Abbé Henri MANCEL, pioneer of agricultural syndicalism (1878 – 1954) [2012]

[Translation of L’Abbé Henri MANCEL, pionnier du syndicalisme agricole from the Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie du Pays de Fougères blog, published in 2012.]

Church of Monthault, XV-XIXth.

A documentary film broadcasted on France 3 in 2002, entitled “Des poissons rouges dans le bénitier” tells the history of three abbés démocrates who left their mark on the city, the Pays de Fougères, and well beyond. It is about Félix Trochu, co-founder of the journal “L’Ouest-Eclair with Emmanuel Desgrées du Loû; Henri Mancel, and Louis Bridel. The director of this documentary could have also added the abbé Auguste Chesnais, or, in Vitré, the abbé Crublet. Attracting the wrath of the hierarchy and the opposition of the notables, creating syndicates, mutual credit unions, newspapers and even banks, these republican curés were disturbers, but they became, despite the enormous difficulties which they confronted, precursors which Brittany still bears the traces [of] today.

Abbé Henri MANCEL

Abbé Henri Mancel was born in Bain-de-Bretagne, October 12, 1878; his parents worked as fabric sellers. From 1910, he was a member of the movement Le Sillon created by Marc Sangnier. This social movement seemed revolutionary to many when it was in conformity with Pope Leo XII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” … published in 1891 and which marked, not without difficulties, the beginning of the social doctrine of the Church. Restoring dignity to the most poor, notably the working class, was not in the order of things until then. A large misunderstanding sometimes installed itself between the Catholic hierarchy and the prêtres démocrates who worked for the legitimate restoration [of this dignity]. The clergy, in general, had remained conservative. The “curés rouges” [red curés], as people sometimes called them, caused disorder, and their position was hardly enviable. Yet, some, like those we have named, held firm through thick and thin.  

Abbé Mancel was one of those. Ordained in 1902 in a difficult political climate for the Catholic Church, which prefigured the laws of  secular education and the law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Henri Mancel attracted, very early on, the attention of the diocesan authorities who hardly appreciated this current of thought. Their response was expressed by the usual tactic: the priest with a little too much liberty of spirit is exiled to one of the outskirts of the diocese, in a tiny parish, if possible. After his ordination in 1902, the abbé Mancel, [with a] degree in theology, is named vicar to Bourg-des-Comptes in 1903, then at Lalleu in 1906, at Monthault in 1912, and finally at Gévezé.

Monthault around 1910.

As Mancel declared loud and clear that he was republican and openly displayed his convictions, he was “exiled” to Monthault, a little forgotten parish in the edges of Normandy and Brittany, where was named vicar in August 1912. This isolation did not calm his passion, to the great displeasure of the clergy in Monthault and of the surrounding area, some who were rather nostalgic for the monarchy. When he played the Marseillaise during a mass and applauded the putting up of a plaque commemorating the First Republic, the scandal was at its peak among the conservatives, who did not fail to inform the archbishop, which was hardly convenient for his situation with the religious authorities. Mobilized in 1914, the abbé Mancel had to leave Monthault to join the front, which calmed the spirits a little, at least for a time. After the war, in 1919, he returned to Monthault and resumed his fight in favor of the small peasants. The sanction fell immediately: he was exiled to another edge of the diocese, Gévezé. But this time, Mancel refused and preferred to retire to Bain-de-Bretagne where he lived as a free priest. From 1920 he was discharged of all his parish ministry by the episcopacy, and the curé Bain refused him entry into his church. Abbé Mancel celebrated mass in an oratory which was set up as his home.

Very early on, he was interested in the problems of the agricultural world and had become aware of the enslavement of farmers by large landowners, notably by the local nobility. With this social doctrine, the abbé Mancel urged the farmers to organize themselves into a syndicate. This was the origin of the “Syndicat des Cultivateurs-cultivants” created in reaction to the “Syndicat des Lices” [which was] dominated by the nationalist, anti-semitic, corporatist landowners. His syndicate was composed exclusively of smaller farmers who worked the land themselves and who practiced the agricultural profession. Eight years after its creation, the syndicate federation which would become “La Ligue des Paysans de l’Ouest” contained 200 syndicates in  Ille-et-Vilaine and in Côtes-d’Armor and some 5,000 adhérents. It was in a dominant position in the elections of the Chambres d’Agriculture in the arrondissement of Rennes.

Mancel’s syndicates contributed to a profound evolution of mentalities and to the explosion of rural society; they attracted a number of adversaries. After a unsuccessful intervention of the marquess of Vogué in Rome, cardinal Charost launched into his combat against Mancel’s work. He made an appeal to another priest, the abbé Brassier, to engage in a counter-offensive and to divide the syndicates of the cultvateurs-cultivants. Despite all opposition, Henri Mancel and his collaborators maintained their positions, until the priest clashed with opposition against him in his own movement, apparently following episcopal interventions. On December 1930, the abbé Mancel was definitively removed after a turning over of the majority within the superior council of the syndicate’s administration[.]

Thus contested, stirring up the opposition of the nobility and of the large landowners, the abbé Mancel, annoyed and bitter, faded away from the syndical scene. Despite the profound pain felt by so much incomprehension, he never went back on his positions and defended, until the end of his life, “the right of the peasant to live on the land which he works”. Retired to Bain-de-Bretagne, his native commune, he died on January 30, 1954.

With the “abbés démocrates”, Henri Mancel was the origin of a profoundly renovative social movement. His movement marked an important stage in the history of social Catholicism. He was, for a long time, a reference point as a pioneer figure of the action led, later, by militants of the Jeunesse Agricole Chrétienne (J.A.C.) who were established at Ille-et-Vilaine in 1929. Did not the J.A.C. set for itself the objective of participating in the emancipation of the young farmers, coming out of their isolation, and of defending the family farm?