A short biography of Saint Pierre Favre S.J.

This was written by one of our fellow correspondents from France going by the  pen name of D74. His intent was to gift this to Colonel Lang. He finished the piece with difficulty after learning of the Colonel’s passing. Rest assured, D74, that Colonel Lang would have appreciated and enjoyed your gift as much as I have. Thank you.

Given in memory of Colonel Pat Lang

I would like to tell you about Pierre (Peter) Favre.

He was born in 1506 in the Villaret, a hamlet of Saint-Jean-de-Sixt. It is a small village in the Alps of the current Haute-Savoie, at the top of the valley of Thônes, 15 miles north of Annecy.  Like most of the population, his family lived by working the land and raising livestock. He therefore spent his childhood as a shepherd on the grassy slopes of the valley or in summer on the mountain pastures. These activities are conducive to reflection and serenity. He attended the parish school in Thônes, the main town. His schooling was sporadic, as sometimes farm work required the arms of the whole family.  Nevertheless, this was enough for the schoolmaster to recognize the boy’s potential.

Each valley had its own patois but Franco-Provençal (Francoprovençal since 1969 or “Arpitan”)  was the basis of these patois and the lingua franca. Everyone understood each other. Besides Franco-Provençal, Latin was the language of the Church and of the scholars. Peter probably acquired the basics of Latin at the school of Thônes.

His family was well off enough to send him to study at a high school in La Roche-sur-Foron, 16 miles away and 1400 feet below. Pursuing a university level meant going to Paris. He went there, urged on strongly by the rector of that school. From that time on, his successive teachers considered him intellectually gifted.

If you look at northern French Alps map, you will be surprised by the small size of the flattened area. The towns and villages were tiny, Annecy mattered about 3000 inhabitants, La Roche-sur-Foron 600, Thônes 300. Geneva was gigantic with 8000 citizens. These figures are of course approximate and variable, as diseases could hit hard. The region belonged to the sovereign duchy of Savoy, capital Chambéry. Charles II, Duke of Savoy and Prince of Piedmont, ruled. France was far away. The Republic of Geneva, on the other hand, was very close, but all looked to Paris as  source of knowledge.

In 1525, the new Parisian student chose Sainte-Barbe collège, where some Spaniards and Portuguese students gathered. Like all his fellow students, he was a boarder. He shared his room with Francisco de Xaver, a Spanish nobleman from Navarre, the future Saint Francis Xavier. In September 1529, a key event in Peter Favre’s destiny took place: the entry of the Basque Ignatius of Loyola into the college. He will stay in the same room as Peter and Francisco.  One can easily picture the birth of a strong friendship between these elite characters. Peter followed the normal university curriculum of that time: he received his bachelor’s degree in January 1530 and his licentiate in March same year. In 1534, after a stay with his family, he devoted himself to the Spiritual Exercises taught by Ignatius of Loyola. Then he climbed all the steps that would lead him to the priesthood. He thus became the first priest of the future Society of Jesus. 

In 1536, the three friends and six other companions decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The first objective was to reach Venice, which is the starting point of the maritime part of the pilgrimage. They left Paris on November 15, 1536.  Because of wars and generalized insecurity, they were forced to take a circuitous route, passing through Meaux, Nancy, Strasbourg, Basel, Constance, Bolzano, Trent, Bassano and finally Venice where they arrived on January 8, 1537. That is 54 days on foot with the rigors of the climate and roads cut by snow and floods. Brenner pass, 4400 feet high, before Bolzano is a formidable test in winter.  Alas, the pilgrimage could not be carried out. A war between Venice and Soliman the Ottoman blocked the eastern Mediterranean. For a few weeks, the group was to assist the poor and preach in the area between Venice and Florence. Then they went to Rome to ask the Pope for his blessing. On this occasion, they swore personal obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff. The Society of Jesus was virtually born and its charter approved by the Pope in 1540. Pierre and Ignatius had worked on the text of this charter for several months.

As a disciplined soldier and trusted agent of the Pope, Peter carried out numerous diplomatic and theological missions in Portugal, Spain, Germany and the Spanish Netherlands. All these journeys were mainly on foot. A mule was sometimes put at his disposal, but he willingly left it to the small staff who were not entitled to a means of transport. The official head of the mission, a Vatican cardinal, usually travelled by carriage.

Peter died of illness in Rome in 1546. His body was buried under the altar of the Cappella della Madonna della Strada. “Our Lady of the Road” is an eloquent symbol for an enthusiastic walker. Later, his grave was moved when the church was demolished. And finally, his coffin was washed away by a flood and lost, turning Peter into an eternal pilgrim for the love of God.

His contemporaries describe him as an athletic and tireless Alpine, with a certain charisma and a universal spirit. Add he never lacked compassion for others. His full-length statue can be seen in the gardens of the Archbishop’s Palace in Annecy. These gardens are open to the public.

He wrote his memoirs, rather an account of his activities and a profession of faith, in Spanish and Latin.  He was beatified in 1871. After almost 500 years of canonization proceedings, Pope Francis canonized him in 2013, but the people of the Northern Alps had recognized his sanctity long before then. Peter is credited with three miraculous cures.

Finding theological and probably political common ground with the Lutherans was the main reason for Peter’s missions to Germany and Spanish Netherlands. In the 1540s, the Lutheran and Calvinist sects were assured of survival as reformed religions. Luther and his followers “converted” a significant part of Germany by a clever tactic called “cujus regio ejus religio”. Germany was divided into about 320 principalities of various sizes  and different status, “media” or “unmedia”. If the reigning prince or bishop was converted, the population had to convert or emigrate. Karl V, Holy Roman Emperor, had to deal with this political force. Calvin, on the other hand, set out to turn Geneva into a proselytising but also radical and intolerant religious dictatorship. A late but significant example: in 1553, the Spanish humanist and theologian, Dr. Michel Servet, was burned alive in Geneva by order of the Republic’s Council, after an ignominious imprisonment. His bronze statue of an old man lying in chains stands in the central square of Annemasse, a stone’s throw from Geneva. A monument against fanaticism… After the Council of Trent (1563), Annemasse was indeed the leading edge of the Catholic reconquest facing Calvinist Geneva. In fact, this monument is a modern reproduction because the first bronze was seized in 1943 by the German occupiers. They had run out of copper metals. Now the two cities cooperate in an expanding conurbation. The state border between them has become as thin as necessary.

Peter ends his memoirs by recalling all the personalities who helped him to become a believer and a theologian. The list is long. It includes his patrons and examples in life: saints (men and women), school and university teachers, his parents and family, and many others. Among these he names schismatic “reformers” of Catholicism with whom he had dialogue and dispute (“disputatio” or verbal jousting) such as Martin Buccer and Melanchton. This is a fine example of tolerance and ecumenism Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

I would have liked to develop an important fact: early on, the Jesuits renewed pedagogy and modernized education in France. Their schools were famous.

An additional regret that would require a study beyond my competence. Here it is: indeed the founding core of the Society was of French and Latin culture. But, quickly the Society became international. It has established itself all around the known world without any exclusivity regarding its members. I like to believe Peter’s creative dynamism was not unrelated to this growth. For he was also a builder.


As for Peter Favre’s life, many thanks to Monique Fillon’s work in Proceedings of the 43rd Congress of  Savoy Learned Societies. I plundered her work shamelessly. In 2010, she was President of Thônes valley Friends. She is also a member of three academies, the Savoy Academy, the Florimontane Academy and the Salesian Academy (name given in memory of Saint Francis de Sales). In 1960, Abbé Michel de Certeau (Michel Jean Emmanuel de La Barge de Certeau, 1925-1986), s.j., translated into French Peter’s memoirs, “Memorial of Blessed Peter Favre”, augmented with notes. I haven’t read this book. A few ramblings are my own. 

I would like to add that living less than an hour’s drive from Thônes, I know its valley quite well. It is enchanting, but not in summer. An uninterrupted line of cars on a narrow mountain road is of little interest. Not in winter either: snow and ice sometimes, but mostly mad skiers, so the same line of cars but slower. Spring and autumn are more pleasant. Beware of tourist traps in the villages crossed. For those who love walking, the region is criss-crossed with long-distance paths, marked on rocks and trees, and noted on the 1/25000 maps of the region published by IGN. (IGN: Institute of cartographic design in France)


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10 Responses to A short biography of Saint Pierre Favre S.J.

  1. English Outsider says:

    A fascinating piece – and a welcome break from the turbulent politics of today. Though I suppose today’s ideological/political conflicts echo the mix of politics and theology that was seething away then.

    I wonder how those nine managed for food and bed in that epic pilgrimage. Must have taken a heap of gold with them. Especially if they were able to dispense charity at the end of it.

    • Billy Roche says:

      Yes I wondered about the gold too. BTW, your comments provide an interesting alternative to those commenting about Tucker Carlson running for President. Those are becoming a bit too personal for me. I had no idea about the origins of the Jesuits. I still, however, think Jesus would have said …”my father does not need soldiers”. Sometimes in Canada, Jesuits took up arms against the Iroquis or the English. There are several stories of Jesuits being tortured and burned alive by Indians in the North East. But I cannot doubt their devotion to faith. Today, they involve themselves w/socialist politics in L.A. My opinion on Jesuit revolutionary theology is if they want to get into the secular kitchen then accept the secular heat.

  2. TTG says:


    Yes, I also thought this piece by D74 was a welcome break. But your noting that ideological/political conflicts continue to seethe across time and place is apt. The carefully cultivated hatred for others existed then as it does now.

    How did those pilgrims find sustenance and shelter? I haven’t read anything definitive, but I think they relied on the kindness of local Christians, the many churches and monasteries along the way and, yes, the kindness of strangers. In many societies based on a strong identification with the local community, the feeding and housing of traveling strangers was a normal thing. This expected norm of behavior has fallen by the wayside in many modern societies.

    • Billy Roche says:

      Ironic, much of civilized behavior, even simple kindness, has fallen away from our “so, so, civilized” world. My gripe w/t Jesuits is about their understanding of “soldiers of god”. I thought it meant a spiritual and intellectual fight for men’s souls. I have a bro-in-law Jesuit priest (now retired) who spent much of his time in L.A. He has said his ministry involved condemning colonialism, capitalism, authority, and promoting socialism. Ok, but if you plunge into Caesar’s business, expect to hear from Caesar. Is that what Loyola had in mind?
      This is a communication that would profit from Pat Lang’s point of view….

      • TTG says:

        Billy Roche,

        Saint Ignatius of Loyola, born Íñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, was an accomplished soldier long before he founded the Jesuits. He saw much combat and was wounded. His serious wounds ended his military career. Perhaps that’s where the “soldiers of God” connotation originated. In my own case, I heard a calling to be a Maryknoll missionary priest for years before I became an Infantryman and Special forces officer. There’s surely an overlap in what it takes to desire Catholic missionary and Special Forces work. I wrote about the Jesuits a while back in my “Confessions of a latent SJW” post. You may want to review that.


        • LeaNder says:

          Perhaps that’s where the “soldiers of God” connotation originated.

          The Jesuits became the most important force in the Counter-Reformation, if not its spearhead in Europe. The structure of the order no doubt had to do with Loyola’s background in the military, but the ‘soldiers of god’ connotation is very, very much related to their fight against the Reformation, it feels. Directly serving the Pope, who in turn …?

          Mind you, Luther did not intend to create a new Church or Religion, he only wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

          … Many decades ago, I was quite interested in the rumors around the Jesuits. Their real links to power and/or their suspected conspiracies, or real secret missions, like that of Father Edmund Champion in England. Especially British and French history I found quite interesting in this context. The gunpowder plotters had been partly close to Champion. Weren’t Jesuits suspected more generally to be behind the plot? I forget.



  3. d74 says:

    @ EO
    No gold, that’s for sure.

    After Venice and before Rome, for a few months they lived on alms and slept for some time in the ruins of a monastery.
    As TTG puts it so well, the phenomenon of the pilgrimage was well known. Either pilgrims had a vow or they had been sentenced to a pilgrimage by a religious court. The population had sympathy for them, as long as they showed a sincere commitment and as long as they were not too numerous! Offering room and board was an advance on the graces of God. The same goes for participating in the construction of a church or cathedral. In addition, religious orders maintained houses for travelers and pilgrims on the highways and Alpine passes. Some of them were really big. This is the case at the Petit and Grand Saint Bernard passes.

    For the Paris-Venice trip, I don’t have many details. I would rather wonder about their warm equipment. It had to be succinct, because of the vow of poverty. Later, Peter was known to use a light luggage, (cloth bag with one shoulder strap). People of that time was tough to the pain and the cold. For example, reread Vladimir Arseniev’s Dersou Ouzala (1902-1906) for a climate that must not have been too different from the Alps. Some natives slept in the snow at temperatures well below 0°C, with a simple coat.

    Other difficulties could arise. For example, they were mistaken for spies and imprisoned for some time before their sincerity was proven. This reminds us of the feudal complexity in Europe.

    TTG: very nice head illustration. Thank you.

    • English Outsider says:

      Sentencing to a pilgrimage I had not heard of. But I looked it up and there are still vestiges of the practice:- “The tradition of releasing one prisoner a year in Flanders still persists today if, in exchange for his sentence, he chooses to walk the Camino de Santiago with a backpack loaded with many kilos on his back.”



      A prison guard accompanies the released man. Must be pretty fit if it’s the same guard each time.

      A German friend walks the same pilgrimage. Jacobsweg. An experience. Well organised – never a fear that you won’t find a bed for the night and there are doctors along the route to treat injuries and blisters from the unaccustomed exercise.

      Some do it for therapy, some to get away from it all, some for more devout reasons. But she says none she meets, whatever their reasons, come away entirely unchanged.

  4. Leith says:

    Thanks D74 for such a wonderful account. Just reading it gave me an itch to to get footloose and re-trek his paths.

    He died young. Plague?

    • d74 says:

      The text says “illness”.
      The period was certainly not suitable for the good health of common people.

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