Hermann Cohen, gambling addict turned Carmelite priest, preached to crowds of thousands across Europe

The lives of the saints are replete with stories of notorious sinners who became exemplars of Catholicism. Few, though, are so unusual as that of Hermann Cohen, Jewish child prodigy of the piano and gambling addict turned champion of the Eucharist and promoter of nocturnal Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Born at Hamburg on November 10, 1821 into a rich Jewish family, Cohen was a Liszt-like prodigy. A year after beginning to play the piano he was able to improvise on popular arias, to the amazement of all. Soon he was giving regular concerts. Spoilt and revered by his mother, he became, by his own description, “the tyrant of the family”.

Cohen experienced such success that in July 1834 his mother took him to Paris, searching among the great pianists of the day for a teacher. It was to Liszt himself that she turned. Liszt was then 22, on the cusp of his scandalous relationship with Countess Marie d’Agoult, and the darling of musical Paris. He was sufficiently impressed to accept Cohen immediately. The two were soon inseparable.

Young Hermann became known as Puzzi, the name given him by Liszt in imitation of his own nickname, Putzig (“cute little fellow”). An indication of Puzzi’s enormous talent is that in 1835 he became a professor at the newly established Geneva Conservatoire on Liszt’s recommendation – though a hint of his troublesome nature can be found in the letter Liszt wrote suggesting him “for whose talent and morals [my italics] I will be answerable”.

Cohen later wrote: “I learned when 12 years old many things, the knowledge of which was well-nigh fatal to my soul.” This must, I think, be a reference to his crippling gambling addiction, the pursuit of which would lead him to the brink of ruin. On December 7, 1841, Liszt wrote to Mme d’Agoult: “It has been made clear to me that Hermann stole 1,500 francs from me at the first concert and almost as much at the second.” In February 1844, he writes again: “I shall be making very short work of that wretch.” In March 1840 Liszt had had to help Cohen out of a scrape in Prague by paying off gambling debts. Cohen made no secret of this. It is interesting, though, that in the testimony of full confession he wrote upon entering the Carmelite order in 1849, Cohen was adamant that he did not steal from Liszt.

The probable explanation is that Mme d’Agoult arranged for the theft and for it to point to Cohen, as she was jealous of his closeness to Liszt and worried that he was a financial drain.

The next few years passed in a depressing flurry of gambling, increasingly bad concerts and unpayable debts. Then, one Friday in May 1847, Cohen was asked to conduct the choir at the Church of Saint-Valère. According to his memoirs, “When the moment of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament arrived, I felt an indescribable agitation. I was, in spite of my own will, led to bend towards the ground. Coming back the following Friday, I was overawed in the same manner, and I suddenly had the idea to become Catholic.” On August 7 of that year while in Ems, Germany, to give a concert, he was so overcome by tears during Mass that “All at once… I began to make, interiorly to God, a general and rapid confession of all my enormous misdoings.” Upon returning to Paris he sought out the Abbé Ratisbonne, another Jewish convert, and on August 28 he was baptised in the convent chapel of Notre Dame de Sion.

Cohen spent the following two years giving concerts to pay off his creditors, being forbidden to take Holy Orders until this was achieved. Following his final, triumphant concert in Paris he exclaimed: “Now I have done with the world for ever! With what happiness, after my final note, I bowed to bid it farewell.”

It was while taking time to discern his vocation that Cohen popularised the practice of nocturnal devotions to the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Having taken advice from several priests Cohen decided to become a Discalced Carmelite. He served his novitiate at the convent of Le Broussey, near Bordeaux, receiving the habit on October 6, 1849 (the feast of the Holy Rosary) and making his religious profession on October 7, 1850.

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Cohen, now Fr Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrament, then spent a decade preaching around western Europe, often to crowds of thousands. Liszt and Cohen were reconciled in 1862 during a visit to Rome and remained close thereafter. At Cardinal Wiseman’s request, Pope Pius IX sent Fr Cohen “to convert England, as one of my predecessors sent the monk Augustine”. On October 15, 1863 he, along with several French Carmelites, moved into a house in Kensington. That year, for the first time since the Reformation, an English novice took the habit.

During the Franco-Prussian War, Fr Augustin-Marie went to Spandau prison to minister to the 5,000 French soldiers being held there. Smallpox was rife, and it was while administering Extreme Unction without a spatula to two men that he himself caught the disease. On January 19, 1871, he made his last Confession, received Holy Communion and said his last words: “Now, O my God, I place my soul into Your hands.” He died peacefully the next day.

Fr Cohen’s Cause for beatification was put forward on January 19, 2016 by Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux and Bazas.

David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant

This article first appeared in the August 31 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here