Bl. Mary of the Incarnation

(1566-1618)

Prominent Frenchmen who knew her called her “la belle Acarie.” Mme. Acarie was no doubt attractive in person, but also praiseworthy for her social and religious leadership. She eventually entered the Carmelites, and was therefore canonized under her religious name. But it was as a wife and mother that she achieved her reputation for spiritual beauty.

Barbara (“Barbe”) Avrillot was the daughter of Nicholas Avrillot, a man high in French government circles. Her teachers in convent school saw in her a promising religious vocation. Since, however, she was the only surviving child in her family, she graciously yielded to her father’s wish and married Peter Acarie, the Viscount of Villemor. “If I am unworthy,” she consoled herself, “to be the bride of Christ, I can at least be His servant.” As it turned out, she would become both.

Peter Acarie was a man of good will, if not always of good judgment. She bore him three daughters and three sons. It is a tribute to the sound piety of their aristocratic household that, without any pressure, the three girls took the veil; one boy became a priest; and the other sons lived highly creditable Christian lives.

Religion and politics were at loggerheads in France at the turn of the 16th century. The last Valois kings were weaklings without heirs; but they were still Catholic, and as with most Frenchmen, they feared the accession to the throne of the Protestant heir-apparent, Henry of Navarre. A Catholic League, political and military, was inaugurated to prevent his succession, and the Acaries cast their lot with it. When Henry won, therefore, the Catholic Leaguers suffered his displeasure. Peter Acarie was exiled, and there was a time when his family had no food on their table. But Mme. Acarie rose to the occasion, vindicated her husband’s good name, and even got leave for him to return to Paris, poor but in good repute.

After that in particular, Barbara began to merit widening admiration for her manifold good deeds. Her spiritual life also deepened, under the watchful eyes of St. Francis de Sales, Father Pierre de Berulle, and the English Capuchin friar, Bennet Canfield.

Her chief accomplishment was in the setting up of religious orders. She both helped to establish the Oratorian Fathers of Berulle and promoted the expansion in France of the Ursuline Nuns. Still more direct was her contact with the Discalced Carmelite nuns. Their Spanish foundress, St. Teresa of Avila, appeared to Barbe twice in visions, asking her to introduce the Teresans into France. Barbe gladly complied, and by her death the nuns had 14 French monasteries. Thus began the notable French Carmelite tradition that has given us the martyrs, the Blessed Carmelites of Compiegne (1794); Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity; and, of course, St. Therese of Lisieux. Barbara’s assistance was not merely administrative; although a laywoman, she served ably as an unofficial novice-mistress for the earlier candidates.

It was no surprise that “la belle Acarie,” on the death of her viscount, should have taken the Carmelite veil herself, as “Sister Mary of the Incarnation.” She chose not to join as a choir-sister, but only as a “lay-sister,” content to scrub the pots and pans.

Sister Mary was a nun for barely five years. She had never really recovered from an old injury sustained when she fell from a horse. When she lay dying in 1618, the prioress gathered the other nuns about her bed and asked that she bless all. “Lord forgive me,” she replied, “the bad example I have set.” She did pray God to bless them. Then she added, “If it should please Almighty God to admit me to eternal bliss, I will ask that the will of His divine Son should be accomplished in each one of you.” She was beatified in 1791.

I am confident that Barbe’s words to those nuns were intended also for all her married sisters and fellow homemakers of then and now. She was, and would remain, a model of that faithful and caring wife that the Scriptures call, “the valiant woman.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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