Mgr John Broadbent
2 August 2012
St Jane Frances was born in 1572 when the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants threatened to split France.
She came from a noble Burgundian family and was given in marriage to Baron de Chantal at the age of 21. Her mother had died when she was young but her father, a devout Catholic, had brought up the children in the faith which began to mean so much to Jane.
After her firstborn children died young, she had three healthy children, a boy and two girls, and brought them up in the love of God and their faith.
A careful planner
Jane Frances found her husband’s estate was in a bad way economically and poorly managed. Always a careful planner, she soon had everything in order in her new home. Unfortunately, her husband was shot in the thigh while out hunting, surviving only nine days in great pain. She nursed him to the end and was widowed at 28.
She began to live a more disciplined life, increasing her charity to the poor and praying that God would show her a guide who could help her commit herself more fully to God.
She took her children to live with her father but, after several years, she moved to be with her father-in-law who was by now sick and aging.
Jane fitted into his disagreeable household ruled by an insolent housekeeper and showed herself pleasant and cheerful.
Her father wrote to her that the famed Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, was giving a mission in nearby Dijon and invited her to stay with him for a series of his sermons. She immediately knew she had found her spiritual director.
While in Dijon the bishop dined with her father and Jane became more impressed by him as he was by her. One day, seeing her better dressed than usual, he said, ‘Madam, do you wish to marry again?’ ‘No, indeed, my lord,’ she replied. ‘Very well,’ he said with a smile, ‘but then you should pull down your flag.’ She took his hint.
Finding her spiritual director
St Francis agreed to be Jane’s director and helped her to follow a holy life while still running two households with compassion and humour.
‘The other spiritual directors madam had,’ said the servants, ‘made her withdraw to her room for devotions. Now she mixes with everyone and one would never know when she fulfils her devotions because Bishop Francis has made her see her whole life is full of love and devotion.’ She gave much of her life to her children, visited the poor and sick and lost her past spirit of inflexibility.
Jane Frances was attracted to the strict Carmelites at Dijon, but when she mentioned this to Francis, he asked her leave to think and pray about it. After a while he revealed his vision of a simple order of nuns he would like to found, living humble and prayerful lives dedicated to Our Lady of the Visitation.
Jane Frances was thrilled, her only worry being her now-teenaged children. Francis noted that she could still watch over them from the cloister perhaps with even greater advantage to them.
Taking leave of friends and family
With a breaking heart she felt strong enough to say goodbye to her friends and family. She left her 15-year-old son Celse-Bénigne in the care of her father and tutors. The boy tried in vain to shake her resolution at the last moment, throwing himself to the ground in a fit of grief. She stepped over his body and with streaming eyes asked her father to bless her.
He laid his hands on her head and said, ‘I cannot blame you for what you do. You go with my consent and I offer you to God, a daughter dear to me as ever Isaac was to Abraham. Go where God calls you. I shall be happy, knowing you are in his house. Pray for me.’
Francis had provided a house for Jane and three companions whom he clothed as religious; they were soon joined by 10 others. Francis’ main consideration was to found a congregation to be a haven for those whose health, age or other considerations barred them from the already established orders. He wanted the sisters to be unenclosed and free to undertake work for souls and bodies. In this he was ahead of his time because Rome wished all women religious with vows to be enclosed.
St Vincent de Paul was a more practical man working among the poor. He wanted his sisters, the Sisters of Charity, to go unprotected through the streets of Paris in search of abandoned babies and destitute women and provide them with a home. He therefore planned for them to make promises rather than vows, thus escaping enclosure.
Only during the French Revolution, when thousands of sisters were banished from their convents and returned to their villages to run schools and hospitals and do good works with no threat to their chastity, did Rome waive the rule of enclosure.
So with the Visitation nuns unable to visit, their spirit still went out to the poor and underprivileged. Francis especially stressed the virtues of humility and meekness as the basis of the rule. In fact, he wrote his famous book On the Love of God for the sisters.
Jane still had much to suffer as the Visitation nuns grew in numbers. The death of St Francis de Sales in 1622 was a great blow; he was buried at the Visitation convent of Annecy. In 1627 her son was killed fighting the English and Huguenots on the Ile de Ré, off La Rochelle.
A plague ravaged France after this and Jane deployed her sisters in nursing the victims. Several sisters died.
To these bereavements was often added periods of interior anguish and desolation.
During the years 1635-36, Jane visited all her 65 convents. Returning home from visiting Paris, in 1641, she died on December 13, aged 69.
‘I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have met on this earth,’ St Vincent de Paul said.
Image: St Francis de Sales meets Jane Frances de Chantal, from a window at Annecy Cathedral. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Franzundjohanna.jpg