Matthieu de Gruchy

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Matthieu de Gruchy, (1761-1797), Privateer and Roman Catholic Priest, shot as a spy, who founded afresh in Jersey the Roman Catholic religion. The second son of Philippe de Gruchy of Maufant, St Saviour, whose farm is now called La Maison du Buisson, he was born on 31 August 1761. When he was six his father died, and his mother had a hard struggle to run the farm and support her six children.

Early years

Matthieu was brought up in the Church of England. Two uncles, merchants in St Helier, seeing that he was studious, offered to pay for his education, and in time to send him to Oxford, hoping that one day he would become a Jersey Rector.

But the boy's heart was set on the sea. In 1776 a cousin took him on board his ship, which was engaged in smuggling, and the lad became an expert in dodging excisemen and running contraband. In 1778 war broke out with France, and he joined the Jersey privateer, General Conway.

On their first trip they captured a large French ship and brought her to Jersey. Setting out again, they captured the Pucelle d’Orleans, and de Gruchy was one of the prize crew put on board to take her to St Helier. But they were recaptured by a French squadron, taken prisoners to Brest, and interned in the Castle of Angers.

Here de Gruchy was made hospital orderly, and, as he knew French and English, interpreter between the sick prisoners and the French nurses. These were Sisters of the Order of St Vincent de Paul, and they set their heart on converting the young sailor. Eventually they succeeded, and in 1780 he was received into the Roman Church.

Ordination

This made him so unpopular with his fellow prisoners that the Governor transferred him to another prison at Saumur. Here he helped himself to a blank passport from the Governor's office, forged the Governor's signature, and escaped. He found work on a remote farm, first as vinedresser, then as shepherd. In 1783 peace was proclaimed and an amnesty offered to escaped prisoners.

De Gruchy gave himself up, and obtained his formal discharge. He then became apprentice to a cabinetmaker in Tremontine, desiring to follow in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, who had himself worked as a carpenter. While making a pulpit, he became friendly with the Curé, who interested a rich lady in him, who arranged for his training for the priesthood. In 1787 he was ordained sub-deacon, and in 1788 priest, in the Diocese of Luçon in La Vendée, where he was Vicar of Beauvoir-sur-Mer.

Then came the Revolution. In 1701 all priests who refused to take an oath accepting the new Constitution were deprived of their parishes, and de Gruchy was one of them. For a time he wandered from chateau to château where hospitality was shown to ejected priests. In one he showed his zeal for orthodoxy by looking through the library and burning 360 books that seemed to him tainted with Jansenism.

In 1792 all nonjuring priests were expelled from France, and he returned to Jersey. He found the island full of French Royalist refugees, including three bishops and 1,800 priests. For the latter the Royal Court had made the stipulation that, if they received hospitality, they must not attempt to proselytize.

This condition most of them loyally observed: but de Gruchy did not consider himself bound by it. He was no foreigner, staying in the island on sufferance, but a Jerseyman and a landed proprietor, for his elder brother had died, and the farm was now his. His ambition was to convert first his own family, and then his fellow-countrymen. He took care to secure for this task full ecclesiastical authority. In the Library of the Société Jersiaise is his commission, signed and sealed by the Bishop of Treguier, as Vicar General in Jersey for the Bishop of Coutances, giving him authority abjurationes haereticorum et schismaticorum in hac insula recipiendi (to receive the recantations of heretics and schismatics in this island).

Private chapel

Though he fitted out a room on his farm as a private chapel, he took care never to hold a public service, or do anything to provoke opposition. He trusted entirely to private conversation. He dressed as a farmer, and lived as a farmer, working in his fields, and making friends with his neighbours and numerous cousins.

At the end of two years he had made 18 converts. In the Société's Library are two letters that he wrote to a young Jerseyman, whom he had sent to be trained as a priest in the English College at Rome. But the conversion of Marie and Elizabeth Grandin, daughters of a St Martin farmer, brought his work to an end.

Their father was furious and asked why de Gruchy, like other farmers, had not been called up for the Militia. He was summoned to St Saviour's Arsenal for drill, and declined to serve on the ground that the Roman Church at that time forbad its priests to bear arms. He was then arrested as a deserter. The Royal Court refused to grant him exemption, and in 1794 he left the island to lay his case before General Conway, the Governor, and the Privy Council. During his stay in London he wrote and printed a doctrinal Catechism in French and English for distribution in Jersey.

At last he obtained from the Governor dispensation from military service, and returned home. But the conversion of two more young women, Elizabeth and Suzanne Pinel, roused a new storm. Their father appealed to the Court for protection against emigre priests who were sowing discord in families, and the Court ordered the arrest of the Bishop of Tregnier as the person responsible for the behaviour of his clergy.

The refugees were now alarmed, lest de Gruchy's zeal should cause them all to be expelled, and they hurried him away to England. Here he became Chaplain at Southampton to the Irish soldiers in hospital.

Quiberon expedition

Meanwhile preparations were being made for the ill-fated Quiberon expedition. The refugees in England and Jersey were being formed into regiments, which, stiffened by English troops, were to be landed in Brittany, where the Chouans still kept the Royalist cause alive. Simultaneously another rising was to take place in La Vendee.

De Gruchy was still a priest of a Vendeen diocese; so the Vicar General of Lucon ordered him to return there secretly, though detection meant certain death, to carry dispatches to Charette, the Vendeen leader, who after the suppression of a previous revolt, still held out in the marshes.

He embarked on the frigate Indefatigable, which tried to drop him on the coast; but the French fleet drove her away, and she was wrecked off Portugal, and de Gruchy found himself stranded at Lisbon. He eventually got back to England in another frigate in time to sail with the Quiberon expedition itself. On landing in the Bay of Quiberon he did not stay to share the fate of the main army, but with five companions made his way down the coast in a fishing boat to La Vendee.

After many adventures, for the Republican guards were wide awake, they reached Charette's camp, and delivered their dispatches. When this was done, the political side of de Gruchy's work ended.

Priests were scarce in La Vendee after the great purge; and in the midst of a fervently Catholic population his time was fully occupied with his legitimate work. Meanwhile Hoche, the ablest of the Republican generals, had defeated and destroyed the Royalist army at Quiberon, and then turned south to pacify La Vendee.

Charette was hunted down and killed and de Gruchy became an outlaw hiding in woods and standing corn. He tried to work his way north to the Channel ports, hoping to get to Jersey, but at Nantes he was arrested. On 28 November 1797 he was led to execution.

Twice the firing squad deliberately missed him. Then an officer stepped forward and blew out his brains. He was only 36.

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