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The seal of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, depicting the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Holy Ghost proceeding from the Trinity.

For other Congregations of the Holy Ghost, see Congregation of the Holy Ghost. The Congregation of The Holy Spirit (known also as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or in Latin, Congregatio Sancti Spiritus, C.S.Sp.) is a Roman Catholic congregation of priests, lay brothers, and since Vatican II, lay associates. Congregation members are known as Spiritans in Continental Europe, and as the Holy Ghost Fathers in English-speaking countries, although even there, they are becoming known as Spiritans. A Spiritan priest or brother has the abbreviation 'C.S.Sp.' after his name.



The Spiritans have a rich history of serving the poor and marginalized. Spiritans in the 1840s dedicated themselves to working with newly freed slaves on the islands of Haiti, Mauritius and Réunion. In East Africa, where most of the American Spiritans now serve, they began work in the 1860s by buying men and women out of slavery in Zanzibar. They opened schools and hospitals, taught people marketable skills, and gave property to those who needed it. The Spiritans pioneered modern missionary activity in Africa and ultimately sent more missionaries there than any other religious order in the Catholic Church.

In other countries, such as Mexico, the Spiritans were invited by the local Catholic bishops to minister to Catholics in remote areas where there were not enough diocesan priests to serve the growing numbers of faithful. Today, Mexican-born Spiritans outnumber Spiritan missionaries from other countries. The seminary program is a vital aspect of the Spiritan presence in Mexico.

The core of mission remains constant—the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to those who have never heard it at all and to those who have heard it inadequately. But the manner in which this is accomplished varies according to context and opportunity. The goal is always to establish a viable local faith community with its own leadership, incorporating the language and customs of the people.



The Spiritans were founded in Paris on White Sunday 1703 for the purpose of preparing missionaries for the most abandoned souls, whether in Christian or non-Christian countries by a young, holy ecclesiastic of noble Breton birth and of brilliant talents, a wealthy young Breton lawyer, Claude-François Poullart des Places, who, three years previously, in the twenty-first year of his age, had given up the bright prospects of a parliamentary lawyer to embrace the ecclesiastical state. Having opted for the priesthood himself, he wanted to form a religious order for young men who had a vocation to become priests but were too poor to do so. From the very beginning of his ecclesiastical studies he manifested a particular attraction for lowly and neglected works of charity. He became especially interested in poor, deserving students, on whom he freely spent all his own private means and as much as he could collect from his friends. It was with a dozen of these gathered round him that he opened the Seminary of the Holy Ghost, which afterwards developed into a religious society.

The community, formed in dedication to the Holy Spirit to minister to the poor and to provide chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and schools, soon developed a missionary role — some volunteered for service in the Far East and North America — and by 1765 the Holy See was entrusting it with direct care of South American missionary territories like French Guiana. 1,300 priests had been trained in the years leading up to 1792, when the actions of the seminary was suppressed by the French Revolution.

The work grew rapidly; but the labours and anxieties connected with the foundation proved too much for the frail health of the founder. He died on 2 October, 1709, in the thirty-first year of his age, and in only the third of his priesthood. The portraits which remain of Father Poullart des Places depict a distinguished and intelligent countenance, combining energy with sweetness.

After the founder's death, the Congregation of the Holy Ghost continued to progress; it became fully organized, and received the approbation of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. It sent missionaries to the French colonies, and to India and China, but suffered much from the French Revolution. The congregation's numbers in Europe declined sharply until 1802, when the Napoleonic government allowed the seminary to reopen and the congregation was asked to focus on supplying priests for work in the French colonies in Africa, the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent.

Suppression and merger

After the French Revolution, only one member, Father Berout, remained. He had survived miraculously, as it were, all of vicissitudes — shipwreck on the way to his destined mission in French Guiana, enslavement by the Moors, a sojourn in Senegal, where he had been sold to the English, who then ruled there. On his return to France, after peace was restored to the Church, he re-established the congregation, and continued its work. But it was found impossible to recover adequately from the disastrous effects of the dispersion caused by the Revolution, and the restored society was threatened with extinction.

In 1848 the Spiritans were joined by a convert Jew, Fr. Francis Libermann, who in 1842 had founded a society dedicated to the Virgin Mary to serve mainly the emancipated black slaves in the French colonies. Since the object of both societies was the same, the Holy See requested the founder of the new society to merge with the older Congregation of the Holy Ghost. Ven. Francis Mary Libermann was made first superior general of the united societies, and the whole body became so impregnated with his spirit and that of his first followers that he is rightly regarded as the renewer of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, then called also "...under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary" after Libermann and his followers joined the Congregation.

The first care of the new superior general was to organize on a solid basis the religious service of the old French colonies, by securing the establishment of bishoprics and making provisions for the supply of clergy through the Seminary of the Holy Ghost, which was continued on the lines of its original purpose — to serve as a colonial seminary for the French colonies. But the new superior general set himself to cultivate still wider fields of missionary enterprise. There had already been opened to him the vast domain of Africa, which he was, practically, the first to enter, and which was to be henceforth the chief field of labour of his disciples.

The taking-up of the African missions by Ven. Francis Mary Libermann was due to the initiative of two American prelates, under the encouragement of the first Council of Baltimore. Already, in 1833, Dr. England, Bishop of Charleston, had drawn the attention to the West Coast of Africa, and had urged the sending of missioners to those benighted regions. This appeal was renewed at the Council of Baltimore, and the Fathers there assembled commissioned the Rev. Dr. Barron, who was then Vicar-General of Philadelphia, to undertake the work at Cape Palmas. That zealous priest went over the ground carefully for a few years, and then repaired to Rome to give an account of the work, and to receive further instructions. He was consecrated bishop and appointed Vicar-Apostolic of the Two Guineas. But, as he had only one priest and a catechist at his disposal, he repaired to France to search for missioners. Ven. Francis Mary Libermann supplied him at once with seven priests and three coadjutor brothers.

The deadly climate played havoc with the inexperienced zeal of the first missionaries. All but one perished in the course of a few months, and Dr. Barron returned in despair to America, where he devoted himself to missionary work. He died from the effects of his zeal during the yellow-fever epidemic in Savannah, in 1853, aged 52. Father Libermann and his disciples retained the African mission; new missionaries volunteered to go out and take the places of those who had perished; and gradually there began to be built up the series of Christian communities in Africa which form the distinctive work of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. It has proved a work of continued sacrifice. Nearly 700 missionaries have laid down their lives in Africa during the past sixty years. Still, the spiritual results have compensated for it all. Where there was not a single Christian among the thirty millions of people who inhabit the districts confided to the Holy Ghost Fathers, there are to-day some hundred thousand solid, well-instructed Catholics. These Christians are spread over the Diocese of Angola and the eight Vicariates of Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Gaboon, Ubangi (or French Upper Congo), Loango (or French Lower Congo), on the West Coast; and Northern Madagascar, Zanzibar, Bagamoyo, on the East Coast. There are, moreover, the Prefectures of Lower Nigeria, French Guinea, Lower Congo (Landana), and missions at Bata, in Spanish West Africa, and at Kindou, in the Congo Independent State.

Besides the missions in Africa, the Congregation of the Holy Ghost started missions in Mauritius, Réunion, the Rodriguez Islands, Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Amazonia, while conducting some very important educational institutions, such as the French Seminary at Rome, the colonial seminary at Paris, the colleges of Blackrock, Rockwell, and Rathmines in Ireland, St. Mary's College in Trinidad, the Holy Ghost College of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and the three colleges of Braga, Oporto, and Lisbon in Portugal.

Twentieth century

By the early 20th century the congregation was organized into the following provinces: France, Ireland, Portugal, United States, and Germany. These several provinces, as well as all the foreign missions, are under the central control of a superior general, residing in Paris, aided by two assistants and four consultors — all chosen by the general chapter of the congregation. The whole society was under the jurisdiction of the Cardinal Prefect of the Propaganda. Houses have been opened in England, Canada, Belgium, and Holland, intended to develop into distinct provinces, so as to supply the colonies of these respective countries with an increase of missionaries.

The province of the United States, founded in the year 1873, comprised 74 professed fathers, 19 professed scholastics, 30 professed coadjutor brothers. It had a novitiate and senior scholasticate, at Ferndale, in the Diocese of Hartford, an apostolic college at Cornwells, near Philadelphia. The main object of these institutions is to train missionnaries for the most abandoned souls, especially ethnic minorities. The province had already established two missions for ethnic minoriies, one in Philadelphia, the other at Rock Castle, near Richmond, planning to establish more. Moreover, missions for various nationalities were established in the following dioceses, at the urgent request of the respective bishops: Little Rock, Pittsburg, Detroit, Grand Rapids, La Crosse, Philadelphia, Providence, and Harrisburg. In all there were twenty-three houses.

Statistics for the entire congregation in April 1908, gave 195 communities, 722 fathers, 210 professed scholastics, 655 professed brothers, 230 novices, 595 aspirants. About half the professed members were engaged in the African missions. The congregation was slowly but steadily forming a native clergy and sisterhood in Africa. A dozen native priests and about one hundred native sisters were working in the several missions.

In Rome, on April 24, 1979, Pope John Paul II presided over the beatification ceremony for Jacques-Désiré Laval, the first member of the Spiritans to be so honoured.

Marcel Lefebvre

On July 26, 1962 the Chapter General of the Holy Ghost Fathers elected the former Archbishop of Dakar, Marcel Lefebvre as Superior General. Lefebvre was widely respected for his experience in the mission field[1] and his ability to deal with the Roman Curia. On August 7, 1962 Lefebvre was given the titular archiepiscopal see of Synnada in Phrygia.

Lefebvre first instituted a major reform of the seminaries run by the Holy Ghost Fathers. He transferred several professors whom he considered too Modernist (relativistic, liberal) to non-educational posts. He ordered books by certain modern theologians, including Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu to be removed from the seminary library, finding them too Neo-Modernistic. (One book of Chenu was inserted into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the 1940s.)

Lefebvre was increasingly criticized by influential pro-reform members of his large religious congregation who considered him out-of-step with modern Church leaders and the demand of bishops' conferences, particularly in France, for drastical revision and reform.[2] A general chapter of the Holy Ghost Fathers was convened in Rome in September 1968. The first action of the chapter was to name several moderators to lead the chapter's sessions instead of Lefebvre.[3] Lefebvre then handed in his resignation as Superior General to His Holiness Pope Paul VI.[4] He would later say that it had become impossible for him to remain Superior of an Order which no longer wanted him nor listened to him. On October 28 a new superior general was elected to replace him; the new superior general proved willing to allow the demands for reforms.

Lefebvre left the Holy Ghost Fathers and went on to found the Society of Saint Pius X in Ecône (Diocese of Fribourg), Switzerland.


The Holy Ghost Fathers are active now in about forty-seven countries; they are often associated with schools and chaplaincy, and also with missionary work. Some famous English speaking Spiritans in the late twentieth century include Fathers Vincent J. Donovan, Adrian Van Kaam, and Henry J. Koren.

Father Donovan (1926-2000) is the author of the landmark book Christianity Rediscovered. Father Donovan worked in Tanzania, most notably among the Maasai, from 1955 to 1973. Adrian Van Kaam was notable in his work in psychology and spirituality. He also wrote a key work on one of the Spiritan's founder's Venerable Father Libermann. Henry J. Koren was an impressive historian of the Congregation and a philosopher as well.

Holy Ghost Fathers around the world


See also: Knechtsteden, Broich


The Holy Ghost Fathers run five schools in Ireland.

Trinidad and Tobago

The Holy Ghost Fathers run these schools in Trinidad and Tobago:

United Kingdom

The Holy Ghost Fathers came to Britain 200 years after their foundation when the anti-Catholic government in France was starting to close convents and monasteries. In 1903 they rented Prior Park, a mansion near Bath in Somerset as a refuge abroad. Before returning to France three years later, the Bishop of Liverpool allowed them to open Castlehead at Grange-over-Sands, Lancashire as a junior seminary.

Father John Rimmer from Widnes had become the first British Spiritan having joined them in France in 1894. He was appointed as Superior of Castlehead and gradually under his leadership, the school flourished and boys were put through their secondary studies before going to France for the Novitiate and training for the missionary priesthood.

In 1939, the Spiritans brought a property in Wiltshire to act as a senior seminary but the house was requisitioned as a military hospital during Second World War. In 1940, 30 senior seminarians escaped from France aboard a Polish troopship.

The refugees from France shared Castlehead for two years with the junior students. Then they moved to Sizergh Castle near Kendal and continued their studies for the priesthood there. On an average, four new priests were ordained every year being posted to missions in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and East Africa. When the war ended, the senior students moved in to Upton Hall near Newark.

In 1947 a house was acquired in Bickley, Kent, and used as headquarters for the English Province and a centre for late vocations. Ex-servicemen were applying to join and some needed help to complete their studies prior to going to the Novitiate. In the early 1990s we realised that our elderly missionaries were living longer and returning home to rest from their labours. It was therefore decided to convert the Bickley community from our Provincial administration centre to a retirement home, a role it continues to play today.

The change at Bickley meant that the Administration moved to Northwood, in North West London until recently when it moved again and is currently based in Burnt Oak in North London.

Recognising the importance of Scotland, as both a place for missionary vocations as well as support for missionary work, in 1956 the Holy Ghost Fathers set up a community at Uddingston on the outskirts of Glasgow. In 1970 the Congregation transferred to the Old parish house and church in Carfin. It was also opposite the Carfin Grotto, a place of Catholic pilgrimage which had been established during the 1920s. The Carfin community continues to serve the people of Scotland and witness to our Missionary commitment.

After the Second Vatican Council the various missionary societies in England pooled their resources and started the Missionary Institute, London (MIL) in 1969. As one of the founding members, the Holy Ghost Fathers closed their center in Wellesborough, moving their students to London and opened a community house in Aldenham Grange, near Watford, Herts.

From the late 1980s there was a decision to concentrate on work with young people, in order to develop strong committed young catholic leaders. The "Just Youth" ministry was established in order to foster these aims. It provides chaplaincy facilities for several high schools in the Salford Diocese and undertakes outreach work in schools throughout the north of England. Since early 2008 Just Youth has been based in Lower Kersal, Salford, at the former Catholic University Chaplaincy, now re-opened as the Spiritan Youth Centre.

From the Salford community has also grown the group of Lay Spiritans. These are married or single Catholics who are inspired by the Spiritan way of life and wish to share in it while leading their normal professional and domestic lives. They play an important part in our works by bringing their professional skills, knowledge and advice in managing and directing the various ministries we are involved in.

In 2001, two Lay Spiritans of the Salford community founded Revive, a voluntary social work agency committed to the long-term support of asylum seekers and refugees. This work, in conjunction with the Catholic Diocese of Salford and the British Red Cross, involved the support of all asylum seekers, including those whose asylum claims had been refused and were destitute. Revive also had a significant role in the training of student social workers to work with asylum seekers and refugees in partnership with Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Salford University. Revive is based in Salford and is considered to be a missionary work of the Congregation, who are its principal funders.[5]

In 2009, a report from Caritas - Social Action highlighted the work of Revive as an example of good practice with asylum seekers and refugees in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. [6]

Lay Spiritan involvement in the management of Revive ceased in 2009. The project is now managed by a Spiritan priest.[7]

One Lay Spiritan is also involved in prison ministry as a chaplain in a local prison.

Currently the UK Spiritan Provincial, Fr Philip Marsh CSSp spends much of his time travelling and meeting with the various communities and works of the Province. His base is in Whitefield, Bury, where the small Provincial Residence Community is located.

United States

The French Spiritans' first contact in North America was in Acadia between 1735-1763 under Father Louis Bouic. Unfortunately, the settlers and natives of this region were caught in the political and military clash between the French and the British. One of the most famous Spiritans was Fr. Maillard named "the Apostle of the Micmacs". After arduous learning in eight years, he wrote the first Micmac grammar. Through this he was able to introduce to them the Catholic faith which they kept even without a priest for a long time. Father Maillard tried to attenuate the savagery of brutal warfare (instigated at times by the French and the British). Many more missionaries, such as John Le Loutre, came but later had to flee with the Micmacs as the British conquered these areas. Fr. Maillard himself was captured in Louisbourg and deported to a Boston jail.

It was in 1794 that a Spiritan refugee of the French Revolution in Guiana became a highly respected missionary in Baltimore. He started a new mission in the U.S. and two others followed a few years later. However, it was only when Archbishop Purcell repeatedly asked (between 1847-1851) for personnel to staff a seminary in Cincinnati that Spiritans steadily entered. Other dioceses such as Savannah, Florida, Philadelphia, and Natchez requested for personnel too. For the sake of maintaining a community life the Spiritans concentrated on the Pittsburgh area. Despite knowing of four failures of setting up a Catholic college in Pittsburgh, the Spiritans showed unusual courage in setting up an institution which later became known as Duquesne University.

The Spiritans in America concentrate on work among immigrants, black parishes and education in Duquesne University and Holy Ghost Preparatory School (near Philadelphia). Historically, they have supplied missionaries for Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Puerto Rico, Latin America, and Ethiopia. Today, Spiritans are focusing on Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and Taiwan. In 1964 there was a separation between a Western Province and an Eastern Province (according to the Mississippi River), but they are gradually joining both provinces. Candidates in theological formation are sent to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago where several Spiritans teach.


  1. ^ During his thirty year apostolate in Africa the role of Mgr. Lefebvre was of the very highest importance. His fellow missionaries still remember his extraordinary missionary zeal which was revealed in his exceptional abilities as an organizer and a man of action. Father Jean Anzevui quoted in Volume 1, Chapter 1, Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre, by Michael Davies, citing J. Mzevui, Le Drame d'Ecône (Sion, 1976), p. 16
  2. ^ "This little group was very active. They included a number of seminary professors like Fr. Lécuyer who was in Rome. They formed a small group of intellectuals - very progressive, rather modernist and very determined. Moreover, since it seemed the Council was working in their favour they felt emboldened and took the opportunity of spreading their ideas of modernising - the aggiornamento - the Congregation." July/August 2003 Monsignor Lefebvre in his own words, Society of Saint Pius X - Southern Africa
  3. ^ "With no authorisation from the Congregation for Religious, they wanted the chapter to be presided over by a triumvirate which meant that I, the Superior General, was not to preside over the chapter at all even though it was clearly written in the constitutions that the Superior General was to be in charge of all business discussed at the General Chapter." July/August 2003 Monsignor Lefebvre in his own words, Society of Saint Pius X - Southern Africa
  4. ^ "Back at the Mother House, I wrote a nice letter to the Pope saying that I was tendering my resignation because of what was going on in the Congregation and what I was going to have to do. I told him I couldn’t take responsibility for something like that." July/August 2003 Monsignor Lefebvre in his own words, Society of Saint Pius X - Southern Africa
  5. ^ Ann-Marie and Peter Fell: "On the Royal Road: Considerations on Lay Spiritan Identity and Mission". Spiritan Horizons, Issue 2, Fall 2007, pp. 100-108.
  6. ^ http://www.caritas-socialaction.org.uk/pages/migration_mapping.html
  7. ^ http://www.revive-uk.org/80290/info.php?p=1

Sources and external links

This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.


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