200th Anniversary: Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny
Sisters continue legacy of their Blessed Foundress
It is 12 May 1807 and in post-revolutionary France, where all religious orders have been suppressed, an unusual ceremony is attracting the inhabitants of Chalon-sur-Saône to St. Peter's Church. Nine young girls are preparing to receive, at the hands of Bishop Imberties of Autun, their religious habit. It is patterned on the Burgundian peasant costume: a full, blue dress, a long scapular familiar to the faithful of those days, and, covering the forehead, a veil like that of Our Lady of Autun.
Among these aspirants to the religious life were the four girls of the well-known Javouhey family from the village of Chamblanc, near Seurre.
Anne, the eldest, had already begun gathering orphans and poor children in order to educate them, teach them the value of work and prepare them to be good Christians and good citizens. During the Reign of Terror, she had hidden refractory priests and taught catechism to the children, and on the night of 11 November 1798, during a clandestine Mass, she had consecrated her whole life to God.
But where was this consecration leading her? She embarked on what would be a long quest.
In the year 1800 she left for Besançon, where she spent some time as a postulant in a new congregation, and from there she went to La Trappe in Switzerland under the direction of Dom de Lestrange.
But Anne returned to Burgundy still searching for God's will, longing to respond to his call which was so strong and yet so veiled. She attracted her sisters and other young women to follow in her footsteps.
When Pope Pius VII passed through Chalon in 1805, he was enthusiastically received by the faithful, and Anne spoke to him about her desire for the religious life. He blessed her and her sisters and encouraged them in their vocation.
On 12 December 1806, Napoleon, who was in Prussia at the time, signed the document giving legal approval to the "St. Joseph's Association".
So it was that after years of upheaval, a new era dawned for the Church and for religious life. Anne Marie's long quest had ended. "We are now Religious", she wrote to her parents.
The 12th of May 1807 would see the foundation of her Congregation, prepared for during such a long time through her perseverance, her dynamism and her great desire to discern God's will. It was the day when the Church would give official approval to this foundation by a public commitment ceremony.
In the presence of a large number of priests, civil Authorities and a crowd of onlookers intrigued by this novel spectacle, Bishop Imberties received the religious profession of Anne Javouhey, now Sister Anne Marie, and her eight companions during Holy Mass.
The young women consecrated themselves to God by the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, adding one other — to devote themselves to the instruction of youth — according to their Statutes, which had been provisionally approved by the Ecclesiastical Authorities.
Later that day, in the presence of several Church dignitaries, the Bishop presided over the first Chapter of the new Association, during which the Sisters proceeded to elect their Superior General. It came as no surprise that Sister Anne Marie was chosen by all her companions to assume this responsibility. A little later the Congregation which was founded that day would add to its name that of the site of its first novitiate: Cluny.
It was not long before the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, so firmly rooted in Burgundian soil, moved beyond the frontiers of their original home and then beyond France itself. Mother Javouhey was opening houses in Burgundy and its environs, houses which existed for more or less a long time, but she was also thinking of how she could establish a community in Paris, where important decisions would be made concerning the future of the Congregation.
Works of mercy follow
After very difficult beginnings she became known because of a little school where, through the use of the Lancastrian method of teaching, she obtained remarkable results with children who came from a deprived milieu. News of this success reached the ears of the Governor of the island of Bourbon (present-day Reunion), who had come to Paris looking for teachers to educate the young people of the island. He asked Mother Javouhey to send Sisters to Bourbon.
The Foundress recognized in this request an appeal that God had made to her 16 years before, when she was seeking to know where God was leading her. Without hesitation she accepted, and she sent a third of her young Sisters to this faraway, unknown island.
In January 1817 she was at Rochefort to see four of her Sisters — the fifth fell ill and could not go — embark on a sailing vessel which would take six months to reach this island in the Indian Ocean. This was the beginning of the rapid missionary expansion of the Congregation.
Two years later, the Sisters arrived in Saint-Louis, Senegal, then in 1822 the French West Indies, and in 1826 Saint Pierre and Miquelon.
In 1827, some Sisters sailed from the island of Bourbon, bound for India. In 1836 the blue-robed Sisters were welcomed to the British West Indies, and some time later it would be the turn of Tahiti in Oceania.
A foundation made in Ireland in 1860 would give many Sisters to the Congregation's overseas missions. At the death of their Foundress on 15 July 1851, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny numbered about 1,000, working in the five continents.
Everywhere they try to live according to the spirit of their Foundress. Through their prayer and their activities, through the gift of their lives, their aim is: to seek and accomplish the will of God; to announce the Good News of salvation to all, to the ends of the earth; to share in the mission of Christ the Saviour, sent by the Father; to attack evil at its root so as to restore in each person the image and likeness of God in order to liberate, to educate and to promote the total development of the human person.
In retrospect and today
Throughout the 200 years of its existence, the Congregation has continued to grow despite all obstacles.
There were epidemics which decimated the young missionaries, natural disasters which destroyed the missions, laicization laws, revolutions, expulsions, wars: in a word, trials of all kinds; but nothing could stop the candidates who came from the most diverse origins, or the foundation of houses in new mission lands amid the poor and the underprivileged in Poland and Portugal, Cuba and Argentina, Niger and Tanzania, Madagascar and Senegal, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, throughout the length and breadth of India and as far as the Andaman Islands.
The movement of personnel is no longer only outward from Europe to the other continents but also from one continent to another, from South to North and from East to West.
Today, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny belong to some 70 different nationalities and are serving in more than 50 countries. More than a third are Indian and almost one-fifth are African or Malgache.
Amid such a great diversity of languages, cultures and backgrounds, and with a wide range of apostolic activities which continue to evolve according to the needs of the times, the unity of the Congregation is maintained thanks to each Sister's commitment to follow Christ according to the spirit of their Foundress.
Groups of Sisters meet from time to time in the Motherhouse, many go on pilgrimage to the "sources"; the General Council visits the communities the world over, and various documents are circulated to all the Sisters; all these plus the General Chapter held every six years help to maintain the links that unite us and forge a common spirit among the 3,000 Sisters and novices scattered over the five continents.
The bicentenary of the foundation, which is being celebrated in all the communities on or around 12 May 2007, will reinforce this unity.
In France, about 200 Sister-Delegates together with Associates and friends will gather in the "Sources" — the original sites of the Congregation — for a solemn triduum of festive Masses and other celebrations.
In Cluny itself the theme will be "Land of our roots", in Autun and Seurre, "The earth has yielded its fruit", and in Chalon and Dijon, "Let the whole earth sing for joy".
On 12 May, the actual anniversary of the foundation in 1807, the Sisters present in the Autun Cathedral, together with all the Sisters the world over, will renew their vows using the same formula.
On Sunday, 13 May, the Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Church in Chalon will be televised live in France and its overseas departments.
On 14 May, the triduum will come to a close with the theme: "People of the earth, a family of peoples". This will take place in Paris since the Mother-house is situated in the French capital. It was there that Mother Javouhey spent the final months of her earthly life and it is there that her mortal remains have been venerated since her beatification in Rome on 15 October 1950. There is where you can find the heart of the Congregation.
With Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, every Sister can repeat: "It is God's work that we are doing", and as the Constitutions affirm: "With faith in the continuous call of the Holy Spirit, every Sister feels committed to carry on today the task begun yesterday".
The Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny is located at 21 rue Méchain, 75014, Paris, France.
Weekly Edition in English
28 March 2007, page 9
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