In the very rural, thick forested land of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, on a scenic bend of the North branch of the Susquehanna River exists a 1600-acre preserve called the Azilum, or in English, the Asylum. On its northwest boundary is a huge Standing Stone, twenty-five feet high that served as a meeting place for the Iroquois from at least a century before Europeans arrived. The land is protected by both the river and the thick woods. Even today the area is best described as “out of the way.” Two hundred years ago it served as a sanctuary for an elite group of French men and women who escaped the bloodthirsty mobs of that country’s revolution.
The small village is built around the Grande Maison, a huge house that was intended to serve the future king of France and the children of Marie Antoinette. After two hundred years it is still standing in the midst of several cabins and work buildings, several that have been rebuilt.
Plans for this American sanctuary were developed among a handful of men and women who moved in secret societies in an orbit around the mysterious St. Sulpice in Paris. Several were among the courtier circle close to the king. Politically they were of liberal inclinations with the goal of taking away the abuses of monarchy while retaining royalty.
Included in the tight group were the families of La Fayette and Noailles, as well as minor nobility, army officers, merchants and clergymen. What they shared was a commitment to their monarchy. One, in fact, was Antoine Talon, the head of the royal secret service and a chief justice of the criminal court. Like the king and queen, he would have certainly become a victim of the guillotine. The tight circle hoped to create a constitutional government with a monarchy that had less power.
The St. Sulpice Connection
The church where they would meet lies in the center of the city and was dedicated to an obscure St. Sulpice. On the feast of that saint, January 17, the sun rises and its light, passing through a window, traces a path to a strategically positioned sundial. A brass strip called the Roseline marks what was once the Paris Meridian, now replaced by the more famous Greenwich line. Another saint, Saint Dagobert, was the grandson of the last Merovingian king. His feast day too is on January 17. And still a third saint, St. Roseline de Villeneuve, has a feast day on January 17. Her name is a symbol of both the Merovingian kingship and the distinctive feature of the St. Sulpice church.
In the last decade this church became well known for the role it played in the mystery of Father Sauniere and the treasure he uncovered in Rennes-le-Chateau. The story has been uncovered in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and later became of central importance in the fictional Da Vinci Code. Sauniere, one hundred years after St. Sulpice united the likes of those who sought a constitutional monarchy, would still be of the same political leanings. Whatever it was that he uncovered brought to his tiny hamlet members of the Hapsburg dynasty, which still was a Catholic monarchy with great ambitions.
The St. Clair (or Sinclair) family has its own connections to St. Sulpice. The family of course had been instrumental in the Templars and at least one member of the family is believed to have served as a grandmaster in the shadowy force behind them, believed by some to be the Priory of Sion. The Sinclair branch of the St. Clair family would create an equally famous chapel in Scotland called Roslyn, (alternately Roslin) which has become a most sacred Masonic site (see Jan Wicherink’s article on page 38).
The controversial Priory of Sion, it is believed, operated out of the small church and its environs as did other secret societies, including the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, the Society of Notre Dame and the Sulpician order of Catholic priests. St. Vincent de Paul would found several orders from this base of operations. What they all had in common was a tolerance of new ideas that ranged from science to politics, and possibly most important a tolerance of religion.
Although Catholic, they openly co-existed with Protestants in France and the various groups shared a reverence for the Black Virgin. This dark version of Mary (often with her son Jesus) had a startling semblance to the Goddess Isis and her son Osiris of Egypt. The devotion to the Black Virgin was shared by Saint Bernard and his order, the Cistercians, and the same devotion lasted through the eigh-teenth century at St. Sulpice. The words Notre Dame are ambiguous in the way that they translate to “Our Lady,” a meaning that could imply the goddess of numerous pre-Christian religions, or the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Catholic Church. (For more on the Black Virgin see Mark Amaru Pinkham’s article in A.R. #70).
Two mysterious features of such esoteric orders were the inclusion of Black Virgin statues or pictures in the churches and the use of the labyrinth. Again as old as Egypt or New Grange in Ireland, the design found its way on the floors of numerous Cathedrals including the most spectacular Cathedral at Chartres. This sacred city was the center of Druid France, and the presence of more than one Black Virgin and a Labyrinth is significant. On one level it was meant to be walked in contemplative thought. On a deeper level it was meant to find the spirit within.
In the late 18th century, such groups existed on both sides of the Atlantic. The words of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire echoed in the docks of Boston, in the streets of New York, among the open-minded citizens of Philadelphia and in the House of Burgesses in Virginia.
It would be Benjamin Franklin in the 1770s who used his membership in esoteric society to enlist the wealthy elite of France to help bring democracy in the Americas. Some of France’s most powerful families risked life and fortune to defeat the British. Then the seeds of democracy planted in France and nourished by men like Franklin’s brother-Mason, Voltaire, grew into an abomination of what had been envisioned. While the American experiment had succeeded, the French version grew into what Robespierre would call “The Terror.”
The Failed French Revolution
The same elite class, many who had served in the military in the Americas, became targeted by the revolutionaries. They lost their homes to the mob, they were imprisoned and tortured, and for many the guillotine came as a relief. In August and September of 1792 the constant treachery of the mobs had heads being carried on pikes and rioters dipping bread in the blood of their victims.
After they murdered their own king, the Queen sent the Marquis de La Fayette, who was in charge of the royal guard, packing. The Marquis went to Belgium while his cousin Louis Marie de Noailles made plans for a French exile community in America.
Years before, the Marquis de La Fayette would be among those who brought so much assistance to the colonies. Along with his brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, and the Count of Segur he had enlisted in the American army. La Fayette was thirteen when his father died in battle. He held one of Europe’s greatest fortunes at an unusually young age. Through the efforts of his uncle he married into the Noailles family at age fourteen, France’s wealthiest family. His cousin, Marie Adrienne d’Ayen de Noailles, was barely twelve at the time. The marriage insured that the greatest of France’s family fortunes would stay intact.
In 1775, young La Fayette was at a dinner where the Duke of Gloucester described the American situation. He beamed at the thought of America saying, “The moment I heard of America, I loved her.” He and his two cousins decided to cross the ocean. Their uncle joked about their adventure, dubbing them the Three Musketeers, yet at the same time he feared for their safety.
La Fayette was a pudgy, red-haired, already balding young man when he first met Washington. At first he was prized by Washington for the large amount of money and supplies he brought with him, but the general soon had genuine devotion to the young man. He instructed others that La Fayette was to be treated as his son if he required medical care.
From a life of luxury, the young La Fayette suffered through the cold winter at Valley Forge with Washington. From the horrors of the cold winter, to the march on Virginia, La Fayette believed in the inevitable victory. Cornwallis waited in Yorktown for supplies that never came, and vowed to get La Fayette, saying, “The boy cannot escape me.” The tables were turned, however; a French fleet had stopped the English from getting supplies and soon Cornwallis was forced to be the one to surrender. La Fayette went home a hero.
He was, however, a changed man who took the goals of Liberty and Equality to heart. He discussed with Washington the need to free the slaves. He pushed for better conditions in the land that would become Haiti, and actually bought two plantations for the Jesuits to create working conditions for the enslaved blacks, based on the ideal that every man should be treated the same.
At the same time when he returned to his own country, he found himself in charge of 200,000 French soldiers and responsible for protecting the king and queen. His military career ended when rumors of La Fayette and Marie Antoinette having an affair, though untrue, spread throughout the country. The queen sent him away.
A Safe Haven in America
Connections made by Franklin allowed his fellow Philadelphians to come to the aid of those who share their philosophy. The plans orchestrated in Paris were assisted by prominent members in Philadelphia Society including Stephen Girard, Robert Morris and John Nicholson, who helped put together the property which Noailles purchased.
From there the small refuge was designed and plotted out as a town and a farming community. Apparently they had great hopes for their community as the main road was built 100 feet in width and intersecting streets sixty feet wide. By early 1794 thirty rough log cabins had been built. It was a far cry from palaces and estates in France. However, most of the homes had chimneys, wallpaper, window glass and front porches. The largest home, called the Grande Maison, would serve as the center and was visited by Tallyrand, Louise Phillipe who would become king of France. It was a two-story log structure over eighty feet long and sixty feet wide with eight large fireplaces. It was supposed to become the home of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, but she would not escape France. Two of her children were secretly sent here for their safety. Many of the cabins were occupied by minor nobility, officeholders, artisans and professionals. They shared a belief in reforming France, but the mob had changed their plans.
A slave insurrection in Santo Domingo added to their ranks. Revolution had worked in America, but on two continents it had gone too far and made it impossible for democracy or for peace. French plantation owners, not known for their kindness in treating their workers, were in danger of losing their lives.
Life was not easy in “Frenchtown,” as the area was dubbed by its neighbors, but the settlers quickly adjusted. A national deputy of France became a haberdasher, clerics cut wood, a captain in the French industry became an innkeeper, and a naval hero became a farmer. The former aristocrats endured the working class life by treasuring the luxuries they had taken for granted. A weekly coach from Philadelphia brought a steady stream of items. Constant rounds of parties and events had women still dressing in silks and men in satin breeches to a backdrop of rocky hills and deep forests.
The French also introduced better breeding methods for cattle, better cultivation methods for crops, newer types of watermills and the use of hard metals in barter. They planted orchards and gardens, raised sheep, erected a distillery and a blacksmith’s shop. As they spread into the surrounding areas many new Pennsylvania towns were founded with French names. Roulette, LaPorte, Homet’s Ferry, Dushore, Smethport and Frenchtown all remain on the map.
When Napoleon took control from the disastrous rule of the mob, he also restored peace, for a time. To some, the necessity of seeking asylum in America was no longer critical. Several of the elite families returned to their homeland. Others would give up the hardscrabble life for the prosperous city of Philadelphia. But a core of the once elite dug in their heels and stayed. Many of their names are still found among the area’s populace.
Today the site of the original Azilum community has several of the original buildings and structures, and others that have been restored. A small museum is housed in a 1790-built structure, and the original wine cellar has survived. In addition, for those initiates that ventured from St. Sulpice, the landscaping includes a labyrinth for walking, contemplating and restoring the serenity that might have been difficult for those who narrowly escaped the guillotine.