Monday, April 09, 2007

Julie Billiart: A Saint Who "Rose" to the Name of Notre Dame

"May Jesus live within us, and as for me may I no longer live but for his pure and holy love. May this love consume me every instant of my life so that I may become a victim of love. Praised be Jesus Christ, praised be Mary!"
–St. Julie Billiart's constant prayer

As her feast day this year fell on Easter Sunday, Fighting Irish Thomas wishes to celebrate a day late the life of foundress St. Julie Billiart. Both her innovation (sisters teaching outside the cloister walls) and Notre Dame connection (she founded the Sisters of Notre Dame) are prime reasons for celebration, but there are more ...

Marie Rose Julie Billiart was born in Cuvilly, France, in 1751, of fairly prosperous merchant parents. Unfortunately the family lost its fortune when Julie was sixteen, and she had to perform heavy manual labor to help them to survive. This, perhaps combined with a fear she felt when sitting next to her father while he was nearly assassinated by a gunman, led Julie to develop a paralysis that worsened until she could no longer walk by the age of thirty. Undaunted, she kept up her local apostolate—teaching catechism to kids and giving spiritual advice to adults—at her bedside.

By the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Billiart's devout reputation was well established, making her a prime (and seemingly easy) target for the insurgency. To escape execution, for the next fourteen years, Julie was carted from house to house to stay one step ahead of the enemy, often being painfully bounced around beneath the straw of horse-drawn hay carts. But it was amidst these travels and travails that Julie had a vision of Christ at Calvary, surrounded by sisters in unknown habits, and a voice saying, "Behold the spiritual daughters whom I give you in an Institute marked by the cross."

While it could be argued that Billiart's spiritual progress moved slowly during the first fifty-plus years of her life, the same could not be said about the last thirteen. With the Reign of Terror ebbing, Julie met the rich but holy aristocrat Francoise Blin de Bourbon and in 1803 they together founded the Institute of Notre Dame. The following year saw two crucial developments in Billiart's life—the first Institute sisters taking their religious vows, and Julie, at a parish mission where the priests (unbeknownst to Billiart) had organized a novena to The Sacred Heart on her behalf, was healed of her paralysis—walking for the first time in twenty-two years!

And Julie would need her renewed legs, because for the next dozen years, she was constantly on the road, opening nineteen centers (schools next to convents) in France and Belgium for her new teaching order. The idea of nuns forsaking the cloister to teach children was more revolutionary than the Revolution at this time, as was Julie's idea to teach practical subjects (the three "Rs" plus needlework and gardening) as well as religious education. Julie had no illusions that this would be easy ("Ours is the most difficult of vocations," she would tell her sisters, "because we must live an interior life in the midst of external work") and it was not without its detractors. Jealous and short-sighted priests closed down nearly all of her centers at one time or another, but she coped with these setbacks with common sense, complete trust in God's providence—and comedy! "She was happy and liked to see us happy too—so she always made us laugh," said one sister, and it was this last quality that truly shows what a forerunner Julie (and her order) was to Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, for Mother wouldn't even let her sisters hit the streets until each one had a smile on their face.

Despite Billiart's death in 1816, the persecution by priests from within and the French Revoution from without, the Order kept spreading, first through Europe to the Americas, then to Africa and even Asia. "If in the classroom our interior life is lost, our congregation will not last," predicted its foundress, and the surviving, then thriving of the Sisters of Notre Dame shows that the majority of the nuns took St. Julie Billiart's words to heart.

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