The Marist Sisters were founded during the Post Revolution France when society was living in a time of great upheaval. Here is an overview of the events which brought about its foundation.
Le Puy 1812
Jean Claude Courveille, on pilgrim age to Le Puy, received this interior inspiration from Mary :
« Here is what I want : a Society which will have my name, which will call itself the Society of Mary, whose members will call themselves Marists. »
Twelve young men signed a promise to begin the Society of Mary.
« We solemnly promise that we shall spend ourselves and all we have in saving souls in every way under the very august name of the Virgin Mary and with her help. »
A tree with many branches
« God makes use of whom he wills for a beginning. The Society of Mary has 4 branches : the Fathers, the Brothers, the Sisters and the Third Order. Isn't the Society like the mantle of the Blessed Virgin, which offers shelter to all God's children? And aren't the 4 branches like avenues which lead us beneath the folds of that protecting mantle ? »
COUTOUVRE 1786 - 1817
Jeanne Marie Chavoin and Marie Jotillon and the other founders of the Society of Mary, were born at a time of spiritual and social upheavalresulting from the Revolution.
A time of spiritual formation
Through the ''ASSOCIATION OF DIVINE LOVE'started by M. Lefranc, they received a formation in prayerand service to others.
« The work Jeanne Marie preferred above all others was the upkeep of the parish church, just opposite her house. This work offered a good pretext for satisfying her need to converse with God, to which she devoted a part of the night. »
A time of service of the poor, the sick, the children
Jeanne Marie was as much a daughter of Coutouvre as Mary was of Nazareth.
« She had her own list of the destitute and outcast two of whom were her favourites. »
A time of discernment
Jeanne Marie refused offers of religious life in an established Congregation and waited instead, as she said, 'until I know God's will more clearly''.
« You are not destined for an existing Congregation, but for one still to come into being.»
Pierre and Jean Claude Colin
When Jean Claude Colin was appointed curate to his brother Pierre in Cerdon, he shared with him his vision for the Society of Mary.
« I was confident, almost certain that this ideacame from God and would succeed. »
Pierre Colin, former curate of Coutouvre, invited Jeanne Marie Chavoin and Marie Jotillon to begin the feminine branch of the Society of Mary.
Development of the Marist project
They accepted immediately and arrived in Cerdon in the autumn (September) of 1817.After two years lodging with the Sisters of St Joseph, Jeanne Marie went to live and work in the presbytery, and actively participated in the development of the Marist project.
« The sister has been favoured by grace since childhood. The Lord has imparted to her many lights concerning the Society and the virtues of Mary.»
Jeanne Marie Chavoin, Marie Jotillon and Marie Gardet came together on the 8th September 1823, with the permission of Bishop Devie. They lived first in a barn over a stable, then in an equally unsuitable house.It was a life of silence and prayer, of work and service of others. Several postulants arrived.
« They were seen only in church and in the homes of the poor and the sick. They were always lighthearted with no regret for the comfort they had left behind. »
On 8th December, in the parish church, the first clothing ceremony of the Congregation took place, the first ceremony of the Society of Mary.After the ceremony, Jeanne Marie Chavoin was elected superior.
Arrival in Belley
« We left Cerdon on the 27th June 1825 at midnight, we made the journey on foot. The journey was very arduous for the rain was unceasing. We slept at Rossillon. We arrived in Beiley on the 29th about midday. »
Jeanne Marie Chavoin
Daily life in Bon Repos
A life of silence, prayer and work; school and training college for teachers; took in sewing to enable theSisters to receive non-paying pupils; building work in which the sisters took part; contacts with the Marist Fathers, the Third Order, the Brothers of the Holy Family.
« Jeanne Marie was very fond of work accompanied by prayer and she knew how to make it attractive. She had always some kind, encouraging words. » She had a good relationship with Jean Claude Colin for a long time.
« Show me a house that goes as well as hers. »
Concern for the poor and for people with problems
« Her community was very poor, but she found the way to come to the help of the destitute. »
Desire for the missions
Seven Fathers and two Brothers left for Oceania in 1836 ; among them, Fr Chanel.
« All were longing for the day when they would be called upon to cross the sea and help God's work in foreign lands. An old lay Sister, the oldest in the community after the superior, exclaimed 'Oh! my Lord, (Bishop Douarre) how I would love to go with you ! I know how to build and I could work!'. »
Marist Sisters did not go until much later, but Francoise Perroton set out for Oceania in 1845 as a laywoman. Other pioneers followed her 13 years afterwards. Many years later, this missionary movement became the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary.
Tensions between founder and foundress
From the beginning in Cerdon, the founder and foundress were of one mind about the charism and mission of the Society of Mary, but their personalities and upbringing were very different. Tensions arose about: the name of the Sisters' branch, the cloister, the lifestyle of the Sisters, members of the Chavoin family living at Bon Repos. In spite of these differences, Jeanne Marie was always convinced that John Claude Colin was the person who should write the Sisters' rule.
Resignation and departure for Meximieux
During the 1853 General Chapter, Jeanne Marie with great humility, placed her resignation in the hands of Jean Claude Colin, seeking above all the glory of God and not wishing to be an obstacle to the 'work of Mary'.Jean Claude Colin sent her immediately toMeximieux where she stayed for two years, living alife of in activity and isolation.
Difficulties of beginnings
« The Marist Sisters are opening a little convent at Jarnosse. No one would have dreamt of choosing a poky little hole like that, but Providence sees further than men and does not disdain the last and least. It will bring a little warmth, to ourfamished people. »
The foundation at Jarnosse was the fulfilment of the hopes of her last years, but the building caused her many financial worries.
« I cannot imagine anything more distressing than to have such debts as we have and not be helped by anybody. »
A life of prayer, parish work, teaching, religious formation of children, adult evening classes, visiting the sick, parish choir.
Jarnosse was for Jeanne Marie a type of religious house and manner of life in harmony with the Marist ideal, a type which can still today serve as a prophetic foundation.
Death of Jeanne Marie Chavoin
Right to the end , Jeanne Marie was concerned about the writing of the Rule by Fr Colin and the debt on the building. She died at Jarnosse on June 30, 1858 after a few days' illness, surrounded by her community.
« Always be a bond of union between your Sisters so that all may have one heart and one soul. »
Jeanne Marie Chavoin
« Love God with all your heart like the superior of the Sisters of Bon Repos. She is a saint, she goes to God in prayer with childlike simplicity. » St Jean Marie Vianney
« Jeanne Marie possessed the qualities needed for her charge of foundress : out-spoken yet maternal simplicity, untiring zeal which animated the whole community, firm ardent faith and trust that never failed. » Fr. Jeantin
« She was very lighthearted on feastdays and it was she, who by her good spirits, enkindled joy in all hearts. She took great joy in giving pleasure to others. » Sr St Jacques
« It was at the foot of the tabernacle that Jeanne Marie imbibed that strength of soul which enabled her to overcome so many obstacles, the least of which would have discouraged a less generous soul. » Mother Elisabeth Rougemont
« She loved prayer very much. She never lost her sense of the presence of God.Of keen intelligence and endowed with a gentle and lovable disposition, very hardworking from her earliest years, people were astonished and delighted at her gracious manner. Her piety was remarkable. » Jeanne Marie Chavoin
« Sister Marie had been Jeanne Marie's right hand, her constant support, sharing her anxieties and her work; she was a second mother to the whole community.When she. was being taken from the convent after her death, our Mother gave vent to her deep sorrow : 'half of myself is leaving the community today''. » Sr St Jacques
Departure for England
Immediately after the death of Jeanne MarieChavoin, five Sisters set out for Special fields in eastLondon. They were welcomed by the Marist Fathers, who had been there since 1850.
Spread of the Marist Sisters
1858 England 1873 Ireland 1892 Fiji 1903 - 1996 Belgium 1908 Australia 1927 New Zealand 1947 Canada 1950 Italy 1950 Senegal
These hundred years after the death of Jeanne Marie Chavoin were a time of consolidation. Many large convents and schools were built and a high standard of education was provided. Sisters were also involved in charitable works such as orphanages and workhouses. The laws of secularisation of 1902 in France meant chat French Sisters had co seek refuge in Belgium and England. They remained in Belgium for almost a century. This was a further means of spreading the Congregation. The Sisters were generous in observing the Rule in all its details and in carrying out their aposcolates.
Influence of 'Massabielle'
The generalate moved many times during the first100 years. In spite of the development of the Congregation, all decisions were made by the superior general and her council. This was especially true in the period 1926-1956 when the generalate was established at «Massabielle», St Prix, north of Paris, and the same superior general held office for the entire period.
Every detail of the daily life of the community is followed the same pattern. All appointments, changes, permissions, were decided by the superior general and her council. Strict regulations were laid down for the prayer life, the religious dress and all aspects of community life
Fr Colin wished the Sisters to be semi-enclosed and Mother Ambrose, who succeeded Jeanne Marie Chavoin as superior general, favoured a Visitation type religious life. This was directly opposed to the wishes of the foundress, and over the years the semi enclosure proved difficult to observe in practice, since it imposed restrictions on the Sisters' apostolic activities.
« You know we must aim at not having to go out.»Mother Ambrose to the superior of Carrick-on-Shannon 1873
« Your semi-enclosure prevents you from having external contact with the families in the parish, even from visiting the sick, your own pupils included. » Parish priest of Jarnosse I903
Conclusion But as time went on the Marist Sisters would soon re-discover their foundation was not as a closed order but an apostolic religious order as part of the Society of Mary who would go out to the community to serve the poor. Like Jeanne Marie Chavoin and Marie Jotillon who played a very active role in their local communities so to the Marist Sisters would rediscover this vital part of their charism.
1786 - Birth of Jeanne Marie Chavoin
1791 - Birth of Marie Jotillon
1817 - Foundation of Sisters at Cerdon
1823 - First community
1824 First Clothing ceremony and election ofJeanne Marie Chavoin as Superior
1825 - Departure for Beiley
1826 - First profession
1838 - Death of Marie Jotillon
1853 - Resignation of Jeanne Marie Chavoin and her departure for Meximieux
1855 - Foundation at Jarnosse
1858 - Death of Jeanne Marie at Jarnosse 1858 First foundation outside France : London 1884 Approbation of Marist Sisters