Enriching Many – Jeanne

   -Marie Chavoin

   - Part 4

   - The Design Takes Shape

By Sister Edmund SM
'I WENT at once to Cerdon,' says Jeanne-Marie Chavoin in her brief memoir, 'to fix up about our leaving Coutouvre, which we did as soon as possible.' The invitation to Cerdon brought peace of soul. All doubt had vanished, leaving in its stead the certainty that at last God's hour had come.

After a short stay with the Sisters of St. Joseph, Marie-Therese was sent to help in the boarding school at Pradines, and later in a school in Dauphiny. Jeanne-Marie was employed in the presbytery and in the parish. Providence thus designed that one should prepare for teaching, which was to be one of the principal works of the new congregation. The other, drawn closer to the Founder, imbibed at its source the spirit of the new Society of Mary, the spirit which it would behove her to instil into her daughters, and of which she wrote later: `Every child of Mary's Society must live her life, which is none other than the life of Christ.'

The humble presbytery in which Jeanne-Marie lived was the scene of supernatural favours. 'From the very first years of my sacerdotal ministry,' says Father Jean-Claude Colin, 'I found myself bound to work for the Society of Mary, even to prepare the beginnings of its Constitutions. The urge which goaded me on was less a voluntary and self-chosen impetus than an interior and almost irresistible one, together with the conviction that the Society was part of God's plan. That it would succeed, without my knowing how or by what means, nor if my work would one day be of use. It was during that time that special circumstances, entirely unexpected, prompted us, my brother and me, to put in writing the outlines of a Rule, without suspecting then all that would follow. In that task, I had no help except what the Gospel has left us on the life of the Holy Family at Nazareth and the early missions of the apostles.'

Father Jean-Claude Colin admits that, while curate at Cerdon, special favours were granted to him for the drawing up of the Marist Constitutions. He tells his children to receive them as 'the Blessed Virgin's work', and claims to have been merely 'her instrument, her pen.' But he is silent as to the nature of these super-natural favours. `Marists,' he continues, 'will know them in heaven.' However, taken off his guard, he once let slip that God had gone so far as to grant him 'visions in order to encourage him.' His bedroom at Cerdon is still called 'the room of the apparitions', the exact nature of which no one but the recipient knows.

Though not directly associated with the super-natural favours which marked this period of Father Jean-Claude Colin's life, it is certain that Jeanne-Marie suspected their existence. Special supernatural graces were also bestowed upon her with a view to her part in the new congregation. She admits having received them `at the very beginning of the congregation', but there is no proof that it was during her time at Cerdon. Nor does she reveal the nature of those graces. It is certain that Father Jean-Claude Colin knew about them. Furthermore, in a letter to Cardinal Odescalchi, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, he gives a glimpse of their nature. Writing to that distinguished prelate in 1834, Father Jean-Claude begs him to obtain the favour of an audience with the Holy Father for Jeanne-Marie, who feels 'urged interiorly to go to Rome so as to have the pleasure of speaking to His Holiness.' `For,' he adds, 'the Lord has communicated to her many lights concerning the Society and the virtues of Mary. She wishes to open her heart to the common Father of all Christians.' There is nothing to show that this journey to Rome materialised. But there is proof that Jeanne-Marie spoke to Monseigneur Devie, Bishop of Belley, concerning the special supernatural favours which she received.

Jeanne-Marie's example drew others to her; many girls from Cerdon were eager to place themselves under her guidance. But permission to start a new congregation was not readily given. Old congregations were reorganising after the terrors of the Revolution. New ones were frowned upon. Jeanne-Marie felt as keenly as did Father Jean-Claude Colin all the anguish of delay and rebuff. 'God's work is always tried,' she says, 'the Vicars General of the diocese of Lyons tried us severely for six years. I began to doubt again, and was perplexed and worried. But Father Lefranc's words: 'God wants you, not in a congregation already founded, but in one which has yet to be founded', gave me strength and courage. I went several times to Lyons to plead with the Vicars General. 'Be patient,' they replied, 'we want to try those would-be Marists, for they are still very young.' '

But for Pauline Jaricot, Foundress of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, Father Jean-Claude Colin might have given way to discouragement during this time of trial. Having fled from Cerdon, he was roaming aimlessly along the banks of the Rhone when an unknown lady said to him: 'Father, the thoughts you are turning over in your mind are very displeasing to God, He has granted you three big graces.' She detailed these, then continued: 'God, who bestowed those graces upon you, can favour you with still greater. Be confident and courageous.'

At length, in 1823, Monseigneur Devie, Bishop of Belley, told Father Jean-Claude Colin to go ahead. The Congregation of the Marist Sisters was the first branch of the Society of Mary to benefit by this signal favour.

`I hastened to Dauphiny to fetch Marie-Therese,' Jeanne-Marie tells us. 'But her companions refused to let her go. So I had to put the matter before the Dean.' Marie Gardet, Marie-Therese's niece, left Dauphiny with her. On October 25th, 1823, the three friends took possession of their first convent.

Situated in a back street, almost an alley, in the poorest part of a poor village, the dwelling was a sort of loft over a stable. The damp heat, coming from below through the ill-joined boards, was not without its dis-advantages. Yet in winter it was appreciated, for there were no fires. A rickety table and a couple of unsteady chairs together with a good supply of hay in a corner was all the loft boasted of when the girls took over. Some wooden forks and spoons and a few bits of earthenware crockery were bought for seven francs. Another twenty-one francs went on various other household articles. When a sack of wheat, a rough wooden bench, a stove and a clock were purchased there remained precious little in the common purse. It was not till two months later that they were able to allow themselves the comfort of a couple of wooden beds.

But the dire hardship of their wretched hovel in no way prevented Jeanne-Marie and her companions from trying to organise a life based on regular observance of rule as they had seen done at Pradines. Strict silence was kept outside the times of recreation. Work and prayer filled their days. Their only outings were visits to the church or to the sick and the poor of the neighbour-hood. Jeanne-Marie's confidence in God and con-formity to his will were inspiring. Her spiritual talks were a source of consolation and encouragement to her companions. When not digging in the garden, she could be seen sewing well into the night so as to add to the meagre resources. Times were hard. Yet no one thought of complaining. No one thought of asking help from home, help which would have been readily given, for all three came from comfortable families. They were glad to suffer. And their joy was evident.

Their life of prayer and of charity, their happiness in the midst of almost dire poverty greatly edified the people of Cerdon. Many tried to help them in their need, so they often found gifts of fruit and vegetables on the landing outside their poor abode. The narrow stairs from the stable to the loft was familiar to many a child in the village, but to none more than to Jeanne-Baptiste Rougemont. This little girl used to creep up quietly to sit on the landing and listen to the prayers within. Then before stealing away, she would leave the welcome contents of her apron at the door of the loft. Later, as Mother St. Elizabeth, she rendered invaluable service to the congregation, and was called 'the second Foundress' because of the number of foundations in which she took part.

Jeanne-Marie's niece joined the little community on December 21st. She was a rather peculiar character. `Rough and taciturn,' says Jeanne-Marie, 'she insisted on praying alone. Though hard on herself, she was obstinate in upholding her opinion, silent and morose. Living as we did at such close quarters, poor Jeanne was a constant cross. Yet, with the help of grace, she became an exemplary nun.'

`After paying eighteen francs rent, we left the loft on June 1st, 1824, when we moved into a more spacious dwelling. This was quite a respectable house on an uphill road skirted by a ravine. But,' continues Jeanne-Marie, 'we had to put up with a lot from the proprietress with whom we shared the building. She was not a Catholic, insulted us at every hand's turn, and seemed to go out of her way to annoy us. So far, we had no special costume. On Whit Sunday, June 6th, His Lordship visited Cerdon, and blessed three pale blue dresses for Marie-Therese Jotillon, Marie Gardet and myself. To these we added a white collar and a bonnet of the same colour. This was henceforth our postulants' costume.'

No less than eight aspirants were admitted before the end of 1824. The first, Pierrette Bourbon, was from one of the best families of Coutouvre. A very gifted girl, full of life and enthusiasm, she braved all obstacles to her leaving home. Her love of Our Lady was coupled with an extraordinary love of the Sacred Heart. Jeanne-Marie set great hopes on Pierrette. But God took her to himself after barely two years. Among the six others who came from Cerdon in July were Jeanne-Baptiste Rougemont and her sister, Angelique. Coutouvre sent Claude-Marie Jotillon on Christmas Day, 1824. She was not quite thirteen.

Not only did Father Jean-Claude Colin give the little community the instructions necessary for their religious formation, but he also associated them with his worries and difficulties concerning the Society of Mary for which he begged their prayers. Towards the end of 1824 it seemed to him, whom we shall henceforth call 'Father Founder', that their time of trial had been sufficiently long. So he obtained Bishop Devie's prompt consent to their being clothed on December 8th, 1824.

The combination of blue and white in the Marist habit testifies that its wearers belong to Our Lady. Father Jean-Claude Colin, himself; gave the minutest directions for the making of the habit. But a cherished tradition, which goes back to the very beginning of the congregation, has it that the Blessed Virgin revealed all the details to the humble Founder. Actually, a few days before the clothing ceremony, a postulant was brought to him dressed, it was thought, as he had explained. 'No, your Mother was not like that. There is something missing here,' he said, pointing to the neck. After several attempts to put things right, he at last cried joyfully: 'Yes, she was just like that.'

So far Jeanne-Marie Chavoin had been looked up to spontaneously as the mother and superior of the com-munity. But before the official ceremony of clothing, it was necessary that a proper election should take place. Jeanne-Marie was unanimously elected Superior. Her vehement protests in favour of Marie-Therese Jotillon were put aside by Father Founder, and the burden of office became Jeanne-Marie's through obedience.

There were about a hundred in the quaint old church at Cerdon for that first clothing ceremony. The inside of that church has seen many an alteration since 1824. But the statue of Our Lady before which the first Marist Sisters were clothed in Mary's colours remains unchanged. Though shabby and worn, it retains a good deal of its former beauty. The features of the Divine Mother are finely chiselled. And both Mother and Son have a very sweet smile. 'All eyes were fixed on the eight postulants as they came up the aisle in their bridal robes,' says the Chronicle. 'Ears listened attentively to the formula of the ceremony, to the brides' repudiation of the world and its vanities to follow Jesus and Mary. Jeanne-Marie Chavoin received the name of Mother St. Joseph.'

Marie-Adelaide Dubreuil was annointed that day. Yet she, too, had the joy of being clothed. She dragged herself to the church, and went through the ceremony with her companions. 'There were tears in every eye,' writes Mother St. Joseph, 'as the dying girl begged to be admitted into Mary's congregation. The formula was said in a clear, strong voice that seemed to have got renewed strength for the occasion. Words fail to describe the joy which lit Marie-Adelaide's face when her petition was accepted. Then she went back to bed, longing for the time when God would take her to him-self. This he did just ten days later.'

Cerdon was proud of its nuns, and benefited by their presence for about another year. During that time they led a life of spartan simplicity. The food was that of the very poor, even so it was necessary to keep an eye on the more fervent lest they retrench on what was barely sufficient. The sleeping accommodation was rough and ready; palliasses were laid on the floor as there were not sufficient beds. One of the community almost died of cold during the severe winter. Mother St. Joseph, her-self, was also at death's door and received the Last Sacraments.

Trials are a prelude to divine favours. Postulants continued to ask for admission. There were even the beginnings of a school. The house by the ravine was too small. 'God, who never lets down those who trust in him,' explains Mother St. Joseph, 'came to our assist-ance. Monseigneur Ruivet, Vicar General of the diocese of Belley, paid us a surprise visit round about this time. Amazed to see us so badly housed and so cramped for space, he said it was impossible to go on living under such conditions, and advised us to put the matter before His Lordship without delay. This Monseigneur Ruivet kindly consented to do himself by an immediate letter. The result was that Bishop Devie offered us temporary possession of a property in Belley. Father Founder was delighted with the idea, and went at once to Belley to fix things up and to arrange for the departure of himself and his brother which took place a fortnight before ours.' Fathers Pierre and Jean-Claude Colin moved to the Minor Seminary, Belley, whence they gave missions here and there.

`On June 27th, 1825,' continues Mother St. Joseph, we left Cerdon amid tears. Many villagers wanted to accompany us to see to the luggage. But when we had returned what had been lent in the line of furniture, there was not much luggage—just a few beds and some linen. This we packed on to a couple of carts. To avoid scenes, we left the village at midnight, by lantern light and in heavy rain. The delicate Sisters sat up amid the luggage. The rest of us trudged on through the mud with an occasional rest on the carts. But the latter were un-covered and so gave no shelter from the rain which came down in torrents. After a night's sleep at Roussillon, the weary journey began again-still in heavy rain. Never­theless, we were intensely happy. God made up for the inclemency of the weather by the interior peace with which he filled our souls. Towards noon on June 29th, we reached Belley.'

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20 October 2022

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