On April 6, 1957, finding the defendant guilty of murder, the court passed its sentence, and with that, the fate of Jacques Fesch was sealed: he was to die. The legal process had come to its inevitable conclusion, and, thereafter, preparations began in earnest for an execution. But, as the clock ticked ever onwards to the final minutes of that last hour, something unforeseen was to happen. In the desolation that was to follow, and like another criminal condemned 2,000 years before, Fesch was to hear an unexpected voice, and it was one that spoke not of judgment but of mercy.
Just over three years earlier, in February 1954, Fesch had entered the premises of a Jewish moneychanger in the Paris stock exchange. The young man had bludgeoned the merchant with a revolver. As he had done so, the gun discharged injuring the attacker. The older man was left lying stunned and bloodied as his assailant fled carrying a large sum of money. Soon, people began to notice the figure of a well-dressed young man running through the busy streets. A nearby police officer, George Vergnes, was alerted, and, with others, set off in pursuit. To avoid his pursuers, Fesch hid himself in a nearby apartment block and waited. When things had seemed to calm, he attempted to walk nonchalantly through the crowd that had assembled. Initially unrecognized, he continued to make his way back onto the main thoroughfare, when suddenly one of those present turned and catching sight of the young man cried: “There he is!”
The policeman, on seeing Fesch, ordered him to stop. The young man turned and fired, and then watched as Vergnes’ body slumped dead. Another man grabbed at the killer, and he was also shot and badly wounded. In the confusion that followed, and now desperate to escape, Fesch ran to a nearby subway station. He discharged another shot when tackled by a retired police inspector at its entrance, only this time it narrowly missed; and, with that, Fesch was finally detained at the Richelieu-Drouot Metro Station. In the distance police sirens began to wail, as crowds gathered round to see a revolver lying close-by a young man whose hand was covered in blood, and whose face now bore a startled look. Later, Fesch was to say that at that moment, he felt as if he had suddenly awoken from a dream. Arrested and bundled into a police van, he was driven off through the gaping crowds. As the van sped ever faster through the city streets, it began to dawn on its prisoner that this was no dream; instead, it was an all too real nightmare.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Jacque Fesch was born at St. Germain-en-Laye on April 6, 1930. His was a bourgeois home with a cheerful bank manager father and a dutiful mother—or so it seemed, for it was all a polite façade. The family home was as miserable inwardly as it was outwardly respectable. His father was autocratic, with little interest in his son; Fesch’s mother was a weak woman who placated her husband at the expense of their children—the boy and his sister. For all concerned, it was a recipe for unhappiness, and it did not disappoint. Eventually, his parents were to separate. Fesch was to call his family life “utter wretchedness,” with its marks and hidden sadness, even in his later life, being one of the hardest trials he endured.
Schooling was nominally Catholic, and nominally educational. The boy still caught up in family woes had none of the emotional security of his peers and, lost in the escapism of daydreams, soon fell behind in his studies. It made little difference. By 18, he was finished with school, and his father found work for him in the bank. This he did, without enthusiasm, until he was call up for National Service. With that, he departed for a military base in Germany—remembered by those he left behind only for his apathy.
During this time of military service, he was to marry his then pregnant girlfriend, Pierrette Polack. At the age of twenty-one, he had a wife and daughter to provide for. Ill prepared for any of this, a poor start had just grown tougher. He moved with his young family to Strasbourg to take up the offer of employment in his father-in-law’s business. Things did not work out there, though—professionally or personally. His wife was later to tell of her husband’s sense of personal failure, and how that permeated, and destroyed, everything. It wasn’t long before Fesch had left the job and abandoned his family. By October 1953, he was back living with his mother in a home that had grown no less depressing, perhaps more so, as his attempt at “escape” had singularly failed. It was around this time that a daydream began, and for him, like a bird before the gaze of a snake, would persist until its end with his awakening in a pool of blood on a Paris street.
He had decided that to escape from all his troubles what was needed was a yacht, and with that he would set sail for far away Polynesia. The idea gripped him, and then possessed him. He went so far as to visit a ship builder and have plans drawn up for such a vessel. There was only one thing he lacked, however: 2,000 francs. He approached his father, who refused him any assistance. This only hardened Fesch’s resolve, now determined more than ever to be rid of a life that he viewed as an abject failure. He was going to get to that island, where all pain would be forgotten and only happiness awaited him, come what may. It had all the facile illusion of an adolescent fantasy, but with one difference: Fesch was serious, as well as desperate, and this idea increasingly became his sole refuge from what had become the unbearable reality of his daily existence. By the end, it had turned to obsession, and a deadly one at that, not least for George Vergnes, who, on its account, was to die.
On being taken to La Santé Prison, Fesch was immediately placed in solitary confinement. With only an hour’s recreation—a walk around a prison courtyard—his life was to be his cell and the discipline of the prison regime. Soon after his arrival he was visited by the prison chaplain. Fesch informed the priest: he “had no faith,” and with that politely dismissed him. The prosecution of his crimes began to grind slowly into action, and, as a result, he was appointed an advocate as his legal representative. His name was Baudet, and he was a devout Catholic. Fesch was intrigued by his lawyer: combining, as he did, professionalism coupled with a concern for his imprisoned client, as well as an interest, and fear for, the immortal soul of the man who was by then facing the full sanction of the law.
To be alone for over three years could drive any man mad; in Fesch’s case, it brought him to his senses. It did not happen overnight, though, but gradually, nonetheless, with a perceptible change documented principally through his prison writings. By 1957, there sat in the same cell not the apathetic youth that dreamed big dreams whilst sleepwalking into disaster, but a young man who was waking to another reality—hitherto unseen—and one that Fesch had never dreamed of, or indeed foreseen, such was its power, its vividness, and, above all, its strange freedom.
As with most of the prisoners awaiting execution, stripped of everything—both materially and emotionally—in the darkness and emptiness of a bare prison cell, the lethal sentence at times could appear to be a release from a living death. Fortunately for Fesch, what happened next was a “liberation” of a different sort. All the despair, anger and bitterness began to subside as, in its place, he found himself being gently filled with mercy, forgiveness, and love. His prison letters recorded this for those with whom he regularly corresponded, telling as they did of a man emerging from darkness into light. A process begun in October 1954, on reading a book about Our Lady, had, by March 1955, inspired a change in Fesch as evidenced in this following piece of his writing:
At the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed … Grace came to me. A great joy flooded my soul, and above all a deep peace.
From then on, what time left to him was to be that of the mystic. Firstly, he had to come to terms with his own sinfulness and the harm he had inflicted upon others, to say nothing of the forgiveness and healing needed for the harm inflicted on him by others—not least of all the emotional damage of his family life. Through it all, almost endlessly alone, he was surrounded by a silence that both helped and, at times, terrified him, as well as a “darkness,” always close at hand, one that attempted to pull him into despair. What few visits he was allowed—from family, wife and child—punctuated this, even if the grille of the prison visitor room threw permanent shadows across the faces sat opposite him.
These interminable hours of darkness, both external and internal, he tried to convert to prayer. With this came a hunger for the Holy Eucharist, only infrequently relieved; and, as a consequence, his day would start with his praying the words of the Mass from his Missal in the early morning light whilst longing for those words to become a reality. Given a Bible, something previously unknown to him, he was to study it like a cloistered contemplative; in fact, he was to joke in his letters that his prison life had become little different from that of a Carthusian. It was in such letters that the fruit of the fundamental change in Fesch revealed itself. Conscious that time was running out, he wrote of the joy in finding Christ—echoing St. Paul in decrying as worthless all the world had to offer instead. Above all, however, he was concerned for the conversion of his loved ones: not least of all his wife and child.
At the time of their civil marriage ceremony, Pierette’s faith had been as weak as her husband’s; but, awoken in his, he persisted in prayer and urgings upon the embers of what little faith she possessed. As time went by, they hoped for a religious ceremony of marriage taking place at the prison; it was not to be, however. The couple’s daughter, Veronica, was a particular cause of concern for Fesch who was adamant she should be brought up in the faith and have the character formation so lacking in his own upbringing. Regularly, he was sent photographs of her, showing how she had grown, all of which he studied intently. As it became clear the end was drawing near, a lock of her golden hair was sent to him. Later, alone in his cell, he was to hold it in his hands realizing that this was the closest he would ever again come to being with her.
His mother had died whilst he was imprisoned, but his father continued to visit. He had not changed though, and was still a cause of much suffering for Fesch, especially as the older man seemed to have learnt nothing from all that had happened. Nevertheless, his imprisoned son continued to pray for his conversion from the intellectual atheism that had, and was, ruining his life.
By the end, however, Fesch was to write that he would change nothing. He knew the wrong he had committed, and accepted the sentence handed down by the court. But, he saw things more clearly than just that—he saw within all that had transpired the Hand of Providence. It had only been through tragedy, and one in which he was the chief player, that he had come to witness the Grace of God enter his life, shattering the illusions that had captivated and then wrecked not just his life but the lives of so many others.
Whilst this inner drama continued, so too did the external world around Fesch, and, by the autumn of 1957, with the legal process exhausted, the president of France rejected the final pleas for clemency. On that day, and as a nation continued to go about its daily affairs, there was a mother, face streaked with tears, who held a daughter, one too young to comprehend the meaning of such sorrow for her father, because now, at last, the dreaded hour had come.
The night before his execution, alone in his cell, a final combat was to take place, with Fesch writing the following:
Suddenly the thought comes: no matter what I do, Paradise is not for me! Satan is behind this. He wants to discourage me. I throw myself at Mary’s feet…
I am going to recite my rosary and the prayers for the dying, then I shall entrust my soul to God…. But, good Jesus, help me!
On Tuesday, October 1—the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux—the prisoner awoke in the middle of the night. He asked a guard what time it was: 3 am was the reply. He asked the guard for a light, because, as he informed him, he had now to make ready. The prisoner then made his bed, before sitting with his Missal in hand to await the arrival of the Chaplain. Fr. Devoyod duly came at 5:30 am. The prisoner then made his last Confession, and received Holy Communion. Thereafter, as they spoke briefly, the prisoner calmly told the priest that he offered his life for the conversion of his father, for those he loved, and for the man he had killed; and then, between them, a profound silence ensued. Soon after, those tasked to undertake the sentence of the court entered the cell, and the hands of the prisoner were tied behind his back, before, with the priest following, he was led to the waiting guillotine. When the prisoner was bid to mount the scaffold, he turned to the priest with his last words: “The crucifix, Father… the crucifix.” It was offered to him, and he kissed it…
The blade rose before its swift descent, and with that a life was concluded. Later, the broken body was gathered and buried.
But Jacques Fesch was no longer a prisoner; and, as the night drew in with that day’s ending, there waited in Paradise One who had promised to refuse no one.