The spiritual letters of the SMSM Pioneering Women 'We, Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. Are heirs of the pioneer sisters .. 1846-1885 Prepared by Sister Lindsay James SMSM
Chapter two – The formative Years in Ninetieth Century France
In nineteenth century France, the impact of the two great forces of the French and Industrial Revolutions had had a traumatic effect on all aspects of French life. The structures that underpinned French society, previously based on feudalism and agriculture, were replaced by urbanization and industry. Such powerful forces of change created a mindshift in all things French that the Restoration Charter of 4 June, 1814, could not reverse. Among all other facets of French life, the religious dimension was radically changed. This then is the context that must be studied in order to determine the origin and nature of the spirituality expressed in the letters of the Pioneers.
The Spiritual Context of Post-Revolution France. The spirituality characteristic of France in this period was still heavily influenced by the traditional French spiritual school of BeniIle and Olier, and by the mystical and missionary dimension of the Ignatian spirituality of the Jesuits. However,
at the beginning of the 19th century, .... [there was} no longer, strictly speaking, a truly Ignatian spirituality and, still less, a Berullian spirituality; rather there is a spirituality originating in the heritage common to all the major currents of the pre-Revolutionary period, propagated by Jesuit networks and Sulpician seminaries.'
Taylor suggests one way this new, fused spirituality in the nineteenth century can be understood is as follows: 'The Sulpician current [French School] tended to furnish the leading ideas and characteristic vocabulary; the dominant model was, however, Jesuit, as apparently better adapted to the new international situation and to the needs of mission. 'Jansenism, Quietism and Galicanism were other threads woven into this spiritual tapestry.
Such an alignment of spiritualities as suggested above, together with the reaction against the anti-Church policies of the Revolution, led to an ultramontanism that strengthened the position of a tridentine stance in the Church. Thus faith and theology were about an unquestioning acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Trent. The use of reason and a personal faith conviction in the Christian mysteries were not encouraged in the Church. French spirituality became both defensive and aggressive, and was marked by 'a hearty hatred of heresies .. [and ] .. endless wordy debate with Protestants, Jansenists, Pelagians and semi Pelagians' . In the missions the Pioneers were to encounter what they described as 'heretics, pagans and infidels'. In particular they had to deal with ' .. some Protestants who are quite nasty .. [and who] amuse themselves by burning the houses of Catholics and destroying their plantations.''
The Revival of the Catholic Church in France. Yves Krumenacker describes the revival of Catholic life in France during this period as '... a spiritual effervescence which [was] partly the work of centres of 'resistance' scattered around the different regions of France.'' Lyon and its environs was one such centre; others included a large part of Brittany - excluding the extreme western tip, the area around Bordeaux in the south west, and around Perpignan, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Toulon in the south east?'
Elements identified by Krumenacker as common to these areas are also to be found expressed in the letters of the Pioneers.' These include a view of the Revolution as anti-Church and anti-faith, and an acute spiritual awareness of the presence of both good and evil forces. Sr M. du Mont Carmel commented that the mission was not making much progress because 'The Devil works throughout the universe: he wishes to succeed in both hemispheres'? She also wrote 'Hell is unleashed and everything conspires against God and all that emanates from him... I think the Devil is in the air'.
The strong eschatological dimension that existed in these centres of resistence is also to be found expressed in the letters. Sr M. de la Pitie hoped that '.. no one will be missing when the call comes on that great day of the predestined' .35 Sr M. Rose de Lima wrote 'I want to go to heaven to join all those who are dear to me and have made an appointment with me up there' .
The adoption of the Jesuit apostolic model for spiritual renewal was another feature in these centers and it was the model that fitted the Pioneers' lived situation in the missions. The understanding was that the missionary had to be flexible in terms of place, time and in responding to the needs of the people. The attitude of these women also reflected the universal understanding of mission and the strong Tridentine/ultramontanistic bias of these centers - hence the 'heretic, pagans and infidels' are of great concern to them.'
Yet another common element was the re-formation of the traditional 'Congregation' that had originally been established by the Jesuits for the laity in the sixteenth century and had been banned during the French Revolution.' This were to form a model for a new expression of religious life that was to unfold in France and certainly provided a model for these pioneer laywomen in the oceanian missions (see below).'
The Church in Lyon. Among these centres of 'ecclesial effervesence', the city of Lyon was unique, and the Church of Lyon was viewed as 'the doyenne of the churches of France' .A4 The city is of particular interest to this study as eight of the eleven women were born and/or raised, or lived in Lyon and its environs. The other three women came from Bordeaux, Tulon and Marseille - others of these centres of resistance that shared the same spiritual outlook as Lyon.
A major force in the revival of Catholicism in Lyon in 1815 was the re-formation of the Congregation de Lyons which was one of the Ignatian groups that had existed in France since the sixteenth century. The Jesuit idea of lay holiness was at the heart of the Congregation de Lyons and its filiales - autonomous daughter groups that were linked to one another and to the Congregation de Lyon through a common Jesuit spirituality. Farnham lists the organizational characteristics of such groups as having a strong lay leadership and a strong sense of secrecy which was a common element because of the anti-Church/Catholic atmosphere that remained as a powerful political force in France after the Revolution.' Other features included the division of the group into sections (such as the groups of ten in the Propagation de la Poi - see below), and a particular devotion to Mary under a specific title related to the work of the group.'
The raison d'etre of the Congregation de Lyons and its filiales was for its members to attain personal holiness by an authentic Christian witness in the Christian community and by carrying out charitable works.'
The most remarkable of all these groups associated with Lyon was The Society for the Propagation of the Faith founded in 1820 by Pauline Jaricot who was herself a member of an affiliated society of the Congregation de Lyons. This Ade
by its hidden yet efficacious means of raising missionary consciousness, .. evoked a style of Catholic action that was at once 'typiquement lyonnais' and authentically congregationiste. More than any other movement during the period, it became the symbol and sustaining force of nineteenth century French Missionary expansion.'
This group was a lay organization and included a certain Francoise Perroton who 'From 1820 .. was head of a group of the Propagation of the Faith'' She also was acquainted with Frederic Ozanam who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1833, which was another group that grew out of the Congregation. He would have met Francoise Peroton at the Janmot house where the Catholic intellectual elite of Lyon used to gather and where she was employed as housekeeper.'
The Laity and the Role of Women. Two other related features played an important part in the Lyonais religious revival. The first was the role that the laity played in the leadership of the movement. The other even more remarkable feature is the role that women played in this leadership. It has been suggested by Cecile de Mijolla that a possible catalyst for Francoise Perroton's decision to finally act on her call to mission in 1845 could be the visitation to Lyon in 1844 by the feminist and socialist writer Flora Tristan from Paris.' As a feminist, Madame Tristan must have been aware of and delighted by '[t]he remarkable contribution of the Lyon feminine lay elite (bonne bourgeoisie) .''
The bonne bourgeoisie provided the feminine lay leadership that established and financially maintained various refuges and institutions for the poor and needy in Lyon. These women would hire religious women to run these good works. The sisters would live with and share their life and work with the women and children for whom they undertook responsibility.
Similarly, the Pioneers were to provide lay leadership in the missions of Oceania. Gradually the women they taught took on such roles as well. Silenia Tipai from Sigave in Futuna is a good example of this handing on of the responsibility. She lived with Sr M. de la Pitiein Futuna, and then in 1867 was one of two young women who accompanied Sr Marie de la Merci to Sydney. She was eventually professed as a sister of the Third Order Regular of Mary (as were the Pioneers) and missioned to Tonga in 1881 where she lived until her death in 1902.' Another example was Queen Amelia of Wallis, who had been one of Sr Marie du Mont Carmel's students and who became a good Catholic leader of her people.' The Pioneers well understood that 'The education of women ... this has to be the principal goal of religious, to gain the affection of these dear persons in order to win them all for Jesus Christ' .
The Rise of Apostolic Religious Congregations for Women. An interesting phenomenon took place in France after the Revolution. While vocations to the traditional monastic orders declined drastically after the Revolution, vocations to apostolic sisterhoods 'experienced a truly phenomenal growth in France between 1800- 1880'.' Farnham states that in 1808 there were fewer than 13,000 religious throughout France. By 1880 there were over 130,000 women religious with the peak occurring between 1850-1860, the period during which all the Pioneers left France for Oceania. In Lyon the situation followed a similar pattern as 'The new and restored apostolic congregations grew by leaps and bounds.'' By 1825 the number of sisters working in the archdiocese of Lyon alone is estimated to be around 1,400. These vocations increasingly came' from the working classes - as did most of the Pioneers. Consequently these flues des people had a close connection to the people for whom they worked.'
However, as the numbers of apostolic vocations and sisterhoods increased, there was a power shift away from the lay leadership to the religious 'female clergy' in charge of their own establishments. Increasingly, the gates of the cloister began to close and turn these once totally apostolic groups into semi-monastic groups that gradually became more and more removed from the laity and the people who were the reason for their formation as apostolic congregations.
Such a shift from an apostolic mindset to one of enclosure can be seen in the way it affected Jeanne-Marie Chavoin's Marist Sisters.
Monastic practices, alien to her founding insights, were competing with the demands of existing works The Congregation of Mary was gradually ceasing to be what it had been. It was less sensitive to demands of an evangelical and Marian character in matters of poverty, work, care of the neighbour and general apostolic concern.'
The Pioneers and those who followed them in Oceania would have to struggle against this same mentality of an encroaching semi-enclosed religious life.