Gerard Fesch didn’t learn that his father was a notorious murderer until he turned 40. Gerard grew up in foster care, with his records sealed. All he knew about his history was his mother’s first name: Thérèse.
“Every time I tried to look into my past, I would come up with possible theories as to why I’d been abandoned. I suspected I might uncover something unpleasant,” Fesch says, “but I never imagined this.”
The “Jacques Fesch Affair,” as the book is titled, is a famous true crime tale in France. It tells the story of the wayward son of a Paris businessman, executed by guillotine in 1957 for killing a policeman.
At 24, Jacques Fesch had a wife, a daughter and a pregnant mistress. And he was looking for a way to escape his chaotic personal life. He asked his wealthy father for the money to buy a boat that he could sail to Tahiti. His father refused, so to finance his plan, Fesch got a gun and tried to rob a currency dealer, who was also a friend of his father’s.
“The holdup went very, very wrong,” Gerard Fesch says. “He was chased and it ended, finally, with him shooting and killing a policeman.” The elder Fesch was apprehended while trying to escape in the metro.
The crime made headlines. The officer’s funeral procession aired on TV news. All the papers followed Fesch’s trial. What came out later, though, was Fesch’s spiritual awakening in prison. He returned to his faith and become a devout Catholic — so devout that his letters and journals were published after his death in 1957 and became widely read in France.
Fesch wrote his most famous line the night before his execution: “In five hours,” he wrote, “I will see Jesus.”
Gerard had not heard of Jacques Fesch until a friend gave him an article about his life. Gerard, initially not expecting the story about a religious figure would interest him, nearly tossed it out. However, late one night, he picked it up to read.
“Right at the end,” Gerard says, “the article mentioned that Jacques Fesch had a child named Gerard with a young woman, Thérèse, but this child had been abandoned and no one knew where he was. At that point, I started to wonder.”
The next day he called the journalist who wrote the story, the first step in what would become a long process of confirming his identity. A DNA test eventually proved he was the son of Jacques Fesch, which allowed him to legally adopt his surname. Gerard also found out other things about his father’s life, like the fact that he played the trumpet, as Gerard did.
It all took some time to process, he acknowledges.
“It’s not every day you find you had a father who was guillotined, and today, they want to beatify him,” he says.
Jacques Fesch’s spiritual awakening in prison was considered so stunning and his writings so moving that the Catholic Church in France petitioned the Vatican to make him a saint. That process began decades ago.
Today, though, the tale of Jacques Fesch is getting new life, as Gerard seeks a posthumous pardon for his father.
“Maybe it’s to try to show Jacques Fesch was not just an assassin, the person who had killed,” he says, “but that 60 years later, we’re still talking about him. He’s still here. He helps people, frankly, and helps people find comfort.”
Since his personal discovery, Gerard has collected piles of material about his father, including letters he receives regularly from people touched by his father’s writings.
“There was this very well-known French singer who passed away recently of cancer,” he recounts. “Several months before he died he sent me a note saying my father had helped him a lot and [that] he was truly a saint.”
For Gerard Fesch, there’s comfort now in knowing who his parents are. He says he met his mother, Thérèse, just once before her death, but it didn’t go all that well.
Ultimately, he’s come to feel much closer to his father, who, of course, he never met. He says he doesn’t go a day without thinking about him.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.