The French often refer to God as “le bon Dieu”–the “Good God”; and Julie Billiart’s favorite expression was one of gratitude to the Good God for everything.
Julie was cofoundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur, the order that today conducts Trinity College in Washington. Most religious foundresses have what “the World” would consider dull, routine lives. Julie Billiart’s happened to be full of unsought adventures.
The saint’s parents were prosperous French peasants, but as time passed, they became impoverished. Julie, one of their seven children, shone at the local school, and from the start evidenced a special fondness for studying and teaching religious subjects. Seeing in her an unusual soul, her pastor allowed Julie to make her first communion at the age of nine (13 was then the rule), and when she was 14, he permitted her to take a private vow of chastity. The needs of the local poor, and of her own family, quickly called forth her ready compassion. She even overworked in order to keep the family going. Neighbors were already referring to this genial, helpful, prayerful young woman as the “Saint of Cuvilly.”
Then Julie received a shock that was to affect her for many years.
She was sitting at home with her father when somebody from outside shot at him through the window. The assailant missed, but the fright so jarred Julie’s nervous system that she entered into a strange and painful illness that bore down upon her for the next two decades and gradually paralyzed her limbs. Her wits were not impaired, however, nor her devotion to the “Good God”. She accepted immobility with great good will.
Next came the French Revolution.
One revolutionary policy was to set up the “Constitutional Church”, a “Catholic” body independent of the pope. Priests loyal to the pope were now forced to go underground. Julie stuck with the papacy, and, at great risk, offered shelter to these loyal priests. Infuriated with her refusal to comply with the “national” church, the government authorities began to hunt out the poor invalid. One day friends helped rescue her from the threat of burning alive by carrying her to safety in a cart under a sheaf of hay. Five times in all she had to be spirited away from the police. The ordeal merely weakened her further, and she lost her voice.
After the Reign of Terror (during which 16 of her friends, Carmelite nuns, were guillotined), Mlle. Billiart had a respite. Going to Amiens, she met a devout woman of like mind, the Viscountess Frances Blin de Born. When Father Joseph Varin, head of the Jesuit-like “Fathers of the Faith”, met these two women, he saw them ideally fitted to begin a new religious order dedicated to the care of poor children, the education of girls, and the training of religious teachers. He founded the order in 1803, with Julie and Frances and a few others as the nucleus, despite the fact that Julie still remained disabled.
Then came a remarkable event. Father Enfantin, a missionary priest, began a great mission at Amiens, which the nuns of the new sisterhood attended. Enfantin, seeking a cure of Sister Julie, asked her to join him in a novena of prayers. The intention was her cure, but he did not reveal it to her. At the end of the nine days, he addressed this invalid of 22 years, “Mother, if you have any faith, take one step in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Julie obeyed. She rose, stood firmly on her feet, and realized that she was completely cured.
Thereafter, Mother Julie was able to give all her strength to the spread of her community.
Not that difficulties were lacking. A new priest-director tried to change the whole rule, and when opposed in this, he attacked the co-foundress. He even turned the bishop of Amiens against Mother Julie. The sisterhood therefore transferred its center from Amiens to Namur in Belgium. One of Julie’s duties in 1815 was the care of those wounded in the nearby battle of Waterloo.
During the remainder of her life, Mother Julie established 15 more convents. She died peacefully in 1816, reciting the Magnificat. She was beatified in 1906 and canonized in 1969.
Of St. Julie the bishop of Namur said, “Mother Julie is one of those souls who can do more for God’s Church in a few years than others can do in a century.”
Even in our troubled church today, it would take only a handful of great leaders to start a general healing. Send them to us, O Good God!
–Father Robert F. McNamara