During his youth as an acclaimed pianist, Hermann Cohen – nicknamed “Puzzi” by his adoring admirers – was said to have been the first to dismiss any idea that in 1858 he would become the first priest to lead a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our- Lady of Lourde in France.
As Carmelite Father Timothy Tierney explained in his biography, The life of Hermann Cohen, from Franz Liszt to Jean de la Croix, Cohen was born into a Jewish family in 1821, in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up imbued with the materialistic values of his father, a wealthy financier. God and eternal values were far from his mind. Following his conversion, Cohen later described in a sermon his futile search for happiness during his gigging days and career, and said:
I looked for it in the elegant life of salons, in the dizzying pleasures of balls and banquets, in the accumulation of money, in the excitement of gambling. I looked for it in the fame of the artist , in the friendships of illustrious people and in all the pleasures of the senses and the mind.
According to Father Tierney, Cohen’s empty pleasures began at the age of 6, when he began piano studies with Hamburg’s most famous teacher, who declared him “a genius”. Cohen admitted that flattery was enough to justify his teacher’s outrageous behavior with women and to desire to emulate his behaviors. He dressed in the latest fashions like him. He went with him to social events. He mimics his conceited tunes and learns from him how to mingle with the elite, all doting on Hermann like a little pop star.
At age 12, following the financial collapse of his father’s business, Cohen was taken by his distraught mother, determined to ensure her son’s success, to Paris where he was accepted as a student at the Conservatoire under the auspices of Franz Liszt, the most revered pianist of the time. Liszt guided Cohen to piano perfection and, within two years, earned him high honors in recitals, and in Geneva where he received a teaching chair at the age of 15. Then, without warning, Liszt suddenly abandoned his two long-time mistress and Cohen, leaving Cohen for the first time without an idol or mentor. Lost, he returned to Paris to resume his old concert circuit, and began to socialize with ideologues in the salons, among them the novelist George Sand and the fallen priest, Félicité Lamennais. Cohen said they used him as a scapegoat for all their reprehensible ideas, including atheism, pantheism, communism, terrorism, lawlessness and the abolition of marriage.
More deleterious, however, was gambling, to which Cohen quickly became a slave in the casinos. He explained the horrors of his addiction in a sermon and wrote:
O, the feeling of rage – he loses again. Again, with a red and angry face, he will spit profanities. … He curses, he launches a torrent of insults and invectives. He locks himself in and cannot join his friends and buddies. … He has become the slave of an implacable tyrant. Passion holds him back to cruel emotions, to the painful tortures of deceived hope. Passion holds him in an iron grip and keeps him awake day and night.
Cohen said the player was having nightmares, struggling with insomnia and desolation, and contemplating suicide. But then again, he concludes, he is once again returning to the tables hoping for “one more attempt at making a fortune”.
Perhaps it was the memory of hearing or playing music on the organ that rekindled the faith in his heart and encouraged him to take a step towards freedom. As he later described in a prayer:
Oh my God. I was filled with a taste of holiness. Did you not stir in my soul a presentiment of religious faith? What was then this deep feeling, which I have always experienced since my youth when I myself touched or heard someone else play the notes of the organ?
The answer, he knew, had been revealed to him by Mary while she was conducting the choir at a special service in his honor at St. Valère Church in May 1847. Cohen said he initially agreed to participate in the event solely out of interest. in the music and do the job well. But as he turned and the Blessed Sacrament was lifted up in blessing before the congregation, he said he suddenly felt as if he had found himself – “like the prodigal son facing him -same”.
Humbled, he bowed his head in adoration, began attending Mass daily, and was baptized on August 28, the feast of St. Augustine.
From that moment he became an unstoppable missionary. He helped establish and promote a movement known as Nocturnal Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1849, he entered the Carmelite Order, taking the name Augustine Marie du Saint-Sacrement, and was ordained a priest four years later. In 1858, while working to establish new monasteries near Lourdes in southern France, it was then that he led his historic pilgrimage to pray at the grotto on September 20, two months after the last apparition of Mary to Saint Bernadette Soubirous. That day, the tiny niche had been barricaded at the entrance by Commissioner Jacomet, a fierce opponent of events.
In his book, Bernadette speaks: A life of Bernadette Soubirous in her own wordsthe author Abbé René Laurentin recounts the remarkable scene as described by Jacomet in his report:
Early this morning there was much commotion at the grotto caused by Father Hermann and Doctor Dozous who left town together and went to the grotto; and there, surrounded by a curious crowd who had come with the Carmelite, Father Hermann, they sang the “Magnificat” and another psalm so loud that his voice could be heard as far away as Pau.
No doubt a sign of Mary’s approval of Cohen’s testimony and the power of her intercession, nine days later the barricades were removed.
Lourdes continued to be a source of grace for Cohen in later years, particularly in 1868, after he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Suffering and in great pain, he went to Lourdes and began a novena, praying daily through Mary’s intercession at the grotto and washing his eyes in the miraculous waters of the spring. On the last day, realizing that the last symptoms of the disease had disappeared, he was overjoyed and shared the news in a letter to a fellowship of friends: “I am completely and totally cured! It is my deep conviction that this healing is due to the intercession of Our Lady.
Cohen attributed all the graces of his life, most notably his conversion, to Mary. It was she, he told the others, who showed him the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It was she who led him to the “holy desert” of Carmel and guided him to his priestly ordination. Mary had guided him through his missionary journeys, and eventually, back to his native home in Hamburg where he ministered to the spiritual needs of French prisoners, barred by the ruling Prussian government from receiving help from French chaplains. From morning to night, Cohen offered guidance and hope to their troubled souls and administered the sacraments. It was during his time among the prisoners that Cohen contracted smallpox and died shortly after on January 20, 1871.
Hermann Cohen’s cause for beatification is ongoing. He is a model of hope for all who suffer from addiction, physical or emotional illness, or who have been misled by the idols of materialism, false religious practices, and dangerous ideologies that plague our world today. Consider him a friend. Ask his intercession for favors. And trust with firm faith in the Word of God, as Mary did, that “nothing is impossible with God”.