In the last decade of the 18th century, the French Revolution brought upheaval to all of French society, including the Church. Church property was seized, priests were arrested and executed, and religious communities were expelled from France. The departure of many religious also meant the departure of many teachers. Children in the countryside of northwestern France received little or no education in general, let alone in matters of faith.
In response to this need, Fr. Jacques Dujarié, who had been an underground seminarian during the height of the French Revolution, began to gather young men to instruct youth. He began with four young men, sending them out to the countryside under the direction of local pastors to educate children in the faith that had gone untaught for a generation. These young men became the Brothers of St. Joseph.
As Fr. Dujarié grew in age and his health declined, he agreed, with approval from the bishop, to turn over the leadership of the brothers in 1835 to a young and energetic priest of the Diocese of Le Mans named Basil Moreau.
By this time, Blessed Basil Moreau, who had been ordained in 1821, had already organized a group of “Auxiliary Priests” to travel around the diocese preaching parish missions to help educate people in the faith. He merged these priests with the Brothers of St. Joseph in 1837 and named this new group after the neighborhood in Le Mans where the group was formed – Sainte Croix or Holy Cross. That is why Holy Cross priests and brothers have the letters “CSC” after their names. This comes from the Latin name for the order, Congregatio a Sancta Cruce, which literally means the Congregation “at” Holy Cross.
Several years later Blessed Moreau would add a group of laywomen to Holy Cross in 1841. Together his vision, which was ahead of his time in the Church, was that they would comprise one holy family — modeled on the Holy Family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. He further established Our Lady of Sorrows as the patroness of the entire congregation.
The work of Holy Cross as educators in the faith was to encompass education, parish, and mission. Within a few short years of founding Holy Cross, Blessed Moreau sent his priests, brothers and sisters from France to Algeria, the United States, Canada, and East Bengal (present-day India and Bangladesh).
The missionaries who came to the United States arrived in 1841 and were led by Fr. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., who had been one of the Auxiliary Priests as well as part of the first group to profess religious vows with Blessed Moreau in 1840. In 1842, he and six brothers founded the University of Notre Dame and Sacred Heart Parish in Indiana.
Not only in the United States but also in Holy Cross’ other mission territories, there were numerous setbacks and challenges. Yet all the while, Blessed Moreau continued to trust in Divine Providence that Holy Cross was not his work, but God’s work. He lived his life and guided his congregation by the motto Ave Crux, Spes Unica. The Cross of Christ was to be our only hope.
As he wrote to his community with great faith at a particular moment of trial, “Holy Cross is not our work, but God’s very own … If each member continues to carry out his own particular obedience in a spirit of loyalty and simplicity, and with the spirit of union which is now inspiring all the members of the association, God will bless our whole congregation.”
Over these years, Blessed Moreau also continued to work tirelessly for Vatican approval of his new community, and that approbation finally came in 1857 when Rome accepted the first Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross. As part of its approval, Rome required that the sisters be in a separate congregation with a separate governance structure.
Today there are three groups of sisters – the Marianites of Holy Cross, the Sisters of Holy Cross, and the Sisters of the Holy Cross – who all trace their spiritual heritage and tradition back to Blessed Moreau. Together with the priests and brothers of the Congregation of Holy Cross, they form the Holy Cross family, which Blessed Moreau placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In 1903, all religious orders in France were suppressed, and North America became the focus of Holy Cross’s subsequent expansion. Numerous educational institutions and parishes were founded in the United States and Canada. In the 1940s, Holy Cross moved into Chile and Haiti and, in 1958, established its first missions in Ghana and Uganda. Over the next several decades, Holy Cross expanded to Peru, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania, and most recently the Philippines.
Blessed Basil Moreau was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church on September 15, 2007. Three years later the first Holy Cross saint, St. André Bessette, known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal,” was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 17, 2010. The recognition of their holiness by Holy Mother Church confirms what Blessed Moreau believed all along – that Holy Cross was the work of God – and thus its history is part of the continuing history of salvation.