Father Turgis: Preacher By Deeds, Not Words
“God give me strength for I am not a good preacher.”
Born in Marigny, France on April 12, 1813, Isidore Francois Turgis loved the classics and the Church. He was ordained on May 31, 1846. During the Crimean War he attempted to served as a chaplain, but was rejected for physical reasons. However, while his flesh was frail, Father Turgis had a spirit of pure steel and his persistence was rewarded in 1857 with an appointment to the Corps of Chaplains. During the Second Italian War of Independence he served with the French army at the battles of Montebello, Palestro, Magenta, Crossing of the Tessin, Marignan, and Solferino. He also served with the French army in Cochin China (Vietnam).
Some priests seem to be destined to lead adventurous lives. After returning to France, he decided that he was called to be a priest in New Orleans. Arriving there he was assigned to serve at the Saint Louis Cathedral. He quickly became popular with the creole population and was asked to serve as chaplain of the Orleans Guards. He hoped that he would not have to preach often as a chaplain in the Confederate Army: “God give me strength for I am not a good preacher.”
Letters from troops in his regiment, which later became the 30th Louisiana Infantry, attest to the courage, kindness and faith of Father Turgis. At Shiloh he was one of the few Catholic priests who was present at an engagement, and this fact still stuns even after 152 years, where more Americans were battle casualties, 23,000, than in all of America’s prior wars combined. His courage stood out during two days when courage was not in short supply on either side.
Lieutenant Colonel S.F. Ferguson, an aide de camp to General Beauregard, was placed in command of a brigade during the battle of Shiloh. One of the regiments was the Orleans Guard in which Father Turgis was chaplain. In his report to General Beauregard he stated “and of Father I. Turgis, who, in the performance of his holy offices, freely exposed himself to the balls of the enemy”, in commending the priest’s courage.
Here is a summary of a letter written after Shiloh that Father Turgis wrote to the formidable Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin, second Archbishop of New Orleans, in which he modestly told him not to believe what the newspapers were saying about his valor at Shiloh:
Turgis begs pardon for not having given (Odin) any sign of life since the terrible days of (April) 6 and 7. He has been trying ever since, as much as his energy permits, to make himself useful visiting the 18th, 24th, 17th, 13th and 4th regiments at Corinth, in all 296 sick, of whom 207 have confessed and 121 have received Communion. He begs (Odin) to believe nothing which newspapers say in his regard, the Orléans Guards are so favorable to him that they exaggerate everything, regarding as self-sacrifice that which is only the accomplishment of a duty. About the Battle (of Shiloh): There were about 18 to 20 thousand Catholics, all speaking or understanding French, and he was the only priest. He gave absolution for 18 hours without stopping, but he cannot prevent himself from weeping continually in thinking about those thousands of Catholics who asked for him and whom it was impossible to see. The pastor of the cathedral had told him there would be 6 or 7 priests and that he would be unneeded, but without him the elite of their Creole population would have been exposed to being lost for eternity. If (Odin) could visit some of the wounded in (New Orleans), such as Major or young Labar(?), etc., he believes it would result in great good and also greatly relieve their suffering. On the field of battle a colonel made him promise to spend eight days amid his brigade of 2,000 men, camped 40 miles away. All are Catholic. Captain Stayaise (?) of the 4th of Orléans Guards took the name of this place; he went to New Orleans without leaving this address for Turgis. He asks (Odin) to get it for him.
Father Turgis served with the 30th Lousiana, as the Orleans Guard was now called, until the end of the Civil War, participating in the campaigns along the Mississippi and in the Atlanta campaign. He became famous throughout the Pelican State as the soldier priest, his fearlessness becoming a byword. When he wasn’t tending to his soldier flock, he was ministering to the Catholic civilian populations wherever he was stationed, his frequent reports to Archbishop Odin allowing a fairly detailed reconstruction of his war time activities.
After the War, he returned to New Orleans, his always frail health shattered by his wartime exertions and deprivations. He was placed in charge of the Mortuary Chapel, a church built for funeral masses after the yellow fever epidemic of 1826, with a special mission from Archbishop Odin to see to the spiritual needs of returning Confederate soldier. He led the efforts in New Orleans for aid to Confederate orphans and widows, many of whom were now living in poverty. The troops he served with visited him constantly, both Catholics and Protestants. Father Celestin Chambron, a priest in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century wrote the following in regard to the last years of Father Turgis:
The walls of the little church and presbytery could unfold the most beautiful tale of brotherly love, could they speak, for the small pension allowed Father Turgis was all distributed in alms, to the old and helpless Confederates who use to style him their Guardian Angel.
About the quaint old confessional were grouped every Saturday night the old soldiers whom he had followed so faithfully during the bloody war. Around the Communion table they would gather, and the few survivors who are still among us love to relate how evening after evening found no less than fifteen or twenty of the old soldiers gathered in his room at the presbytery just back of the chapel. They represented every creed; they loved him and delighted to recount with him the days that so bitterly tried their hearts and souls.
One of Pere Turgis most cherished aims was the establishment of an asylum for the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers. The fruit of his efforts was the founding of the Marigny (also called Beauregard Asylum) and his start of a society of the Children of Mary. (After his death, Pere Turgis asylum for the Orphans of Confederate soldiers was taken over by the Sisters of Mt. Carmel).
Pere Turgis was always frail and even before he returned to New Orleans, he suffered with a stomach ailment which grew worse with each succeeding year. In early 1868 he made his will and selected a spot in the St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 in which he wanted to be buried. Toward the last, long suffering had ravaged his features, but he could still manage an ineffable smile. The end came on the morning of March 3, 1868, when he died just a month short of his fifty-fifth birthday in the little room back of the chapel.