St. Emily de Vialar founded an international religious order that even today numbers over a thousand members. That task involved an extraordinary number of setbacks, but she achieved her aim with vigor and clarity of spirit.
Born at Gaillac in southern France and baptized Anne Marguerite Adelaide Emilie, the future foundress was the daughter of a nobleman, Baron Augustin de Vialar; the granddaughter, on her mother Antoinette’s side, of Baron de Portal, the prominent physician of Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X. The parents sent their daughter to Paris for schooling.
When Emily was fifteen, however, her mother died. The widowed father brought his daughter home to Gaillac to keep him company. She did her best to serve his wishes, but Baron de Vialar proved to be a self-centered curmudgeon. Particularly after she had rejected his plans to marry her off, he became very mean to her. He allowed her no say in the household, and on one occasion even threw a decanter at her. Furthermore, the teenager had no suitable priest to guide her. “God became my director,” she said in later life. She took a private vow of chastity, and intensified her prayer life. On one occasion she had a vision of our Lord pointing to the wounds of His passion. This experience moved her deeply and had a lasting effect on her life.
Fortunately, when Emily was 21, she finally found as understanding spiritual director in the Abbe Mercier, a young priest assigned to Gaillac He was able to steer her spiritual life along consistent lines. Meanwhile she devoted her time to taking care of the local poor and of neglected children. She welcomed these needy to the terrace of her home. This hospitality caused her father to explode once more. He didn’t want charity cases cluttering his terrace! But the people of Gaillac, at least, valued the efforts of his daughter.
Finally, in 1832, when she was 35, a providential event occurred that invited Emilie to stride forth on her real career. Her grandfather de Portal died, leaving her a considerable fortune.
Under the wise supervision of Abbe Mercier, Mlle. de Vialar now bought a large house of her own at Gaillac. On Christmas 1832, with the permission of the archbishop of Albi, she and three other young women laid the foundations of a new religious community to be called the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. (The “apparition” was God’s revelation to Joseph that Mary had conceived Jesus, the Son of God.) The sisters’ apostolate was to be the care of those in need and the education of children. What was unusual about their aim was that from the start they intended to focus on foreign missions. In fact, when Emily established their second house in 1834, it was in Algiers, North Africa, where the French were busy colonizing. At Algiers the sisters quickly won high praise for their work during a cholera epidemic. From her Algerian center Mother Emily then founded additional convents in Tunisia and Malta; and from Malta the sisters spread into the Balkans and the Near East. Indeed, theirs was the first group of nuns in modern times to undertake a mission to the Holy Land. During her lifetime the foundress also sent nuns as far afield as Burma and Australia.
All this was accomplished in the face of great odds. St. Emily was “imperilled,” like St. Paul, “in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers.” For one thing, she suffered a chronic physical ailment. Then she also had to bear widespread criticisms from many sources. When she sailed for Malta, her ship, like St. Paul’s, was wrecked on its shore.
Though backed by Rome, she lost her battle against the domineering tactics of the bishop of Algiers, who even excommunicated the sisters and ousted them from his diocese, to their great financial loss. But being a woman of wit and balance, St. Emily made light of her troubles. “I have plenty of trials,” she wrote, “but God is always there to support me.”
Pope Pius XII canonized this valiant woman in 1951.
–Father Robert F. McNamara