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Joseph Louis Guérin

"The Papal Zouave Saint"

Joseph Louis Guérin

Guérin was born in 1838 in Nantes, France. In 1860, he was in seminary and about to become a sub-deacon when Papal States Gen. Lamoriciè requested the aid of Catholic men to come to the defense of the Papal States against the Italian Army. Guérin answered the call, when one of his friends asked why he was joining he said “Blood is necessary to appease the anger of God; I will give mine” when he broke the news to his parents, they wept, but enthusiastically supported his decision. His Father said “I have already lost a son; but if God asks me for another I will give him!”

On his journey to Rome Guérin read through the Imitation of Christ and frequently recited the office of Our Lady. He arrived on August 8th, 1860. And joined the unit

the Knights of St. Peter, which was headed by Hendri de Cathelineau, Grandson of the royalist leader of the Vendean counter revolution Jacques Cathelineau. Shortly after Guérin’s arrival the Knights were incorporated into the Franco-Belgium Battalion (Papal Zouaves) and formed their 4th company. All new recruits had to go through two sets of school’s the Soldiers School and the Battalion School. The first school typically takes a month but Guérin passed in only 8 days. This helped him gain the respect of his comrades and leaders.

Guérin was a model soldier, he regularly volunteered for arduous and time-consuming tasks that typically were assigned at random such as fetching water for a squad, often doing so before the command was even issued. His comrade Padioleau said of him “If we asked a man of goodwill for a chore, we always saw him first, forgetting his ease and his rest and leaving the tent if he was in bed” Guérin would endure all the annoyances of everyday life without ever complaining. Confident, he relied entirely on God and wanted to be kind to everyone. He was eager to “exercise his zeal for the salvation of souls” whenever he could. He inspired his comrades to be more faithful and zealous, encouraging his comrades who waivered he would say “Why are you afraid? If your conscience is not in peace, there is the chaplain. Our cause is the better; we fight for God, therefore we are men of eternity; what signify the few days that we will sacrifice? I have made the sacrifice of my life to the Church and Pius IX. I am not afraid to die!”


A month after his arrival in Rome on Sep. 11, 1860 the Piedmontese army crossed the northern border of the Papal States into Umbra and the Marches. The Papal army was not ready for a fight, their native army had been under par for the past few hundred years and the foreign soldiers had only just begun to train in Rome. There only hope was to protect the port city of Ancona and petition Austria to intervene via the port. The mission of the Franco-Belgium Battalion (Papal Zouaves) was to reinforce Ancona. To do so they had to go through Loreto, where the Sanctury of the Holy House is. Coming to the defense of such a Christian treasure such as the Holy House must have inspired the Zouaves, it is also the site where Bl. Pope Pius IX, the current Pontiff, had made the vow, at the age of 20 to devote himself to the service of God if the Virgin healed him of his epilepsy, which was granted.

The Pontifical Army arrived on the night of Sep. 17, 1860. Tired and hungry, they had endured a difficult week of marches through the mountains to reach Loreto. Through the Franco-Belgium Battalion were still eager to fight. Guérin “Passing in front of Lorette, he could not take his eyes off the dome which covers the Santa Casa! How many times on the battlefield, had he implored the protection of the August Queen of Heaven? He was going to fight before her eyes and against the enemies of her son and her sanctuary. All while showing admirable and inexpressible joy” Loreto was only about 20 miles from Ancona. However, the Piedmontese were stationed in Castelfidardo, a town immediately adjacent to Loreto and on the way to Ancona, they were planning on routing the Papal forces.


The next morning, Sep. 18, 1860. the Pontifical Army set out. The plan was to split up their force into 3 columns. The left column headed by Gen. Pimodan would cross the Musone river directly outside of Castelfidardo and make their way uphill uphill through two farms, the lower and upper farm, and block the Piedmontese forces.

The central column headed by Gen. Lamoricière would move a few hundred meters behind Gen. Pimodan’s column and reinforce him. The central column compromised of the baggage train and papal reinforcements would then have the route to Ancona clear and would make their getaway to reinforce the port. The Franco-Belgium Battalion (Papal Zouaves) were a part of Gen. Pimodan’s column.

The attack started early in the morning and the Pontifical troops caught the Piedmontese by surprise. After an initial charge they were able to seize the lower farm. After collecting themselves Gen. Pimodan rallied them to charge the upper farm. The Pontifical’s managed to keep the momentum and seized the upper farm but during this maneuver Guérin fell. Shortly thereafter Piedmontese reinforcements appeared over the hill and Gen. Pimodan was shot off his force and mortally wounded. They lost their momentum and were forced back down the hill to the lower farm.


The Papal forces were split up and most retreated back to Loreto. Only a small force managed to break for the road to Ancona. Upon reaching the port Gen. Lamoricière said “I no longer have an Army” According to Pvt. Oscar de Poli sometime during the 2nd bayonet charge Guérin took a ball to the lung. While Poli was on the ground after suffering a bayonet wound Guérin charged passed him saying “Poli, farewell Poli! Do not forget to say: Jesus, Mary; goodbye!" Fifty paces later, Poli saw Guérin fall.

Later on, Cpl. Perrodil found him on battlefield lifeless “There he was, lying on his back. I bent down to touch him he was cold and stiff. I then knelt to impress on his pure brow a kiss of regret and love in the name of his parents. I took his scarf, and bade him a last farewell believing him dead. He had been very brave, poor child, and had fallen a few steps from the enemy.” 

Eventually Guérin regained conscience on an ambulance headed toward a temporary infirmary set up in a Castelfidardo convent. He turned to a young Italian near him and said in Latin “Tell the Priest of my hometown that I die joyfully and calmly for the cause of religion and the Pope; let him console my parents with the hope of meeting me one day in heaven”

The Superior of the convent pointed out to him a prophetic coincidence that pleased Guérin: “Your name is Joseph, you fought yesterday, on the feast day of Saint Joseph of Copertino, you were laid down in front of an altar dedicated to him; tomorrow you will be transported to Osimo, where the same saint died; perhaps you will be placed in our church, where the body of Saint Joseph is kept”

The next day he was brought to a Piedmontese hospital in Osimo. He suffered intensely for 7 weeks. But did not complain, instead he gave words of thanksgiving and joy. He wrote to a friend “I have made to God and to the Holy Church the sacrifice of my life. Envy my happiness and console my poor mother. Long live Pius IX! Long live the Pope King!” He repeated often “How happy I am to suffer and die slowly for Jesus Christ and his Church” In his final letter to his parents, he wrote “It is Gods will (that I die); let us bless and adore it”


On Oct. 30th he felt the end was near. He received last rites and said his final words “My God, I beg of you to forgive those who have wounded me. My God accept my sufferings! Do not weep or fret my kind friends, I am going to God” He died with a smile.

Almost Immediately an intense and popular piety developed around him. Over 30 miraculous healings occurred over a decade. Bl. Pope Pius IX placed a portrait of Guérin in the antechamber of his private chapel in Castel-Gandolfo. Guérin even appeared to others in visions.

On March 4, 1863 he appeared to a completely blind 15-year-old Roman girl, Guérin appeared in uniform and asked her what she wanted to obtain from her prayers "Sight” she said. Guérin responded “That's good, keep praying to God” Two days later, he appeared to her again and said “your prayers have been answered; get up, you will see” she ran down stairs to the church outside her home and saw Zouaves in the streets. She told her uncle that they were wearing the uniform of the man who appeared to her.

Another example is with Papal Zouave Lt. Stanislas Garroni, who was wounded the same day as Guérin at Castelfidardo. A year after the battle, the young officer had fallen seriously ill. On the night of Dec. 13, 1861, the doctors of the battalion believed he would die so the chaplain administered last rites to him. He fell asleep, and shortly afterwards Guérin appeared to him in a dream telling him that in 4 days he would be cured. When he woke up, he told the story to his brother, Father Garroni, to whom he gives a precise description 

of the man who visited him in his dream and whom he had never seen. "Maybe he was in the military hospital with you?" suggests his brother. He replied “No, the blessed told me that he was currently corporal of the Angels of Paradise. The Father, who had urged his brother to invoke the intercession of the Zouave, then showed him a portrait of Guérin and Garroni identified him as the one who spoke to him in his sleep. He was healed four days later.

Even after his death, Guérin was spoken very highly of in the Papal Zouaves. He was a constant source of intercession for them and was mentioned frequently in their writings and stories. In 1867 when Julian Watts Russell (another probable Papal Zouave saint) was killed at the battle of Mentana, he was referred to as the Guérin of the 1867 campaign.

Upon an invitation from Bl. Pius IX, the Bishop of Nantes began the canonization process in 1862. Why then is Guérin not canonized? Unfortunately, it appears he became a victim of the political climate of the time. Due to the precarious situation with the Papal States, some felt it was not appropriate to potentially anger Napolean III by canonizing a Papal soldier that embodied the values of royalism and monarchism. In 1925 his caused was reconsidered but the political climate prevented the process from moving forward again.This is due to the French monarchist group, Action Française being condemned by Pope Pius XI. Who condemned it on the grounds that it was run by an agnostic and that it only supported the faith on utilitarian grounds.

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