The Blessed Julie Billiart, Foundress of the Congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame

Author: Alban Butler


Feast: April 8

It was a common remark among well-informed, sympathetic publicists at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that after the overthrow of religion and settled government, the greatest disaster brought upon France by the Revolution was the almost entire destruction of the system of education that existed in 1789. Old France had more universities, colleges and schools than any other country in the world. The vast majority of these time-honoured, and generally very efficient, institutions were swept away by the Jacobins, and their material resources seized and squandered by the promoters of the new "enlightenment."

But if the losses were enormous, the recuperative genius of the French character was never more conspicuously seen than in the restoration of the homes of learning that so speedily followed after the establishment of the Concordat (1802). Among the many and deservedly illustrious names associated with this noble work, that of Julie Billiart will ever stand forth conspicuous. Nor are the circumstances of her career less noteworthy than her achievements. The sixth child of a poor shopkeeper of Cavilly in Picardy, named Jean Francis Billiart, and his wife, Marie Louise Antoinette Debraine, she was born 12th July, 1751. She only received a common education at the village school kept by her uncle, Thelbault Guilbert, but her youthful piety was such, that she was allowed to make her first Communion at the age of nine. The usual age for this ceremony at that time in France—no doubt owing to the influence of Jansenism—was about the age of twelve, but apart from her solid piety, Julie was no ordinary child. She aided her parents strenuously and cheerfully in their combined shopkeeping and agricultural work, and in her spare time gathered the children of the village about her and explained the Catechism to them.

Then a seeming great misfortune occurred. One night in the winter of 1774, a robber discharged a pistol into the house of the Billiarts, and the report so frightened the sensitive girl, that Julie henceforth for many years suffered from severe paralysis. Instead of repining, the now, apparently, hopeless cripple redoubled her prayers and spiritual exercises, received Holy Communion daily, and soon became known far and wide for the depth and wisdom of her conversation and the penetration of her perception. She supported herself as well as she could by making altar linen, and very soon her humble abode became the object of a sort of pilgrimage, many persons in spiritual and temporal trouble coming to seek the prayers and wise advice of "the Saint of Cavilly," as these zealous folk would persist in terming the poor invalid, to her great grief and manifest embarrassment.

Among those who conversed with her at this time were Monseigneur Francois Joseph de la Rochefoucauld, and his brother, the Bishop of Saintes, both of whom subsequently perished in the massacre at the Carmes, in September 1792. After the interview, which took place at the episcopal palace, his Lordship said to the assembled ecclesiastical dignitaries: "This young girl seems to be inspired by God Himself. I shall be much surprised if we do not hear her spoken about later on!"

During the Revolution, Julie had much to suffer from the "Constitutional" Cure—whom the revolutionary authorities had thrust upon the parish—and his republican abetters. She sojourned for a while at the Chateau of Gournay-sur-Arondre, and thence journeyed on to Compiegne, where she lived near the holy Carmelite nuns, who, in 1793, went from their prison to the guillotine chanting the <Te Deum>—another glorious band of martyrs of holy Church.[1]

Julie Billiart's next place of abode was Amiens, where she arrived in October, 1794, at the request of the Vicomtesse Francoise Thin de Bourdon, who was desirous of instituting some kind of good work that might help to restore religion and social sanity after the blood and nightmare of the recent "Terror" (1793-94). The Viscountess herself had been in the hands of the Jacobins, and had only escaped the common fate of thousands of so-called "aristocrats," by the death of the Arch-fiend, Robespierre himself.

Not only was Julie installed in the house of her benefactress, but her room became a chapel where Holy Mass was said daily by a more or less disguised priest, the Abbe Thomas. In spite of fiery harangues from imported demagogues, the planting of trees of liberty, and even an ominous parade of the awful "Red Widow "—the guillotine!—Amiens, thanks largely to its sturdy Norman common sense, had been less affected by the revolutionary madness than most towns of France.

Still, the actual situation there was bad enough. From the official report of Jacques Silher, member of the Municipal Council of Amiens, we learn that most of the children of the city, owing to the absence of good schools or teachers were growing up in vice and insubordination. The writer bitterly deplored the loss of the excellent primary and secondary schools, which existed before the Revolution under religious teachers, where, for the most part, the instruction was free and open to all! The teachers, who have taken the place of the brothers and nuns, continues our informant, were indifferent to their work, often without moral character, and seemingly desirous only of making money.[2]

"The pious ladies who gradually formed a circle" around the Viscountess, gradually came to learn the principles of the interior life from the saintly invalid, Julie Billiart, and to love through her "the cause of God and His poor." These devout souls were powerfully aided by the wise counsels of Pere Joseph Desire Varin (1769-1850), of the famous "Peres de la Foi," one of the many new religious foundations that arose during the Revolution itself.

By the advice of Fr. Varin, and with the approval of the Bishop of Amiens, Mgr Demandolx, formerly Bishop of La Rochelle, a society was formed to promote the welfare of poor children, chiefly as to their religious and moral education. A school was opened in the Rue Neuve which soon became too small, and another and larger house was taken in 1806, in the Faubourg Noyon. The new foundation was much assisted by a certain Madame de Franssu—widow of the Messire Adrien Jacques de Franssu—who later established the "Congregation of the Sisters of the Nativity" for the education of girls.[3] It was about this time, too, that Julie Billiart at the conclusion of a Novena, was completely cured of her long paralytic malady and on 15th October, 1804, she, together with Francoise Thin de Bourdon, Victoria Lebeu and Justine Garson, took the first vows in the Congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame.[4]

The foundation had not been made without a severe trial. As in the case of St. Alphonsus, who was abandoned by nearly all the early Redemptorists, so all the "circle" of devout ladies already referred to had fallen off one by one from Mere Julie and Mere St. Joseph (Mme Thin), thus proving yet again that religious vocation is not given to every one, however spiritually minded. The Congregation not only vowed itself to the Christian education of girls, and the training of teachers, but further, held itself ready to go wherever its services might be required. No distinction was made between Choir-Sisters and Lay-Sisters, but in view of the increasing educational requirements of the age, and their very probable great extension in the future, much stress was laid, from the first, on the importance of turning out always a body of really well-equipped teachers—an ideal that has ever since been carefully maintained.

Within ten years of its commencement, the foundation had already more than justified itself even from the point of view of those practical "results" which have such a fascination for the publicist and even the "man in the street." Houses existed in various parts of France and Belgium, notwithstanding the world-war which raged around the tottering throne of the imperial Colossus.

On the 15th of January, 1809, the Mother-House was transferred to Namur, owing to an unfortunate episode that occurred at Amiens. During the absence of Fr. Varin, the confessor of the nuns, the Abbe de Sambucey de St. Esleve, with more zeal than discretion, endeavoured to assimilate the Congregation to the ideals animating the ancient orders of women, regardless of the fact that times and requirements were utterly changed! Rather than see nearly the whole object of the Congregation destroyed, Mother Julie resolved to leave Amiens and go to Ghent, where the Bishop, Mgr Jean Maurice de Broglie, greatly wished to have a branch of the, by now, well-known teaching order.[5]

The new Mother-House, as the "branch" at Namur soon became, was quickly regarded as something more than a centre of excellent collegiate education. The saintly character of Mother Julie and her magnetic influence, exercised by voice and pen, soon had their effect over countless souls, and became, in fact, a real "apostolate." The departure of the nuns from Amiens was regarded as something of a calamity by the Bishop of that city, Mgr. Demandolx, and his advisers, who did all they could to retain Madame Julie in their midst, but as she said in a letter to M. de Sambucey, the cause of all the trouble: "My Bishop is at Namur, and my choice is made! I hope God will bless it, for my intention is upright."

The last years of the Foundress were clouded by two anxieties, war and severe illness, Belgium, which in 1814-15, became once more the "cockpit of Europe," saw its territory overrun by the French and allied armies, but happily no harm came to the convents of the religious, and the result of the ever-memorable campaign was the establishment of a peace for the country that was not to be seriously disturbed for a hundred years.

In January, 1816, seven years after her quitting Amiens, Mother Julie was taken ill, and after three months of suffering borne with the patience and resignation begotten of years of real devotion and submission to God's will, she died sweetly in the Lord, just after repeating the sublime heart-pourings of the <Magnificat>, on 8th April, 1816.

The fame of her holiness which had commenced even with her early childhood, increased all during the nineteenth century, and finally in 1881, the long-delayed cause of her beatification was introduced at Rome. It was completed in 1906, when Pius X enrolled her venerable name among the Blessed.

Of the numerous houses of the Congregation de Notre Dame in England, the most famous is that for the training of school-mistresses at Mt. Pleasant, Liverpool, the management of which was entrusted to the Sisters by the Government in 1856. The "Centre-System," or concentrated instruction of pupil-teachers, which the Sisters introduced, is now adopted by all the more important education committees in this country.

[<Life of Blessed Julie Billiart>, by a Sister of Notre Dame. (London 1909.) Much information also in <Madame de Franssu Fonda trice de la Congregation de la Nativite de N.S.>, by the Abbe L. Cristiani. (Avignon Aubanel Freres, 1926).]


1 See the account of the Carmelite Nuns of Compiegne, martyrs. under July 16th.

2 Darsay, <Amiens et le departement de la Somme pendant la Revolution>, ii. 144, etc.

3 Jeanne de Croquoison, Mme de Franssu (1751-1824), Foundress of the Congregation of the Nativity, is regarded as one of the restorers of Christian education in France. There are two convents of the foundation in England, one at Eastbourne and the other at Sittingbourne.

4 The Rule of the Congregation de Notre Dame was approved by Gregory XVI in 1844.

5 The Bishop (1766-1821) was the son of the famous Marshal Duc de Broglie who advised a "whiff of grape-shot"-"pour la canaille il faut la mitraille!"-as a short and sharp cure for the rising Revolution, or rather the anarchic part of it. The remedy unfortunately was not applied till 1799, when Bonaparte used it with complete success on the mob, that sought to revive the disorders of 1791-1792 and the carnage of 1793-1794.

(Taken from Vol. V of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, (c) Copyright 1954, Virtue and Company, Limited, London.)