We will attempt to sketch here a few outlines of the life of him who may be regarded as the ‘maker’ of the Gallo-Helvetic Province, of which he was the seventh Provincial for nearly a quarter of a century (1865 to 1887 and again in 1898). Born at Tourcoing, in the diocese of Lille, France, on 23rd December 1828 into a very honourable family of industrialists, the Very Rev. Father was one of the most brilliant students of the college of this city. He completed his studies with the Jesuits at Brugelette (Belgium). His Redemptorist vocation was providentially recognized by Venerable Fr Joseph Passerat. He was a man with a spirit fertile in resources, an exuberant nature, a lively and spontaneously exuberant character and very great faith.
We may say that he was destined by Providence to become the worthy successor of Ven. Fr Passerat, as he, himself, had been of St Clement Mary sent by St Alphonsus to propagate the Institute over the Alps. His eminent virtues recommended themselves to the confidence of his superiors. Professed on 19 March, 1851 at St Trond, Belgium, and ordained priest on 24 September 1853 at Metz, he was soon named prefect of his former co-students, in which capacity he perfected their studies with a remarkable skill and directed the students with a zeal which sought nothing but to be moderated.
For 11 years he was occupied with the formation of young persons and did not leave this work but to fill, for 22 years, the office of Provincial. Under his government vocations multiplied and 20 new monasteries were opened in France and Spain and as far as South America in Peru, Chili, Columbia and Ecuador.
He permeated his province with the spirit of St Alphonsus. One of his principal merits was to encourage to solid and substantial studies, but an encouragement always conformable to the teachings of St Thomas and St Alphonsus. An admirably gifted man of doctrine, he wished to shed light on the road on which he engaged his subjects and wanted solid convictions to be applied to the effort required for the sacrifices that he asked. That which he never ceased to teach and to recommend was the Rule, but the Rule well understood and the Rule in all its fullness. His acts of government were all marked with prudence and goodness. A great vigor, and firm and wise meekness, a gentle persuasion were his invariable methods of his administration. Hatred of mediocrity and above all tepidity was, for him, as a milestone of which he never lost sight and towards which he directed his efforts.
During the last years of his life Very Rev. Fr Desurmont himself published several books and quite a number of pamphlets. These found their way into all truly pious hands. It will suffice to recall the following titles: The Friend of the Sacred Heart, The Continual Return to God, The Divine Art of Mental Prayer, Venerable Fr Passerat and the Redemptorists, The Week of a Servant of Mary, The Resolute Religious, Familiar Recourse to Mental Prayer, The Catechism of Mental Prayer, etc.
The Rev. Father also began twenty other works, sometimes only outlines, and, in his own mind, destined for his religious family, often having, none the less, a value of the first order; if not always for their form at least for their content.
When, to allow him to rest from so many fatigues his Superior General granted him to resign his functions, Very Rev. Fr Desurmont undertook a large work of Pastoral Theology entitled Priestly Charity which he finished, but which death prevented him from publishing himself.
His relative repose was not to be for long. The Sovereign Pontiff, who knew him and esteemed him greatly, named him Apostolic Visitor of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the difficult years which followed the retirement of the ‘Good Father Le Pailleur’. He did not leave his post until, after four years, he had reaffixed this admirable congregation on its solid foundations. His activities extended to a host of communities of nuns, but, above all, it was in favour of priests that he exercised his apostolate. What can one say of the retreats he preached to so many and with such success? The Very Rev. Fr Tissot, Superior General of the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales said: “ Fr Desurmont is our master in all during the pastoral retreats; nobody has known how to make Christian Ascetiscm more popular. He is the greatest ascetic of his age”. Cardinal Guibert, Archbishop of Paris, affirmed to Fr Desurmont himself that he had received from God a special vocation to do good to priests and that he would neglect his duty if he did not give himself entirely to this work. One beheld cardinals and bishops coming together for several days to make the holy exercises of a retreat under the direction of Fr Desurmont. We may say that he had won the esteem and even the veneration of all these prelates who appreciated his rare talents.
Under the orders of the Most Rev. Fr Mauron, Fr Desurmont was named Consultor General, but he was soon renamed Provincial. He wanted then to undertake with a new ardour a whole campaign for regular observance in each of the French monasteries. It was as his spiritual testament to the children he had formed. By he relied too much on his strength. After some months he succumbed and came to die at the house of studies at Thury-en-Valois, surrounded by the affection and veneration of all. Before falling into a coma, he blessed Province for a last time and said: “I am a Redemptorist to the end.” It was the 23rd July, a Saturday within the octave of the Most Holy Redeemer, and the vigil of the Novena of St Alphonsus. He left to all who knew him a gentle persuasion that the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer numbered, in his person, another Blessed in Heaven. The Very Rev. Fr Godard, his successor, published the spiritual testament of Fr Desurmont on the 1st August 1898 under the title; Some reflections on the spirit of perfection and the spirit of imperfection in regular observance. His life was written by Fr Alphonse George. Rev Fr Pierre Riblier published, in 1905, the complete works of Very Rev. Fr Desurmont with the collaboration of several confreres. “Conserva fili mi, praecepta patris tui, et ne demittas legem matris tuae.” [Prov. VI, 2]