By TARA CONNOLLY Staff writer
The son of a late deacon who served the Allentown Diocese, recounted the life of a Catholic woman who faced faith challenges from her atheist husband, during a lecture in honor of his parents at DeSales University, Center Valley.
Father Thomas Kevin Kraft, friar of the Province of St. Joseph USA and assigned to St. Dominic House, Nairobi, Kenya, was the main speaker at the R. Wayne and Joan Kraft Memorial Lecture.
Father Kraft presented “Analysis of a Salesian Conversion,” in memory of his father, who was an engineer and adjunct faculty at the university, and his mother, who raised four children and was active in the church and civic activities for more than 45 years.
His presentation focused on Elisabeth and Felix Leseur, a happily married French couple at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The night before their marriage, Elisabeth discovered that her future husband was an atheist. Deeply in love with Felix, she agreed to marry him after he promised not to become an obstacle to her faith.
“Elisabeth’s life emulated the teachings of St. Francis de Sales. His teachings were characterized by a whole-hearted trust in God, and his gentleness and humility which inspired me to trace this French couple,” said Father Kraft.
After seven years of marriage, Elisabeth stopped going to church, suspended use of the sacraments and had no relationships with Catholic people.
“Her husband worked on her for a long time. She started to give in,” said Father Kraft.
In addition, he gifted her with Ernest Renan’s book “History of the Origins of Christianity,” with the hope of ushering her to his beliefs.
“But precisely the opposite occurred. It was a reverse process in which Felix very slowly converted Elisabeth to sound faith and an intense relationship with God,” said Father Kraft.
“She began to free herself from his jaundice thinking and later drew him toward the God that he did not believe in,” he said.
Before his return to the faith, Felix continued to tear down the Catholic faith while Elisabeth secretly explored her faith through reading Scriptures and other books.
“Even in the midst of acrimonious differences, Elisabeth and Felix loved each other deeply. He worried that she was tangled in religious nonsense and wanted to release her,” said Father Kraft.
“Reading triggered a deep reaction in Elisabeth. She realized his arguments were inconsistent and didn’t hold water. Elisabeth returned to the practice of her faith and was determined to ground her beliefs in Scriptures and doctrine,” he said.
Living in a time when philosophical education was unavailable to women, Elisabeth designed her own curriculum, found her own mentors and faced solitude on her journey to deepen her faith.
She went on to establish her own personal Catholic library – including the complete works of St. Francis de Sales – to defend and share her faith.
“Felix became frustrated that she had become more grounded in her beliefs and more fervent in Christian life,” said Father Kraft.
All along, Elisabeth longed to spend time in prayer with Felix and to uplift him.
To avoid adversity, Elisabeth deepened her faith in solitude when her husband was at work or travelling and found a friend in St. Francis de Sales through his writings.
“Rather than change her husband, she focused on making herself more Christian. She sought to prepare the ground for God’s action and rejoiced at tiny signs of openness to the spirit and chinks in his armor of atheist reason,” said Father Kraft.
“She probably could have rebutted any argument from Felix. She understood that winning battles could still lose a war. She was careful not to interfere with the quiet grace going on his life,” he said.
Instead, Elisabeth assumed the discipline of silence and undertook a quiet apostolate with love for her husband in the spirit of St. Francis de Sales.
“She wanted to be a Good Samaritan to those in a state of spiritual prostration. She wanted others to see God in her without mentioning his name. She was a silent witness to God, love and truth,” said Father Kraft.
“Elisabeth suffered in various ways and heard her faith mocked and criticized. She considered it mission work to pray and suffer for Felix’s conversion,” he added.
After many years, she came to the realization that Felix would see and accept the faith through the sacrifice of life.
In 1911 she had a malignant tumor surgically removed and experienced liver trouble, leading her to bed rest. Nevertheless, she continued to write letters on the interior life, and to give counsel to different sorts of people who sought her out – but always discreetly, so as not to call the attention of Felix.
Elisabeth died May 3, 1914 in the arms of her husband. The year after her death Felix was given her spiritual journal that he had no knowledge of.
“He was amazed by her intense interior life,” said Father Kraft.
“After poring over his wife’s spiritual writings, which she began in 1899, he found himself in the throes of a conversion. A year after her death, he was moved to return to the Catholic faith in which he had been raised.
Felix went on to have her spiritual journal published in 1917 and by 1930 sold more than 100,000 copies. In fall 1919 he was admitted to the Dominican Order, and was ordained a priest in 1923 at age 62.
“He had been married for 25 years and spent much of his 27 years of priestly ministry traveling all over Europe, speaking to audiences eager to learn more about Elisabeth’s apostolate of prayer and sufferings offered to God for the benefit of one’s loved ones,” said Father Kraft.
Felix helped opened the cause of beatification of Elisabeth in 1934. This process occupied him until his health began to fail in 1942. Father Felix Leseur died in February 1950. The Church process of discernment on that petition, halted by Felix’s poor health and the disruption of World War II, was reopened in Rome in 1990.
The Kraft Lecture highlights the university’s Heritage Week celebration of the feast of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop and Doctor of the Church. His legacy of theological writings and example of saintly living attest to the tradition of Christian humanism that lies at the heart of the university’s mission and philosophy.
The Kraft Lecture series is designed to offer the public a humanistic viewpoint on an issue of national prominence. Ideally, the presentation also highlights the currency of Salesian spirituality in relation to issues in the modern world.