This story are by no means a deep study of Jeanne-Marie Chavoin's spirituality. That will come later from a more able pen. This is just a straight forward, homely sketch-a modest attempt to gently lift the veil of silence which enshrouds her. May shepardon the liberty, since God is glorified in his works. A realist approach has been our aim-to let Jeanne Marie speak and act naturally without being encumbered by undue literary padding or personal commentary.
Frequent use has been made of first-hand sources: the Marist archives, comprising 'The Cerdon Manuscript', a memoir by Mother St. Joseph, 'Mother St. Joseph's letters to her daughters', 'Reminiscences', jottings by Mother St. Joseph's contemporaries, and correspondence between Mother Saint Joseph and Venerable Jean-Claude Colin, Founder of the Congregation of the Marist Sisters. There have also been occasional references to 'Histoire des Soeurs Maristes', Gobillot, 'Vie du Venerable Jean-Claude Colin', Jeantin and 'Origines et Histoire des Religieuses Maristes', de Rouvray.
As regards the development of the Congregation of the Marist Sisters, we have confined ourselves to what actually took place in Mother St. Joseph's time, leaving a history of the congregation to deal fully with its later magnificent growth.Sincere thanks are extended to Sister Joan, S.M., forher illustrations and to all who, by their encouragement and help, have made the publication of this little book possible.
Part 1 - Ordinary Yet Different
There was in Coutouvre, nine miles from Roanne, a medium-sized town in the centre of France, that Jeanne-Marie Chavoin was born on August 29th, 1786. Remembered now for its natural beauty, the village was then quite a prosperous place of approximately two thousand inhabitants. Tradition was strong. Families were content to live in the same house from generation to generation, and often gave their name to a street, a hamlet or a familiar landmark. Crafts, too, passed from father to son. Among these, weaving, tailoring and basketry held pride of place. The two last have dropped as trades. And the family loom, so familiar a feature in Jeanne-Marie's time, is no more.
Yet cotton weaving continues to be the staple industry as the gaunt chimneys of a factory testify.
Tradition knit the people of Coutouvre into almost one large family. But the depth of their faith was a still closer binding force. The village church was a symbol of that faith. For to the people of Coutouvre their church was never a lifeless mass of stone and mortar. A medley of entries in the parish register prove that rich and poor looked upon it as a sacred thing to be cherished and cared for, because it was the home of their God to whom they came as friend to friend in doubt and difficulty, in joy and sorrow.
Jeanne-Marie was baptised in that church on the very day of her birth, and was called after St. John the Baptist, the saint of the day. Unconscious of the spiritual change that was taking place, she behaved as most children do on such occasions. There was the screwing
Up of the little features as the salt touched her tongue, the shiver followed by the piercing cry on contact with the cold water, the valiant bid for freedom in which both sets of limbs played a conspicuous part. 'Just an ordinary child,' said the on-lookers.
She was an ordinary child. Yet she was different. For from all eternity Jeanne-Marie Chavoin had been singled out by God for a special mission, the nature of which he would gradually unfold. Mary was to be her model. So like Mary who, despite her unique mission, 'resembled in all things the people of her country and class', Jeanne-Marie was to be just one of a crowd. She was to go through life hidden and unknown, while playing a privileged part in the divine plan.
From the start Jeanne-Marie was blessed with an ideal home. Anyone in Coutouvre could have told you where to find Theodore Chavoin, her father. For when a family is as long in a place as the Chavoins were in Coutouvre, you enquire about its members much as you might enquire about a local hill or stream. There were Chavoins in Coutouvre for almost a century. True, they did not give their name to a street or a hamlet. But at St. Hilaire, a nearby village, there is a calvary called 'Chavoin Cross'. Furthermore, the Chavoins were known for their trade: they were tailors from father to son.
Theirs was a modest house in a well-kept garden just a stone's throw from the church. The dwelling still stands, but part of the garden is now a garage. Since 1819 the street in front is called 'rue Monseigneur' in memory of Canon Alex who spent his declining years as Madame Chavoin's guest. To the rear is 'Place Millot', then 'rue Millot', reminiscences of the family into which Claudine Chavoin, Jeanne-Marie's younger sister, married
The Chavoins were never people of considerable wealth. Yet Theodore Chavoin had sufficient of this world's goods to make him 'passing rich' in the com munity of Coutouvre. Better still, he was respected by all. Brusque and masterful, his wife, Jeanne Verchere, was an efficient housekeeper with a wealth of common sense. Both were unassuming, pious souls for whom faith was a living reality.
Life moved quietly in their little home 'With its roundof household tasks, gardens to be tended, fowl to be fed and prayer in the dawn and in the lengthening shadows linking, vivifying, giving a meaning to it all. Jeanne Marie was growing into a bonny child full of mischief and fun. The tailoring was doing well. The future seemed bright. Thus the year I789 dawned, and it seemed as though its rhythm would be as motionless as that of all the years that had gone before.
But France was in the throes of Revolution before 1789 was many months old. Jeanne-Marie was barely three. For the next thirteen years at least the Revolution was the background of her life. Those were stirring times in which to live. They were years which could not but leave their mark on an impressionable nature.The child took a precocious interest in everything that went on around her. News filtered through of the dreadful things that were happening in Paris. The Church was being persecuted. Neighbours gathered in the Chavoin kitchen to discuss the installation of the renegade Claude Filion as parish priest on Father Guillermet's arrest. Blood was spilt at the Trembley Farm close by when the revolutionaries ferreted him out like a hunted animal. Then their fury was unleashed on Coutouvre. Religious emblems, particularly statues of Our Lady, were ruthlessly desecrated and destroyed in a diabolical attempt to wipe out every vestige of the 'old religion'. Fines, imprisonment, death were the lot of its supporters. Suspected of sheltering priests, it was not long before the Chavoin home was placed under armed guard. Returning from school one day, Jeanne-Marie saw a crowd of villagers ill-treated in the market place for refusing to acknowledge the Tree of Liberty. School, too, was a different place since all mention of God had been forbidden.
Even at home prayers had to be said in secret. It was there that Jeanne-Marie learnt to know and love God thanks to her parents' example and to Madame Chavoin's teaching and guidance. This was supplemented by occasional catechism classes and talks in some barn or other when a priest was in the vicinity. There Jeanne-Marie received her First Holy Communion in 1796 on Father Guillermet's return from exile. She was ten, four years younger than usual in Jansenistic France. But the priest was struck by her piety. He had heard how she would withdraw to a quiet corner of the house to pray. He had seen her slip away from her companions to visit the church; he had watched her there in prayer. Then there was her eagerness to assist at clandestine Masses, to prepare for the coming of the disguised priest, and to guide him cautiously to the next meeting place. Sometimes, too, Jeanne-Marie would bring young couples to the priest's hiding-hole that their union might be blessed, or she would lead him to the bed-side of the sick or the dying, or to an anxious mother that he might baptise her baby. Small services all well within the scope of even a young child, but services that called for more than ordinary courage and zeal.
When the Concordat was signed in 1802, Jeanne Marie Chavoin was sixteen. She was a tall, well-built girl with pleasant rather than beautiful features. Frank and open, she was also inclined to be brusque and self willed. The trials of the Revolution together with her rather strict upbringing had matured her beyond her age. With her mother's flair for house-keeping, and under Madame Chavoin's guidance, she was already quite a competent housewife. She also took her share of the tailoring, often working far into the night to see orders through. Owing to her retiring disposition, Jeanne-Marie would willingly have avoided receiving customers and delivering orders. Nevertheless, these unwelcome tasks were also part of her daily routine. Then, too, she was Father Guillermet's right hand. As sacristan she held the keys of the church. This enabled Guide him cautiously to the next meeting place her to make long nocturnal visits to Jesus, the Prisoner of Love, and to foster that deep love of the Blessed Eucharist which was to be hers always.
It was Jeanne-Marie who, lantern in hand, accompanied the priest on his visits to the sick. If the invalid
were poor, she made sure the miserable dwelling was prepared to receive fittingly the Divine Guest. A small wicker basket on her arm, Jeanne-Marie was a familiar sight in the poorest quarters of Coutouvre. No service was too menial for her to perform. She singled out the worst cases, mingling with them as one who understood and cared. The more repulsive their outward appearance, the greater was her solicitude. Thus, despite a natural dread of cancer, she nursed a poor woman in its last stages. Once, she tells us, to overcome her feelings, and because she saw the image of the suffering Christ in the afflicted person, she kissed the infected spots, then putrid wounds. To act thus as a matter of self-conquest reveals a background of heroic charity, fortitude and self-mastery. When the invalid was cured, the villagers unanimously held that the cure was due to the virtue of the gentle and unassuming nurse.
A woman with a strange sort of malady lived about six miles from Coutouvre. People thought her possessed. No matter how she tried, she could not make the sign of the cross. Heedless of distance and weather, Jeanne Marie found time to visit this unfortunate person quite often. But, curiously enough, each time she as about to set out she got a sudden violent pain in the legs. If the devil was trying to hinder those charitable visits, he failed to do so. Yet another soul was won for God.
The poor, the sick and the neglected were Jeanne Marie's friends. And so were children. She loved, she tells us, 'to speak to them about the good God, that they might know him more and love him better.' Those preparing for First Holy Communion were the special objects of her care. Once a band of happy youngsters gathered round her, crying prophetically: 'Well, Jeanne-Marie, when are you going to found a convent of nuns who will open a school for us?' One child at least was fortunate to benefit in a personal way by her natural gifts as a teacher and educator. This was the bricklayer's daughter whose mother died when she was five. Even at that age the child was difficult and a problem to her father. Jeanne-Marie immediately came to the rescue. She shared her room with the youngster, and mothered and educated her until she was of an age to earn a respectable living.
Jeanne-Marie's intimate friend at this time was a girl some five years younger than herself Marie-Therese Jotillon was also from Coutouvre. The youngest of fourteen, she was very intelligent and well educated. 'But,' says Jeanne-Marie, 'it was her gentle and affectionate nature and, especially, her piety that made me single her out.' The two girls desired to devote their lives to the salvation of souls.
In Jeanne-Marie's case this desire was, perhaps, first prompted by the daring and the generosity of those disguised priests in the interests of souls. Now she was alive to the social distress and the religious ignorance around her. She was convinced that as a nun she could do most for souls. But she had never had any contact with nuns. How was she to be one? This was her constant problem.