Eugene de Mazenod was born into a noble family, on 1 August 1782 and baptized the following day in the Église de la Madeleine in Aix-en-Provence. His father, Charles Antoine de Mazenod, was one of the Presidents of the Court of Finances, and his mother was Marie Rose Joannis. Eugene began his schooling at the College Bourbon, but this was interrupted by the events of the French Revolution. With the approach of the French revolutionary forces, the family was forced to flee to Italy.
Eugene became a boarder at the College of Nobles in Turin (Piedmont), but a move to Venice meant the end to formal schooling. With their money running out, Eugene’s father was forced to seek various employments, none of which were successful. His mother and sister returned to France – eventually seeking a divorce so as to be able to regain their property that had been seized. Eugene was fortunate to be welcomed by the Zinelli family in Venice. One of their sons, the priest Bartolo Zinelli, took special care of Eugene and saw to his education in the well-provided family library where the young adolescent spent many hours each day. Don Bartolo was a major influence in the human, academic and spiritual development of Eugene.
Once again the French army chased the émigrés from Venice, forcing Eugene and his father and two uncles to seek refuge in Naples for less than a year, and finally to flee to Palermo in Sicily. Here Eugene was invited to become part of the household of the Duke and Duchess of Cannizaro as a companion to their two sons. Being part of the high society of Sicily became the opportunity for Eugene to rediscover his noble origins and to live a lavish style of life. He took to himself the title of ‘Comte’ (“Count”) de Mazenod, did all the courtly things, and dreamed of a bright future.
At the age of twenty, Eugene returned to France and lived with his mother in Aix en Provence. Initially he enjoyed all the pleasures of Aix as a rich young nobleman, intent on the pursuit of pleasure and money – and a rich girl who would bring a good dowry. Gradually he became aware of how empty his life was, and began to search for meaning in more regular church involvement, reading and personal study, and charitable work among prisoners. His journey came to a climax one Good Friday, when he was 25 years old. Looking at the sight of the Cross he understood: “I had looked for happiness outside of God, but outside of him I had found only affliction and disappointment.” The sight of the oblation of Jesus on the Cross, with his arms outstretched in love, led Eugene to respond in love: “What more glorious occupation than to act in everything and for everything only for God, to love him above all else, to love him all the more as one who has loved him too late.”
In 1808, he expressed his desire for dedication to Jesus the Savior by beginning his studies for the priesthood at the Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris and was ordained a priest at Amiens (Picardy), on 21 December 1811. He soon organized missionaries to go to rural parts of Provence, instructing the people whose religious training had been disrupted for many years by the French Revolution and its aftermath.
Eugene began the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1816, obtaining papal approval for them 10 years later. From rural preaching, they soon moved into running seminaries to improve the quality of the clergy. Their first foreign mission was in Canada in 1841; soon they were in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America.
Eugene followed his uncle as archbishop of Marseilles where 10 years later in May 21, 1861, he returned to God, at the age of 79, after a life crowded with achievements, many of them born in suffering. For his religious family and for his diocese, he was a founding and life-giving source: for God and for the Church, he was a faithful and generous son. He had focused his energies on Church renewal and reform while vigorously defending the Church’s right to spread the Good News.