to his brothers and the development of his province, before taking his last breath on Sept. 15, 1940.