ST. JANE FRANCES de CHANTAL:
CO-FOUNDRESS of the VISITATION ORDER
1572 – 1641
December 12 (Aug. 5, 12, 18, 21)
Born in Dijon, France on January 23, 1572, Jane (Jeanne) Frances de Chantal was the daughter of Benigne Fremyot, wealthy prominent aristocratic lawyer who was the president of the French Parliament of Burgundy. Her name is the feminine version of John which in Hebrew means “God has mercy.” She was barely 18 months old when she lost her mother Marguerite de Berbisey. Her loving father who was an upright man of absolute integrity brought her up with the occasional help of an aunt. Thus it was he who “structured her character upon a strong bold framework.”
When she was 20, she married Christopher de Rabutin, Baron de Chantal and an officer in the French army. They had seven children, three of whom died soon after birth. Tragically, nine (some say seven) years later in 1601 her beloved husband was accidentally shot by a cousin in the thigh while hunting and died a week later. After his death Jane fell into a three-year depression. It took her that long to forgive her husband’s assailant.
Jane and her four young children then went to live with her father-in-law, an ill-tempered man when he threatened to disinherit her children. Despite the added responsibility and ill treatment from servants she cheerfully spent the next nine years raising them.
A visit to her father when she was 32 years of age changed her life completely during a Lenten service in 1604, she heard St. Francis de Sales, the visiting bishop from Geneva, preach a powerful sermon. This was a turning point in her life. She was greatly inspired and impressed by the homilies of this man she recognized as the spiritual director she not only had longed for but had actually seen in an earlier vision. Francis, already a renowned preacher, presented a spirituality that was accessible to everyone capable to be lived out in the world.
Jane successfully convinced him to be her spiritual father. Asked if she intended to remarry she was advised to trim back her lavish lifestyle when she answered in the negative. So Jane devoted herself to caring better for her children and visiting the sick and dying.
But when in 1607, she asked his opinion if she should join a nearby Carmelite order, he, impressed by her practical spirituality, advised against it saying he had a new project for her: a new congregation he wished to found. He wanted to create “a community where girls and widows who were not equal to the rigors of other convents because of health, age or other circumstances might learn to lead the religious life.”
So together on 10 June in 1610, they founded at Annecy, the Congregation of the Visitation or the Order of the Visitation of Our Lady (or the Holy Mary). They gave it that name to commemorate the Blessed Mother’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. The order would foster the virtues shown by Mary at the Visitation and engage in spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
How Jane welcomed the proposed project with joy!
After her eldest daughter married in 1610 and after providing for her 14-year old son by leaving him in the care of her father and of tutors she took her two remaining daughters to Annecy where she herself intended to become a nun.
But before she could leave, her son in an attempt to make her change her mind, threw himself to the ground and sprawled across the doorway. Unfortunately, Jane had already made up her mind so she merely stepped over his body and went outside.
However her aged father who was waiting in the porch blessed her before she left by laying his hands on her head and saying “I offer you to God. Go where God calls you. I shall be happy knowing you are in His house. Pray for me.”
Jane Frances, Mary Favre, Charlotte de Brechard a servant and Anne Coste became the first members of the order Jane and St. Francis de Sales founded in 1614. They were soon joined by ten others.
Despite numerous difficulties the order based on the two sister virtues of humility and meekness spread all over France. Pope Paul V approved the order in 23 April 1618. St. Francis de Sales then wrote his famous spiritual classic On the Love of God specifically for the guidance of Jane and her sisters.
Although for a few years the nuns under the Rule of St. Augustine were restricted to a contemplative life in a cloistered community by the Archbishop of Lyon later they were allowed to visit the sick and the poor.
Because they opened boarding schools for upper class girls that became very popular, the order rapidly grew. However it was not easy because many of the young girls felt their high birth gave them the right to reject any bothersome discipline. Many of the widows also were “irritatingly self-centered.” However the order grew in number under Jane’s special gift for organization and management and her prudent guidance and Francis de Sales and prospered in holiness and good works. She even opened a convent in Paris in the face of open hostility and much opposition. This convent she governed superbly for three years aided by St. Vincent de Paul who directed it at the request of St. Francis.
However in 1622 Jane’s closest friend and adviser – St. Francis – died leaving her terribly sad and bereft. Then a few years later, her son was killed in war and plague ravaged the region.
It was no wonder that for a time during those last years of her life Jane experienced periods of spiritual aridity compounded by spiritual doubts and depression and the torments of the dark night of the soul, which she finally overcame by losing herself in God. This is why her advice to those suffering like she did was: “To live no more in oneself but lost in God is the most sublime perfection which the soul can reach.”
Yet in spite of it all more and more convents were founded until there were over sixty-five! These convents, which numbered 80 at that time Jane visited all in 1635-36 some of which had never seen their spiritual director.
Death and Canonization
In 1641 at the age of sixty-nine, Jane was honored in Paris by Queen Anne of Austria. Unfortunately, she became ill on the way home and died in her convent at Moulins on December 13, 1641.
She was buried at Annecy at the Visitation House near her best friend, Francis de Sales. St. Vincent of Paul said of her: “She was full of faith and yet all her life long she had been tormented by thoughts against it. Nor did she once grow lax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.” Francis de Sales called her “the perfect woman.”
There were a total of 164 houses of the Visitation order she founded when she was canonized in 16 July 1767 by Pope Clement XIII. Her feast day is now celebrated on December 12.
Let us listen and follow Jane’s advise to us: “Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to Him. . . . Be content to remain an empty vessel, simply receiving whatever the holy charity of the Savior may wish to pour in . . . To live no more in oneself, but lost in God, is the most sublime perfection which the soul can reach.”
“Give yourselves entirely to God and you will experience this martyrdom (of love) or sufferings that are a thousand times greater than the sufferings they would incur if they died a thousand times to bear witness to their faith, charity and fidelity.”
SOURCES of REFERENCE:
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III pp. 369 – 373 (Aug. 21)
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p. 250 (Dec. 12)
The Book of Saints – p. 208 (Aug. 12)
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp. 116 – 117 (Dec. 12)
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p. 124 (Aug. 21)
A Calendar of Saints – p. 239 (Dec. 12)
All Saints – pp. 357 – 358 (Aug. 18)
A Year With the Saints – December 12 (Dec. 12)
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp. 585 – 587 Dec. 12)
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I p. 369 (Aug. 18)
My First Book of Saints – pp 300 – 301 (Dec. 12)
Saint Companions – pp. 471 – 472 (Dec. 12)
Saints for Our Time – pp. 174 – 175 (Aug. 18)
Saint of the Day – pp 210 – 211 (Aug. 18)
The Big Book of Women Saints – p. 233 (Aug. 5)
Voices of the Saints – pp. 540 – 541 (Dec. 12)
Best Loved Saints – pp. 139 – 141 (Dec. 12)
The Way of the Saints – pp. 218 – 219 (Dec. 12)
Book of Saints – Part 7 – pp. 18 – 19 (Aug. 18)