A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Early History of the Marist Sisters – Part 2 of 3

Sr Gemma Wilson SM

Between her arrival in Cerdon in 1817 and September 1823, Jeanne Marie shared the joys and the anguish of the Colin brothers in their efforts to get approbation for the new society. After a time living with the sisters of St Joseph in the town, she went to live in the presbytery as the housekeeper for Jean-Claude and Pierre Colin. This happened when she had reached the canonical age required to be a housekeeper to priests - 35! She made several journeys on behalf of the group seeking approbation for their project. She wrote later that she used to go to the church with them to pray when they had received some setback, or to give thanks when there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. Father Jean Coste, an expert in the history of the Marist project, in his last address to the Marist Sisters at the 1994 chapter in Rome just 3 months before he died, said the following: “I would go as far as to say that Jeanne Marie Chavoin was the co-founder of the Marist Fathers!”

Cerdon presbytery

On the 8 September 1823, the first community of Marist sisters began to live in a couple of rooms over a stable. Jeanne Marie wrote later: “We were very poorly housed, with a bad floor, over a stable with a horse. I think the floor had holes right through in several places. I often thought the horse was better housed than we were” (RMJ 101). This building was destroyed by fire in 1944 during the German occupation, but the stream nearby where the sisters would have gone to draw water still exists. The third member of the first community of Marist sisters was Marie Gardet, a niece of Marie Jotillon. Very soon others joined them and soon there were too many of them for the tiny dwelling, so on 1 June 1824 they moved to a larger house which they had to share with a very cantankerous widow. Mother Elizabeth Rougement, who was one of the first postulants, wrote the following many years later:
One cannot think without being deeply moved of all they had to suffer in their new surroundings, housed in a draughty little thatched cottage, the approach to which was difficult and wild, dirty and very damp, with no heating but what came from a stable below their room, where there was a horse for whose benefit all holes had been carefully stuffed up. In the depth of winter, they were without firewood or provisions, but they were always light-hearted, never uttering the least complaint, with no regret for the comfort they had left behind. They did not even think of letting their people know how they were placed; these would certainly have hastened to provide abundantly for their needs. One of them told me one day that it was impossible to understand what joy they experienced in that little thatched cottage RMJ 162, 9-10.

Cerdon, Ain, France

The fledgling congregation was plagued with illness, specifically tuberculosis. The sisters did not understand the danger of contagion so that in the first years of the Congregation six young sisters died. The first Marist sister and the first to die, was Marie-Adelaide Dubreuil, who made her vows on her death bed in Cerdon in December 1824 at the age of 19.

On 8 December 1824, nine postulants, including the Foundress herself, received the habit and became novices. Before the ceremony there was an election and Jeanne Marie Chavoin, Mother Saint Joseph, was elected superior of the little group. This was the first public ceremony in the Society of Mary.

Not long after this the sisters moved to Belley, where Bishop Devie had found a house for them. This house was called Bon Repos. There is still a community of Marist sisters living there today. It is also our congregational historical centre. Jeanne-Marie wrote some years later:

We left Cerdon at midnight on 27 June 1825. The rain was unceasing yet never was there a happier journey. We made the journey on foot, except for the weaker ones, who found a place on the luggage carts. We reached Belley on 29 June about midnight, spending the previous night in Rossillon. What poverty we found at Bon Repos, where we found ourselves in a strange country where we knew no one except Bishop Devie RMJ 99.   

Leaving Cerdon, from Patterns - the fashioning of a foundress by Vivienne Goldstein SM


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