Story of last man guillotined: Inspires us to work for an end to the death penalty Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Diocese of Madison seminarian Tyler Dickinson has the lead role in a play called Saved by the Guillotine, which tells the story of Jacques Fesch, the last man sentenced to the guillotine in France. He was beheaded on October 1, 1957.

When I heard the year was 1957, I thought I misunderstood! Was this the right century? After all, the French Revolution happened from 1789 to 1799. We remember hearing about people yelling “off with their heads” during this time in history. Apparently it continued much longer.

The story of Jacques Fesch reminds us of why we should oppose the death penalty.  Fesch did commit a murder, although it was not premeditated. His lawyer argued in court that no crime merits another crime.

Rediscovers his faith

Fesch fortunately was not executed until over three years after his crime. An atheist at the time he entered prison, he rediscovered his faith with the help of a prison chaplain, his lawyer, and a monk. Through that conversion, God gave him the grace to die in peace.

Although Fesch was indeed saved by his time in prison, what if his conversion had happened five years later? His situation makes us realize how horrible the death penalty is, especially if life in prison can be used as an alternative. That time in prison can afford a prisoner the time to reconcile with God and others.

After his conversion, Jacques Fesch worked to convert his family members. Before he was executed, he offered his life for the souls of his father and the police officer he killed.

His letters from prison give us a rare insight into the life and sufferings of a prisoner and into his spiritual journey from sinner to possible saint. His cause for sainthood is being considered.

Catholic teaching on the death penalty

The life and death of Jacques Fesch give us an opportunity to reflect on the continued use of the death penalty.

For more than 39 years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for an end to the death penalty in our land. In 1999, they wrote a beautiful letter on Good Friday about the death penalty. It is still  available on the  bishops’ website at

The bishops said at that time, and it is still true today, that sadly death sentences and executions in this country continue at an increasing rate. “In some states, there are so many executions they rarely receive much attention anymore. On this Good Friday, a day when we recall our Savior’s own execution, we appeal to all people of goodwill, and especially Catholics, to work to end the death penalty.”

The bishops said they were encouraged by new and growing efforts to stop executions around the world. Through his powerful encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope John Paul II asked that governments stop using death as the ultimate penalty. The Holy Father pointed out that instances where its application is necessary to protect society have become “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The bishops said, “Sadly, many Americans — including many Catholics — still support the death penalty out of understandable fear of crime and horror at so many innocent lives lost through criminal violence. We hope they will come to see, as we have, that more violence is not the answer.”

Many in the Catholic community are at the forefront of efforts to end capital punishment at state and national levels. The bishops said, “We seek to educate and persuade our fellow citizens that this penalty is often applied unfairly and in racially biased ways. We stand in opposition to state laws that would permit capital punishment and federal laws that would expand it.”

The bishops added, “We strongly encourage all within the Catholic community to support victims of crime and their families. . . . We fully support and encourage these and other efforts to uphold the dignity of all human life.”

Fortunately, the state of Wisconsin still has no death penalty. Our citizens should make sure efforts to reenact capital punishment are defeated.

We must also pray for the victims of crimes and for the perpetrators, that they may seek forgiveness and mercy from God.