Joan Mary de Maille (or Maillac) was the daughter of a nobleman of the province of Touraine, France. From very early childhood Joan showed unusual piety. She is said to have saved from drowning, by her prayers, a neighborhood boy, Robert de Sille, who fell into a pond while they and other children were at play.
After his rescue, young Robert became very attached to Joan. When they were old enough to marry, Joan’s grandfather arranged a match between them. Joan Marie really wanted to enter a convent, but obedience to parents in such matters was required in those days.
Fortunately, Robert was as devout as his wife, and they agreed to live together after the wedding as brother and sister. Now he succeeded as baron, and he and his wife saw to it that in their castle Christian ideals were upheld. They adopted three orphans; they attended to the needs of the local poor; and they forbade gambling and improper language among their householders.
These were the days in which the English were trying to win control of France. Baron Robert naturally took the side of the French king, but he was wounded at the battle of Poitiers and left for dead. Later, the British troops captured his castle and took him prisoner. They demanded the huge sum of 3,000 florins as ransom. Baroness Joan sold her jewels and horses to pay it, but she still had to borrow to make up the full amount demanded. Eventually, it is said, Our Lady herself released the baron, appearing to him in a dream and breaking his bonds.
The devout couple simply redoubled their charities once they were reunited, focusing especially on the ransoming of other prisoners.
Unfortunately, Robert died in 1362. His widow now had not only her personal grief to bear, but also the unkindness of her husband’s family. Blaming her for having induced him to give too much to charity, they deprived her of her widow’s inheritance and drove her out of her home. She first turned for shelter to an old servant; but the servant, knowing that her former mistress was now impoverished, treated her harshly. Later she went to live with her mother. The mother, however, tried to get her to remarry, for Joan was still young and attractive.
The widow finally escaped this annoyance by moving to the city of Tours and settling in a little house near the shrine of St. Martin. Here she engaged in prayer, attendance at church services, and the care of the poor and ailing.
Even now her trials were many. Once while she was praying in church a madwoman threw a stone at her, which injured her back severely. Although the injury was declared incurable and the scar never left her, she was healed by a miracle, and eventually able to resume her devotional life.
Joan now became a Franciscan tertiary, and thereafter wore the habit of the Franciscan order. After a serious illness, in the spirit of Franciscan poverty, she decided to give all the property that had been returned to her or might become hers to the Carthusian monks of Liget. Her relatives were furious at her action and when she returned to Tours without a cent, nobody would give her shelter. She had to beg food from door to door, and to sleep in abandoned buildings. She was finally admitted among the servants in the local hospital, but even then her holiness made them jealous, and they plagued her until she was thrown out.
Eventually Joan Mary found a refuge, and recommenced her good works. While some still considered her insane, or a witch, the wiser folk of Tours recognized her sanctity. Miracles of healing were attributed to her. Prophetic insight was also hers, often to her own embarrassment. Some revelations of future events were so important that she felt duty-bound to communicate them to the king of France.
In her later years particularly, Joan increased her attention to those in prison, whether as captive of war or even jailed. On one occasion she succeeded in persuading the king to free all the prisoners in Tours. Her solicitude for the imprisoned doubtless sprang from the remembrance of the bitter captivity, years before, of her own dear husband. But concern for the jailed was also, of course, one of the corporal works of mercy listed by Jesus as meritorious of heaven: “I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matt. 25:36). Marginalized herself, she became patron of the marginalized.
–Father Robert F. McNamara