The US Bishops continue their observance of the Fortnight for Freedom, but north of the border of my country, another nation with Catholic roots observes its day today. I thought it appropriate to get informed about Canadian saints and feature someone worthy. I remembered from my pilgrimages to Montreal the stories of the mistreatments of Frere André and I assumed it would not be hard to find saintly women battered from within their own Church. And I was not wrong.
Rumor had it that Marie-Marguerite d’Youville‘s group of lay women had taken up the bootlegging business from her late husband and father-in-law. That was enough for the clergy of Montreal to deny them Communion–never mind that their group had shouldered the burden of running a hospital for the poor. The hermeneutic of complaint is well-rooted in envy.
I eventually settled on the woman who was born Esther Blondin, and who later founded the Sisters of Sainte Anne. Religious orders seemed to be sprouting everywhere in the 19th century. Esther Blondin didn’t start one, at the start. She worked as a convent servant for the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame in her home village of Terrebonne, Québec. She learned to read and write in her early twenties. But poor health scuttled the possibility of being a member of that community.
Esther became a schoolteacher instead. In the 1800’s separate schools for boys and girls were mandated, men teaching boys and women teaching girls, of course. For poor communities, building one school could be a challenge, let alone supporting two. You can imagine that between the boy’s school and the girl’s, which would be built. Esther, however, thought that the problem of illiteracy was a bit more grave than the separation of the sexes, so she conceived a plan for girls and boys to be educated in the same building. She proposed to her bishop, Ignace Bourget, that a religious congregation be founded to address this situation. Bishop Bourget endorsed her limited plan, mindful that colonial authorities were already in favor of saving money by combining the education of children under one roof.
And so in 1850, Esther Blondin founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Anne, and to her community, was known as Mother Marie-Anne. Nothing attracts abuse like success. Within a few years, Mother Marie-Anne had a thirving community of teachers, but the clergy swooped in to take control. This bit from the Vatican’s own web site:
The new chaplain, Father Louis Adolphe Marechal, interfered in an abusive way in the private life of the Community. During the Foundress’ absence, Father changed the pupils’ boarding fees. Should he be away for a while, he asked that the Sisters await his return to go to confession. After a year of this existing conflict between the chaplain and the Foundress, the latter being anxious to protect the rights of her Community, Bishop Bourget asked Mother Marie Anne, on August 18, 1854, “to resign”. He called for elections and warned Mother Marie Anne “not to accept the superiorship, even if her sisters wanted to reelect her”.
As quickly as nineteenth century apostolates were discerned and communities founded to serve, it seems men in the Church could not refrain from taking over. I would like to report that Mother Marie-Anne and her community followed in the footsteps of Mother Guérin, but that was not the discerned path of this worthy woman. She was banished from taking any leadership role in the community she founded. Twice in the 1870’s, her sisters elected her, but clergy put a stop to any return to leadership.
Serving in the community’s laundry, and ironing the sisters’ clothing continued to give a profound witness to newcomers to the Sisters of Sainte Anne. Mother Blondin herself commented on her role:
The deeper a tree sinks its roots into the soil, the greater are its chances of growing and producing fruit.
The depth of roots are hidden, and alas, by hiding, it seems that the fact of persecution was hidden as well.
I hesitated about writing this essay. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Thomas Aquinas, “To bear with patience wrongs done to oneself is a mark of perfection, but to bear with patience wrongs done to someone else is a mark of imperfection and even of actual sin.”
Did the fledgling community identify themselves with the founder so closely that they saw her bearing wrongs as a burden they too should shoulder? Was the education apostolate placed at the absolute forefront of their service to the children of their schools? Did their witness have any impact on the men who brutalized them? People are made saints and see the fruits of ministry whether they resist oppression or accede to it. Is there a difference?
Some men wish separation from women, but it seems that many of them just can’t keep their hands out of the doings of women, especially when the fruitfulness of an apostolate is obvious.
In the end, I decided this story required sharing. Not every worthy woman stands up to the clergy and bishops. Some of those who do not have found their lives very much in God’s hands. I struggle mightily with perceived slights, as my friends and foes well know. I don’t know that I would have the strength to walk Mother Blondin’s path. But I feel compelled to respect it, and present it to the readers here. Like her more uppity sisters in the US, France, Mexico, and elsewhere, she is now “Blessed” and her persecutors are criticized even on the Vatican’s own web site. None of them achieved veneration for worthy service to the Gospel. That is perhaps significant testimony that permits us all to breathe easier.
Happy Canada Day, northern friends.