Pierre was a merchant from Bourdeaux who had, temporarily, relocated his interest to that island. His interests included a trading warehouse and a coffee plantation. Although the family would retain interests in Saint-Domingue, DuBourg was removed, at the age of two, to Bourdeaux to live with his maternal grandparents and to be educated in France. His early education was received at the College de Guyenne, a royal institution claiming a heritage to the third century. He continued his education at the petit seminaire of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, entering on October 12,1786. Saint-Sulpice, the most prestigious seminary in the Francophone world, was run by the Sulpicians, a group of secular priests dedicated to the education of clergy. It maintained a grand-seminaire for the education of the sons of the nobility and a petit-seminaire for the education of commoners.
DuBourg completed his course and was ordained in March 1790, in an auspicious time for the commencement of a clerical career in France. His first assignment was to a new community at Issy to work in a boarding school for younger boys. As conditions deteriorated, DuBourg was forced to flee in August 1792 for exile in Spain. Agents of the Revolution came looking for him five days after his departure.
Seven months after DuBourg went into exile, Spain was host to 6,322 French priests. The King limited their function to the saying of Mass, and allowed them to hold no public office or to teach, a major impediment to earning a livelihood. The French were suspected of Jansenism, a heresy sharing many of the tenets of Puritanism, and Gallicanism, a belief in a French national Church. To make matters worse, the declaration of war in 1793 made French exiles enemy aliens. This combination of impediments forced French clerical exiles to seek ministries elsewhere. Needing to move on, DuBourg, while looking for a ship in 1793, found a captain who recognized him as a DuBourg from the resemblance to his brother who, the captain informed him, had fled to Baltimore. DuBourg took passage on his ship and landed in Baltimore, then home to 1,500 Dominican refugees from the uprising of Toussant L’Overture. This provided an employment opportunity to teach to these fellow Francophones.
He was appointed president of Georgetown College on October 1,1796, serving until January or March 1799. Under his administration, the curriculum expanded and the college's enrollment grew substantially. During his tenure he hosted a visit by former President George Washington in 1797. Although the date of the visit was known, the exact time was not, so no welcoming party was waiting. Washington tied his horse up and entered alone. On July 10, 1798, DuBourg was a dinner guest at Mount Vernon.
When DuBourg resigned from Georgetown he was not on good terms with the directors. Bishop John Carroll explained the origin of the problem: “He was too fond of introducing his countrymen into every department; and the Directors had too strong prejudices against every thing, which was derived, in any shape, from France; & in consequence thereof, their judgment had an involuntary bias to blame him”.
It must be remembered that, at this time, the main dividing issue between the Federalists of Hamilton and Adams and the Republicans of Jefferson and Madison was whether the U.S. should be allied with Britain or France. Amidst this dispute DuBourg was an inevitable victim.
After leaving Georgetown, DuBourg founded St. Mary’s College, then known as the “French College” and which now serves as the seminary for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Typical of his habits, the founding was a rapid process without the laying of a sound foundation. Among the prominent students at St. Mary’s during DuBourg’s tenure were the son of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect who designed the U. S. Capitol and the college chapel, along with the stepson of James Madison. DuBourg remained as president for 13 years during which he acquired a reputation as a spendthrift while introducing some innovations. Seeing a need to obtain financing for the College, he obtained permission from the State of Maryland to run a lottery. Unusual, for a time in which most educational institutions were strictly sectarian, St. Mary’s admitted Protestants, a policy for which DuBourg was criticized. As would be typical in his career, DuBourg left St. Mary’s in fairly poor condition. While his own inattention to detail may have contributed to the decline of the institution, international politics also played a role. The Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII provided for some reestablishment of the Church in France and led some French clergy to return home, thereby depleting St. Mary’s faculty. DuBourg considered a return and even taking the College with him, but both remained. The College relied heavily on students from the Caribbean. The withdrawal of Cuban students was a blow as were the Non-Intercourse Acts of the Jefferson Administration, which limited enrollment from the Caribbean as well as cut off the funds for tuition payments for those who were enrolled. Despite these handicaps, the school survived and serves today.
During his stay in Baltimore, DuBourg achieved a position of personal prominence. He was instrumental in assisting the Poor Claires, also exiles from France, to open a school for girls in Georgetown. While preaching in New York he captured the imagination of a young widow, Elizabeth Ann Seton, then searching for the Way and guided her in her journey to religious life. He was the superior of her Daughters of Charity who advised their relocation from Baltimore to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where their Motherhouse and the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton remain today. Among his achievements were the building St. Mary’s Church, then the College Chapel, and preaching the sermon at Archbishop Carroll’s Pallium Mass.
The expansion of the United States created a need for the extension of the episcopal leadership of the Church. Among other sees, Archbishop Carroll nominated DuBourg as Bishop of the Louisianas. He was particularly suited for the position as his native language was also the mother tongue of the majority of its Catholic inhabitants, he was among the best educated clergy in the United States and was an impressive personage who could hold his own with anyone of high standing.
DuBourg was confronted with several challenges when he began his ministry in the west. For starters, his authority was weakened by the fact that he came, not as a bishop, but as Apostolic Administrator. The reason for this was that Napoleon had kidnapped Pope Pius VII and held him as prisoner from July 5, 1809 to January 1814, thereby preventing normal Papal communications.
At the time of Dubourg's arrival in New Orleans corruption was rampant, and nowhere more so than in the Church. The dominant person in the Church was “Pere Antoine”, Fray Antonio de Sedella, O.F.M. Cap., pastor of the Cathedral of New Orleans by appointment, not from an ecclesiastical superior, but by the King of Spain. Pere Antoine was seen as being anti-American, defiant toward superiors and personally corrupt. Because of these qualities and his following among the faithful, DuBourg chose to make his residence, not at St. Louis Cathedral, but at the Ursuline Convent. While in residence in New Orleans, DuBourg presided at a Mass for American victory at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8 and complied with General Jackson’s request that he preside a thanksgiving service which was held on January 23.
With Napoleon defeated DuBourg decided to return to Europe to present the problems of the Church in Louisiana to the officials of the Propaganda, the Curia department responsible for the Mission territories. Before leaving, DuBourg created a controversy by naming another French émigré, Fr. Louis Sibourd administrator in his absence. Pere Antoine refused to acknowledge the authority of Fr. Sibourd unless DuBourg could show that he had authority to appoint a vicar general. With the controversy raging, DuBourg departed New Orleans on May 4, 1815, arriving in Bordeaux in July, shortly after the battle of Waterloo. The occupation of France made travel difficult. DuBourg sent correspondence to Rome explaining the situation in New Orleans. The newly freed Pope Pius VII responded with a letter to Archbishop Carroll confirming Sibourd as Vicar General. Also forthcoming was DuBourg’s appointment as bishop, followed by his consecration on September 24, 1815 at the church of Saint Louis of the French in Rome.
On his trip, DuBourg proceeded to recruit for his diocese. In Northern Italy he worked among the Congregation of the Mission, the Vincentians, led to his first recruit, Fr. Felix De Andreas. DeAndreas then recruited Fr. Joseph Rosati who, in time, would be the first bishop of St. Louis and builder of what is now known as the Old Cathedral. Among others were Fr. Leo De Neckere and Antoine Le Blanc, who would become successive bishops of New Orleans and Michel Portier who would become Bishop of Mobile. The scandals of Pere Antoine induced Mother Marie Oliver of the Ursulines to consider removal of her sisters from New Orleans, but DuBourg talked her into, not only permitting them to stay, but sending nine more postulants. In January 1817, DuBourg visited Madeleine Sophie Barat to ask her to send some of her Religious of the Sacred Heart to his diocese. One enthusiastic volunteer was 47 year old Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne who led a group of four nuns in pursuit of her dream of teaching the Indians. Joining the group were 3 members of the Christian Brothers. He also collected art work which currently graces the Basilica of Saint Louis in Missouri and the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.
Reports from New Orleans suggested that Pere Antoine was taking steps to use state law to seize all church property caused DuBourg to consider quitting. Rather than quitting, DuBourg asked for permission to locate his episcopal see in St. Louis, far upriver from the corruption of New Orleans and Pere Antoine. DuBourg had three basic reasons for choosing St. Louis: Pere Antoine, anti-clericism, brother, Indian missions.
DuBourg left Bordeaux with a band of 29 on July 1, 1817, arriving at Annapolis on September 4. Traveling by stage and steamboat, DuBourg first reached Missouri on December 28 at Fenwick’s Settlement near the mouth of Apple Creek. They moved on to Ste. Genevieve where he said the first Pontifical Mass in his diocese on January 1, 1818. He moved on to Cahokia whence a mounted patrol of 40 accompanied him to St. Louis on January 5 where he was installed in the church which was described as “a kind of miserable barn falling into ruins." A town which had not had even a resident pastor was now the home of an extraordinary bishop and would soon be flooded with missionaries.
St. Louis in 1817 was not your typical episcopal see. The city did not extend beyond Third Street, had no residence pastor and the tumbledown log church fell far below the expectations for a cathedral. Despite this situation, DuBourg made the tactless request that St. Louis prepare to raise funds for the erection of a cathedral, for support for the missionaries and to reimburse him for the journey.
DuBourg achieved four goals: the building of an adequate church and strengthening of the organization of the Saint Louis parish, the founding of an academy for boys under the guidance of diocesan priests, a girls school under the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and a missionary effort among the Indians.
Mother Duchense did arrive in August 1818 and established an Academy in St. Charles and then Florissant. St. Louis Academy, which would evolve into Saint Louis University, was founded in 1818. Like St. Mary’s St. Louis Academy did not demand religious uniformity. A seminary was established under the auspices of the Vincentians in St. Louis and Perryville, which remains a focus of Vincentian activity today. The 3 Christian Brother recruits were sent to staff Ste. Genevieve Academy on January 3, 1819.
In 1819, DuBourg addressed the issue of the appointment of coadjutors to assist in his large diocese. In this he betrayed an incredible string of bad judgment. He first nominated Fr. Louis Sibourd, whom he had named vicar general when he went to Europe for the northern part of the diocese. This request was denied by Rome due to Sibourd’s age. As for the southern part, Pere Antoine had been behaving himself, so Dubourg raised the issue of appointing him as vocar general. Pere Antoine declined the offer. In his letter, Pere Antoine gave his age and the preposterous situation in which the ordinary would be in the village of St. Louis, while a coadjutor would be in New Orleans. This letter may have played a role in DuBourg's move to New Orleans.
In 1819 Angelo Inglesi, who claimed to be a priest, volunteered his services for St. Louis. He explained that he had studied in Europe but that the Napoleonic Wars had interrupted his studies. The charmed DuBourg ordained him in March 1820 and sent him on a fund raising tour of Europe in November, along with a request that Inglesi be made coadjutor. He claimed to have raised some money but the coadjutor idea was shot down after Inglesi appeared in lay garb at several social functions in the presence of young ladies and “exhibited signs of levity and impropriety, both by taking part in dances and by a mode of dress in no way befitting an ecclesiastic.” It eventually developed that he had previously lived in Quebec where he had married a French-Canadian Catholic girl in a Presbyterian church before leaving her for another, directed plays and left Canada just ahead of creditors. His claims of clerical training and martial valor were never verified. His deception by Inglesi was a disappointment form which DuBourg never completely recovered. Iglesi's final, perhaps redeeming act, was to die while caring for victims of an epidemic in the Caribbean.
In 1822 DuBourg left St. Louis with an unfinished church and an unresolved issue about preaching to the growing Anglophone population.
In 1823 DuBourg made a further contribution to the development of St. Louis. A financial crisis in Maryland forced a group of Belgian Jesuits to seek a new home. DuBourg seized the opportunity by taking advantage of a “faith-based initiative” of the Federal government by applying for a funding for an Indian school. The grant was approved, and seven pioneer Jesuits, most prominent among them the renowned Indian missionary Pierre De Smet, moved their ministry to St. Louis. DuBourg situated them on a farm in Florissant in the vicinity of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. A few year later these same Jesuits would take over Saint Louis College, the successor of Saint Louis Academy which would evolve into the current Saint Louis University.
In 1826 DuBourg made his last trip to Missouri, visiting Perryville, Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis where he attempted, and thought that he succeeded, in suppressing Saint Louis College. He left St. Louis by steamboat and traveled to Europe where, feeling that he was a failure, he resigned.
The Church in France was then recovering from the Napoleonic era and DuBourg found a role as Bishop of Montauban, where he served for seven years before becoming Archbishop of Besançon in eastern France. Dying on December 11, 1833, he had lived less than a year in Besançon in whose cathedral he is now buried. His predecessor and successor were both elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals and, had he lived, he probably would have been so honored.
So what of William Louis DuBourg? His failures were of the head, not the heart. In contradistinction to one like Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop DuBourg served his God more than his king, and certainly more than himself. He was, perhaps, too much of a dreamer and too little of a schemer. It is said that he advanced religion in St. Louis 50 years and certainly advanced its secular development also. He is remembered on DuBourg Street in front of Ste. Genevieve Church in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, DuBourg Hall of Saint Louis University and Bishop DuBourg High School in St. Louis. His college and church still serve the people of Baltimore. The Daughters of Charity still serve the Church from their Motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The religious orders that he attracted to the St. Louis area still sponsor one major university and at least six high schools. This dreamer came to a ramshackle village and saw a shining city on a hill. He made significant contributions to the development of his home and adopted countries.