Turning perfectly well-discerned and healthy communities into monasteries: one of the biggest errors of imprudence clerics have imposed on women. During the days of Napoleon, Julie Billiart, saint-to-be, found herself pressured by another tyrant to rewrite the constitution of her fledgling community, and shove a growing group of schoolteachers back into the cloister.
Julie Billiart was in her fifties, and had spent her life as a single woman vowed to chastity and devoted to teaching poor children. As a girl, she showed great precocity, to the point where her parish priest endorsed her Confirmation and First Communion at age 9–more than a century before Pope Pius X opened the Vatican II floodgates down that very dry valley.
With the assistance of a Father Varin, she drew up a rule of life for a community dedicated to educating poor girls. Approval from Rome came fairly rapidly–in 1806.
Julie was in ill health for most of her adult life, and even catechized neighborhood children from her bedside–when she wasn’t evading the terrors of the French Revolution. But her abilities were not dampened by her infirmities. Little did she know an ambitious and nosy cleric had turned her bishop against her and seemed to be angling for control.
And so in 1808 the Abbé de Sambucy de St. Estève swayed the local bishop and demanded new regulations for the Sisters of Notre Dame. When the community declared unwavering support for their Superior General, Mère Julie, Bishop Demandolx put the women on interdict for a while.
Julie was not without allies. Other prelates had noticed her mature leadership, her effectiveness in what today we would consider an evangelical ministry among the poor, and daughter-houses that seemed to be thriving–attracting postulants in numbers. After a year of tensions, threats, and intimidation, the motherhouse was abandoned. All the community’s possessions were ordered to remain behind in Amiens–even the tabernacle, a special gift, that, too had to remain.The uprooted community fled to Namur, Belgium. There, Bishop Pisani de la Gaude was prepared to welcome Julie and her companions to his diocese.
Despite the midwinter cold and privations, the journey passed with the sisters reciting the Rosary and singing. Biographer James Clare comments that one might have thought it was the Spanish Carmelite Teresa of Avila given the spirit and joy of the women on the road to the Low Countries.
There’s a lot more to the story of Julie Billiart. Napoleon Bonaparte was at the apex of his power during the early years of the Notre Dame sisters. And remember that the battles against him were brought to the area where the new motherhouse was established. Google has that 400-page biography available for reading here. Typical positive writing like many preconciliar efforts, but the life and spirit of this very worthy woman shines through.
The Church knows another saint attempting to follow God’s call as she discerned it while overcoming pride, greed, and envy on the part of ordained and now forgotten, self-important men.