Enriching Many – Jeanne

   -Marie Chavoin

   - Part 6

   - Harvest

Perhaps we are too apt to think of the Foundress of a religious congregation in the Church as a mighty soul breathing on the earth and finding new branches of her movement, all shining, complete and wanting for nothing, in the place where she has breathed. This is, to some extent, the inner truth. For it is the spirit that quickeneth, the bricks and mortar of themselves being profitless. But in the field of practicali­ties, the foundation of each house is a matter of hard work, of courage to face a host of difficulties, patience to attend to a swarming mass of detail. We find all this in Mother St. Joseph's search for a house towards the close of 1835. ¥any possibilities were envisaged and ex­plored. But to no avail. Thus hopes that seemed bright and promising in the dioceses of Grenoble, Gap, Belley and Lyons came to nothing. Finally, negotiations were happily concluded and preparations begun for the opening of a convent at Meximieux, about eighteen miles outside Lyons.

Every place has its own particular charm. Unlike its neighbour, Perouges, Meximieux cannot boast of antique Roman remains and houses clustered round a fortified church built on a height. Nor is it one of those picturesque cities which stretch along the margin of a lake shaded by stately firs or which, as in the case of Nantua, grew up round a Benedictine monastery that received the mortal remains of an emperor in the nineteenth century. Still less does Meximieux pride itself on a wealth of architecture and sculpture as seen in the cathedral of Brou. Meximieux has a beauty all its own. Dominated by the ancient palace of the arch­bishops of Lyons, it is built in the form of an amphi­theatre on a hill whence one looks across the vast plain of La Valbonne to the massive snow-clad Alpine range.

On November 3rd, 1835, ten Sisters set out from 'Bon Repos' for Meximieux. This first separation was painful both for those who left the Mother House and those who remained behind. But there was joy and gratitude too at the thought of the progress which made another Marist convent possible. It was Mother St. Joseph herself who got everything ready, even loaded the wagons destined to convey the humble belongings. And, despite severe winter weather and the remon­strances of her daughters, she insisted on accompanying them to their new home. This, a simple house modestly surrounded by a walled garden, was in the lower part of the town. Father Founder had gone on before them and, thanks to his forethought, there was a welcoming blaze in the hearth on their arrival. 'We spent the night in prayer,' says Mother St. Joseph, 'and in turning one of the rooms into a chapel. Next morning Father Founder and Father Maitrepierre, Superior of the Semnary nearby, blessed the house then, said Mass during which we all received Holy Communion.'

Fond memories are still cherished of those early days at Meximieux. Of all Mother St. Joseph's foundations, that convent came nearest to the Marist ideal by its spirit of prayer, its charity and its love of work. 'How we prayed at Meximieux,' said those fortunate to have spent some time there. 'Happy vision of peace,' sings the Liturgy on the feast of the dedication of a church. So, too, might those first Marists sing when recalling the delightful peace and happiness enjoyed at Meximieux.

Yet hardship was not lacking. Right from the start Mother St. Joseph and her companions knew what it meant to be hungry and cold. 'Providence came to our aid in a very special way during the first few days,' writes Mother St. Joseph. 'Our luggage and food-stuffs were held up a couple of days owing to some accident or other on the snow-bound roads. Fortunately, we came across some small potatoes-too small to be of use else they would hardly have been left behind. These we boiled in a much-battered saucepan, then sliced them into a salad which we put into a sort of bowl as there were no dishes. Then we fell to, serving ourselves copiously for dinner and supper. After these two meals there was a little salad left, but not sufficient for a third meal. Yet next day, to our great surprise, we found as much salad in the bowl as before we had eaten. This salad was our only food for two days. Besides, it was bitterly cold, and we had neither beds nor blankets. A neighbour kindly lent us two straw mattresses and three blankets. Father Hubert, one of the Marists in the seminary, sent us his heavy cloak to help us to keep warm. It would take far too long to relate all the little delicacies of Providence.'

For years the community lived in penury. Recalling that heroic period, a Sister says: 'We often went weeks without as much as twenty farthings in hand. I slept for a month in a room that was so cold that I awoke frozen , and saw ice under the bed. Nevertheless,' the same Sister hastens to add, 'how happy we were! We were never more delighted than when the common purse was quite empty. Yes, we were as simple and as light­hearted as children. There was never a sad face or a sharp word. Ardent charity, perfect abandonment to the divine will reigned amongst us. These were the blessings attached to the poverty and hardship of those early days.'

Mexirnieux. The Sisters of St. Joseph were already well established there, and ran a prosperous boarding-school and hospice for the poor. In deference to these Sisters, Mother St. Joseph decided to concentrate, at least for a time, on a day school for the poor. This work developed very well indeed, and there were repeated requests for a boarding-school for children of moderate means. But, though the necessary ground was acquired, permission to build was not granted by the ecclesiastical authorities until as late as 1885. In the meantime, the valiant little community was hard pressed to make ends meet though every spare moment went in doing needle work-glove­making-for nearby shops.

The financial position was so precarious in 1847 when Mother St. Ambrose took over as Superior, that at the end of the year the accounts showed a considerable deficit. But her confidence in God was unshaken. She told the portress to give alms to all who knocked at the convent door for help. At the end of the year the accounts were balanced, and there remained twelve francs in the common purse. The portress was then told to increase the alms, to give five instead of the customary two centimes-then an appreciable sum-to each beggar. At the end of that year there were several hundred francs in the credit account. God was pleased with such child-like trust and would not be outdone in generosity.

His Holiness, Gregory XVI, approved the Society of Mary in 1836. Father Founder was convinced that if its growth were not to be impeded, the young Society must move at once from its obscure cradle to a more central position. It must leave the shelter of the small provincial town of Belley with its inadequate educational and apostolic facilities hampered by still more inadequate means of communication, and settle in a place which would not only give it scope to carry out the various forms of apostolate confided to it by the Sovereign Pontiff, but which would also afford the possibility of dose contact with the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, founded in 1820 by Pauline Jaricot.

Lyons met these multiple needs. So towards the close of 1836, the Fathers transferred their Mother House there. The novitiate and the missionary priests also found shelter in the large, roomy house with its in­terminable staircases which remained the centre of the Society for many years. Father Founder was most anxious that the Sisters should get a place nearby, so as to benefit also by the many advantages afforded by so central a position.

To mention Lyons is to think of Fourvieres, for the now world famous shrine to Our Blessed Lady is part and parcel of that city. It was at that shrine that the first small group of would-be Marists pledged themselves to Mary's service. It was there, too, that Father Founder used to take his doubts and difficulties. The magnificent Basilica towers above the city and is the symbol of Lyons' extraordinary devotion to God's Mother, a devotion which is centuries old and which time has but deepened. In 1838, the last of three unsuccessful attempts to get as near as possible to Fourvieres resulted in Mother St. Joseph's buying a good-sized house with quite a spacious garden in 'rue Juge-de-la-Paix' right next to the Basilica. Things seemed to be working out satisfactorily, a Third Order group had even been formed when there came a bolt from the blue. The person from whom money had been borrowed in order to make the purchase, brusquely demanded the return of the loan. To find this, the place had to be sold and, for the fourth time, Mother St. Joseph found herself literally 'beating the city' for a suitable house. Her confidence in Divine Providence and her unflagging zeal were at length rewarded by the acquisition of a small dwelling though some distance from Fourvieres. After having carried out the negotiations personally with the Archbishop, she had the joy of helping her daughters take possession of their new home at La Boucle on December 29th, 1840. The Sisters were soon to understand why the rent was so low. No one closed an eye the first few nights. All were greatly alarmed by the clanking of chains accompanied by weird noises. Mother St. Joseph mentioned the matter to Father Pierre Colin, who exorcised the place and thus put an end to the strange phenomena.

La Boucle soon became a hive of industry. The little community of eleven was kept busy with catechism classes and a day school. Yet the Sisters found time to take on orders from shops. And the magnificent work of their nimble fingers enabled Meximieux to keep Master Wolf at bay.

The future seemed promising. There were even rumours of a boarding-school, yet Mother St. Joseph was obliged to close La Boucle after barely sixteen years. By then the locality had deteriorated considerably, and the population had gradually shifted into the heart of the city where work was easier got and living appeared more attractive. So there was little point in keeping on a school at La Boucle. On September 28th, 1856, Mother St. Joseph withdrew her daughters and it was, she admits, with a heavy heart that she saw them leave Mary's town. But they were not destined to leave the neighbour­hood of Lyons altogether. The foundation of an orphan­age at St. Foy, a suburb of that city, kept them for centuries within the shadow of the Marian shrine. She who, as a girl, had taken such a personal interest in the needy, now threw herself heart and soul into the care of God's motherless ones. Her great aim was that the convent should be for them a 'home away from home', a place where their young souls would be gently formed to virile virtue in an atmosphere of confidence and love. Father Founder, too, showed a special pre­dilection for this work among the destitute poor. He loved to visit the little orphans in whose prayers he had the utmost trust. Towards the close of his life, when his sight had dimmed and walking was none too easy, it was still a joy for him to do the steep climb from his home to theirs to have tea with his little friends.

Their home was ideally situated within view of the Lyonese mountains on the one side and, on the other, of the ruins of the famous aqueducts once the very life­streams of the city thanks to their abundant supply of water from Mount Pilate.

But even the beauty of the panorama was no compen­sation to the six Sisters for the trials which awaited them when they took possession of the orphanage on March 2nd, 1841. The former Principal, piqued at the change-over from secular to religious administration, had decamped with all the furniture. There was not as much as a plate left for the in-comers. Fortunately, the generous donor of the place, Count de Verna, was at hand, so the essentials were soon purchased. Important additions were made to the house and grounds in I 844. 'When our Sisters took over,' writes Mother St. Joseph, 'there were twenty children in the orphanage. By 1849 there were fifty. But owing to the Revolution the silk­weaving looms worked by the older girls had to be burnt. Thus our principal means of livelihood disap­peared. So we were obliged to place the younger children in families, and to find jobs for the others.' When things quietened down again, the orphanage work was resumed, and continues to flourish on modern lines. For many years the parish priest of Collonges, a modest but extremely picturesque little town on the Swiss frontier, had wanted a convent. Apart from teaching, there was any amount that nuns might do. But until 1852 his attempts at securing a community were frustrated by the dire poverty of the parish. In that year, however, Mother St. Joseph came to Collonges with a few Sisters to open a school. True, the harassed pastor in no way exaggerated the advantages of the place. Over and over again he expressed the fear that the Sisters should suffer unduly because of the poverty of the parish, adding, nevertheless, that in sharing his own penury the Marist Sisters, who had come in answer to his urgent appeal, would draw down untold graces upon their congregation. To which Mother St. Joseph made this typical reply: 'Thanks again for all your kindness and evident interest in our Sisters. But, Father, don't worry about the poverty of the house. That does not perturb them in the least. In fact they don't even notice it. Were they to enjoy plenty from the start, I would tremble for the solidity of the work. Poverty is the safeguard of religious houses. Must not Mary's children try to resemble their Mother on this point?'

These words are but an echo of Father Founder when he says: 'How I love houses which begin poor; houses in which one has to suffer; where everything is not according to one's desires.' While he tells his children that all forms of apostolate are open to them, he reminds them that if they wish to maintain the soul's intimate union with God, they will accept by preference those works which, because of their lowly nature, attract no attention. Marists,' he concludes, 'are meant to do what others will not or cannot do.'

Even this brief outline reveals that Mother St. Joseph's first foundations were according to the spirit of the saintly Founder-that spirit of Nazareth on which he insisted so much. Five foundations in the mother­country in the short span of twenty-seven years was a goodly harvest. There were indications too that her daughters would one day labour farther afield in the vineyard of the Lord.

In 1827 the Holy See confided eastern Oceania to the Picpus Fathers. Nine years later, when he approved the young Society of Mary, Pope Gregory XVI sent Father Colin's sons to western Oceania, by far the larger section of the two. To those who sail across the vast expanse of the mighty Pacific Ocean, the apparition of these islands-some thousands in number-which spring up here and there amidst the waves is like a glimpse of fairyland. They flash upon the eye as so many dazzling emeralds sprinkled upon a setting of deep blue. Yet when the first Marist missionaries landed, the customs of the dark-skinned inhabitants in no way tallied with the enchantment of their surroundings. A cannibal race, they revelled in monstrous banquets of human flesh.

Thanks to the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, news of the Maris ts in the South Seas filtered through to Europe. The massacre of several of those heroic miss­ionaries, the mass conversions at Wallis and Futuna, the marvellous success obtained in New Zealand did not fail to evoke deep feeling.

Naturally, these tidings touched a still deeper chord in the hearts of all Marists. Occasional letters from those distant fields of apostolate added more intimate details of the progress of events. The Marist Sisters were specially moved by accounts of the savage massacre of Father Pierre Louis Marie Chanel in 1841, after barely three years of ministry in Futuna. Their ties with Father Chanel had been very close, for he had often visited 'Bon Repos' where his sister Francoise was a nun and another, Josephine, a boarder. The fervour of the young priest as he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice, and his stirring words when he spoke to them on winning souls for Christ were not easily forgotten. Nor was his vibrant young voice as he begged them to follow him across the ocean, at least by prayer. For Father Pierre Louis Marie Chanel was among the first Marist missionaries sent by Father Founder, in 1836, to the cannibal islands lost in the splendour of the tropics. All his life Father Chanel had craved to be a missionary. Yet when his ambition was about to be realised, the ardent apostle of the heathen knew the torture of doubt. France was in dire need of priests. Thousands of souls in the homeland were groping in darkness, and there was no one to shine the light of the Gospel on their path. Should he stay where he was? Tortured by indecision, Father Chanel sought Mother St. Joseph, and craved her prayers to know whether or not he should embark for the dangerous missions in Oceania. With fiery in­dignation, she immediately replied: 'What, Father Chanel, would you let an apostle's, perhaps even a martyr's, crown slip from your grasp? Would you resist the voice of God who calls you? Everywhere, no doubt, one must work out one's salvation in fear and trembling. But if difficulties are greater in certain places, will grace not be in proportion? Have confidence, therefore, and be courageous. Do not hesitate in the least to go to Oceania. You can count on our prayers. We rely on yours.' Thanks to these virile words of her servant, the Blessed Virgin filled Father Chanel's soul anew with a peace and confidence which did not leave him even in the midst of the trials which were henceforth his lot.

They were prophetic words, too, as events proved. For Father Pierre Louis Marie Chanel was raised to the altars as Oceania's proto-martyr.

There were visits too from missionaries coming and going to the Pacific Islands. Bishops and priests in­variably dropped into the convents nearby to plead for the spiritual and material needs of their respective missions. Father Epalle came to 'Bon Repos' in 1842, and gave a stirring account of missionary life in New Zealand. That was just three years before he was killed by natives in the South Solomons. Youthful Bishop Douarre came later in the year, and spoke at length on the prospects of the Church in New Caledonia and the urgent need of missionary nuns. 'Ah, 'Lord, I'll go with you,' cried Sister St. Paul. 'I can build. I can work.' What His Lordship wanted above all was the assurance of prayers. This Mother St. Joseph gave in the name of all, saying: 'My Lord, you can count on at least thirty Communions a week from us for the success of your apostolate.'

Nevertheless, Sister Paul's spontaneous cry voiced the feelings of quite a good number present. Many a Marist Sister would have loved to have gone to Oceania. For at that time those distant islands set in the mysterious Pacific had a lure all their own, and were often talked about in recreation. Mother St. Joseph shared the general enthusiasm, and prayed for the day when missionary apostolate among the coloured races would be possible for her daughters. 'In our lands of faith,' she said, 'we may find good vocations for Oceania. Let us do aJI we can to encourage such vocations, and to hasten the time when we will work side by side with the Marist Fathers in mission lands.'

Actually, in 1848, six Sisters were to leave for New Caledonia with Bishop Douarre, who had made a second visit to the homeland. Mother St. Joseph was delighted to prepare these first missionaries of hers for the difficult task ahead, and spared nothing to fit them spiritually and materially for their noble apostolate. The pioneers themselves were very eager to set out. Imagine their disappointment, therefore, when Father Founder prevented their departure at the last moment.

Sinister news had just come from Oceania. Letters were full of Brother Marmoiton's massacre and the tem­porary withdrawal of all missionaries from New Caledonia. It was hardly the time for nuns to land. Besides, Father Founder was loathe lo expose them to the dangers about which he had been informed. So he decided that, at least for the present, missionary apostolate in the South Seas was not for the Marist Sisters. 'You will go,' he hastened to assure the dis­consolate little group, 'but later.'

And so they did, but not till 1891 when the Marist habit was seen for the first time in distant Levuka, the ancient capital of Fiji. Today, just a few years later, Mother St. Joseph's daughters have many mission stations in Fiji besides flourishing works in Australia and New Zealand. May not the present success of their missionary labours in the South Seas be due in no small measure to the sacrifice of those ardent would-be missionaries way back in 1848?

When asked for priests for Spitalfields, London, Father Founder inquired if their mission would be among the rich or the poor. Assured that his sons would be ministering to 'the poorest of the poor' all hesitation vanished, and the first group of Marists landed in England in 1850. Eight years later, five Sisters, among whom were Mother St. John, third Superior General, and two recently professed Sisters from Spitalfields itself, set out from 'Bon Repos' to help the Fathers in their apostolate of charity among the destitute poor of London's wretched east-end, and to run the parish schools. Theirs was real missionary work at a time when religious were frowned upon in many quarters of the great metropolis.

By this time Mother St. Joseph had laid down the burden of office. But, as a true mother, she continued to take a keen interest in the progress of her little religious family, and was always ready to help and advise. Her prayers followed and sustained the valiant little band of pioneers. If actual missionary work among the coloured races, to which she held so much, did not materialise for her daughters during her lifetime, it was a consolation for her to witness this beginning of apostolate outside the mother-country. That Our Lady's Dowry should be tl1e first field of foreign apostolate of those vowed to Mary's service was significant. The modest opening at Spitalfields was but a prelude to a vast and varied field of apostolate in which Mot11er St. Joseph's daughters were destined to garner a magnificent harvest of souls for the glory of God and the honour of Mary.

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24 October 2022

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