I had thought that our American widow, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, was unique when she became a religious foundress while still raising her family. Now I find that St. Jane de Chantal, co-founder with St. Francis de Sales of the Visitation Nuns, was in a like situation.
Jane (Jeanne) Fremyot was the daughter of a prominent citizen of Dijon, France. She lost her mother when an infant, but her devout, dutiful father gave her the best education possible for a noblewoman. She turned out to be a beautiful woman, distinguished, lively, but with great good judgment.
When 21, Jane married Baron Christopher de Rabutin-Chantal. They were much in love, and Jane saw to it that all in their chateau had the advantage of daily Mass and community prayer, and that their home became a center of charitable work. Of their six children, a boy and three girls lived to maturity. Unfortunately, Christopher died of a hunting wound after only seven years of married life. The widow forgave the man who through accident or carelessness had wounded him.
Jane had no desire to remarry. She brought her brood back to her father’s home, intent only on raising them and growing in the spiritual life. The spiritual director she chose turned out to be excessively austere, but she tried to live up to his precepts. In 1602 her father-in-law commanded her to come live in his home, under pain of having her children disinherited. So she moved to Monthelon and spent the next 7-1/2 years learning patience at the hands of the crochety baron and his insolent housekeeper.
Once, along the line, Jane had a vision in prayer of a rather portly, bald and bearded man whom she had never seen before, with the intimation that this was her future spiritual director. While visiting her father in 1604, Jane and he went to hear a bishop who was becoming a famous preacher. It was St. Francis de Sales. Francis matched perfectly, even in clothing, the man of her vision. He accepted to become her spiritual guide. For that he was ideal, since he knew how to temper austerity with freedom. One day, for instance, when Jane appeared in a more attractive dress than usual, Francis asked, “Madam, do you wish to marry again?” “No indeed,” she replied. “Very well,” he said with a smile. “But then you should pull down your flag.” She took the hint. He always had just the right approach.
Jane had thought of entering the convent. Francis deterred her until 1607. Then he told her he wanted her to help him found a convent of the “Visitation of the Virgin Mary”. It would be open especially to women disqualified by age or health from entering the older orders. It would not be cloistered, so that the members could go about on charitable errands.
Jane was willing to cooperate, but what about her children? Well, the oldest girl married, and she left the boy at her father’s house. She took the two other girls into the convent. One died before long, the other married. The boy had been most upset at the separation. When she was about to leave home, the fifteen-year-old threw himself across the threshold. But she chose the harder way and stepped over him.
Actually, mother and son loved each other dearly, and she deeply mourned his death in battle several years later. As foundress she had many trials. The local bishop insisted that her convent be cloistered; but she still opened it to widows, the elderly, and women in poor health. The plague caused her community grief, and there were many daily problems. But she accepted all with serenity, praying to God, “Destroy, cut, burn, whatever opposes Thy holy will.”
By 1641 there were 65 Visitandine convents in France. When she died, her body was buried at Annecy near that of St. Francis de Sales, with whom she had shared a unique friendship. She was canonized a saint in 1767.
Of this remarkable widow, her friend St. Vincent de Paul said, “I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.”
It takes a saint to recognize a saint!
–Father Robert F. McNamara