Gift of Fire



1833 + Redemptorist Beginnings

At age 20, Louis entered the Redemptorist house at St. Trond, Belgium, in 1833.

1834 + October 20 + First Profession

Both parents and his 12 year old sister were present for his profession [on October 20, 1834]. In 1836, the Redemptorists founded a house in Wittem, Holland. A pioneer band of young professed was sent to continue studies in the new location, among them Louis Gillet. Their journey was attended by the usual mishaps of travel, including a broken carriage wheel which delayed departure for over an hour. The Wittem house was an international community and Louis, like many young Redemptorists, first felt the kindling of missionary zeal in this household. This Wittem foundation would be one of many times Louis would "pioneer" in a new foundation or an untried venture.

1838 + March 10 + Ordination and First Works

Having completed his studies, Louis was ordained in Liege, Belgium, March 10, 1838, by Bishop Cornelius Van Bommel. Again, both his parents and his sister were present for the occasion and for his first Mass on March 13. Six months later, Louis accompanied Father Frederic de Held, Provincial, to London where they made plans for a Redemptorist foundation.

On his return to Belgium, Father Louis was transferred to Tournai. For the next four years he would serve his apprenticeship in the community using his many gifts a community librarian, infirmarian and secretary. There was little of the missionary work for which he longed. In 1839, the Redemptorists opened their first United States mission, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. All eyes turned to America, and Louis was no exception.

Finally, in March of 1843, the call came. Father Alexander Czvitkovicz came to Tournai to collect Father Gillet and begin immediate preparation for their departure for the United States missions. April 4, 1843, the ship sailed from London. The month long voyage was itself a preparation for times to come.

1843 + Early May + New York/Baltimore/Albany

The Redemptorists landed in New York and immediately set out for Baltimore where the 5th Provincial Council of American Bishops was in session (May 14-21). Present for the conference was the Coadjutor-Administrator of the Diocese of Detroit: Right Reverend Peter Paul Lefevre -- also a Belgian. Lefevre lobbied the Redemptorist Provincial in Baltimore for a mission to the French population in and around Detroit. In the back, or perhaps the front, of his mind was the bid to have the Redemptorists make a permanent foundation in Detroit. His efforts would be successful. From Baltimore, the Redemptorists moved back to New York briefly, then on to Albany by way of the Erie canal on "a three-story steamboat 338 feet in length" and "decorated in the latest luxury."

1843 + August 6 + The Michigan Missions Begin

Support for missionary work was a problem then as now. Because Bishop Lefevre was himself a missionary, the Redemptorists felt that he would understand and cooperate with them. They agreed to respond to his request. Again, Father Louis and his classmate, Father Francis Poilvache, would pioneer. August 6, 1843, Father Louis preached the first mission for which he was wholly responsible, at the church of St. Paul in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Here the IHM story begins. During the mission, young Theresa Renauld heard the voice of the Spirit but not clearly. Father Louis taught her to ring the Angelus bells and told her to be faithful to her charge until there was another call. Theresa would become the third in the new community. In her lifetime she would be called "Celestine," "Xavier" and, finally, "Celestine Xavier" -- all in the course of providential events.

It was after his first mission that Gillet wrote a letter to the Belgian provincial, describing the many needs of the American missions and urging that more of his brothers from Liege be allowed to join him in the field.

1843 + Mid-December + Ste. Anne, Detroit

Father Louis and Father Poilvache opened a mission at historic Ste. Anne in Detroit. The success of the young missionaries preceded them and Bishop Lefevre himself was present to commission them.

1844 + March 9 + St. Anthony, Monroe

The two Redemptorists preached another successful mission at St. Anthony in Monroe. With the blessing of the Bishop and the persuasive leadership of Father Louis, the mission resulted in a significant change of status for St. Anthony parish. Parish grounds and buildings were signed over to the Redemptorists who agreed to provide permanent staffing. The parish would become a missionary base and its name would be changed to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. In April or May of the same year, Gillet traveled to Baltimore for face-to-face conversations with Father Alexander Czvitkovicz, the provincial's representative in the U.S., about the Monroe foundation. Sometime after that Father Louis, 31 years old, six years ordained, was made pastor of the church and superior of the Monroe foundation. His signature is on the June 16 papers turning the parish over to the Redemptorists. After only two months in this country, and no prior exposure to the language, Gillet was already preaching sermons in English, in language "clear, distinct and forcible."

It was in 1844 also, that Father Louis met Almaite Maxis, or Maria Theresa Maxis, in Baltimore. He confided to her the great needs of the children in Michigan. She, in turn, made known her desire to live a "regular" religious life, rather than one of some ecclesial uncertainty with the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. The two were well met and another stone was turned in the foundation of the IHM community.

1845 + November 10 + Foundation of the "Sisters of Providence" at Monroe, Michigan

On November 10, 1845, the Sisters of Providence were founded in Monroe, Michigan. On this day an eternal bond was formed between Father Louis and this community. Theresa Maxis and Charlotte Shaaf of the Baltimore Oblates met Theresa Renauld of Grosse Point for Mass on this founding day. From their profession/reception on November 30, grew the international community Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with its Monroe, Immaculata [Philadelphia] and Scranton branches.

1845 + December 8 + St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception

When St. Anthony's was renamed and consecrated to Mary Immaculate on December 8, 1845, Father Louis would write to his provincial that "we are the first of the Fathers in America who have a church consecrated, and consecrated to Mary Immaculate."

1845 - 1847 + Monroe Years

Father Gillet and Father Poilvache complemented one another. Gillet was the pastor, and also the energetic missionary, personally overseeing ten missions within 60 miles of Monroe during the nearly two years of his stay in Monroe. Truly he needed his "fast horse." It is not surprising that Father Poilvache, quieter and more observant of immediate affairs, would handle the daily needs of the parish and the new sisterhood. Indeed, Gillet himself recognized his shortcomings as an administrator and begged his provincial to relieve him of the pastorate in order to devote more time to the missions. Nonetheless, Father Gillet was careful in his nurturing of the seedling community, taking personal responsibility for the development of habit, rule, prayer and community life. The people of Monroe, Catholic and Protestant alike, appreciated Father Gillet's many efforts on behalf of the people of the city. He made many friends, some of whom he retained to the end of his life.

1847 + Spring/Summer + Shadowed Flame

Father Gillet was called to New Orleans to preach the lenten mission in 1847. He returned to Monroe, at the peak of his missionary success, to continue his rounds among the Michigan missions. Meanwhile, events were smoldering which would wrench the young missionary from his chosen course. First there was an ugly accusation, proven false in court, by a disgruntled woman penitent. Then a man, turned away from the Redemptorist brotherhood by Father Louis, took himself to the Detroit Redemptorist house and filled the ears of one of the Fathers with similar stories. The Father, in the manner of the times, wrote hastily to the Provincial in Baltimore. On October 6, Gillet was recalled to Baltimore and Father Egidius Smulders was sent to Monroe in his stead.

All accusations against Father Louis were subsequently proven to be totally false. Eventually he was given the option of returning to Monroe or going back to Europe. He chose Europe. The sequence of events, however, resulted in strained relationships between himself and the Redemptorist community which he had loved and trusted. Gillet was deeply scarred by this experience, most of all by what he interpreted as lack of support from his Redemptorist brotherhood. Urged by his Provincial, he wrote to Father De Held in Belgium, asking for a dispensation from his vows [He would leave the Redemptorist Congregation, but still remain a priest.]. It appears that his request was not granted immediately. Gillet wrote again and Father De Held wrote to Bishop Lefevre for more information. Awaiting an answer from Rome, Father Gillet traveled to New York where he lived at Holy Redeemer in New York, assisting with priestly duties there and in nearby areas. He was still the missionary, still the preacher who could move hearts and always he urged the work to go forward.

Eventually, Gillet became impatient with waiting. He answered the pleas of a Bishop in Lafayette, Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he entered wholeheartedly into the mission work he loved best.


IHM Archives Staff (1992). Gift of Fire: Louis Florent Gillet -- 1813 - 1892: Christian, Redemptorist, Missionary, Cistercian. Monroe, MI: St. Mary Convent.

Copyright 1992 by Sisters of IHM, Monroe, MI. All rights reserved. Used with permission.