St. Emily

(1787-1852)

St. Emily de Rodat belonged to a prominent and prosperous French rural family. Although by nature an independent person, she was raised devoutly. True, in her mid teens she became for a while attracted by the charms of a “worldly” life, and it even led to her cutting down on her daily prayers. However, she had a spiritual experience in 1804 that convinced her that God intended her for some special service. Later on, speaking of her most “worldly” period, she confessed, “I was bored only once in all my life, and that was when I had turned away from God.”

God wanted her, but He let her find out for herself why He wanted her. She sensed that her vocation was to educational work. First she became a lay teacher in her own convent school at Villefranche. Then she tried out living for a while, successively, in convents of three religious orders. None of them had exactly what she wanted.

However, one spring day in 1815, Emily overheard some mothers complaining that the could not send their daughters to school because the tuition was beyond their means. At once she was inspired: “I will teach poor children!”

Mlle. De Rodat opened her first poor-school in May 1816, with two other young laywomen as a staff. The enterprise had many difficulties to hurdle, but by 1820 she and her companions had taken final vows as members of a new religious community, the Congregation of the Holy Family. As time went on, despite her own uncertain health (cancer and a constant ringing in her ears), plus a period of spiritual anguish, Mother Emily set up 38 new convents. Schools were her principal labor, but the Holy Family nuns gradually expanded their efforts to cover most of the corporal works of mercy: visiting the jailed, sheltering orphans, and caring for endangered women. Along with her convents of very active sisters, she also established groups of contemplative sisters to pray for the aims of their congregation.

Because they were to see themselves as servants of the poor, St. Emily firmly insisted that her nuns live a life without frills. Even their chapels, she said, were to be poor: no expensive statues or rich marbles. The Abbe Marty, her spiritual director, disagreed with her in the matter of chapel décor, and on other points as well. But he and this very positive woman (“a saint, but a headstrong saint”) got along very well together, and his guidance was crucial in the development of her community. Emily de Rodat died of cancer on September 18, 1852, after a long illness patiently borne. Pope Pius XII canonized her during the Holy Year of 1950.

St. Emily was noted for her crisp common sense. For instance, although many young women applied to enter her religious order, she rarely invited them to “leave the world.” That invitation, she said is God’s business. “Religious vocations are brought about by the grace of God, not by any words of ours.”

Mother Emily also had a flair for being quotable.

“It is good to be an object of contempt,” she said at times when many people were criticizing her. When her secretary deplored the criticism, Emily retorted, “don’t you know that we are the scum of the earth, and that anyone is entitled to tread on us?” (So much for human pride!)

“There are some people,” she once observed, “who are not good for a convent, but a convent is good for them; they would be lost in the world and they don’t do much good in a convent, but at least they keep out of mischief.” “Confession,” she admonished one nun, “is an accusation, not a conversation.” “Keep your enthusiasm,” she wrote to one discouraged postulant. “Be brave. Put all your trust in God. And always maintain a holy cheerfulness.” And as if to illustrate her respect for the church whose poor she served, Emily once said, “If I meet an angel with a priest, I bow to the priest first.”

No namby-pamby person, Mother Emily de Rodat. But God doesn’t intend for us to be namby-pamby. He gives us all a certain number of talents to invest, and He jolly well expects us to produce dividends.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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