St. Joan was one of several “orphans of the storm” of the French Revolution who were called on to restore religious life in Europe after years of demoralizing warfare.
Joan Antide was the fifth child of François Thouret, a tanner of Sancey-le-Long, near Besancon, in eastern France. After her mother’s untimely death, she spent six years managing the family. Then, with her father’s reluctant consent, she went to Paris and entered the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. But before she could take her vows, the French Revolution broke out, and in 1793 the anti-Christian government abolished her sisterhood and dispersed its members. Escaping from Paris, she begged her way home halfway across France. Shocked to discover that one of her brothers had become an ardent revolutionary, she went to live with her godmother.
Seeing the needs of her fellow citizens, she opened a free school in which she taught the three Rs and catechism each morning, devoting the rest of the day and evening to tending the poor and ailing. Priests were then circulating in secret. Joan sheltered them and assisted them; and although this was then against the law, she managed to escape conviction. In 1796 she decided to flee to Switzerland and affiliate with the Swiss Sisters of the Retreat, working in that country and in Germany. But eventually she accepted, though rather diffidently, an invitation to return to Besancon and take care of a church school.
Joan Antide opened the school in April 1799. That October, she and four other companions started a soup kitchen and a dispensary as well. In 1800 Joan and her associates, now 12 in number, formed a new religious order, dating their foundation from the previous year. Some local Catholics blamed her for this, saying that she should have returned to her original order, the Daughters of Charity. But she was under no such obligation, for she had never taken her vows in that religious community. Soon the city of Besancon asked her group to take over the municipal asylum – a difficult assignment since it cared for not only children but beggars, criminals, and the insane. Critics continued to carp at her works, but after 1807, when the Archbishop of Besancon approved her community’s rule of life, the sisters spread into Savoy and Switzerland. In 1810, at the request of King Joachim Murat of Naples, Italy, Mother Joan took over the management of a hospital in that city.
Pope Pius VII gave official approbation in 1818-1819 to Joan’s “Sisters of Charity under St. Vincent’s Protection.” Unfortunately, the papal brief stipulated that their convents should henceforth be under the jurisdiction of the local bishops. Thus far, they had all been subject to the Archbishop of Besancon. The then-archbishop, Gallican-minded and resentful of papal “interference”, declared all convents in France to be independent of St. Joan’s Rome-centered congregation. Joan tried to heal this schism in person in 1821, but they would not even let her into the mother house in Besancon.
Having failed to make peace, Joan committed the solution to divine providence: “We leave it to the mercy of God,” she said, “in whose hands we long ago placed it.” Returning to Naples, she founded three new convents. Mother Joan died in peace of mind in 1826.
After the saint’s death, her order expanded widely, always popular because always ready to undertake any of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It was introduced into the United States as early as 1932. Shortly afterward, it moved into the Far East, and into Central and Southern Africa. By 1963 the sisterhood had over 10,000 members.
Mother Joan Antide was canonized in 1934. In 1957, the Besancon community requested the superior general in Rome to admit it into the official papal community. Thus, through the “mercy of God”, the 138-year schism was finally brought to an end.
–Father Robert F. McNamara