LA FAMILLE TIMELINE
1640: Augustinus, the posthumous treatise by Bishop Cornelius Jansen, was published in Louvain.
1642: The first Pontifical condemnation of “Jansenism” was issued.
1713 (September 8): The Papal bull Unigenitus by Clement XI marked the final condemnation of Jansenism.
1727 (May 1): Deacon François de Pâris died in Paris.
1731: Miracles started to be reported at the grave of Deacon François de Pâris in Paris’ Saint-Médard cemetery.
1733: The “Convulsionaries” movement was driven underground.
1740s: Crucifixion and other extreme practices involving (mostly female) Convulsionaries started.
1744 (February 23): Claude Bonjour was born in Pont-d’Ain, in Eastern France.
1751 (January 4): François Bonjour was born in Pont-d’Ain.
1762 (July 25): Jean-Pierre Thibout was born in Épinay-sur-Seine, near Paris.
1774: Claude Bonjour was appointed as parish priest of Fareins, Dombes, France.
1783: Claude Bonjour resigned as parish priest of Fareins in favor of his brother François.
1787 (October 10): Étiennette Thomasson was crucified in the parish church of Fareins.
1788: A criminal prosecution against the Bonjour brothers was initiated.
1789 (January 5): Marguerite Bernard died in Paris, following extreme austerities.
1790 (June 6): The Bonjour brothers and several followers were arrested.
1791 (September 10): Claude Bonjour was released from jail.
1791 (November 19): François Bonjour was released from jail.
1791 (December 5): The Bonjour family left Fareins and moved to Paris.
1792 (January 21): Jean Bonjour, son of François Bonjour and Benoite Françoise Monnier, was born in Paris.
1792 (August 18): Israël-Elie Bonjour (Lili), son of François Bonjour and Claudine Dauphan, was born in Paris.
1799: Sister Élisée (Julie Simone Olivier) was accepted as a prophetic voice within the Bonjours group.
1800: François Bonjour stated that the prophetic messages of Sister Élisée “did not come from the Holy Spirit.”
1805 (January 20): François Bonjour was arrested in Paris with fifteen relatives and followers.
1805 (May): François Bonjour and his family were expelled to Switzerland (or agreed to go there to avoid being arrested again).
1812 (January 4): Israël-Elie Bonjour married Marie Collet.
1814 (March 6): Claude Bonjour died in Assens, Canton of Vaud, Switzerland.
1817 (date unknown): Sister Élisée died in the Paris region.
1819 (January 2): Jean-Pierre Thibout and François Joseph Havet reorganized the followers of the Bonjours in Paris.
1836 (July 12): Jean-Pierre Thibout died in Paris.
1846 (April 24): François Bonjour died in Paris.
1863 (April 25): Paul-Augustin Thibout (Mon Oncle Auguste) was born in Paris.
1866 (September 4): Israël-Elie Bonjour died in Ribemont, Aisne, France.
1920 (Mars): Paul-Agustin Thibout died in Villiers-sur-Marne.
1961–1963: Former members of La Famille organized a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, through which some French media discovered the existence of La Famille.
2013 (night between June 10 and 11): La Famille’s villa in Villiers-sur-Marne (Les Cosseux) was burned by an arsonist and severely damaged.
2017 (July 4): Contacted by ex-members, the French governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES published a document critical of La Famille.
2020–2021: Using materials posted on Facebook by a hostile ex-member, several French media published articles on La Famille.
2021: Journalist Suzanne Privat published the book La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret.
Jansenism was a theological movement born in the seventeenth century that imported into Catholicism some Protestant elements, including a doctrine of predestination, a puritanic morality, the autonomy of national churches, and the introduction of readings in French rather than in Latin within the Catholic liturgy. It took its name from Dutch Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), [Image at right] although the latter did not want to establish any movement, and his book Augustinus was published only after his death, in 1640. It met with an almost immediate Papal condemnation in 1642 as promoting a form of crypto-Protestantism.
What came to be called “Jansenism” was particularly successful in France, where it seduced prominent intellectuals, such as philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), and a sizable number of bishops and priests. For political as well as religious reasons, it was suppressed in the eighteenth century by both the Catholic Church and the French monarchy. The strongest document was the Papal bull Unigenitus by Clement XI (1649–1721) in 1713, although its cultural influence continued into the nineteenth century and extended to other countries (Chantin 1996).
Jansenism was never a movement of intellectuals only. A popular Jansenism developed around the cult (not authorized by the Catholic Church) of “saints” such as Jansenist Deacon François de Pâris (1690–1727). His grave in the Parisian cemetery of the Saint-Médard parish church witnessed the first phenomena of the “Convulsionaries,” who convulsed, fainted, screamed, prophesied, and claimed to have been healed from various illnesses.
Eventually, the movement of the Convulsionaries spread from Paris to several cities and villages of France, and added to the convulsions extreme practices called secours, where devotees, mostly female, willingly submitted to beating, torture, and even crucifixion to mystically connect with Jesus and early Christian martyrs. [Image at right]. Early scholars of Jansenism regarded Convulsionaries as a deviant group, while later historians have emphasized continuities between the “cultivated” and the “popular” Jansenism (Chantin 1998; Strayer 2008).
The Convulsionaries never became a unified movement. They formed a network, and a devotee moving from one French city to another might be welcomed there by other Convulsionaries. More often, the different small groups criticized and excommunicated each other, particularly after some of the leaders advanced messianic claims forthemselves (Chantin 1998; Maury 2019).
One successful group of Convulsionaries developed from the 1770s around Father François Bonjour (1751–1846: complete dates, when available, are supplied in the Timeline above), later known as “Silas,” the parish priest of Fareins, a village in the French region of the Dombes, some twenty-five miles from Lyon. [Image at right] Father François’ activities, carried out with the cooperation of his elder brother and predecessor as parish priest of Fareins, Father Claude Bonjour (1744–1814), and other priests, belonged to the most extreme wing of the Convulsionaries.
The crucifixion in 1787 of a female devotee, Etiennette Thomasson (who survived, while another female parishioner, Marguerite “Gothon” Bernard, submitted to heavy secours died at the beginning of 1789), led to police intervention, and the Bonjour brothers ended up in jail (Chantin 2014). The confusion of the years of the French Revolution set them free, but Father François decided to leave Fareins in 1791 [Image at right] and move to Paris. The main reason for this was that, claiming it had been commanded to do so by a divine revelation, the priest had taken two lovers, his servant Benoite Françoise Monnier, and Claudine Dauphan (sometimes spelled “Dauphin,” 1761–1834: François Bonjour might have married her secretly on November 23, 1790), the servant of a Convulsionaries leader in Lyon, and both were pregnant (Maury 2019:136–44).
Eventually, Father François explained the events within the framework of a millenarian theology. Benoite would generate a male child, Jean Bonjour (1792–1868), who would serve as the John the Baptist to the new divine incarnation, Claudine’s son Israël-Elie Bonjour (1792–1866), nicknamed Lili, who would open the path to the Millennium. Not all Convulsionaries in Paris accepted the strange “holy family” of Father François, but some did, and the birth of Lili was celebrated with great enthusiasm. A prophetess, “Sister Elisee” (Julie Simone Olivier, d. 1817), joined the group and predicted the imminent advent of the Millennium in no less than 18,000 pages of revelations, although after one year of cooperation she broke with the Bonjours and established her own separate group in 1800 (Maury 2019).
The Bonjours’ followers belonged to the faction of the Convulsionaries who welcomed the French Revolution as a deserved punishment for the Catholic Church and the monarchy that had persecuted them (while other Convulsionaries remained loyal to the King and opposed the Revolution). However, the Revolution did not welcome those who were now called “Bonjouristes,” particularly after Napoleon signed in 1801 his Concordat with the Catholic Church. In January 1805, the Bonjours, including thirteen-year-old Lili, and a group of followers were arrested and later in the same year (in May) exiled to Switzerland (or, as others maintain, negotiated with the government a move to Switzerland as an alternative to being jailed).
In Paris, Jean-Pierre Thibout (1762–1836), the concierge of the building where the Bonjours lived, emerged as the leader of the remaining “Bonjouristes.” He later claimed that Lili, before leaving France, had passed his mantle to Pierre’s son, the then three-year-old Augustin Thibout (1802–1837), known as “St. John the Baptist” among the devotees (for this and subsequent information see La Famille n.d.  and Havet 1860).
The years after the Revolution were somewhat confused. The Bonjours were allowed to return to France in 1811, but they seemed to have lost interest in their new religion. Lili, who had behaved as a temperamental messiah as a child, married the daughter of a rich merchant, Marie Collet (1794–1829), who gave him ten children. With the help of his father-in-law, Lili became a successful industrialist. He was also a colonel in the National Guard and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1832. He died in 1866, and just as his father François, who died in 1846, did not play a significant role in the subsequent development of the Bonjouristes, although some continued to correspond with him and received his blessing.
In fact, Jean-Pierre Thibout built a “Bonjourisme” without the Bonjours, which continued to venerate Lili as a mystical presence independently of the real flesh-and-blood Lili, who was busy elsewhere with his businesses. The group has continued to celebrate the anniversary of the reorganization of the movement on the first Saturday of January 1819 (January 2). This is the date when Thibout was discussing Lili’s mission in a coffee shop in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Maur with his co-religionist François Joseph Havet (1759–1842). At the moment of paying the bill, they put two coins on the table, and a third coin, they reported, appeared miraculously, a sign that God was blessing their projects.
But in fact a group of families has kept the faith in Lili, and would continue to quietly meet and intermarry. “La Famille,” as it came to be called, insisted it had no leader, but in fact the elder sons of the Thibout family, all named Augustin as Lili had once requested, had a certain prominence in the movement and dictated some of the current practices (see below, under Rituals/Practices).
Some 3,000 members (although precise statistics are difficult) remain in the movement, and live today mostly in the same area of Paris (11th, 12th, and 20th arrondissements), often in the same buildings.
La Famille has a basic Christian theology, but teaches that all churches are corrupted and that it has been left in the world by God as a little remnant to usher in the Millennium, a kingdom of God on Earth that will last for 1,000 years.
The contemporary La Famille celebrates the Convulsionaries as saintly ancestors, but does not repeat their practices, just as Roman Catholics venerate saints who practiced extreme austerities but do not imitate them.
La Famille reads about Lili, and expects that he or his spirit will return in some way to usher in the Millennium, but offers no dates for this return.
Critics of La Famille describe its Jansenist connection as “remote,” but its songs are still full of Jansenist reminiscences. The great moments of Jansenism continue to be celebrated, as is the saint Deacon François de Pâris. The Church of Rome is condemned as deviant (since it repudiated Jansenism as its last chance of reform) and corrupted, with accents reminiscent of French nineteenth-century anticlericalism. Non-members are called “Gentiles,” and although their fate in the Millennium remains unclear, they are often criticized in the songs as not part of those chosen by God to follow him and defend the truth in dark times (La Famille n.d. )
While the origins of La Famille are in Roman Catholicism and Jansenism (and some texts of eighteenth-century Jansenism are still read in the movement), neighbors often describe them as “Protestant,” as their attitude and conservative morality are more similar to Evangelicals than to Catholics.
On the other hand, despite its puritanism and its Jansenist roots, La Famille maintains a familiar relation with God, who is called “Bon Papa,” and trusts his benevolence and care. In the eyes of devotees, this is the root of the loving and caring attitude of members towards each other, which leads many to remain in La Famille, despite its strictness.
In 1892, Paul Augustin Thibout (1863–1920), a direct descendant of Jean-Pierre Thibout who was called “My Uncle Auguste” (Mon Oncle Auguste), [Image at right] enacted a series of precepts aimed at preserving La Famille from contacts with the larger society, which he believed to be hopelessly corrupted.
What he exactly prescribed is a matter of controversy between members and opponents. Certainly, he expressed little sympathy for public schools, holidays, and work outside the community. These precepts are now largely disregarded, and children of La Famille (except those of a minority of arch-conservative families, which prefer home-schooling) do attend public schools (often with very good results), join their parents in taking holidays, enjoy modern music. They may achieve significant professional results in careers Uncle Auguste would have not approved of (although they do not become doctors or lawyers, believing only God is the master of health and law).
Women today do not necessarily wear long shirts or keep their hair long, according to other precepts of Uncle Auguste, although some do. What remains of his legacy, however, is that La Famille does not proselytize and no longer accepts new members from outside. Further, devotees do not marry “gentiles,” i.e. non-members. This has led to a situation where all members of La Famille are identified by the same eight last names.
Uncle Auguste also celebrated drinking wine as a bond between male members of the movement, citing biblical precedents, and noisy alcoholic celebrations have remained a distinctive feature of La Famille. And he inaugurated the practice of celebrating the main feasts of the country and of Christianity (and some typical of La Famille, such as the commemoration of the reorganization of the group in 1819) in his property of Les Cousseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne. [Image at right] The property still belongs to La Famille and has been restored after an arsonist (possibly an angry ex-member) set in on fire in 2013. Weddings (most of them purely religious ceremonies, not registered for legal validity) also often take place at Les Cousseux.
Singing is a key part of La Famille’s celebrations, and the hymnals are a main component of its otherwise scarce literature.
La Famille had remained largely unknown to both media and scholars, with books on the Bonjourisme wrongly proclaiming it dissolved in the nineteenth century. However, in 1960 a member of the Thibout family, Vincent (1924–1974), who had visited Israel, decided to establish a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, and he took with him some twenty families from La Famille. Although the experiment, which collapsed in 1963, was disavowed by the Paris community and led to a total separation from La Famille, it attracted the attention of several media sources, which also mentioned the Famille origins of the founders. [Image at right]
After the end of the Pardailhan kibbutz, Vincent Thibout established two businesses that were ruled according to the kibbutz philosophy. After his death, one of his successors was accused of physical violence against other devotees. Critics used this incident to attack La Famille despite the fact that Vincent’s group had a contested relationship with La Famille.
The Pardailhan kibbutz had, nonetheless, been largely forgotten by the twenty-first century. The element that brought La Famille back into controversy was the government-sponsored anti-cult campaigns in France. Former members of La Famille became aware of these campaigns and contacted the governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES in the decade beginning in 2010. In 2017, the MIVILUDES published a note acknowledging that it was difficult to apply its “cult” model to La Famille (MIVILUDES 2017). In the French anti-cult model, each “cult” is understood to be led by a “guru” who exploits gullible followers. Although this form of guru leadership was not present in La Famille, MIVILUDES still found “dérives sectaires” (cultic deviances), a concept used to identify “cult-like” problems in many groups denounced by former members and anti-cult groups. Former members also noticed the development of anti-cult campaigns on social networks, and one former member established a critical Facebook group.
Media articles began appearing, and proliferated in 2021 (see e.g. Jacquard 2021; Cala and Pellerin 2021), as reporters liberally drew on material from the Facebook site for articles on the “secret cult in the very heart of Paris.” In the same year, journalist Suzanne Privat published La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret [Image at right]. She began research for her book after discovering that young members of a religious community (about which she reportedly had been unaware), who physically resembled each other and had a limited number of surnames, were in the same schools in Paris with her two children. Since she was unable to interview current members and relied on hostile ex-member accounts, Privat’s book contributed to La Famille’s contested public image.
What most disturbs French anti-cult opponents and MIVILUDES about La Famille is its “separatism,” a word used in France to criticize a variety of groups. Members of La Famille have survived for centuries by remaining largely insular, with a variety of implications that have drawn the attention of critics. Members do not participate in elections, marriages are not legally registered, their children are educated differently, and there have been some cases of genetic diseases as a result of the groups endogamy.
La Famille is not surprised by the controversiality it has been experiencing as what it regards as persecutions were predicted in its prophecies. However, the current French emphasis on “anti-separatism” may create problems the group has not experienced since the Napoleonic era.
Image #1: Bishop Cornelius Jansen.
Image #2: The “secours” in a 18th-century lithograph.
Image #3: Father François Bonjour, “Silas.”
Image #4: The parish church in Fareins.
Image #5: Paul Augustin Thibout, “Mon Oncle Auguste.”
Image #6: Les Cosseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne, at the time of “Uncle Auguste.”
Image #7: Members of the Pardailhan community, 1961.
Image #8: Cover of Suzanne Privat’s book.
Cala, Jeanne, and Juliette Pellerin. 2021. “‘La Famille’, une secte au cœur de Paris.” Paris Match, April 20. Accessed from https://www.parismatch.com/Actu/Societe/La-Famille-une-secte-au-coeur-de-Paris-1734414 on 18 July 2021.
Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 2014. Il était une croix, ou la curieuse et édifiante histoire du crucifiement de la Tiennon en 1787, et ses suites. Villefranche-sur-Saône: Éditions du Poutan.
Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 1998. Les Amis de l’Œuvre de la Vérité. Jansénisme, miracles et fin du monde au XIXe siècle. Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon.
Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 1996. Le Jansénisme. Entre hérésie imaginaire et résistance catholique. Paris: Cerf.
Havet, Walstein. 1860. “Mémoire du Grand-Père Walstein.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on Jan,uary 30 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].
Jacquard, Nicolas. 2021. “Dans le secret de «la Famille», une communauté religieuse très discrète en plein Paris.” Le Parisien, June 21. Accessed from https://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/dans-le-secret-de-la-famille-une-communaute-religieuse-tres-discrete-en-plein-paris-21-06-2020-8339295.php on 18 July 2021.
La Famille. n.d. . “Recueil sur la Sainte Famille.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on January 30, 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].
La Famille. n.d. . “Cantiques.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on January 30, 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].
Maury, Serge. 2019. Une secte janséniste convulsionnaire sous la Révolution française. Les Fareinistes (1783-1805). Paris: L’Harmattan.
MIVILUDES. 2017. “Note d’information sur la communauté ‘La Famille.’” Paris: MIVILUDES.
Privat, Suzanne. 2021. La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret. Paris: Les Avrils.
Strayer, Brian E. 2008. Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionaires in France, 1640–1799. Eastbourne, Sussex: Sussex Academic Press.
20 July 2021