Jacques Fesch was born in April 1930. A proposal for his beatification was submitted in 1993, and has yet to be resolved. His story is a unique one. Born to unloving and authoritarian parents, he was a poor student who gave little attention to his Catholic education.
By the age of 24, he had already fathered an illegitimate son, married and subsequently abandoned his wife, and quit two jobs.
At that point, he hatched a plan to buy a boat and sail to Polynesia. But because his father refused to lend him the money, he decided to steal it. But this is where things went wrong. Fesch became a double murder, shooting a currency dealer and a police officer.
That crime became a national scandal, with the funeral of the police officer being broadcast all over the country. Three years later, he was condemned to death and executed by a guillotine. But during those three years, Jacques changed his life, spending it in solitary confinement and going through a spiritual revolution.
Born in a bourgeois home in St. Germain-en-Laye on April 6, 1930, Fesch was a young dreamer. His father was a cheerful bank manager. But he was autocratic, with little interest in his son. His mother, on the other hand, was a weak woman who placated her husband at the expense of her children.
That was a recipe for unhappiness, and it influenced everyone involved. Fesch’s parents separated, and he often called his family life utter wretchedness.
While he was brought up a Roman Catholic, Jacques left the religion by the age of 17. He finished with school by 18, and his father found him a job at the bank. He worked there without enthusiasm. And at 21, he married his pregnant girlfriend in a civil ceremony. The young man gave up his position at his father’s bank and lived the life of a playboy.
He left his wife and daughter, and then fathered an illegitimate son with another woman. He was disillusioned with his life and dreamed of escaping it and sailing around the South Pacific Ocean.
As we said before, his parents, namely his father, refused to give him money to buy a boat and sail to Polynesia. So, in February 1954, he committed a crime trying to steal the money.
He entered the premises of a Jewish moneychanger and bludgeoned the merchant with a revolver. But the gun discharged and injured the attacker. The older man was left lying stunned and bloodied as Fesch fled carrying a large sum of money.
People began to notice the figure of a well-dressed young man running through the busy streets soon. That was when the nearby police officer, George Vergnes, was alerted and set off in pursuit. Fesch hid in a nearby apartment block and waited.
When things calmed, he tried to walk nonchalantly through the crowd and make his way onto the main thoroughfare. Suddenly, a person recognized him and yelled “there he is”. The policeman ordered Jacques to stop, but the young man fired and killed George.
Confused, he ran away, and shot a few more people along the way. He was finally arrested and bundled into a police wan.
For his crimes, in April 1957, Jacques Fesch was sentenced to death. He spent three years in prison waiting for his punishment.
It was then that he experienced a religious conversion and awakening. In the beginning, he was indifferent to his plight and mocked his lawyer’s Catholic faith. He nicknamed his lawyer, the panther of God.
But after one year in prison, Fesch experienced a profound religious conversion. He became very pious and regretted his crime.
At this point, he became communicating with his family more, notably his brother and stepmother. Jacques also kept a spiritual journal and accepted his punishment serenely.
His last entry in the journal was, “In five hours, I will see Jesus”.
Following his death, his wife and daughter honored his memory as an example of redemption. He was first excoriated by the public. Since the 1970s, his writings serve as inspiration to many. They have also been quoted in Catholic publications.
The Prison Letters
Jacques Fesch was a murderer who spent three years and eight months in solitary confinement. It was there he found religion and God, and wrote about it in his journal.
The collected prison letters were published in a book called Light Upon the Scaffold: The Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch.
Some of those letters were quite inspirational. For example, he wrote about the distinction between morality and the law, “I did evil and I know it, but I also know how and why I acted as I did. I am perfectly aware that I was not free. My real guilt is not in this area, and it is not the actions for which I am now in prison that are the most serious ones. The people before whom I feel guilty are not the civil authorities, but others; and if the day ever comes when true judgment is passed upon it, it is these others who will weigh in the balance against me: Pierrette and Veronica [Fesch’s daughter]. It is for them that I must give an account”.
In prison, he developed into a mystic and learned the true meaning of prayer. He wrote, “Do not ask God to save such and such a person, or to help this one or that, but ask him that you may love him, and that his will may be done. You must talk with him familiarly, and explain to him that you want to love him well, but that you can’t do it, that many things seem obscure and illogical to you, and that you would like to understand them a little better … and do not hesitate, all day long, to invoke heaven.”
Just two months before his execution, he wrote a letter to his mother in law. In it, he wrote, “Here is where the cross and its mystery of suffering make their appearance. The whole of life has this piece of wood as its center. …We can have no genuine hope of peace and salvation apart from Christ crucified! Happy the man who understands this”.
His story is an inspirational one. Fesch reminds people that every state-sanctioned murder is a human being with hopes, fears, longings and, however deeply buried, the fundamental idea of God. His story is a proof that every soul is redeemable.