Enriching Many – Jeanne

   -Marie Chavoin

   - Part 3

   - The Corner Stone

By Marist Sister Edmund sm

At a time when apostates were quite common, Pierre and Jean-Claude Colin came of staunch and deeply Catholic stock. Their father, Jacques Colin, died a fugitive for his religion barely a month after the death of his sorrowing wife. This heroic woman had encouraged his resistance to the enemies of the Faith, had told him to die rather than submit to their demands. Known for her piety during life, Madame Colin's last act was to confide her young children to the care of Our Blessed Lady. Sebastian Colin, a paternal uncle and prosperous cotton weaver, took the orphans to his home and brought them up as members of the family.

That was in 1794 when Jean-Claude was four years old. Last but one of a family of eight, he was born at St. Bonnet-le-Troncyon August 7th, I 790, and baptised the same day according to local custom. Bereft of his mother's advice, the boy inherited her piety and, especially, her devotion to Our Lady. This spirit of piety and love of Mary were characteristics of his all through life. To them, one must add humility, simplicity and, to use his own words, 'an ardent desire to be unknown.'

Like Jeanne-Marie Chavoin, Jean-Claude Colin was a child of the Revolution. He, too, knew its horrors. Yet he was also very much alive to the magnificent things that were being done for the Faith and for souls. And he refused to be a passive spectator. His spirit of mortification undermined his health at an early age. The Blessed Virgin and the Blessed Eucharist were already his favourite devotions. Nevertheless, owing to the Jansenistic tendencies of the time, he was fourteen before he received his First Holy Communion. Years before that, however, he made his first confession and frequented the holy tribunal whenever an opportunity cropped up. As he was too small to climb over the furniture which concealed the confessional in his uncle's workshop, he used to wriggle through the looms until he got to the priest. 'I have not the faintest idea what I used to say,' he confessed later, 'but I do remember that I would willingly have gone to confession every day.' Yet, because of his delicate conscience, confession was an anxiety.

Jean-Claude used to slip out of bed to pray. When­ ever he heard whispered rumours of a clandestine Mass, he either refused to go to bed, or did so when promised that he would be called in time. Every furtive Mass added fresh depth to his spiritual life. The boy listened eagerly to the sermons given in hushed tones in some loft or other behind doors that were carefully guarded. The fire of apostolate kindled within him. He loved to go through the ceremonies of the Mass with his companions. Standing on a log, he would then talk to them about God and his Blessed Mother. Sometimes he cut in the bark of a tree an unskilled sketch of his patron for the month. Then, with his help and that of Our Lady of Sorrows, the young apostle knew no fear.

Even during those years of youthful apostolate Jean­Claude longed to give himself to God, that he might win souls for Jesus through Mary. He had an extra­ ordinary thirst for souls. But he was so timid, that it was not until encouraged to do so by a priest, that he dared to offer himself for the priesthood. In 1804 he joined his older brother, Pierre, at the seminary of St. Jodard. During his fourth year there his health broke down, and he received the Last Sacraments. Eventually it was at

Verrieres that he completed his priestly studies. He was a good student. Yet when asked in later years if he had had a passion for study, he replied quite simply: 'No. I understood that study was my duty of the moment, and was careful to give it the time allotted. At the beginning and end of each period of study, I asked the Blessed Virgin to bless me. When alone, I sometimes knelt before her statue. I tried to be punctual, to run at the first sound of the bell.' Jean-Claude had other hidden ways of raising his mind to God. His books were jotted with pencil marks to remind him to make acts of humility, charity or abandonment at regular intervals. It is interesting to note that among his fellow students and close friends at Verrieres were Marcellin Champagnat, later a Marist Father and Founder of the Marist Brothers, and Jean-Baptiste Vianney who, if not allowed to become a Marist, is one of the glories of the Third Order of Mary.

Shortly after his ordination, July 22nd, 1816, Father Jean-Claude Colin was sent to Cerdon as curate to his brother Pierre. The latter had just been transferred to Cerdon after six years at Coutouvre.

Cerdon is to the south of Nantua along the Lyons­ Geneva road. It lies deep down in a hollow at the meeting of three valleys. The church and presbytery, isolated from the mass of dwellings, cling to the side of a protecting hill. The village itself is hemmed in by hills which are either densely wooded or covered with vine. Here and there a frothy waterfall splashes merrily over forbidding-looking rocks. Truly a miniature Switzerland!

High above the loftiest peak soars a statue of Our Lady, visible several miles away. She seems inaccessible. But the difficulties of a rather perilous ascent are amply rewarded by the thrill of finding oneself right by the

Madonna with her welcoming smile. The statue itself is large and comparatively new. The stone pedestal bears the inscription: 'Souvenir of August 15th, 1854'. A wire arch, with covered lanterns at its base, acts as a sort of frame for both statue and pedestal. Each evening, at dusk and in all weathers, two young girls do the steep climb, rosary in hand, to light candles which they place in the lanterns. To save his parishoners the arduous ascent and the continual expense of candles, a thoughtful parish priest had electricity installed. But the wires were cut over-night. And the loving tribute of affection continues.

There is still a sort of Colin tradition in Cerdon. Villagers proudly point out the presbytery in which Fathers Pierre and Jean-Claude Colin lived. Over the latter's bedroom door they draw attention to a plaque in thanksgiving for a favour received. Cumbersome ledgers containing entries made by the brothers are eagerly shown. All this is right. For Cerdon owes to a great extend to the vitality of its faith to Fathers Pierre and Jean-Claude Colin. The place was in a sad state of religious apathy when they took over. In less than three years they succeeded in transforming the parish. So much so that a stalwart peasant remarked: 'Had they remained more than seven years, we'd have been a religious community’

But Cerdon's tender devotion to God's Mother is due, without doubt, mainly to Father Jean-Claude. Yet, he had hesitated to go there. He feared it might prove an obstacle to what he knew was his life's wmk. 'Don't worry,' his Director assured him. 'Your brother will be your first recruit.'

‘Long before I was raised to the dignity of the priest-hood’, says Father Jean-Claude, ‘I knew that God was preparing me for a special work in honour of Our Lady’.

He was to be the corner stone of a new spiritual edifice, the Society of Mary, comprising priests, nuns, brothers and a Third Order. It had even been shown to him supernaturally who would be his helpers. 'Curiously enough,' he revealed, when circumstances obliged him to speak, 'no one failed me.' His love of effacement and his humility induced him to keep his secret. He even prayed that someone else might come forward as Founder of the Society to which he desired to belong as a hidden and obscure member.

He threw himself heart and soul into his parish duties at Cerdon, giving to each the same exactness and care which he had put into his priestly studies. But God's voice would not be stilled. So towards the end of his first year as curate, Father Jean-Claude took his brother, Pierre, into his confidence.

When Father Pierre Colin heard that the new religious family in question was to have a special branch for women, he immediately thought of his two former parishioners in Coutouvre. He knew that Marie­ Therese Jotillon had stayed but a short time at Belleville, that she had returned home to build up her health, and that she and Jeanne-Marie Chavoin still longed for the religious life. So towards the end of 1817 Father Pierre got in touch with them, and invited them to Cerdon.

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19 October 2022

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