Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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October 15, 2005
Saint Teresa of Avila

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

It is impossible to separate Christ from human history... Is it possible to separate Him from the history of Europe? Only in Him, in fact, can all nations and all humanity 'cross the threshold of hope'!» (John Paul II, Memory and Identity, March 2005). Each saint actualizes the presence of Christ in history. Moved by the dechristianization of workers in Troyes, France, Saint Léonie Francis de Sales Aviat devoted herself to bringing them back to Christ in their lives and work. She was canonized on November 25, 2001.

Léonie Aviat was born in Sézanne, France, on September 16, 1844, and was baptized the following day. Her father ran a store whose sign read, «Seeds, hemp and linen, haberdashery, grocery: wholesale and retail.» A good customer base provided the family with a comfortable living. Léonie was eleven when her parents took her to the boarding school at the Monastery of the Visitation in Troyes, entrusting her to the superior, Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis, whom everyone called «the Good Mother.» Of this Mother a priest wrote, «She runs the convent in Troyes with admirable wisdom and the most abundant blessings from Heaven.»

As soon as she arrived, the young girl began to prepare for her First Communion. It was also proposed that she not wait any longer to receive the sacrament of Penance. She made a serious examination of conscience, but once in the confessional, she was overcome by emotion and burst into tears. Father Brisson, who knew her from a visit to her family in Sézanne, told her, «What? So the little girl I gave so many sugared almonds to before is afraid of me?» That was enough to comfort her. From then on, this priest became her guide. Her First Communion, immediately followed by Confirmation, took place on July 2, 1856.

An intelligent and lively girl, Léonie decided to reform her proud temperament according to Saint Francis de Sales' advice. Mother Chappuis, a true «Mistress of souls,» taught the girls to develop the virtues they would need in the world. She knew the potential impact that a young woman who was truly Christian and fully living her vocation as wife and mother could have on society and on the Church. Aware of the social condition of factory workers in the region, Léonie wrote, «I feel more joy in climbing a little winding staircase to comfort those who are overwhelmed by sorrow, than in being at one of the magnificent parties» organized to raise money for the poor. In 1860, she completed her studies at the Visitation boarding school. Before leaving, she revealed her desire to enter religious life to Mother Chappuis, who advised her to wait.

A reversal of fortune brings freedom

Léonie's return to Sézanne delighted her parents—cultured, accomplished in piano, and painting, she nevertheless did not disdain the ordinary chores in which her practical sense was revealed. Mr. Aviat proposed an advantageous marriage to his daughter. But a financial reversal of fortune ruined Mr. Aviat, and the suitor vanished. Léonie was free, and she decided to enter the Visitation. «Wait a bit longer—what God has destined you for is not quite ready,» Mother Chappuis told her.

Around this time, she entered, a little intimidated, the large workshop of the optician's shop in Sézanne, where the young workers were busy. She was overcome by a feeling that was impossible to describe—in an instant, she imagined herself among these adolescents, an older sister advising, encouraging, correcting, or consoling, a worker among workers, a witness of Love... The return of an employee bringing her mother's repaired glasses pulled her from her dream, but the feelings remained. Soon after, Father Brisson decided that the moment had come to reveal what he expected of her. Troyes was an industrial city. About 30,000 workers were employed in its workshops, mills, and factories. Most of them were far from the faith and even from respect for religion—when priests were insulted in the streets, it was by workers. In welcome centers, the Father would offer young Christians, particularly those prematurely put to work, the means of escaping the danger of living without God.

At the start of the third millennium, the situation is still similar—there is no longer a place for Christ in the culture of the day. We again find humanity's collective pride building the tower of Babel and claiming to have no need for God. Contemporary man is «tempted to organize his life as if God did not exist; as if God, in all His transcendent reality, did not exist; as if His Love for the human race did not exist» (John Paul II, in Czestochowa, August 15, 1991). Similarly, the Second Vatican Council affirmed, «many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences. ... But if the expression, 'the independence of temporal affairs,' is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear... When God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible» (Gaudium et Spes, 36).

Especially not her!

Father Brisson had created a youth club and reception center for young factory girls on the Rue des Terrasses. To supervise them, he had to find full-time female assistants, which wasn't easy—he would need souls dedicated to God. When Léonie visited the house with him, she received an interior enlightenment that showed her that her place was there, in the midst of these youth, some still children. She revealed this mysterious call to her spiritual director who was amazed at what she said—finally, here was the person who could be the foundation stone for the institute he wished to establish! But two trials awaited Léonie. First she would have to leave her family and she feared her father would refuse to let her go. Secondly, the priest gave Léonie a companion, Lucie Canuet who, despite some good qualities, was persnickety, touchy, and argumentative, exhausting those around her. Léonie rebelled: «With anyone you wish, Father, except her!» However, after a meeting with the priest, she fully accepted this companion.

On April 18, 1866, following an eight-day retreat under the supervision of Mother Chappuis, the two founders of the new congregation moved into the house on Rue des Terrasses where Father Brisson's center was located. The youngest workers were quickly won over by these two young women, distinguished yet as open as big sisters. The older ones, at first on their guard, allowed themselves to be won over when they saw the two directors happy to share their poverty and the most humble tasks. Father Brisson entrusted to Léonie the general organization of the Center and its four attached youth clubs.

Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis often received the two pioneers in the Visitation's parlor and formed them in religious life. «For now you are not called to chant the Office,» she told them; «your primary occupation is work—give yourselves up to it as graciously as possible... your work is for you a continuous prayer.» When the eyes of faith continually look on God, one can see Him at work in the world. «Man thus has a continuous awareness that God is at work in everything that happens. If, in the course of the day, man thinks constantly about this mystery, which is silent, living, gentle, and at the same time powerful, or if he feels Him present, he is immersed in real prayer, and he needs only to prolong this prayer and to extend it to everything. To pray, he does not need to avoid life and its everyday activities, for prayer, on the contrary, will blend with them. In every event, he sees a gift from God, and he orients his life such that it is one with God's action. He is aware of the sanctity of this collaboration, and, from hour to hour, he understands better the meaning of life. Although these thoughts give him a feeling of security, they will not keep him from acting in the world. Thus does life itself become prayer» (R. Guardini, Initiation into Prayer).

For me? Why?

So Sister Léonie was determined to remain in the Lord's presence, even in the midst of the busiest days, which was not easy... She increased her ejaculatory prayers, those brief outbursts of the heart that keep the flame of love burning. One day as she was bringing a factory deliveryman some bundles of patched sweaters, her prayer suddenly escaped from her lips, and she exclaimed, while holding out a package to the good man who understood none of it: «My God, it's for You!»—«For me... this?.. Why?» At the memory of this anecdote, the foundress would laugh heartily!

On October 30, 1868, the first two Sisters of the Congregation of «Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales» received the religious habit. Léonie become Sister Francis de Sales, and Lucie became Sister Jeanne-Marie. These beginnings were disrupted by the war that broke out on July 19, 1870 between France and Prussia. Factories stopped running and workers lost their jobs. Sister Francis de Sales made great efforts to keep them busy. After the war, droves of Alsacian immigrants who wished to keep their French nationality arrived in Troyes. The Sisters spared no trouble to welcome them. But the overwork exhausted Sister Francis de Sales, and she entered a difficult period. She entrusted herself to Saint Francis de Sales, her patron saint, who comforted her. Her retreat to prepare for her religious profession took place in great peace. «To forget myself completely» became her ideal. On October 11, in the company of Sister Jeanne-Marie, she made her vows before Monsignor de Ségur, who said to them, «My dear children, your relations with God must be characterized by a great tenderness, your love for Him must be more gentle, more noble, more tender than in any other religious order...» Four postulants then received the habit. Father Brisson was radiant—the Congregation's future was on track.

On September 20, 1872, Sister Francis de Sales was elected Superior General. Fourteen religious from the Sisters of Saint Mary of Loretto had been received a bit earlier into the budding Congregation; before his death their chaplain had suggested this union in order to get his Sisters out of a difficult situation. Father Brisson accepted this merger despite the risks represented by this sudden influx of a significant number of already formed religious with their own institutions. The new Mother General thus found herself heading a swarm of 34 religious and she took charge of two additional institutions, in Paris and Morangis.

A mysterious unction

A ceremony of religious clothing and profession was prepared for January 29, 1873, the feast of Saint Francis de Sales. However, one of the postulants suddenly was struck with an abscess in her heel bone, which made her suffer terribly and kept her from receiving the habit. A novena to the Saint was begun. The evening of February 9, Mother Francis de Sales applied a second class relic of Saint Francis de Sales to the sick foot. The pain finally subsided and the young Sister went to sleep. In a dream, she saw a venerable prelate who applied an unction of oil on her foot. She was amazed when she awoke—she was in fact cured...

The arrival of numerous vocations made the community consider new foundations. Having been dedicated to young working girls, the Oblates proposed the same Salesian education to more well-off girls, in boarding schools. Father Brisson for his part founded the Congregation of Oblate Fathers of Saint Francis de Sales, dedicated to teaching. The houses of the Father Oblates also multiplied and required the Sisters' presence. In 1875, Father Brisson obtained approval from Rome for the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales. The same year, Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis, before her death, predicted to Father Brisson that the lack of understanding on the part of the new bishop that the city of Troyes would soon welcome would make him suffer greatly.

On October 8, 1879, the Foundress's mandate was completed and the former Superior of the Sisters of Loretto was elected General. Sister Francis de Sales was quite happy to give up her position. With no ill will, the new Superior showed a lack of consideration toward her predecessor. Sister Francis de Sales' sisters noticed it, but the slighted one, whose only ambition was to be in the last place, did not complain and offered it all up in silence. However, faced with the scope of the responsibility, the Superior resigned in 1881. Sister Louise-Eugenie was then elected; she sent Sister Francis de Sales to Paris to establish the Oblates' practices at the boarding school on Rue de Vaugirard, as well as to rescue this establishment from a perilous financial situation. It was difficult for her to be uprooted from the work with the laborers, to which she had devoted 15 years of her life, yet she obeyed generously for the love of God.

She was received quite coldly in Paris. What was this reformer going to do? Straightening the school's finances meant restrictions that gave rise to countless oppositions. The students themselves were resistant. Sister Francis de Sales took up her favorite weapons: prayer, serenity, and kindness... Soon everyone calmed down. She showed herself to be an exceptional educator. The Sisters were the first to feel the effects of her influence, for she was convinced that the apostolate's fruitfulness flowed from harmony in the community. «Let us not forget that charity must be as it were an active hope for what others can become with the help of our fraternal support,» Pope Paul VI would later say (Evangelica testificatio, June 29, 1971, no. 39). As to the children, Sister Francis de Sales advised, «Act from patience, gentle firmness, and prayer. When a child's heart is won over to you, you can ask anything, and she will do it... Never make anything, even something important and serious, into a big issue.» Nevertheless, the Foundress put first the awakening of her charges' faith and their preparation for First Communion.

However, in Troyes, relations between Father Brisson and the bishop were deteriorating. The prelate wanted to restrict the two Congregations to his diocese, and he submitted the Sisters to interrogations that upset some vocations. The Father went to Rome to plead his case. It would be 1888 before harmony returned between the bishop and Father Brisson.

My little way

On September 15, 1884, Sister Jeanne-Marie, Sister Francis de Sales' first companion, was elected Superior General. The new Superior General's attitude towards her peer was unpleasant. Sister Francis de Sales struggled with temptations: «Obtain for me,» she asked the late Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis, «the grace to overcome the difficulty I am feeling, to entrust myself to our Mother Jeanne-Marie.» One day, coming across a young sister in difficulties, Sister Francis de Sales told her, «I am going to have you take advantage of my little experience. God has allowed us, Sister Jeanne-Marie and me, to have the most opposite temperaments that you can imagine. And yet here we have been on good terms for many years, haven't we? Well, if I have been able to manage it, it's because I've made it a habit to never approach my neighbor without glancing at Our Lord. Try my little way—I can assure you that it is good.»

At the end of the 1889 school year, Sister Francis de Sales was replaced as the head of the boarding school on Rue de Vaugirard. She suffered deeply at having to leave the school. Upon her return to Troyes, she resumed leadership of the Works, an undertaking in which she found prejudiced minds and endured numerous mortifications, about which she complained to no one. «Oh, if you knew,» she would later say, «how happy it is for the soul to suffer only between God and oneself!»

One evening in September 1893, Sister Francis de Sales, who had come to Paris for the Congregation's General Chapter, distinctly heard a voice whispering in her ear: «You will be Superior, for I want to control everything!» Astonished, she turned around—she was alone in the room... The next day, the Sisters elected her Superior General. She understood—Jesus wanted to govern through her... There was an outburst of joy in the Congregation. The senior Sisters were full of praise for this foundress, who had grown in their eyes through years of selfless devotion. The Mother showed such great kindness to those who had made her suffer that a Sister exclaimed, «My Mother, truly all one has to do is offend you to be the object of your affection and special care from then on!»

«Win them over!»

In the following years, Mother Francis de Sales traveled frequently to consider setting up the new foundations that were being asked of her all over Europe. When her Daughters spoke to her of difficulties raised by the children, she told them, «Win them over!» meaning love them, support them, pray for them. «Trust,» she explained, «attracts trust, but does not command it... You must have a great deal of prudence, charity, and discretion. The children must feel that you respect their little secrets.» But the foundress was above all a Mother. Her sensitive heart could not be hardened. She guessed, sympathized, suffered with those who suffered, rejoiced over the slightest victory, especially if it was the fruit of overcoming oneself or acknowledging a fault.

Nevertheless, a wind of persecution was blowing in France, and religious Congregations were being suppressed. From 1901 to 1904, all the Oblates' houses were closed. Mother Francis de Sales decided to transfer the Mother House to Perugia, Italy. On April 11, 1904, she went into voluntary exile. In Perugia, everything was shabby and cramped. Not knowing Italian, Mother devoted herself to correspondence to maintain contact with Father Brisson and to support all the Sisters. She looked for a way to have friends repurchase the houses in France and keep them until better times. Taking advantage of her stay in Italy, she approached Pope Saint Pius X to obtain final approbation of her Institute's Constitutions. These steps would come to a successful conclusion in April 1911. In the meantime, on February 2, 1908, Father Brisson died peacefully. Informed in time, Mother Francis de Sales was able to be at his bedside. When she returned to Perugia, she told a Sister one day, «Oh, how I would love to become a saint! I desire this greatly! I am going to start today!» On December 26, 1913, a fever sent her to bed. Her condition worsened, and on January 9, she received Extreme Unction, then Holy Communion. The 10th, a little before 6 o'clock in the morning, she died peacefully, surrounded by her Daughters.

Today, the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales carry out their mission of charity in their educational establishments, their welcome centers, and also through various services responding to the needs of dioceses and parishes (catechism, catechumenate, liturgy, evangelization missions....), helping the elderly, the sick, and prisoners, directing retreats... They have 25 houses in Europe, 15 in Africa, 3 in the United States, and 11 in South America.

In canonizing Mother Francis de Sales, Pope John Paul II declared, «The resolution which distinguished Mother Aviat so well, 'Forget oneself completely,' is also for us an appeal to go against the current of egotism and easy pleasures, and open ourselves to the social and spiritual needs of our time.» We ask Saint Joseph to obtain this grace for all of us.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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