The third Bishop of Louisville left rural south-central France at age 21 and died less than 25 years later in 1867. He would have celebrated his 203rd birthday July 16.
Bishop Peter Joseph Lavialle (pronounced LAH-vee-AH-leh) led the then-Diocese of Louisville for just a year and a half, from 1865 to 1867. His episcopate and his life were cut short, according to archdiocesan records, when he died of exhaustion at age 45.
One hundred fifty-five years later, this bishop’s memory has not only been committed like so many others to the pages of books and the walls of diocesan offices. His memory is held warmly by his family five generations later and an ocean apart.
Philippe Lavialle, the great-great-great-nephew of Bishop Lavialle, brought his family from Paris to Louisville for their first visit to the area July 17-18.
“It was always my mother’s dream to come here,” said Philippe Lavialle during an interview during his visit July 17.
“She is 97 and she has researched a lot.”
The family takes great pride in Bishop Lavialle’s life as a French missionary to the Kentucky frontier, he said.
“Beaucoup, very much pride that he is a missionary; I’m very proud of him,” said Philippe Lavialle.
The Catholic faith for Phillippe and his family — his wife Fabienne and children Martin, Francois and Julie — is part of their family heritage, he explained.
There were a lot of religious, particularly women religious, in their family tree, which the Lavialles have researched to 15 generations. It helps, he said, that their ancestors — including Bishop Lavialle’s brother (Philippe’s great-great-grandfather) Géraud — were notaries in Mauriac, the area where the family lived.
During their visit to Louisville, the family learned of another bishop in the family. Bishop Lavialle was invited to Kentucky by his cousin, Bishop Guy Ignatius Chabrat, coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Louisville (it was elevated to an archdiocese in 1937). A coadjutor assists the bishop in his duties.
Bishop Chabrat returned to Mauriac in old age and is buried near there.
Bishop Lavialle, born in 1819 or 1820, hailed from the village of Lavialle near Mauriac. He left France while in formation for the priesthood at the urging of Bishop Chabrat and finished his seminary studies at St. Thomas Seminary in Bardstown, Ky. He later taught at St. Thomas before becoming president of St. Mary’s College in Marion County.
He had been tapped at least once before to serve as a bishop — as Archbishop of New Orleans — when he was called to lead the Diocese of Louisville as the Civil War drew to a close.
The young bishop quickly overextended himself, prioritizing pastoral visits around his sprawling diocese. He died of exhaustion at age 45, according to the archdiocese’s records.
A chapter on Bishop Lavialle in Benjamin Webb’s “The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky,” describes the bishop’s exhaustive efforts to reach his people, noting, “Not even the smallest congregation in the diocese has failed to receive the benefits of his personal attention, and there is not a religious house or educational establishment under the jurisdiction of the See that he has not visited … and where his presence has not renewed spiritual life.”
The bishop was laid to rest under the Cathedral of the Assumption in a tomb next to the diocese’s first bishop, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, also a French missionary.
During their visit, the family prayed at the tomb in the Cathedral’s Chapel of Bishops in the Undercroft.
They also brought a personal item of Bishop Lavialle’s to show the local church — a walking stick given to him by St. Xavier High School bearing an inscription from the school, which had opened a year before he was appointed bishop:
“St. Xaviers Select School to Rt. Rev. Bishop Lavialle.”
Father Martin Linebach, vicar general of the archdiocese, met with the family at the cathedral and examined the walking stick after the 5:30 p.m. Mass. He told Philippe Lavialle, “Bishop Lavialle had a reputation for being very kind and it’s clear he shared his genes.”
The family had several other items belonging to Bishop Lavialle that were stolen about 20 years ago — his miter, the top of his crosier, his pectoral cross and his episcopal ring. They were taken from the family’s safe in a burglary. The items, he noted, have been passed down through the sons in the family with each generation.
“This is all we have left of him,” said Philippe Lavialle, looking at the walking stick in his hands. “To have the walking stick is very special. We have very little of the bishop.”