The Diocese of Coutances comprises the entire department of La Manche and is a suffragan of the Archbishopric of Rouen. It was enlarged in 1802 by the addition of the former Diocese of Avranches and of two archdeaconries from the Diocese of Bayeux ; since 1854 its bishops have held the title of Bishop of Countances and Avranches.
The catalogue of the bishops of Coutances, as it was made out about the end of the eleventh century, gives as the first bishops St. Ereptiolus and St. Exuperatus (fourth century). Leontianus, the first bishop historically known, attended the Council of Orléans in 511. Coutances counted among its prelates Saint Lô (Lautro), prominent in the great councils of the middle of the sixth century; St. Rumpharius, apostle of Barfleur (d. about 586); St. Frémond (Frodemundus), who, assisted by Thierry III, founded a monastery and a church in honour of the Blessed Virgin in 679 at Ham, near Valognes; Blessed Geoffroy de Monthray (1049-1093), friend of William the Conqueror, whose episcopate was signalized by the building of the cathedral of Coutances, to which purpose he devoted large sums of money that he had gathered in Apulia, and also by the founding of the Benedictine Abbeys of Lessay, Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, and Montebourg, and of the canonries of Cherbourg; Hugues de Morville (1202-1238), organizer of charities in the diocese and founder in 1209 of the celebrated Hôtel-Dieu of Coutances; Philibert de Montjeu (1424-1439), who presided over the deputation of theologians sent by the Council of Basle to the Bohemians and Moravians in order to reconcile them to the Church, and Giuliano della Rovere (1476-1478), afterwards pope under the name of Julius II. The account book of Thomas Marest, curé of Saint-Nicolas of Coutances (1397-1433) is very interesting for the history of social life during the Hundred Years' War. The Huguenots took possession of the city in 1562, but were banished in 1575. Through the efrorts of the venerable Père Eudes the cathedral of Coutances was the first church in the world to have an altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
Nepos, the first bishop known to history, assisted at the Council of Orléans in 511. Among its bishops Avranches included: St. Pair, or Paternus (d. 565), a great founder of monasteries, notably that of Sessiacum, near Granville, which took the name of Saint-Pair; St. Leodovaldus (second half of sixth century); St. Ragertrannus, Abbot of Jumiè (about 682); St. Aubert, who in 708 founded the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel; Robert Ceneau (1533-1569), author of numerous works against the Calvinists ; and Pierre-Daniel Huet (1689-1699), a celebrated savant who assisted Bossuet in educating the son of Louis XIV and directed the publication of the Delphin edition of the classics. Between 865 and 990, in the troubled period caused by the victories of the Bretons and the incursions of the Normans, the archbishops of Rouen were titulars of the See of Avranches. In the Middle Ages the bishops of Avranches were at the same time barons of Avranches, barons of Saint-Philbert-sur-Rilles, and proprietors of numerous domains in England and Jersey. The school of Avranches, in which Lanfranc taught and Anselm studied, was famous in the eleventh century. The cathedral where, in September, 1171, Henry II of England swore before the legates of Alexander III that he was entirely innocent of the murder of St. Thomas Becket was a beautiful monument of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It collapsed during the Revolution. (See M ONT -S T -M ICHEL .)
The Diocese of Coutances and Avranches honours in a special way St. Pientia (Pience), put to death in the third century for having facilitated the burial of St. Nicasius, the apostle of Vexin, and conspicuously honoured in the litrugy of Avranches; St. Floxel, born in the district of Cotentin, and martyred at the beginning of the fourth century; St. Scubilio, companion of the bishop St. Pair, and founder of the monastery of Mandane on Mont Tombe (subsequently Mont Saint-Michel); Sts. Sénier, Gaud, and Fragaise, monks of Sessiacum; St. Germanus of Scotland, who, in the fifth century, evangelized the Saxon colonies of the district of Bessin; St. Severus, the shepherd (sixth century), who was perhaps Bishop of Avranches; the monk St. Marcouf (sixth century), founder of an abbey called after him, and whose name is borne by an island to which he retired each Lent for extraordinary mortification ; St. Hélier, disciple of St. Marcouf, beheaded in a grotto at Jersey; St. Ortaire, Abbot of Landelles (end of sixth century); St. Paternus of Coutances, monk at Sessiacum, then at Sens and finally assassinated (eighth century); St. Leo of Carentan, born about 810, a protégé of Louis the Debonair and martyred at Bayonne ; the English hermit St. Clair (ninth century); St. Guillaume Firmat (eleventh century), hermit, pilgrim to the Orient, and patron of the collegiate church of Mortain; Blessed Thomas Hélie of Biville, chaplain to St. Louis (thirteenth century); Julie Postel, known in religion as Sœur Marie-Madeleine (1756-1846), a native of Barfleur, declared Venerable in 1897.
Many men worthy of mention in ecclesiastical history were natives of this diocese : Alexandre de Villedieu (thirteenth century), canon of Avranches and author of a Latin grammar universally studied during the Middle Ages ; the learned but visionary Guillaume Postel (d. 1581), professor of mathematics and Oriental languages in the Collège de France; the Franciscan friar Feuardent (1539-1610), prominent in the Wars of the League; Cardinal du Perron (1556-1618), who converted Henry IV ; the Calvinistic publicist Benjamin Basnage (1580-1652); the physician Hamon (1618-1687), well known in the history of Jansenism ; Jean de Launoy (1603-1678), celebrated for his critical work in ecclesiastical history ; Marie des Vallées, the demoniac (d. 1656), who made a great sensation in her day and whose sayings were gathered into four volumes by the Venerable Père Eudes, who had exorcised her; the Abbé de Beauvais (1731-1790) and the Jesuit Neuville (1693-1774), both great preachers; the Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), author of the "Paix perpétuelle", and the Eudist Le Franc, superior of the Coutances seminary in the eighteenth century and the first Catholic publicist to write against Freemasonry.
Before the enforcement of the law of 1901 there were in the diocese Oratorians, Sulpicians, Eudists, and a local congregation of Brothers of Mercy of the Christian Schools, founded in 1842 (mother-house at Montebourg), and there are Trappists still at Bricquebec. The diocese includes several congregations of women : the Tertiary Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, founded in 1686; the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus , founded in the seventeenth century by Père du Pont, a Eudist, and in 1783 placed under the patronage of the Sacred Heart, being the oldest French congregation known by that title; the Sisters of Mercy of the Christian Schools, founded in 1802 at Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte by the Venerable Sœur Postel. Diocesan missionaries are installed at Biville, near the tomb of Blessed Thomas Hélie, a much frequented place of pilgrimage.
In 1900 the diocese included in religious institutions, 28 infant schools, 1 orphanage for boys and girls, 3 boys' orphanages, 24 girls' orphanages, 6 industrial schools, 35 hospitals, hospices, and asylums; 30 houses of nursing sisters, and 3 insane asylums. The statistics for the end of 1905 (close of the Concordat period) indicate a population of 491,372, with 61 pastorates, 612 succursal parishes (mission churches), and 284 curacies, then remunerated by the State.
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