Assistance to the “colored,” slave or free, was not high on the Christian agenda in the early 19th century. Hence Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, pioneering in her international educational work among them, was a trailblazer.
The French revolution had merits, but also serious flaws. Extremist revolutionaries tried to destroy Christianity and the Church. Yet out of persecution arose a strengthened Catholic faith. Anne Marie is a case in point. Forced as a teenager to attend Mass in secret, she did her best to assist the persecuted Catholic clergy. It was at one of their secret Masses in 1798 that she took a private vow not to marry and to devote her life to instructing children and aiding the poor.
When peace returned and religious orders could again function, Anne tried two orders for a while but felt that neither quite suited her. While with the Cistercians, however, she had a dream of standing in a room filled with “colored” children, and hearing a voice, “These are the children God gives you. I am Teresa, and I will look after your congregation.”
A Trappist monk confirmed her conviction that this was an invitation to set up her own religious community. She persuaded three of her blood–sisters to join her. They presented themselves to Pope Pius VII when he came to France in 1805, and he praised and blessed their project. They opened a school and quickly won admiration for their progressive methods. In 1807 “Nanette,” her sisters and five other postulants launched the “Congregation of St. Joseph of Cluny” to engage in teaching and aiding the aged and ill. Soon invitations came in to them to start other schools. One was in Paris.
During their first decade, the sisters taught only white children. Then in 1817 they accepted a mission to run a school on the isle of Bourbon (now Reunion), a French island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where the population was black, south Indian, and otherwise Asiatic. Next, Mother Anne was asked to go to Africa proper: Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone. At Senegal her community started to train black blacks for the priesthood. Their project floundered, but she still deserves credit for innovating it. All along the line, Bl. Anne had to deal with many problems and disappointments, but her strong leadership did not permit her to be discouraged. Indeed, King Louis-Philippe said of her, “Madame Javouhey is a great man!”
From Africa, the Cluniacs were called to the New World. They established schools, hospitals and other institutions in the Lesser Antilles and at St. Pierre and Miqueelon, south of Newfoundland. But Mother Anne’s main efforts were expended in French Guiana, South America. The French government invited her in 1828 to found a colony in the Mana District, where the men earlier assigned to the same task had failed. Good executive that she was, Mother Javouhey, after much hard work, had the colony going after four years.
In 1834 she was called back to Man to perform a still more difficult task. It was planned to free 600 black slaves, but the government wanted them to be trained first in the arts of civilization, for they were thus far uncivilized, and might, if released without civic training, become mutinous. Bl. Anne organized these blacks into a Catholic village. She was practically queen: “Governor,” employer, and spiritual counselor. Local slave owners accused her of abolitionism and even tried to kill her. But when the blacks of Man were manumitted in 1838, they were a self-supporting community well trained in citizenship.
By the time of her death in 1851, Mother Anne Marie had made foundations in India and Tahiti, and had welcomed many Indian young women into her congregation. Today her sisterhood has over 300 houses around the world, and over 3,000 members. One third of the sisters are native vocations.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared “blessed” this “good seed” of the French Revolution: a missionary for whom the color of one’s skin was completely beside the point.
–Father Robert F. McNamara