Invisible Bordeaux recently picked up a series of postcards showing different stages of a funeral procession through the streets of the city...

The day 50,000 lined the streets of Bordeaux to honour the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Lecot


Invisible Bordeaux recently picked up a series of postcards showing different stages of a funeral procession through the streets of the city centre in the early years of the 20th century. The event was clearly a big deal, as the pictures showed enormous crowds lining the route, with many people also peering out from windows and balconies to pay their final respects. This was in fact the city’s final goodbye to Cardinal Victor Lecot. So who was Cardinal Lecot and why was his funeral such a momentous event?

Victor Lucien Sulpice Lecot (or Lécot) was born in January 1831 in north-eastern France. Aged 24 he became a priest in Compiègne, to the north of Paris, ahead of being ordained bishop of Dijon (in 1886). Then, in June 1890, he was appointed to be archbishop of Bordeaux, at a time when the Catholic church was stronger than ever in the city, with new congregations coming together in all quarters (he consecrated Saint-Louis-des-Chartrons in 1895) and the church’s influence even seeping into the press through the publication of Le Nouvelliste de Bordeaux et du Sud-Ouest… renowned for its royalist, anti-Republican tendencies!

Lecot remained archbishop of Bordeaux until his death but was also elevated to cardinal in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, and appointed cardinal-priest to Santa Pudenziana basilica in Rome the following year. He was one of the members of the conclave that elected Pius X, and was himself Papal Legate at celebrations held in Lourdes in 1908 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the supposed appearances of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous.

In France, the start of the twentieth century was a tumultuous period, with the official split between Church and State (and the start of the French Republic’s notable secular status, or “laïcité”) occurring in 1905 after 25 years of embattled debate opposing different views of the role of the Church. As you might imagine, Lecot was very much on the side of those wanting to retain close ties between Church and State, whilst also striving to do everything in his powers to avoid any form of conflict even if he was unable to prevent mass protests from being held.

And tensions were still high when Lecot died on December 19th 1908 in Chambéry, in eastern France. His funeral was held eleven days later, on December 28th, in Bordeaux. The authorities were aware that the funeral procession would draw mourners in their thousands, but also that the event could easily spark trouble.

Top - The funeral procession on Place de la Bourse. Bottom - The horse-drawn hearse carrying the coffin.

The most complete account of the event has been written by one Annie Ribette and can be read on the Cahiers d’Archives website. Ribette notes that the following day’s edition of Le Nouvelliste reported that nearly 2,000 men (soldiers and gendarmes) were in position from 7am onwards to keep the crowds under control along the route of the funeral cortege and to prevent intruders from infiltrating the procession (a special laissez-passer was required in order to join the ranks of the procession).

Ribette’s report features many archive documents, including the official laissez-passer, which records that Lecot’s corpse was scheduled to be removed from Notre-Dame church at 9am. Photographic evidence suggests that the procession then worked its way towards Place de la Comédie, along Cours de l’Intendance, down rue Vital-Carles (where the Archbishop of Bordeaux’s former official residence was located, although it had become home to Gironde’s prefect... in itself a massive source of tension), and then on to place Pey-Berland, no doubt finishing up at Saint-André cathedral, although it is unclear whether Lecot’s remains were immediately assigned to the tomb which is now his.  


Top - The funeral procession moves along Cours de l'Intendance, with many onlookers peering down from windows and balconies. Bottom - The Pontifical Swiss Guard was on hand.

It is thought that 50,000 people were present along the route to pay their final respects to Lecot, although the heavy-handed security came in for a great deal of criticism. Annie Ribette refers to the socialist union and revolutionary political newspaper La Bataille reporting on the “state of siege” in Bordeaux, adding that those people “who had travelled from all parts of the city and region were prevented from saluting the remains of the Cardinal of Bordeaux. The troops who had barricaded the city’s streets had been ordered to turn their backs to the cortege. Those honours could have been dispensed without preventing the public from attending the funeral”. That same newspaper underlined the fact that Lecot’s passing was in no way acknowledged by the French Republic, as since the “law of separation”, ecclesiastical dignitaries like Cardinal Lecot no longer enjoyed any form of official status in the eyes of the Republic.


The procession reaches Place Pey-Berland. 

Even without this Republican recognition, there was a definite sense locally of how historic the occasion was. Several requests for authorisation were submitted with a view to capturing the event on film, this being the early days of cinematography. Looking at the wide angle photographs of the procession on Place de la Comédie, it is striking how many photographers and filmmakers are present. But beyond the stills such as those featured here, how much of that movie coverage has survived, if any?


A closer look at the group of photographers and cinematographers gathered on Place de la Comédie.

And what traces remain of Cardinal Lecot himself in the city? Of course, the most symbolic and prominent memorial is none other than the cardinal’s monumental tomb inside Saint-André cathedral. His first name was also given to Saint-Victor church on rue Mouneyra in Bordeaux, founded in 1905 while Lecot was still Archbishop of Bordeaux, although the current edifice was built during the Second World War period and finally consecrated in 1947. Oh, and there is also a street named after him in Bordeaux and a "Cardinal Lecot" bus stop in Blanquefort, which is no doubt exactly what the great man would have wanted.

Above - Cardinal Lecot's final resting place inside Bordeaux cathedral.

Above - Saint-Victor church on rue Mouneyra. Below - The ultimate accolade: Lecot has his own posthumous bus stop in Blanquefort.

And, of course, what also remains are those incredible pictures of the city, showing scenes that Bordeaux is unlikely to see again anytime soon, and scenes that alone do not tell the full story!

> Locate Saint-Victor church on the Invisible Bordeaux map: rue Mouneyra, Bordeaux.
> Cardinal Lecot picture source: Wikipedia
> As stated throughout, the most complete account of this event can be found on the Cahiers d'Archives website
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français ! 

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