Today, 15 Jul 2012, is the anniversary of death of Blessed Anne Mary Javouhey, (or Anne Marie) the foundress of the Congregation of St Joseph of Cluny. Growing up during the French revolution this capable woman learned how precious the gift of faith is, and decided to dedicate her whole life to God. The path upon which God led her had many obstacles, but with his help she conquered them.
Blessed Anne Mary Javouhey was born in Jallenges, in the Burgundy region of France in late 1779. Her farming family was wealthy and she was the middle child of ten children. As a teenager she saw close at hand the impact of the French revolution and was inspired by the way her family hid and protected priests. Anne became determined to give her life solely to Jesus and to serve Him in the sick and in the education of children.
Even at the age of 19 Anne was a vivacious and determined young woman, and her peers wondered how she would take to convent life. Following a private vow of virginity Anne began her quest to find out how Jesus wanted her to live as a religious. Firstly she spent time with the Sisters of Charity, but came to realise that their lifestyle wasn’t her calling. Pleading with God to reveal His will she was given a promise that she would accomplish big things for God and a strange vision of being surrounded by non-European children and greeted by St Teresa of Avila who promised to help her in her mission to form a new order to care for these children. So strange was the vision that it didn’t make sense at the time. Next Anne tried out her vocation with the Trappists, but her temperament wasn’t suited to it. So home she went again, and this time tried to start a school and orphanage with the help of her sisters. In dire poverty their venture struggled on, because the locals hadn’t caught the vision enough to support them.
Things only began to flourish after Anne and her companions were granted an audience with Pope Pius VII. He encouraged Anne to persevere and most imprtantly gave her and her companions his blessing. With that blessing in 1805 everything dramatically changed. In swift succession the major gave them use of a former seminary building and the town council gave them an annual grant of funds. Now they were off and running! Within a short time she had a school for boys and a school for girls running, with 200 pupils between them and 8 companions. By 1807 first vows had been taken, a motto chosen (The holy Will of God), a habit of blue and black developed, and a name, ‘Sisters of St Joseph’ chosen. By 1812 the little congregation had grown so much that they had needed to move house several times. At last they found a mother house at Cluny, near where the famous Benedictine monastery had been founded over 900 years earlier. Now they became known as the ‘Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny’.
Because the need for education was so great, Anne decided to use a controversial method of teaching. The religious would teach a group of prefects, and then they in turn would teach groups of children. Since it was a teaching method which could handle large numbers of students it caught the attention of the deputy governor of the French island of Reunion, a place to the east of Madagascar. At his invitation four Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny left for the island of Reunion in 1817.
As the deputy governor suspected, this teaching method was ideally suited to African conditions, and the Order rapidly spread into West Africa. It seemed that God was leading the Sisters more and more deeply into missionary work, and Anne was willing to co-operate. In 1822 she emarked for Senegal and set in train a number of new projects for the sick and for the young. The cost of the joy of these new ventures was troubles within the Order. Forced to return to France due to ill health, the Reunion community took advantage of this and started a campaign to become autonomous. A long and bitter battle with both sides seeking the Pope’s and archbishop’s approval caused much pain. In the end Anne’s vision was victorious. Now the Order spread into Guiana.
Around this time slavery began to be dismantled in many places in Africa. The officials hoped that providing education to the newly freed slaves would prevent riots and social instability, so the work of the Sisters of St Joseph was in high demand. On the other hand the rich land owners weren’t impressed that the slaves were improving themselves, and they blamed the Sisters. Where ever Anne went in Africa she saw needs and did something about them, getting hospitals ship-shape, improving the lot of those in degrading conditions, setting as many free from slavery as she could.
In her work of evangelisation, Anne was severely hampered by the poor moral example of the white people living in Africa. New troubles came her way in the 1830s when a new bishop of Autun decided that he wanted to run the Order himself, and his priests. This, too, became a long and bitter struggle and it brought a lot of suffering and some very difficult obediences. It took at least 10 years for the longevity of the Order to be assured and Anne returned to leadership.
The work of obtaining Papal aproval was now paramount. Having done as much as she could towards this with the little health left to her, Anne died in Paris on 15 July 1851. In 1950 Anne was beatified by Pope Pius II.
To learn more about the inspiring details of Blessed Anne Mary Javouhey’s life, go to http://www.pamphlets.org.au/australia/acts1467.html and http://www.clunycarib.org/story.htm .
Blessed Anne Mary Javouhey, pray for us.