(1756 – 1846)
Whenever the Church is under persecution by despots, God provides “underground” leaders to keep it functioning.
One such lay leader during the French Revolution was St. Mary Magdalen Postel, and after the Revolution she founded a community of nuns to strengthen the Faith in France.
Julia Postel, a native of Barfleur in Normandy, received a convent-school education in the pre-revolutionary days. While in school she decided to devote her life to God’s service. She took a private vow of perpetual virginity and on graduation opened a small school for girls. Obviously, she had talents as an educator, for she soon won praise for the well-rounded training that she gave to her pupils.
This school was to last only five years, however. The French Revolution broke the dam in 1789. In 1790 the French National Assembly enacted a law that was to affect French Catholicism very destructively. Called the “civil Constitution of the Clergy,” it required that all priests take an oath denying papal authority in France. Some bishops and priests and laity buckled under and took this oath. Thus they became adherents of the schismatic French “constitutional Church.” Others of the clergy and laity refused to turn away from the pope — heroically, too, for the government imposed execution or exile on those clergy caught ministering secretly to the faithful. The beleaguered Catholic clergy could not have carried on were it not for the assistance of the loyal Catholic layfolk.
Julia Postel was one of these courageous aides. When the Abbe Lamache, the legitimate Catholic pastor of Barfleur whom the government had deposed, needed a site for his secret Masses, Julia outfitted a small chapel beneath the stairs in her home. The Abbe even reserved the Blessed Sacrament there. When that became too risky, he allowed Julia to carry a few consecrated hosts on her own person and commissioned her to take communion to the sick. All this no doubt placed a strain upon the young woman, but she discharged her role so discreetly that even the police, when on one occasion they inspected her home in vain for signs of “subversion,” agreed to molest her no further: “She does nobody any harm,” they said, “and is very kind to the children.”
Once Napoleon became head of the government in 1809, matters religious began to change for the better, and Mlle. Postel busied herself anew with the public religious instruction of both children and adults, and with organizing charities. Her prayer-life continued to become even more intense.
Only at age 51, however, was Julia able to undertake her long-maturing plans. She went to Cherbourg, and with the assistance of the local chaplain, Abbe Cabart, she opened a school. She was assisted by three young women who had agreed to work towards the establishment of a new religious teaching community. They took their vows in 1807. Julia adopted the religious name of Mary Magdalen, and was the first superior. Soon this small religious order was busy instructing 200 girls in academics, training others in handicrafts, rescuing abandoned children and ministering to the needs of the poor.
All did not run smoothly, however. In 1811 the exiled Sisters of Providence returned to Cherbourg. Mother Postel did not want to engage in rivalry with them, so she moved to another town. Everything went wrong at that place and at three other locales where they tried to make a new start. Even Abbe Cabart advised them to dissolve. Mother Margaret Mary refused. They would rely on God’s providence, she said.
Her hope was not deferred. When the sisters began anew at Tamerville, they quickly won favor because of the assistance they gave to the people during a famine. Now the order began to grow. There were still difficulties. State law demanded that she take a government examination to prove that she was “qualified” as a teacher. A church decree imposed a new rule and a new name, “The sisters of the Christian Schools of Mercy.” But she accepted these minor problems with good grace.
When she died in her 90th year, Mother Postel could look back on years of patience providentially rewarded. Of all her memories, however, I imagine that the greatest may have been the years when she was able to be a living tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a rare privilege; yet do we not enjoy something of the sort every time we receive Holy Communion into our hearts?
–Father Robert F. McNamara