The quietness of the town of Belley and the splendour of its panorama were an ideal setting for a convent. And 'Bon Repos', perched on a hill overlooking the town just opposite the opening into which the Rhone pours its tempestuous waters, offered an escape from the noises of the world. For over a century it was the Mother House of the congregation, the only house returned to the Marist Sisters after the 1903 religious persecution.
`How happy we were,' says Mother St. Joseph, 'at the sight of the dire poverty which we found at 'Bon Repos'! Besides, we were for the first time far from home, far from our kith and kin and all we knew. Bishop Devie was our only acquaintance in Belley. He had prepared for our coming, had even remembered such small necessaries as butter, cheese, bread, oil, vinegar and candles. Yet our sense of Joss together with the prospect of difficult times ahead, instead of dispirit-ing us, filled us with indescribable joy and increased our thirst for sacrifice. Next morning, Monseigneur de la Croix, Vicar General, offered Mass for us in the cathedral at which we all assisted. One of the best rooms in the convent was set aside by Bishop Devie as a chapel, and we had Mass there daily until such time as one of the glass-houses was arranged as a temporary chapel.' Despite poverty and the ups and downs of acclimatising themselves to their new surroundings, the Sisters prepared for their religious profession by a fervent novitiate. Mission work obliged Father Founder to be frequently absent from 'Bon Repos'. So he gave the community his brother as spiritual director. It was a happy choice, for Father Pierre knew most of them well having been their spiritual guide at Coutouvre and Cerdon. Besides, associated with the supernatural favours granted to his brother, Father Pierre knew the spirit to impart to these first Marists. Thanks to a small manuscript entitled 'The Years of the Blessed Virgin', it is possible to trace the lines followed. A treatise on the religious life based on imitation of God's Mother, this manuscript embodies the divine manifestations at Cerdon. It is quite possible that Mother St. Joseph added suggestions. For, knowing that she had been given special supernatural enlightenment concerning the Society of Mary and the virtues of Our Blessed Lady, Father Founder may well have used those divine revelations.
Mother St. Joseph and eight companions pronounced their vows on September 6th, 1826. Four postulants were clothed. The ceremony took place in the trans-formed glass-house which made quite a good chapel. Bishop Devie presided, assisted by Father Founder.
A cross without the figure of Christ was Father Founder's first gift to Mother St. Joseph shortly after her arrival at 'Bon Repos'. She soon realised that she was to take Christ's place, to suffer much without any sensible consolation. Writing to Mother St. Joseph from Rome in 1833, Father Founder said: 'I am not at all surprised that you are suffering intensely. Offer it all for the success of my business here, remaining ever confident and perfectly abandoned in the hands of God. Be courageous in your trials. We must bring forth the Society in suffering, just as our good Mother brought us forth as her adopted children at the foot of the cross.' The same letter shows that he associated her closely with his work as Founder. For it gives minute details of the progress of his business in Rome and, especially, of his audience with Pope Gregory XVI concerning the various branches of the Society of Mary. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Mother St. Joseph is asked to take care of the Third Order of Mary, 'looked upon with great favour here,' and to see that its members meet regularly, doubtless, at 'Bon Repos'.
The convent, set in a field of stubble, was a dilapi-dated building comprising a basement, five rooms on the ground floor and an attic overhead. But as there were over two acres of land, building could be envisaged. 'When the glass-house had been transformed into a chapel,' says Mother St. Joseph, 'we decided to enlarge the house. The roof was raised so as to turn the attic into a dormitory for the community. But this did us only until 1828 when our numbers increased to twenty, and many postulants were in view. I was obliged to ask His Lordship for permission to build. 'Building is quite out of the question,' was the prompt reply, 'you have only two thousand francs in hand.' 'Let us at least dig the foundations,' I persisted, 'God will see to the rest.' Bishop Devie yielded to my pleading, and came himself to lay the foundation stone on Friday, April 29th, 1828, towards three in the afternoon. Providence did not let us down. The school flourished, and the financial problem was solved. A new wing comprising seven large rooms and an attic was finished in 1829, and the debt, sixteen thousand francs, was cleared.' Another wing was added in 1837. This was followed by a spacious chapel.
The delicacy of God's fatherly care was often felt even in small ways. Take, for example, the multiplication of bread, repeated several times when times were hardest. It was so difficult to make ends meet, that the com-munity decided to have just a bowl of soup and one slice of bread for dinner. When the remains were collected, the bread-basket was as full as before the meal. 'Let us bless Providence, Sisters,' replied Mother St. Joseph quite calmly when told of this incident.
Another time there was neither flour in the house nor money to buy some. 'Divine Providence has never yet let us down, nor will it do so now,' said Mother St. Joseph to the perplexed bursar. She was right. Next day a man called at the convent with flour for sale. Quite of his own accord, he offered it on credit, adding that he was in no hurry whatever for payment.
Dearth of water was a further problem. Another community had considered purchasing 'Bon Repos', but gave up the idea after having searched in vain for a spring. 'Have you dug over there?' asked Father Jean-Claude Colin. 'No, Father,' Mother St. Joseph replied. `Well, do so, and you will come to water.' Blind obedience to their Founder's suggestion brought its reward. A fresh spring was struck at the spot indicated, a spring that has never yet run dry.
Poverty was not their only trial. Sickness followed in its wake. In less than ten years death deprived the community of six precious lives. Pierrette Bourbon and two other novices made their vows on their death-bed. `I will be more useful to you in heaven, Mother, than I have been on earth,' said Pierrette to Mother St. Joseph. Three days later, she announced her death. Then, despite the infirmarian's efforts, the dying girl sat up in bed, stretched out her arms as though in welcome, smiled radiantly, then fell back on her pillows and died. Marie Gardet's death in 1833 was followed closely by those of her cousin, Claudine Jotillon and Jeanne-Marie Josephine Chavant. Both had been allowed, as a special favour, to make their vows at nineteen. Claudine went to God just eight days after final profession. But several years of intense physical suffering were Jeanne-Marie Josephine's lot before she left this world. Though a mere child, thirteen years old, when she left home, she bravely withstood her mother's threats and wiles to induce her to return. Wasted with the cruel disease that was slowly sapping her strength, she said to Mother St. Joseph: `Ah, Mother, I realise how good God has been to me. He sent me all this physical suffering so as to keep me here. Had I been well and strong, I might have listened to my mother's pleading and returned to the world where I would have lost my soul. Yes, I am suffering a lot, but I am perfectly resigned to God's will, and ready to do just what he wants of me.' Just before breathing her last Jeanne-Marie Josephine said with an unearthly smile: `Ah, I suffer less now . . .' Mother St. Joseph was grieved to lose her daughters. Nevertheless, she showed complete abandonment in each case. 'God needs no one,' she assured us, 'I rely on him, and submit to his adorable will. He will know how to do what creatures cannot do. I would be making a grave mistake were I to count on creatures.'
Apparently jealous of the peace and fervour of the Marist Sisters, the devil came to torment them. The Sacred Species were stolen and profaned twice, and that by a convert admitted on the advice of no other than the Vicar General, Monseigneur Ruivet. Before being sent away, the unfortunate girl, who gave every sign of being possessed, confessed that she felt a constant urge to destroy the community, even to stab Mother St. Joseph to death.
In vain did the devil try to thwart God's plans. The community at 'Bon Repos' steadily increased in number. Among those who guided postulants to them none was more zealous than the Cure of Ars. That he should have directed so many vocations to the Congregation of the Marist Sisters as to be called their 'recruiting angel' might at first seem strange. Actually it was quite natural, if we remember that Jean-Claude Colin and Jean-Baptiste Vianney were close friends from student days. When the former founded his Society, the latter wanted to become a Marist. Prevented from doing so by his Bishop, Jean-Baptiste Vianney became instead one of the glories of the Third Order of Mary.
The Cure of Ars also had a great esteem for Mother St. Joseph with whom he had several personal inter-views. In 1844 he said to one of his penitents, Pauline Jaricot: 'Love God as Mother St. Joseph, Superior of the Marist Sisters, does. She is a saint. When speaking to God she is as simple as a child of four.'
In all the Cure of Ars sent twenty-five vocations to the Marist Sisters, several under very extraordinary circumstances. We confine ourselves to a few cases which took place during Mother St. Joseph's generalate at 'Bon Repos'.
First on the list is Catherine Payre. She came to Ars in 1842 for confession, but with no intention of mentioning her forthcoming marriage. Hardly had the sliding door of the confessional been drawn, however, when to her amazement the Cure said:
`Ah, unfortunate girl, don't you know that if you marry that young man you'll be unhappy in this life and in the next? It's to the advantage of those who made the match that you should see it through. But in reality you'd be marrying a man unworthy of you. Besides, God is calling you to the religious life.' `To the religious life, Father! But I've never given it a thought.'
`Say rather that you've always struggled against God's call. His hour has come. Go to the Marist Sisters.'
`I don't know them,' Catherine pleaded. `I'll give you their address. Go at once, my child,' was the persistent reply.
Catherine overcame her natural repugnance, entered the novitiate at 'Bon Repos', and later rendered valuable service as Superior and Counsellor General.
Some years later, Rosalie Berlioux came to get the Cure's blessing on her long-postponed entry into Carmel. Great was her surprise to find that she was known.
`How's your mother, child? You must be glad that her troubles are over, thus enabling you to follow your vocation,' remarked the Cure quite casually.
`She sent me to ask your blessing, Father, because I'm going straight from here to Carmel.'
`You must not enter Carmel, my child. God is waiting for you in the Marist Convent.'
`But my trunk has already gone to Carmel,' gasped the bewildered girl.
`It'll be sent back,' was the calm reply. 'Go to Belley, you'll live with saints.'
`Allow me at least to warn mother of this change,' sobbed Rosalie.
`Not at all necessary,' interrupted the Cure energetically, 'you can write from Belley.'
Poor Rosalie reached 'Bon Repos' half dead with cold on Christmas Eve. She, too, was destined to give many years of devoted service to the Congregation of the Marist Sisters.
Still more unusual, perhaps, is the story of the Dupoyet girls. Margaret was within a few days of her marriage to a dashing cavalry officer. After the wedding, her sister, Rose, was to enter the Ursuline convent. Margaret was about to begin her confession, when she heard the Cure say:
'My dear child, God wants you to be a nun.'
'Oh, no, Father, you're making a mistake,' she replied with a smile. 'It's my sister who's going to be a nun. I'm about to be married.'
'No, no, child,' the Cure insisted. 'Your sister, Rose, will marry your fiancé. It's not God's will that you should marry. He wants you to be a nun-a Marist Sister.'
Quite a heated discussion followed between the confessor and his tearful penitent. Eventually, things turned out as the Cure had foretold. As Mother St. Francis of Assisi, Margaret Dupoyet became a well-known figure in the Congregation of the Marist Sisters.
Then there was Jeanne Beyle, who longed for the religious life but, having recently lost her mother, feared to grieve her father by another separation. She decided to share her trouble with the understanding Cure of Ars.
'You must sacrifice your father, child,' was the prompt reply. 'Go to the Marist Sisters. You'll become a saint there. Give my kindest regards to the venerable Mother Superior. Off with you, child, you don't need confession.'
Jeanne-Marie Beyle, later Sister St. Hilarion, did indeed lead a saintly life as a Marist Sister. When almost eighty she was practically blind. But whenever the word 'Ars' was mentioned, her lovely old face lit up in a flash, and she went through once again, always without altering the slightest detail, the story of her momentous interview with St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney in that famous little old-world village.
Life-long friendship with Jean-Claude Colin and esteem for Mother St. Joseph may well have predisposed the Cure of Ars in favour of the Congregation of the Marist Sisters. Yet, as these reminiscences reveal, his decisions were, above all, the result of supernatural illumination. Thus proving that heaven itself wisped to mark the young congregation with the seal of the saint and the prophet.