Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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September 21, 2004
Saint Matthew

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

In Paris, during the Revolution of 1848, an officer led his soldiers to charge a barricade, but, carried away by his fervor, he found himself alone on the other side. He then rushed into the open door of a house of the Sisters of Charity. The rebels followed him in. Fearlessly, the Superior, Sister Rosalie, made her way towards them. «We don't kill people here!»—«Give him to us, we will lead him into the street.» All the sisters ran to surround their Mother, but the horde shouted and yelled. For more than an hour, charity contended with vengeance for a man's life. Gun barrels were already aimed at the victim. Sister Rosalie knelt down. «I have consecrated fifty years of my life to you. For all that I have been able to endure for you, for your women and for your children, give me this man's life!» The arms were lifted. The group drew back, then withdrew altogether. The officer was saved. «Madame,» he asked, «who are you?» —«Oh, nothing... a Daughter of Charity.»

Jeanne-Marie Rendu, the future Sister Rosalie, was born on September 9, 1786, in Confort, France, not far from Geneva. Her family was rather well off, but the father died before Jeanne-Marie turned ten. In 1789 the French Revolution broke out. News of the events circulated to the most remote hamlets. An ardently Christian woman, Madame Rendu charitably took in those who, loyal to their faith, were forced to flee and who crossed into Switzerland. In spite of the law that punished with death priests who remained faithful to the Pope, and those who helped them to escape or hide, Jeanne-Marie's mother opened her home to them. Everybody in the village knew, but they kept her secret.

Pierre isn't Pierre!

As the days went by, Jeanne-Marie, who was not aware of the situation, overheard surprising things about certain guests.... Convinced that people hid things only to do evil, she asked many questions. A newcomer, Pierre, particularly intrigued her because of the special deference shown him. One night, the mystery was cleared up—awakened by strange noises in the house, Jeanne-Marie saw «Pierre» in vestments, celebrating Mass in her mother's presence. Some time later, during a dispute with her mother, the child declared, «Watch out, or I'll reveal that Pierre isn't Pierre!» Madame Rendu, pale, revealed to her daughter that «Pierre» was the bishop of Annecy. She exposed to her the tragic situation of priests—the child then understood that she had to keep quiet.

The parish priest, disguised as a shepherd, traveled through the region carrying out his ministry in secret. He taught Jeanne-Marie the catechism. One night, in the back of a cellar, he gave her her First Communion. Jeanne-Marie was a gracious, lively, mischievous young girl, always moving, with a spiritual look, and features that might be described as delicate, impish, capricious and determined. Gradually, the revolutionary storm lifted. Jeanne-Marie, placed in the Ursulines' school in Gex, hoped to consecrate herself to God and felt drawn to serving the poor. A visit to the hospital in Gex confirmed her desire. She obtained permission to spend some time at the hospital and gained some experience in devotion to the sick.

In this hospital, Jeanne-Marie made friends with an individual in her thirties, Mademoiselle Jacquinot, who confided to the young girl her plan to join the community of the Daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris. Jeanne-Marie asked her mother's permission to leave with her. Madame Rendu eventually agreed, convinced that time would dispel illusions and would bring her daughter back to her. The day of her departure, Jeanne-Marie was pained to have to leave her family, but she was sure of obeying the will of God. When she arrived in Paris, at the end of May 1802, she went straight to the novitiate of the Daughters of Charity, and met Father Emery, the director of Saint-Sulpice seminary and a friend of the family. This famous priest appraised the young girl and confirmed her in her vocation. Quite often afterwards, he would visit her and converse with her about his own matters.

A very sensitive girl with a delicate constitution, Jeanne-Marie suffered a great deal during her early days in the novitiate. After several months, no longer able to endure the reclusive life that the novices led, she fell ill. She was sent to another house in the Congregation, on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois-Saint-Marcel. As soon as she arrived in this environment, Jeanne-Marie regained her health and was able to show what she was capable of. She ended her novitiate there to the great satisfaction of all the Sisters who asked the Superior General to leave her with them. Now Sister Rosalie, Jeanne-Marie spared no trouble in the service of the poor, in accordance with the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul, who had written, «The Daughters of Charity will have the house of the sick for their monastery, a rented room for their cell, the parish church for their chapel, the city walls and hospital rooms for their enclosure, the fear of God for grilles, and holy modesty for their veil.»

The district where Sister Rosalie performed her charitable work was at that time one of the poorest in Paris. The houses there were dilapidated and damp, the streets narrow and squalid, with refuse-filled streams running across them. Entire families huddled together in garrets accessible only by ladders, or in cellars that were always dark. The neighborhood was a hotbed of epidemics and rebellion. Named the Superior of her House at age 28 and transferred two years later to 5 rue de l'Epée-de-Bois (in the Mouffetard neighborhood, in the 5th arrondissement), Sister Rosalie undertook an energetic fight against poverty and vice. A pharmacy, a clothing depository, and a free school were set up in the Sisters' House. Intelligent and very attentive to the needs of others, Sister Rosalie worked in harmony with the Department of Welfare established by the Napoleonic government. She provided it with exact records in exchange for coal and food vouchers.

They are worth more than it seems

Touched by her compassion and patience, the poor got into the habit of speaking to the Sister. No matter what need they made known to her, she made herself their servant and elevated souls to the supernatural realities, prayer and the reception of the sacraments. Candid with all, she told everyone the truths that affected him or her, even the most difficult to hear. But there was so much tenderness in her severity that the guiltiest were moved and promised to mend their ways. Among the poor she helped, drunkenness was common, and those who gave themselves over to it were not always kind to the Sisters. To one of the Sisters who repeated to her a heated word that crossed the boundaries of decency, Sister Rosalie replied, «But my poor sister, the person who is hungry has many other things in her head than to follow the rules of politeness. We must not be alarmed by an abruptly spoken word, and we mustn't heed harsh appearances. These poor people are worth more than it seems.»

She sometimes received abuse herself in response to her charity. At those times, she would wait for a favorable moment to repeat her advances. When she happened to show some impatience, to answer hastily to an unwelcome request, she was so upset over it that she had to make immediate reparation by redoubling the help that was asked of her. But normally, she dealt with the poor with great consideration, guessing that they are much more sensitive to the manner in which one helps them than to the help itself. «One of the greatest ways of doing good to the poor,» she affirmed, «is to show them respect and consideration. Even when you have a serious reproach to make to one of the poor, you must take care to avoid all hurtful and spiteful words.» The heart of the poor person is at once sensitive, naïve, proud, and ready to give its love to him who understands it. Sister Rosalie had confidence in the prayer of the poor and commended to them the success of her undertakings.

In the freezing slums, there were many sick people. Sister Rosalie approached these poor ones in their stinking rags, tended their wounds, cared for them and also comforted their souls. Sometimes she found despairing people dying, and prepared them for death. Every morning, Sister gained strength in the Eucharist and meditation, drawing her charity from the highest and purest source—the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her charity was at once human and divine—Sister Rosalie loved the poor as the suffering members of the Lord, but also as a mother loves her child, with her heart and blood, with her emotions and her tears. Accustomed to all sorrows, far from hardening her heart, she remained to the end of her life just as sensitive to the sight of suffering as she was in her early days.

Let her through!

During the revolution of 1830, the rioters raised barricades. Sister Rosalie roamed the streets and negotiated with the rebels. A short watchword was, «Let Sister Rosalie through.» She had the Sisters receive in her house all those that the crowd pursued—priests, religious, and soldiers. There was a threat that a neighboring orphanage run by nuns would be burned down. Through the Sister's intervention, the men who were threatening the house became its defenders, to the point that their leader made this order: «And above all, no noise! Let the little girls and their guardians sleep!» When the civil war was over, cholera broke out in the city of Paris. The epidemic claimed several hundred victims a day. Sister Rosalie's first reaction was fear. However, she soon pulled herself together and organized help, not sparing her effort or her time.

In 1833, spurred on by a nonbeliever friend who criticized the marginal social effectiveness of nineteenth-century Catholics, two friends wondered, «What do we need to do, then, to be truly Catholic? Let us not speak so much of charity... but do it.» That very evening, they brought a poor man the wood they had left for the rest of the winter. Their names were Ozanam and Le Tallandier. One of their professors sent them to Sister Rosalie. Sister taught these young people «to see Our Lord in the poor, the marks of His crown of thorns on their foreheads.» She showed them the families to visit and gave them advice on how to approach the poor person in a helpful manner. The Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul were born. «The question that divides the men of our time,» wrote Ozanam on February 24, 1836, «is no longer a political question, but a social question. It is a question of knowing what will triumph, the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice, of whether society will be nothing more than a great exploitation for the benefit of the strong, or a consecration of every man for the good of all and especially for the protection of the helpless.» From the seven who were present at the beginning of the charitable work, the members had grown to nine thousand twelve years later. With Sister Rosalie's help, they created specific charitable activities—outreaches to young prisoners and orphans, a Youth Club, the Holy Family charity, clubs for workers, etc.

But Sister Rosalie also increased her own charitable works in the midst of numerous difficulties. In 1844, she established a day nursery for young children. This initiative brought her dissent—she was criticized for taking children away from their mothers. However, the nursery achieved great success—the children there were clean and cared for, and got more fresh air than in the slums in which their families lived. The mothers who had to leave their homes for their work or itinerant trade were assured that their little ones were in good hands. Sister Rosalie soon added schools to the nursery. «In Sister Rosalie's schools,» wrote a witness, «one was astonished to find among the students a modesty, a reserve, and habits of propriety that would be a credit to the highest ranks.»

To prepare her for the great crossing

For the young girls in apprenticeship, Sister Rosalie created Sunday youth clubs, and for those who were going into professional life, the Our Lady of Good Counsel society, in which Sunday meetings were replaced by visits to the poor. Sister Rosalie also turned her attentions to the elderly. As all the elderly could not be admitted to hospitals, she opened a free shelter. Thus was a stopping point set up between an often tumultuous life and death, to prepare for the great crossing to eternity. Those who had lived the worst were redeemed by an edifying end.

In 1848, another revolution broke out. From June 24 to 26, the civil war reached its peak. The Archbishop of Paris, Archbishop Affre, who attempted to come between the army and the rebels, was killed on a barricade. Risking her life, Sister Rosalie rushed into the fray, attempting to calm down the fighters. «Sister, go away!» they shouted to her. «You're going to get yourself killed!»—«Do you believe I want to live when my children are being massacred? So stop shooting—don't I have enough widows and orphans to feed?» After those bloody days, General Cavaignac, assigned by the government to restore order, came to congratulate the Sister on her courage. Sister, always very modest, remembered a little five-year-old girl whose father, a poor and decent worker who had been lured into the disturbance, was to be shot. She called to the child: «Here is a man,» she told her, «who can give you your daddy back. Go ask him for him.» Shaking all over, the child asked on her knees for her father's reprieve. The general hesitated. «Give him back to me,» the little girl begged, «and I will love you so much, sir!» Won over, the officer granted the pardon.

A minister's cabinet?

Sister Rosalie's reputation drew many visitors. Her «salon,» a shabby little parlor with dark walls, was visited more than a minister's cabinet. Sister sometimes received as many as five hundred people there in a single day. A witness reported, «Nothing was more moving than to see enter together sometimes an ambassador and a poor shamefaced man, a simple worker and a prince of the Church, a ragman and a field marshal, all greeted with the same goodness, all come to deposit in Sister Rosalie's heart their secret worries, to be elevated to the noblest thoughts, to take courage so as to endure the burden of life!» One day when a man was taking hours to tell her his troubles, Sister Rosalie answered the Sisters who were becoming indignant with him: «Wouldn't you like to be consoled if you were unhappy? It's not that I have consoled him, but I have heard the account of his adversity, which is a great deal for one who is distressed.»

Her consideration towards the shame-filled poor was remarkable. One day, she caught sight of one of these in the crowd of people asking for help. «Monsieur,» she said to him, «here is a package for someone who lives close to you. Could you do me the favor of taking it to him?» The man left immediately, and, in the street, he glanced at the name and the address, which where his own. When someone criticized Sister Rosalie for allowing herself to be taken advantage of by her beggars, she answered, «If we had been through their sufferings, maybe we would be worse than them. Their bad moods come above all from their needs.»

Among Sister's famous visitors was the Spanish ambassador to Paris, Donoso Cortès: weary of the emptiness of society life, he came to her and received from her addresses of poor people in need of comfort. Having become her close friend, he called her «Mother». Sister was present at the hour of his death. He murmured, «I no longer need anything but God. The poor are praying for me. May they never forget me!» One day, Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie came in person to the parlor to honor Sister Rosalie and see her charitable activities.

At evening recreation, the Sisters handled Sister Rosalie's abundant correspondence. When the entire household was sleeping, she would take up the pen herself and, in her slanting handwriting, write to her many friends—Bishops, Superiors of religious orders, generals, lawyers, heads of businesses and railroads. She put charity within everyone's reach, asking all for a few moments of assistance. These benefactors of all sorts learned from the poor to endure misfortune and were faced with the mystery that God has hidden in the inequality of sufferings and human conditions. «Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin,» teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church. «Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.» However, among men, «[d]ifferences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth. ... These differences belong to God's plan, Who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular 'talents' share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods» (CCC, 1934; 1936-1937).

A boundary stone to set down burdens

Sister Rosalie's intense activity did not keep her from writing often to her elderly mother, nor from looking after her nuns. She encouraged their virtues, especially charity towards the poor. «A Daughter of Charity,» she often repeated to them, «is like a boundary stone on which all those who are weary are entitled to set down their burden.» The least carelessness by one of the Sisters was soon reprimanded, but with a gentleness that could obtain anything. When illness struck one of her daughters, Sister Rosalie's concern redoubled, and if death occurred, she remained humanly inconsolable. «She was born with a very lively nature,» reported one of her Sisters. «She could not endure the least annoyance, started at the slightest obstacle, and was sensitive to a fault—an unpleasant word, a disagreeable gesture, was enough to disrupt her. But the breath of grace passing over this volcanic ground roused her energy and gave her intensity other goals.»

In all her activities, Sister Rosalie saw to it not to hurry. She made a practice of staying in the presence of God. Going out to visit the poor, she said to her companion, «Let's begin our prayer!» While walking, she meditated and conversed with God: «I never pray so well as in the street,» she loved to say. Her bouts of insomnia also gave her time to pray at her leisure. Convinced that she was just a poor, miserable creature, she drew from her feelings of weakness the motivation to hope in God's mercy. Sickness visited Sister Rosalie often, and at the end of her life, she became blind. This trial made her suffer cruelly. When a young Sister told her that a holy priest considered her blindness a great grace and a testimony of divine mercy, she answered artlessly that God could have proven His goodness to her another way! She nevertheless did not allow herself to be discouraged by adversity. «I would have liked very much to see my poor,» she declared. «God is punishing me by depriving me of seeing them... He wanted to put a stopping point between my life and my death in order to give me time to prepare myself for it.» Afraid of death, she often asked for readings on trust in God. During the night of February 4, 1856, she came down with congestion of the lungs. A priest administered Extreme Unction to her the 6th, and the 7th, Sister Rosalie passed calmly into eternal rest.

Endowed with outstanding intellectual and organizational qualities, this Daughter of Charity nevertheless led a very simple life, consecrated to doing the ordinary activities of life as well as possible. During her beatification on November 9, 2003, the Pope said, «In an era troubled by social conflicts, Rosalie Rendu joyfully became a servant to the poorest, restoring dignity to each one... Her charity was inventive. Where did she draw the strength to carry out so many things? From her intense prayer life and the continuous praying of the Rosary, which she never abandoned. Her secret was simple: to see the face of Christ in every man and woman.»

Let us ask Blessed Sister Rosalie to guide us in our prayer life and to teach us to show God's mercy towards all the suffering people Providence places on our path.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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