After the anti-religious French Revolution was over, a host of religious orders of men and women sprang up in France. Some of these orders were revivals; others were brand-new institutes.
Sister Mary Euphrasia Pelletier was one of the leaders in this spiritual movement. She founded the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, a community internationally known today for its correctional work with young women.
Rose Virginia Pelletier was a member of a Catholic family of LaVendee, a province in western France that had valiantly but ineffectively withstood the paganizing forces of the French Revolution. As a matter of fact, Rose’s family had even taken flight to an island off the French Atlantic coast during the later years of the Revolutionary government.
When peace was re-established, young Rose was sent to Tours, France, for her education. There she first encountered the Religious of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge. St. John Eudes had established this order of nuns in 1641 particularly to rescue endangered young women. Attracted by the aims of the “Refugee” community, Rose Virginia joined it, receiving the religious name Maria of St. Euphrasia. Eleven years later, although only 29, she was elected superior of the convent.
In 1829, Mother Euphrasia was persuaded to take charge of a similar convent at Angers. The Angers convent soon promised to blossom into an extensive religious movement. She saw that it would be better for any daughter convents to be governed by one superior. (Thus far, the convents founded in the tradition of St. John Eudes were all independent of each other, and subject to the local bishop.) In 1835, the pope approved the proposal for centralization proposed by Mother Pelletier. Experience quickly proved the wisdom of this central governance. During her term as superior general, 110 foundations were initiated, several of them in the United States. Today the community counts over 600 convents and over 7,000 nuns throughout the world.
The scope of the order’s work is to guide young women; and the sisters’ basic principle is the worth of the individual person. They keep up to date in the scientific and psychological aspects of this apostolate. To the regular three vows of poverty, charity, and obedience, they add a fourth: ever to seek the salvation of souls.
One very interesting aspect of Mother Euphrasia’s planning was the establishment of the Sisters Magdalens. This is a contemplative group officially affiliated since 1950 with the Good Shepherd sisterhood. Its membership was drawn originally from young women who had reformed their wayward lives and chosen to spend the rest of their years making reparation. In 1964, they were renamed “Contemplatives of the Cross.”
The success of St. Mary Euphrasia was purchased at a high cost. Because of her advocacy of centralization, she was accused by many of being greedy for power. These attacks she bore with heroic patience. “Having brought to birth all our young sisters in the Cross,” she once observed, “I love them more than life itself. And the root of that love is in God and in the knowledge of my own unworthiness.”
Like the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta among the “poorest of the poor,” the project of Mother Euphrasia was quickly hailed as fulfilling a definite current need. Mother Mary Euphrasia was beatified in 1933 and canonized in 1940.
–Father Robert F. McNamara