Worthy women are everywhere to be found. But as I research them, it seems as if France has a great share. Continuing a parallel observance to the Fortnight for Freedom, let’s look at a bit of the persecutions endured by the founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny.
The French Revolution provided a background of persecution in the young life of Anne-Marie Javouhey, known as Nanette to family and friends. It did not deter her from teaching neighborhood children in her youth. When convents were eventually restored, Nanette joined the Sisters of Charity. Before final vows, she experienced a vision of children of different races and cultures. “These are the children God gives you,” she was told.
Other women were attracted to Nanette’s vision and apostolate. Her new congregation, based in an abandoned monastery in Cluny, opened schools for the poor. And not just in France, but across the world from the Caribbean to French possessions near Madagascar.
French Guiana became a testing ground for Mother Javouhey. Up to the time of her efforts there, praise for her and her fledgling community was universal. Her efforts with children in a French colony were on matter. Wholly another were her congregation’s efforts with freed slaves. White farmers seethed over the success of her efforts to help Blacks build a fruitful community. They complained to the bishop, who also steamed over the sisters’ independence. So he excommunicated her.
Mother Javouhey did not fare much better in her homeland. Bishop Bénigne-Urbain-Jean-Marie du Trousset d’Héricourt, of the see of Autun, insisted on his right to depose her and become the order’s superior general, thus being able to control finances, rules, mission efforts, and travel of members of the congregation. Unsuccessful, Bishop d’Héricourt attempted to dissolve the order.
The Archbishop of Paris offered a respite, inviting the sisters to relocate to his diocese, and offering his full support.
Years later, Mother Javouhey had these words for her adversary:
We ought to think of (him) as one of our benefactors. God made use of him to try us when as a rule we were hearing around us nothing but praise. That was necessary, for since our congregation was succeeding so well we might have thought we were something if we hadn’t had these pains and contradictions.
Opposition to goodness, even if a saint herself counts it as an opportunity for holiness, remains a grave sin. These worthy women show us that the path of saintliness lies in a believer being able to labor mightily on behalf of others, especially in relieving their sufferings and injustices. And yet, we cannot stand idly by and watch persecutors have their way with the oppressed.