Enriching Many – Jeanne

   -Marie Chavoin

   - Part 2

   - Wither?

By Marist Sister Edmund sm

In 1806 Jeanne-Marie Chavoin met the clerical student destined by God to play an important part in her spiritual formation. She was to feel the benefit of his guidance up to the last year of her long life. At the time of their first meeting, Jean-Philibert Lefranc was twenty, the same age as herself. He was Father Guillermet's nephew, and spent his holidays at Coutouvre.

Although he had only completed the first year of his theological studies, Jean-Philibert Lefranc was already solidly grounded in the interior life, and competent to assist others. His uncle spoke to him of Jeanne-Marie. And Jean-Philibert, himself, was struck by her earnest­ ness. So he invited her to come with some of her companions to the presbytery for instructions on mental prayer. Jeanne-Marie avidly drank in those first lessons on the spiritual life, and her love of God rapidly deepened.

After mental prayer came spiritual direction. This, too, was quite unknown to Jeanne-Marie. But she proved an apt pupil, revealing her intimate feelings with the utmost candour, and following the advice given with childlike simplicity.

Happy in the new spiritual riches that were hers, she longed to share them with others. Hence those attending Jean-Philibert's talks increased in number. But Marie-Therese Jotillon was not there. For some time she had shown a tendency towards vanity and worldliness. Not merely had she no time for her former friend; she deliberately avoided her. True, Marie-Therese wasbut fifteen, a difficult age, and the fit might pass. Yet Jeanne-Marie was extremely worried. A soul was at stake. So she mentioned the matter to Jean-Philibert. 'Bring Marie-Therese to me,' was the prompt reply. Easier said than done! However, after several unsuccess­ ful and painful attempts, Jeanne-Marie's patience and zeal for souls were rewarded. She managed to get a few minutes with her wayward friend. Better still, her kind words touched Marie-Therese, who was induced to visit Jean-Philibert that very day. Henceforth the world and its vanities appealed in vain.

Jean-Philibert started the Association of Divine Love at Coutouvre. This was a sort of confraternity for young girls and widows. Reunions were held weekly in the presbytery and, on Jean-Philibert's return to the seminary, the meetings were continued either in the Chavoin home or in that of a pious widow. Jeanne­ Marie presided at all the gatherings in the course of which she encouraged the associates to an ever greater love of God, and devised a hundred-and-one means of serving him better. Then, as nimble fingers worked magic transformations on much-used church linen, or turned out garments for the poor, the incense of prayer rose in love and homage. Years later, when no longer in their midst, Jeanne-Marie continued to guide her beloved associates. In I8120, she wrote reminding them that: 'Our Spouse is jealous, and must reign supreme in our hearts.' Then, encouraging them to greater fidelity to their many acts of charity, she tells them not to work for results: 'If we succeed in preventing just one sin, all is well worth while.' In conclusion, she humbly begs her 'much-loved friends' to pray constantly that her love of God may increase for, she adds, 'with God's love one can do anything.'

Then in 1806 Jeanne-Marie Chavoin was marked out as a leader. And her natural ascendency over her companions was whole-heartedly accepted. Somewhat stem and grave, she was also bright and sociable. And she had a deep understanding of human nature. The confidence placed in her was remarkable. Her spiritual influence increased by leaps and bounds. If there was anyone worried in the village, no matter what the anxiety, no matter who the sufferer might be, Jeanne­ Marie was at hand to help and advise. She was all things to all men, so as to win souls for Christ. Young and old sought her spiritual guidance. Marie-Therese Jotillon was of the number. Both she and Jeanne-Marie had now their own definite rule of spiritual life mapped out by Jean-Philibert Lefranc. And the latter continued to encourage and advise by letter from the seminary, spiritual direction which he amplified each time he returned on holiday to Coutouvre.

This was a time of spiritual fervour. The two girls vied with one another in their efforts towards perfection. 'Then,' said Jeanne-Marie years later, 'I did things very pleasing to God. Things that now as a nun I have not the generosity to do.' Yet the intensity of her spiritual life was no obstacle to her household duties-those everyday tasks which were God's will of the moment. Nor did it put a stop to her round of social work. Conscious that sanctity consists in supernaturalising even the smallest action, she did everything for God, keeping close to him in the silence of prayer.

Thus time sped by till 1810. That was a memorable year. Jean-Philibert Lefranc was ordained on November 15th. And so was Pierre Colin, who was sent immediately to Coutouvre as curate. God's design was gradually taking shape. For it was through Father Pierre Colin that Jeanne-Marie was destined to contact his brother, Father Jean-Claude Colin, Founder of thereligious congregation in which she was to play so important a part.

About a month before Father Pierre arrived, the Sisters of St. Charles opened a school at Coutouvre. Founded for popular instruction, theirs was the first teaching congregation to resume activities in Lyons after the Revolution. Jeanne-Marie became very friendly with these nuns, and used to help with the children.

The Cistercian monastery to which she and Marie­Therese used to go for their annual retreat was closed by imperial decree in 1809. So they decided to make their retreats henceforth at Pradines, Mother House of the Sisters of St. Charles, about two miles south of Coutouvre. There, Jeanne-Marie made two life-long friends, Madame de Bovez and Claudine Butty. The latter had also come under the happy influence of Jean-Philibert Lefranc. The former, a remarkable soul, had been a Benedictine before the Revolution, and escaped death thanks to the fall of Robespierre. She then joined the nuns of divers orders grouped into a community which eventually amalgamated with the Sisters of St. Charles. But the Benedictine life in its integrity remained Madame de Bovez's ideal. She and Claudine Butty, who later succeeded her as head of the community at Pradines, soon came to appreciate their young confidant's deep spirituality. Madame de Bovez suggested that Jeanne-Marie remain at Pradines. But, though she longed to be a nun, Jeanne-Marie was sure that God did not mean her to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Charles.

Nor was she destined for the Sisters of St. Joseph, also in process of reorganisation in the diocese of Lyons. Their social work among the destitute poor appealed to Jeanne-Marie. But she was persuaded that God wanted her elsewhere. Precisely where, she did not know.

Cardinal Fesch, Archbishop of Lyons and Napoleon's uncle, met with no eater success. In May 1812 he visited Pradines twice. He called again towards the middle of the following year. The restful quiet of the place drew him, and the nuns were glad of his spiritual help. Madame de Bovez spoke to the eminent prelate about Jeanne-Marie Chavoin. So on one or other of his visits, the Cardinal sent to Coutouvre for the girl. During an interview of about two hours, she quietly yet firmly turned down his paternal offers of help to enable her to enter an order of her own choice. 'What do you mean to do?' asked the surprised cardinal. 'I'll remain at home, Your Eminence, till God's will be­ comes clear,' was the confident reply. They met again at Pradines in 1814 when Cardinal Fesch was hiding after the defeat of Moscow. This time he offered Jeanne­Marie the Cistercian monastery in Lyons in which to start a new congregation. But that, too, she quietly declined. To a friend who had accompanied her to Pradines, who was amazed at such a refusal, and suggested that she take time to think things over, Jeanne­ Marie calmly and confidently replied: 'There is no need for reflection. I know that God does not want it.' That was her last interview with the great Cardinal. A little later he fled from Pradines disguised as a peasant.

Jeanne-Marie continued to make her retreats at Pradines. She noticed the significant changes which took place there in the next few years. For during his last visit, Cardinal Fesch separated the community from the Sisters of St. Charles, and allowed the Benedictine Rule to be introduced gradually at Pradines. By 1816 it was observed in its integrity. Madame de Bovez was Abbess. Though she remained fond of her friend, and was an ardent admirer of everything Benedictine, Jeanne-Marie was sure that God had other plans for her.

Yet her contact with the prayerful atmosphere of Pradines was not mere chance. It was fitting that her soul should know the deep, prayer-laden silence that is the heart of the contemplative life. A silence that, in the fullness of time, must be the necessary heart of her own active life, sending calm pulsations of spiritual energy through all the heaped-up cares, misunderstandings and crosses of the apostolate.

Nevertheless, the question of her religious vocation troubled Jeanne-Marie. She was, by nature as well as by grace, a doer of deeds, intolerant of needless delays. What might seem to be mere hesitation or indecision was simply her waiting for light. She suffered keenly from God's delay to make his will known. That suffering was also part of his training. For suffering reveals what grace can accomplish in the weakness of human nature. Several years more dragged by before Jeanne­ Marie got the light for which she prayed.

In 1813 Father Lefranc drew nearer to Coutouvre. He was named parish priest of Montchal. To look upon him merely as a holy priest put in a pious girl's way would be to miss an important point in this story of a soul. That Jean-Philibert Lefranc was a holy priest is incontestable. But he was something more. And that something makes all the difference. He was the director selected by God to prepare and guide a chosen soul towards the particular mission required of her by the Almighty. And so God made sure to have him near at hand at each big spiritual crisis in Jeanne-Marie's life. He was at hand to satisfy those first strong cravings for things spiritual. Teaching her the secrets of the spiritual life, he helped to bring to blossom then to fruit the rare seeds of grace in her soul. And now when anxiety, bewilderment, perhaps even discouragement sought to blight that magnificent spiritual growth, Father Lefranc was near to fulfil to the letter the behests of the Divine Gardener.

Montchal was about twenty-four miles from Coutouvre, and communication was not of the best. Nevertheless, Jeanne-Marie made the difficult journey every term. It is evident that Father Lefranc received special supernatural enlightenment for her spiritual guidance. Once, her confidences made, he remarked: 'But you have not mentioned what happened on Holy Thursday as you prayed before the Blessed Sacrament.' Then only did the girl reluctantly reveal that while praying before the Blessed Sacrament that day Our Lord had appeared to her 'more brilliant than the finest jewel.' Father Lefranc did not doubt the genuineness of Jeanne­ Marie's religious vocation. Yet when she begged him to suggest a suitable congregation, he made no reply.

Providence threw still another promising offer in her way. 'In 1816,' she says, 'Father Captier, parish priest of Belleville, in the Rhone, confided his school to two young ladies with a view to their starting a religious community later on. For over a year he strongly urged Marie-Therese and me to join them. Marie-Therese was also torn with indecision as regards her religious vocation, and got no answer from Father Lefranc as to where she should go. She at length decided on Belleville on the advice of a certain Father Deschaland, who had been her confessor for some months. I told her to go to Belleville, as it seemed to be God's will for her. But as for myself, I would remain where I was.'

There was urgent need for helpers at Belleville. The work was an excellent one. And Jeanne-Marie was a competent and zealous worker likely to be of use. Yet when she asked Father Lefranc if she should follow Marie-Therese to Belleville, he replied firmly and with­ out the least hesitation: 'No. God does not want you there.' The unhappy girl then once more begged him to help her choose a congregation. The priest was silent a long time. When he spoke, his words were not vague words of comfort. They were a clear indication of the Divine Will. 'God wants you,' he said, 'not in a congregation already founded, but in one which has yet to be founded.'

These strange words bewildered Jeanne-Marie. But in less than a year their meaning; was made clear. For in 1817 a series of circumstances, unforeseen by man yet in the eternal mind of God, enabled her to meet Father Jean-Claude Colin, the cornerstone of that congregation yet to be founded.

Previous - Part 1 - Introduction     Next - The Corner Stone

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16 October 2022

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