Man-made disasters can cause great ruin to thousands. On the other hand, they can also unintentionally produce heroes. St. Marie of St. Ignatius (Claudine) Thevenet, reacting to the bloody injustice of the French Revolution, became a canonized saint.
Claudine, born in Lyons, France, in 1774, was of good family and Christian conviction. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it did not advocate abolition of religion. Later on, however, when more radical parties got the upper hand, stringent steps were taken to destroy Christianity. Tyrannical methods of enforcement led to the execution of hundreds of alleged “enemies of the people” by means of the “guillotine”, a heavy drop-knife for quick beheading.
Among the “unpatriotic” members of the opposition were the Thevenets of the city of Lyons. Claudine, almost 20 when the “Great Reign of Terror” peaked in 1794, lived through these troublous years. In 1794, standing in the crowd that watched many citizens of Lyons being marched off to death, she was shocked to see her two brothers among the victims. They saw her, too, and with Christian bravery shouted back to her: “Forgive as we are forgiving! ”
Those words became the key to the saint’s later life. From that time on, Claudine was to devote her life to the service of the poor around her. Convinced that the worst fate that could befall a person was not beheading but not knowing God, she resolved to make Him known to all. Young women were particularly the focus of her efforts to respond to hatred with heroic forgiveness and love.
Having prepared herself during the remaining Revolutionary years with private experiences, Claudine in 1818 founded the Religious of Jesus and Mary, and as its superior, took the name of Mother Mary St. Ignatius. The constitutions of her order, based on the Rule of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, were granted papal approval in 1847, ten years after her death.
The work of the Religious of Jesus and Mary was chiefly teaching girls and young women. The community spread rapidly through western Europe and into South America and North America. It also undertook missionary work in the Americas, Africa and New Zealand. The sisters came to the United States as early as 1877. While their work was mostly teaching in parochial schools or in day schools and boarding schools of their own, they also established a residence for women on 14th Street in New York City. (Women members of my own family who were employed in New York found their convent a safe and convenient “home away from home”.)
As Pope John Paul II said at the canonization, St. Marie’s community spirit derived from her own “burning charity” to teach her pupils to give the very best of themselves to their work. As she often told her sisters, “Let charity be the pupil of your eye.” Punishment was not for her a good means of educating. The best director, she said, “is not the one who inflicts the most punishment, but the one who has the talent of helping to avoid faults.” The Pope pointed out one notable example of the effectiveness of this loving approach. He canonized St. Marie on March 21, 1993. On the evening before, he had declared “blessed” a more recent member of her religious community: Sister Dina Belanger (1897-1929). This young Canadian nun, a talented musician, had, by her ready acceptance of a life of suffering, reminded the world that God’s love can transfigure life.
St. Marie’s last words had been, “How good God is!”
–Father Robert F. McNamara