Musical prodigy, peer of Chopin, becomes ‘convert of the Eucharist’

07 Jan 2009

By The Record

The story of Hermann Cohen (aka Father Augustine Mary of the Blessed Sacrament), child musical prodigy and Carmelite legend, provides us with the setting for one of the most gripping and eventful chapters in the nineteenth century.  In his story we find life, high drama and great artists. Among these are his tutor, the legendary Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, Chopin, Victor Hugo, Lamennais, Saint Beave and the cigar smoking feminist, cross dresser and novelist Georges Sand, who often invited Hermann to play the piano for her as she composed her novels.
Most of all, we find the quest for the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Hermann introduces us to the glitzy Paris scene over 150 years ago. On the case for The Record, Perth Carmelite Fr Tadgh Tierney OCD tells of how a genuis’ personal relationship with God transformed him into a spiritual heavyweight and influenced one of the greatest saints of the Church.


The shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes has perhaps been the most influential place of Marian pilgrimage in the history of the Church, with up to six million pilgrims visiting each year.
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the apparitions at the grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin Mary appeared to the young peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous who is now honoured as a saint.
Pope Benedict XVI visited France and Lourdes from September 12-15, 2008 to mark the occasion. As he left Lourdes, the Pope said in the farewell ceremony that he was “duty bound” to come to Lourdes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions before the Grotto of Massabielle.
He said that he prayed for the Church, for France and for the world, and mentioned his visit to the parish church where Bernadette was baptised, the Cachot where she lived for two years and the Grotto.
I was glad in June this year to have visited those three places also with a small group of family and friends. It was my first visit back to Lourdes in over 20 years.
There is a strong Carmelite connection to the story of Bernadette. At present time there is a convent of Carmelite nuns in Lourdes, situated on rising ground directly opposite the Grotto across the river Gave, founded as early as 1876.There is an even older convent in Nevers, the city where her incorrupt body is venerated.
The most obvious connection lies in the fact that the eighteenth and final apparition to Bernadette took place on July 16, 1858, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
The Carmelite connection concerns Hermann Cohen, a child musical prodigy born in Hamburg, Germany in 1821 to Jewish parents and tutored in Paris by the legendary Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and travelled throughout Europe as a concert pianist.
Hermann converted to Catholicism in Paris in 1847 and soon after entered the Carmelite Order, and was to be known as Fr Augustine. The Latin Mass he composed in honour of St Teresa of Avila is still popular.
The story of Hermann provides us with the setting for one of the most gripping and eventful chapters in the nineteenth century.
In his story we find life, high drama and great artists. Among these, apart from Liszt are Chopin, Victor Hugo, Lamennais, Saint Beave and the cigar smoking feminist, cross dresser and novelist, Georges Sand, who often invited Hermann to play the piano for her as she composed her novels.
Most of all, we find the quest for the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Hermann introduces us to the glitzy Paris scene over 150 years ago.
The Carmelites possess letters written by Cohen, some of them preserved at the Carmelite Priory in Kensington, London that he founded. His piano, a gift from the firm of Erard who made it, is also preserved in the Priory. 
Many of the Carmelites, including myself, who have served in Australia have either been members of this community or have visited it in Church Street, Kensington.
In 1856, amid his pioneering work in Lyons and Bagneres-de-Bigorres in the south of France, Hermann discovered a vast wooded solitude near the Pyrenees, and another about 20 kilometres from Lourdes at Tarasteix.
He intended setting it up as a traditional purely contemplative retreat like a Carthusian monastery.
When Hermann was surveying the area, a 12-year-old child near the hamlet of Bartres who was tending sheep in the hills overlooking Lourdes wished to make her First Communion and prevailed on her parents to allow her to go down to Lourdes to learn her Catechism in preparation. Hermann could not have foreseen that two years later, he would have the privilege of meeting the visionary Bernadette.
apparitions at Lourdes 1858
While Hermann was still involved with the Carmelite houses at Bagneres and Lyon, ‘a beautiful lady’ appeared to Bernadette.
It appears that Hermann heard the news from one of his friends in March 1858. Antoinette Tardhival, a visitor at the nearby Carmel at Bagneres, entered for a while but returned to Lourdes where she was one of the first people interested in the apparitions. As early as March 9,1858 she mentioned the event that happened on February 18. On March 28, three days after the great apparition, Antoinette met Bernadette and was very impressed with the girl.
She writes: “Yesterday we talked a long time with the child. She told us everything, even about the interview she had to have with the doctors, and she laughed heartily as she told us how the doctors had tried to make out that she was ill. We asked her yesterday if she noticed people around her when she saw the Virgin Mary. She replied that everything vanished and she saw and heard nothing, but the Blessed Virgin who spoke to her in the normal tone of voice that we ourselves were using.” Antoinette ended her letter: “I found Fr Augustine (Hermann) in good health and he preaches every Sunday.”
Hermann must have been very pleased to learn what was happening so near to the ‘desert house’ that he was in the process of founding in the Pyrenees.
On March 25, 1858, Mary appeared to Bernadette and said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was four years after the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary had been proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on December 8,1854.
On April 7, Antoinette herself was present at one of Bernadette’s visions of Our Lady and left a precise, truthful, simple and convincing account:
“On arriving she fell on her knees beside the Gave just a few yards from the grotto and from there she was beginning to see the Blessed Virgin on the rose bush near the entrance.
“At that moment her ecstasy began. We noticed her smile, and then become serious and thoughtful and sometimes sad, in tune with what Our Lady was telling her. We saw her greet Our Lady and then she began to talk to her, but no one could hear anything.”
Hermann returned to Lourdes from Tarasteix in May but he did not go immediately to the grotto, according to Antoinette.
She had described to him what she had witnessed. The authorities got worried and started to dismantle the grotto and prohibited people from drinking at the spring.
Finally they were ready to take the original advice of a commissary called Jacomet and close the grotto altogether.
On June 15 they set up barricades. The parish priest of Lourdes, Fr Peyramale, intervened on July 8, and when the bishop got involved on July 11 calm was restored.
People started to pray at a distance from the grotto, but Bernadette must have suffered a lot with this turn of events. She did not attend the grotto and, while making her First Holy Communion at this time she had no apparition on that day. Bernadette advised people not to go to the grotto because the barricades had been erected.
Final Apparition
On July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Holy Virgin appeared to Bernadette for the last time.
At sunset, Bernadette felt an impulse to go to the grotto in spite of the prohibitions of the authorities and respond to Our Lady’s invitation.
She disguised herself and went with her aunt, Lucile Casterol, but not directly to the grotto. She crossed the Gave and remained on the right bank. She knelt down and began the Rosary.
In spite of the distance and the twilight, she had no difficulty in seeing Our Lady. She raised her hands in a gesture of joyful greeting, and in the semi-darkness several people noticed Bernadette smile. Someone lit a candle and people could see the joy on Bernadette’s face. In the light of the setting sun people started reciting the Rosary.
After her ecstasy Bernadette was questioned by Antoinette and she said: “I did not see the Gave or anything else. I only saw her. I have never seen anybody as beautiful as she is.” The apparition bowed towards the humble visionary as though in a farewell greeting and then disappeared. This last apparition on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel turned Bernadette’s thoughts towards the solitude of Carmel.
The aftermath of the apparitions
While Hermann Cohen was engrossed with the foundations at Tarasteix and Lyon in the summer of 1858, his friend, the great journalist Louis Veuillot, was on a visit to the health spa at Bagneres.
He passed through Lourdes and spoke to the Abbe Peyramale who after initial hostility had been won over by Bernadette’s sincerity, as had three local bishops.
He called on Hermann and they were both disposed to believe in the apparitions. Both were afterwards to defend Lourdes – Veuillot in his frequent articles in ‘L’Univers’, and Hermann at the grotto itself by leading the first pilgrimage there.


PILGRIM PRAYS IN LOURDES, FRANCE A pilgrim prays at the foot of a statue of Mary at the sanctuary in Lourdes, France, Feb. 10, the eve of the 150th anniversary of Mary’s first appearance to St. Bernadette. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (Dec. 17, 2008)


So Hermann Cohen was the first Religious and priest to give public honour to God and Mary in Lourdes. Along with Abbe Rozies of Tarasteix, he led hundreds in front of the grotto, though it was still enclosed behind barricades and access was forbidden by the civil authorities, on September 20, 1858 – two months after the last apparition.
Bishop Laurence of Tarbes was at this time studying the dossier on the apparitions and was soon to give a favourable decision. The two priests were met by Abbe Peyramale who offered them hospitality and met the mayor asking permission for a visit to the grotto and it was reluctantly given – but only if they went before dawn.
They celebrated Mass at 3am then went to Massabielle accompanied by one Dr Dozous who had drawn up an official report of several miracles which had taken place there the previous month.
That same day Hermann had a long talk with Bernadette Soubirous. Hermann’s friend Antoinette Tardhival had quickly won the confidence of the little girl and taught her to read at the end of the year 1858. Bernadette was not too keen on meeting priests as she had been questioned so much by them, but it would have been different in the case of this Carmelite (Hermann) who directed her teacher Antoinette, who had also entered a Carmelite convent. It’s not surprising then that she spent a long time talking to this priest. In fact Bernadette’s aunt wrote in regard to her vocation: ‘From the beginning her attraction would have taken her to Carmel – she wanted to be a Carmelite.’ In the years immediately following these momentous events the phenomenon of Lourdes continued to grow with crowds visiting the shrine and bringing their sick to bathe in the spring at the grotto.
Many healings were reported from the beginning. Meanwhile, Hermann continued his Carmelite apostolate in France being in great demand as a preacher.
Spiritual link, through the Eucharist, of
St Therese of Lisieux and Hermann Cohen
Hermann’s period of residence in the `desert` of Tarasteix began in May 1868. With the permission of the Prior, he composed some motets during his time there entitled ‘Thabor‘. He had to do so without any instrumental resources, which were not available there. One of these motets on a Eucharistic theme was entitled A Little Flower at the door of the Tabernacle.

Between two cold barriers there grew a little plant
Which brightened the tedium of the prisoner
who cultivated it with love.
And in exchange for his care
he saw the humble plant
Emit with all its energy the fragrance
Of its flowers.

These hymns composed by Hermann were very popular in France for many years. Some years later in another part of France, Therese of Lisieux referred to herself as the Little Flower. Her autobiography begins with the words: `The springtime story of a little white flower.’
Though she does not quote from the hymn she does refer to a picture card painted by her sister Pauline which she kept on this theme.
The idea of Jesus being a “prisoner of love” in the tabernacle would have appealed greatly to Therese’s romantic nature.
There are secular love songs with this title. One of her poems indeed speaks explicitly of this theme. Therese’s devotion to the Eucharist was typically Carmelite, a devotion Carmelites inherited from the one they called their Holy Mother, St Teresa of Avila.
Hermann himself had an extraordinary devotion to the Eucharist and referred to himself as a “convert of the Eucharist”.
Hermann Cohen was instrumental in founding the Movement for Nocturnal Adoration of the Eucharist in the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Paris and this movement became widespread in France. This church also figures in the life of St Therese.
In her early illness her father requested Masses there and Therese would later return to the church on her way back from Rome to thank Our Lady for her miraculous cure. In the reordered sanctuary of what is now a basilica she shares a panel on the main altar with Hermann and others.
In his work of adoration, Hermann enlisted the support of likeminded people like Cyrille de Bengue, who organised Eucharistic devotion in a little chapel on the hill of Montmartre – the highest point in Paris – on September 6, 1878. This was the period when the great Basilica known as Sacre-Coeur was being built on this site.
Therese would later send her gold bracelet to be used in the fashioning of the tabernacle of the new basilica.
She would have inherited her love of the Eucharist from her father Louis Martin who himself attended adoration of the Eucharist whenever possible.
The Martin family, in fact, had looked to Lourdes for healing when Louis` wife Zelie fell ill. Her daughters Marie and Pauline took their mother to Lourdes in the last months of her life. Their prayers for a cure were not answered. Zelie reflected on Our Lady’s words to Bernadette, inscribed on the balustrade of the Basilica, `I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next’.
Indeed, the journey aggravated her illness, especially after she sustained a nasty fall. Contrary to the present usage of a quick dip in the baths, Zelie on her fourth visit to the baths was immersed in the icy water for 15 minutes. She was disappointed not to meet Abbe Peyramale who was away but she did speak to a woman who had witnessed one of Bernadette’s visions.
First healings at the grotto of Lourdes
On October 1, 1868 Hermann’s nephew George received a letter from Tarasteix. Hermann mentioned the fact that he was having trouble with his eyes, although otherwise everything was fine.
This was a bad omen for life in the desert with the onset of winter and indeed his health deteriorated. At this turn of events, Hermann looked with confidence to Our Lady of Lourdes.
For nearly 10 years now healings were being reported from the grotto. So Hermann set out as a pilgrim once more for the grotto. Dr Boissarie, the medical person in charge of examining alleged healings at the Grotto, concludes his report on this case: “We are not accustomed to cures as complete and instantaneous as this.
“They are quite outside the rules and traditions of our art. For my own part I don’t know how to contest or interpret this happening.” (Annals of Lourdes, Nov 1868)
Vatican I
Those of us who have lived through Vatican II will resonate with the events leading up to Vatican I. The Council set out to confront what it saw as modern errors. It is best known for proclaiming the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which was very divisive at the time. In fact the great Cardinal Henry Newman, whose cause for beatification has now been introduced, thought the definition  `inopportune’.
In the end it did lead to groups of Catholics seceding from the Church to form what were called
the `Old Catholics’, much like the French Archbishop Lefebvre after Vatican II.
Indeed, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, four years before the apparitions at Lourdes. Hermann wrote to his nephew George in 1869: ‘Could I ask you to cut out all the passages dealing with the Council in ‘L’Univers` and send them to me? It is important for me to be in touch with a movement like that.’
Hermann had no sympathy with those who were ‘stirring things up’ and he remarked: ‘The Gallicans cut a sad figure just now and our Holy Father preaches humility on every occasion. May we obtain, and always possess this lovely and precious quality.’
Mention of the `Gallicans’ introduces us to another figure whose story intersects with that of Therese and also Bernadette but in a more negative way. Gallicanism was the adopted position of those who favoured a kind of national French church as opposed to the ‘Ultramontanes’ who represented strict adherence to the view that the Supreme Pontiff was in fact supreme.
“For us Carmelites, Hermann’s holiness is beyond doubt and his canonisation highly desirable”
-Fr Joseph Of St Marie OCD
Gallicans held that an ecumenical council was above the Pope. One of the staunchest promoters of the gallican position at the time was a Carmelite priest named Hyacinthe Loyson, who was only six years younger than Hermann yet their paths may not have crossed very often.
Loyson did not join the Carmelites until 1860 and from 1863-1865 Cohen was involved in the restoration of the Carmelites to London.
Loyson, who first joined the Sulpicians and later the Dominicans, was a charismatic preacher – perhaps the most famous in France in his time.
He sat on the investigating committee on Bernadette Soubirous, interrogated her early on and unlike Hermann he opposed her strongly. Loyson, a pacifist, was opposed to the Franco-Prussian war, but more importantly from a theological point of view he opposed the impending definition of Papal Infallibility. When he was attacked by Bishop Dupanloup of his native diocese of Orleans who urged him to repent he retorted: ‘What you call a great fault committed, I call a great duty accomplished’.
Hyacinthe Loyson left the Order (where he had been Superior of the Paris Carmel) and the Roman Catholic Church just before Vatican 1.He entered a civil marriage with an American lady named Emily Butterfield the widow of a man called Merriman.
He founded a `Catholic Gallican Church` in Paris in 1879 complete with liturgy. One of Loyson’s staunchest opponents was the journalist Louis Veuillot who was a friend of Hermann Cohen. It is highly likely that he was referring to Loyson when he mentioned the `Gallicans cutting a sad figure`. 
However, Hermann wrote him a heartfelt letter later begging him to return to the Church and the Order. Vatican 1 was adjourned abruptly in 1870 because of the outbreak of war between France and Prussia.
Moving on to the year 1897, we find the name Hyacinthe Loyson cropping up in St Therese’s story. It is well known among Carmelites that she offered her last Holy Communion for the conversion of this renegade priest on August 19. Therese had made Loyson’s salvation a priority in her prayer for most of her brief Religious life. She made him the subject of a letter to her sister Celine as early as July 8, 1891.
His preaching in Normandy at this time was reported in the press and Therese writes: ‘The unfortunate prodigal went to Coutances where he started over again the conferences given at Caen. It appears he intends to travel throughout France in this way…  His wife follows him everywhere.’ She then urges Celine to renewed prayers for his conversion.
In January 1911, the year before he died, the Carmel at Lisieux sent Loyson a copy of the `Story of a Soul’. Part of his reply stated: `I was touched, very much touched, by many of the things I read in this book’.
Lest we be too quick to jump to judgement ourselves we could do well to remember this line from one of Loyson`s letters to Celine: ‘I have been mistaken more than once in my life, but I am convinced that what God condemns in man is not error when this is sincere, but selfishness, pride and hatred’.
Celine (Sr Genevieve) pursued a correspondence with the former Carmelite for the last year of his life, sending him articles on the progress of Therese’s Cause.
He died a pious death on February 9, 1912. (Letters of St Therese of Lisieux, Volume 11, translated by John Clarke ocd, ICS Publications, Washington DC).
Hermann Cohen died at Spandau prison, near Berlin on 20 January 1871. He was just 49 years of age. Spandau was later famous as the prison for Nazi war criminals including Rudolf Hess who died there.
Hermann had contracted smallpox while ministering to the French prisoners of war who were held in the prison. It was a heroic end to a lifetime of pioneering work on behalf of the Carmelite Order.
I can entirely agree the comments of a French Carmelite who wrote: ‘Let us endorse the wish to see Fr Hermann’s beatification introduced. For us (Carmelites), his holiness is beyond doubt and his canonisation highly desirable at the present time’. (Fr Joseph Of St Marie ocd, Pensee Catholique 1982).
Unfortunately political considerations also affect the Church’s procedures and after the unprecedented Jewish objections to the beatification of Edith Stein, it is unlikely that Hermann’s cause will be fast-tracked. This is a great pity as he is such a shining model for the modern age.
He confessed in later life that he himself turned from a life of pleasure and gambling in Paris where he was a feted celebrity, to find true happiness in Christ.
In this year of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions at the Grotto in Lourdes I have surveyed some details in the story of the humble visionary, Bernadette and the direct or indirect influence of some Carmelites on that story for about the first fifty years.
I have suggested that even Therese of Lisieux could count as one of those indirect influences. Her spirituality in regard to the Eucharist and the Little Flower theme echoes that of Hermann Cohen, the confidant of Bernadette. Members of her family went on pilgrimage to Lourdes on two occasions.
Her subsequent zeal for the spiritual welfare of Hyacinthe Loyson, sometime colleague of Hermann Cohen in the Carmelite Order in France links together the two greatest French female saints of modern times.
The story itself concerns the Church in France of the nineteenth century but it has had much wider repercussions in the church universal.
A CD of the Latin Mass composed by Hermann Cohen ocd, in honour of St Teresa of Avila, is available at Infant Jesus Church, Morley. The Choir of Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Kensington that was founded by Cohen recorded it.