Fr. Dominique Lagneau

29 10 2019

Continuing with my informal reflections on my time in seminary, I would like to write my  remembrances of the rector of the seminary during my time there. As the cliché goes, life comes at you fast, so fast that I didn’t realize that the former rector of La Reja, Fr. Dominique Lagneau, died over six years ago now. He wasn’t an old man by any means, it seems he had a heart attack and died suddenly. He had long been transferred back to Europe, and was running an idyllic retreat center in the Alps. Perhaps a fitting assignment as his long tenure in South America was essentially an exercise in holding back the forces of chaos. Twice at least, the seminary had been robbed at gunpoint. Being in a relatively rural area, theft from the seminary was a common occurrence (one brother said that people around there would rob your last name if they could pull it off). And then there was the minor war with a local rancher who thought it was oh-so-funny to let his cattle graze in the soybean fields that surrounded the seminary, and we seminarians were often charged with rustling them out (admittedly it was great fun). Running a seminary in a Third World country – you get the idea.

Before Fr. Lagneau arrived from Europe, the La Reja seminary was in a terrible state. The former rector decided to become a sedevacantist, and took a chunk of the seminarians with him. So Fr. Lagneau had to build the whole seminary again from the ground up. From that, he renovated the seminary, to the point of building its magnificent church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception (Mass had previously been celebrated in a low ceiling meeting hall with incredibly bad acoustics). And he built the church without debt, a point of pride because he said that his church could be consecrated before Econe’s or any other seminary church of the SSPX. I was there for the four hour ceremony (I’m guessing it was four hours) and getting everything ready for it was five days of non-stop labor. It was a good thing I was in my early twenties and felt indestructible. I think I ran a lawnmower for three days straight.

Otherwise, Fr. Lagneau acclimated himself well to life in South America. His Spanish was accented but fluent. He was passionate about soccer which helped him with the “natives”. He apparently made many connections with local prominent families which probably helped him build his church debt-free. His Mass was not exceptional and his piety was modest and muted. He walked the halls of his seminary wearing his black vest over his cassock and a black beret (no one wore birettas down there). I think he even grew to like yerba mate, though that might be a false memory.

With the seminarians, Fr. Lagneau could be firm but not abrasive, most of the time. I have to address the two times he dressed me down, whether I deserved it or not. One time it was around Holy Week and I had had a really bad case of the flu. As you know, the aftermath of such illnesses can be somewhat “musical” in terms of things that come out of your throat. I was walking the cloister and I had the urge to expectorate in a rather loud manner. After doing so, the rector (who I had not seen) took me aside and rather threatingly said, “Look, I am running a seminary here, not a zoo, don’t ever do that again!” I still feel chills of fear thinking about it.

The other time also had to do with bodily functions on the other end. On Sundays and feasts, the seminarians were “kicked out” of the seminary for the afternoon, and one either had to participate in the soccer game on the seminary field, or one could find someone to walk with (walking alone was not an option). And under no circumstances was one allowed to re-enter the seminary. Well, one feast day, I must have eaten too much for lunch, and well, nature called in a way where it would have been unbecoming to relieve myself out in the open. So I snuck back into the seminary to use a common bathroom. Well, guess who caught me. I can’t say I remember what he said to me, but the memory still isn’t pleasant. Rules are rules after all, and for the most part, I didn’t consider living under that strict regime to have been particularly oppressive. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt freer in my life.

I remember an episode during vacation when I was left behind to look after the seminary. Fr. Lagneau came in during our informal supper and stated that he hadn’t said his Mass yet. When I said that I would gladly serve his Mass, he said, no, that I should keep eating and he’d say it by himself. I was not comfortable with that, but I got the feeling that he simply didn’t want to impose. He knew when to slacken the reins when needed. You never got a sense that he loved his authority as something in itself.

As an instructor, the only lesson I remember may also be a false memory. I remember him writing on the chalk board once during a class, “pietas cum scientia,” with “cum” underlined. He stated that their goal there wasn’t to make us scholars. We just had to have enough learning to function as priests, but that “pietas”, devotion or faithfulness to God, came first. It was better to be holy than smart. You just needed enough book learning to get by and know what you were talking about, but devotion was always primary.

Before I left, it was clear to all of us that his days as rector were numbered, specifically because of Bishop Richard Williamson’s rather odd extended visit to La Reja to perform ordinations that year, along with his giving a series of extended cringe-inducing conferences. These were of course a prelude to his ill-fated infamous tenure as rector of the Argentine seminary. At least he made a friend in Fr. Faure, the pied-noir priest who taught classes in which he railed against Jews, Freemasons and Communists for fifty minutes. Bishop Williamson subsequently consecrated Fr. Faure a bishop, in spite of the fact that he is either the same age or older than Bishop Williamson.

Right before getting back on the plane to the United States, I had a face-to-face talk with Fr. Lagneau in his office (which I had never been in before, thankfully). He said that he was sorry to see me leave, and that I had been a good seminarian who had done everything right. He may have not even remembered the two episodes where he laid into me, it may have just been a blip on his radar long vanished from his memory. I guess he just wanted to let me know that I was leaving on good terms, that he saw that I was sincere and always tried my best. It was one of those cherished moments I appreciate: someone telling me that he cared about me without being affected, and that I shouldn’t feel bad that things didn’t work out how I thought they would when I arrived. That’s the Fr. Lagneau I mostly remember at the end of the day.

Since that time, I’ve made a number of dumb and rash decisions that have come back to bite me. I have to live with all of them. Sometimes I wonder if I had stayed under the tutelage of such priests as Fr. Lagneau, maybe I wouldn’t be the mess that I am. But if someone asks me if they should look into the SSPX for either a vocation or just for guidance, I think of priests like Fr. Lagneau and I can say, “Sure, why not, you could certainly do worse.” For his great kindness to me, even the more abrasive moments, I sincerely wish that he finds rest with the Lord who he so faithfully served.


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