The little violet
Claudine Thévenet, born in Lyon on March 30, 1774, was baptized the following day in St. Nizier Church. She was nicknamed “Glady,” and was the second in a family of seven children. The first twelve years of her life passed peacefully in her family, where the Christian faith was firmly established. From her father, Philibert Thévenet, a shopkeeper, Claudine learned to practice charity towards the weak and the poor. From her mother, she inherited Christian courage. Glady, who was also called “the little violet,” did small chores around the house. At the age of nine, her parents entrusted her to the Benedictine nuns of St. Peter’s Abbey, in Place des Terreaux. She received a solid intellectual and spiritual formation as well as some rudiments of sewing, embroidery and the like; but above all, she was instilled with a great love of order and care in all things. Claudine hastily returned to her family when the revolutionary storm broke out, in 1789.
The city of Lyon was terribly afflicted by the Terror. In reaction, an insurrection broke out May 29, 1793 against the government of Paris, and made itself head of the city after 24 hours of combat. As a precaution, Monsieur Thévenet led his youngest children to one of his sisters in Belley. Troops were sent from Paris; August 9th, the city of Lyon was laid siege to. Monsieur Thévenet was unable to return home.
Claudine’s two older brothers, Louis-Antoine (age 20) and François-Marie (age 18) took their places under the orders of General de Précy, on the side of the besieged city. Bombarded without letting up and reduced by famine, Lyon capitulated at the end of two months. Claudine found herself alone with her mother, sharing with her three fears: incertitude regarding her father and the four youngest children; the fate of her maternal uncle, Louis Guyot, who had remained in the territory occupied by the revolutionary armies; and even greater, the danger of her two brothers in combat. Faced with this difficult situation, she placed all her confidence in God, and applied herself to maintaining her serenity.
The last of the fighting took place near the home of the Thévenets. After the battle, Glady went to the battlegrounds to look for her two brothers. She approached each of the dead bodies, staring at the heads by the light of a little lamp, for night had fallen. Her brothers were not there. Split between hope and apprehension, she returned to the house. What would she tell her poor mother? Suddenly, there they were! Having left the last assault without wounds, they had hidden themselves in a friendly house; then, going on rooftops, they had reached their home to come and calm the anguish of their mother and sister. Alas, the joy did not last long. Informed against, the two brothers were arrested and imprisoned, and waited to be shot.
The revolutionary government of Paris ordered a repression to serve as an example. Each day, hundreds of condemned were shot in the area known as Brotteaux. Everywhere, insecurity and anguish reigned. Madame Thévenet saw her pain soothed however by the return of Philibert, her husband. He tried everything within his means to have his sons freed; but the latter did not delude themselves.
“Forgive as we forgive!”
Day after day, the girl searched the procession of the condemned. The morning of January 5, 1794, she examined the usual sad parade. Suddenly her heart leapt-Louis and François! She had just met the expressions of her brothers chained up together! Her entire being trembled in horror. But she had to go to the end, like the Virgin Mary accompanying her Son all the way to Calvary. She threaded her way with difficulty close to them. Louis ventured a signal to the servant accompanying Claudine, telling him in a hushed voice: “Bend down and take from my shoe a letter for our mother.” Then he said to his sister: “Look, Glady, forgive as we forgive!” She remembered then the first words of Jesus on the cross: Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23: 34).
Then the gunfire; Claudine had the courage to slip next to the victims. A sinister sound attracted her attention-the survivors, among whom she recognized Louis and François, were being finished off with blows from a sword. It was too much for her nerves; all her life she would maintain a predisposition for migraines.
She then had to return home. Her hand, still icy with emotion, gripped the precious letter. This farewell message, a touching testimony of an ardent faith and of forgiveness, was a comfort. Each of the two brothers wrote his own letter, and each letter was signed by both. “We will be happier than you; in four or five hours, we will be before God We are going to the bosom of God, this good Father whom we have offended, but we hope completely in His mercy.” They had both been able to confess to an elderly infirm priest, who had been incarcerated and condemned with them.
Claudine helped her parents to overcome this ordeal. The supreme recommendation of the two brothers echoed incessantly in Glady’s ears: “Forgive as we forgive!” Once calm returned to Lyon, the denouncer of the two young men was not accused before the law by the Thévenets.
This noble attitude was inspired by the doctrine of Our Lord. “The teaching of Christ,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “goes so far as to require the forgiveness of offenses. He extends the commandment of love, which is that of the New Law, to all enemies (cf. Mt 5: 43-44)” (CCC, 1933). The spirit of the Gospel is incompatible with hate of one’s enemy; this does not impede us from acknowledging and hating the evil he has done.
After having taught personally the forgiveness of offenses, Jesus gave a perfect example of it: When they came to Calvary, as it was called, they crucified Him there and the criminals as well, one on His right and the other on His left. Jesus said, `Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing! (Lk 23: 33-34). “Jesus asks with His human heart that the Father forgive,” Cardinal Journet commented; “we must, with our human hearts, ask the Father to forgive. Against the hate and the unleashing of instincts down below, He appeals to the magnanimities of Heaven; we must continue to appeal with Him to the magnanimities on high against the hate, the follies, the crimes of earth. A new strength enters with Him into the world, never to leave again, stronger than the evil of the world. The former reign of violence is colliding with another, with a new kingdom From now on, something has changed in time” (The Seven Words of Christ on the Cross, 1952). The new kingdom is the kingdom of love: “Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin,” states the Catechism. “The martyrs of yesterday and today bear this witness to Jesus” (CCC, 2844).
If the refusal to forgive closes our heart and renders it impermeable to the merciful love of the Father, conversely, forgiveness opens it to grace. Thus, far from bringing forth aggressiveness or bitterness in Claudine, the trial, heroically overcome, predisposed her to a great compassion for the distress of others. Little by little, two sentiments developed in her: the desire to communicate the intimate knowledge of the goodness of Christ, and anguish at the thought of the great tragedy of those who do not know God.
The ten years that followed the tragic death of her brothers saw Glady give herself over to an active and discreet charity. She assisted at Saint Bruno parish and devoted much of her time to the poor. She suffered profoundly from seeing the alarming state of education. “Young people no longer have morals,” wrote a national education inspector at this same time. “They are intermingled with frightening licentiousness. Children insult honest people and old men; one can no longer teach them anything; they are undisciplined. The girls, not knowing at all how to work, spend their time in the dance halls with the soldiers; they take the name of God in vain and have mouths so full of vulgar words that they would have made the grenadiers of my time blush. What will the future generation become, if they are not provided with a prompt remedy of such evils?” Thus, the fate of these thousands of poor children, disinherited of the goods of this world, who would grow up, perhaps, without ever having heard the name of God pronounced, made Claudine tremble. She was more and more persuaded that one of the principal causes of the evils of the Revolution was the forgetting of God.
Her first and principal recourse was prayer. She belonged to the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart, where Eucharistic adoration was in the place of honor. Then she won over other young women taken with the same ideal. Sometimes, while visiting the poor, they would meet and share their experiences from the apostolate.
The winter of 1815 arrived. A young priest passing in front of Saint Nizier Church perceived a shadow under the porch; he heard muffled sobs. Two young girls in rags, shivering and dying of hunger, were trying to find shelter from the biting cold. The priest guessed that these young ones had been abandoned. He led them to the pastor of the parish who saw the solution immediately: “Go knock at Number 6 Masson Street, for Mademoiselle Claudine Thévenet. She has the heart of a mother and organizes all the good works of the parish.” Claudine, moved to tears, dressed and cared for the two children, then went to one of her friends, Marie Chirat. It was quickly decided: the little ones would stay with Marie, who would free for them one of the two storeys of her house. A few days later, five other guests were received there. The place of welcome of Mademoiselle Chirat became the “Providence of the Sacred Heart,” and Claudine filled the office of director.
But things did not remain there. Father Coindre, Claudine’s spiritual director, suggested that she form a stable organization, with a precise and well-adapted set of rules. The plan that he drew up was based on the Rule of Saint Augustine and on the Constitutions of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The inner spirit of the latter would be the model of the associates in the apostolic life. On July 31, 1816, the Feast of Saint Ignatius, the “Pious Union of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” was established. Claudine was elected its president. For an instant, agitation came over her; then, after a moment of meditation, imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, she accepted her election.
The small association shone forth in a manner at once astonishing and discreet. A second “Providence” was opened, with a workroom for the production of silk items. The “Pious Union” developed: two years after its founding, sixteen new members were added to its ranks. During this time, the first “Providence of the Sacred Heart,” lodged in Mademoiselle Chirat’s house, was thriving, too; soon, Claudine and her companions were no longer able to devote themselves to it. The work was then entrusted to the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
A foolish enterprise
While displaying an ardent zeal for apostolic works, Claudine was still living with her mother. This mother experienced a fear that one day the Lord would take Glady, calling her to the religious life. The daughter, in fact, was aware of a special vocation from God. It was a painful time; with delicacy, Claudine prepared her mother for the separation. On October 5, 1818, she moved into the “Providence” permanently. This first night away from the familial roof was one of the most terrible Claudine had lived through: “It seemed to me,” she said, “I was engaged in a foolish and presumptuous enterprise, which had no guarantee of success whatsoever, but which, on the contrary, all things considered, would come to nothing.” Her great love for God and her intense faith sustained her. The Lord would call Madame Thévenet to Him two years later, plunging Claudine into grief yet again, but rendering her at the same time full freedom of action.
The workshop for the production of silk worked well and alleviated the financial needs of the “Providence.” However, the development of the work necessitated its move to larger premises, on the hill of Lyon called Fourvière, facing the old church consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Soon the apostolate would spread: Claudine noted that the daughters of well-to-do families were no more favored on the religious level than the daughters of poor families, so she opened a boarding school for these young girls. But it was necessary to construct a new building and borrow a hefty sum, and the person whom she depended on to assist financially abandoned her at the last moment. In prayer, she left it totally to God, who could not fail to help her. In fact, little by little, the debts were paid.
The little community did not always meet with welcome. Gossips criticized this enterprise and tried to ridicule its Superior. Passing through the streets, the little girls and their teachers were exposed to joking in poor taste, which often went to the point of insult and violence. Claudine, who knew the value of forgiveness, recommended the “suffering of abuse with patience and responding by gentle and gracious words.” She was deeply persuaded that “the solicitude of Divine Providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history” (CCC, 303). Indeed, Jesus asked for a filial abandonment to the providence of the heavenly Father: Stop worrying, then, over questions like, “What are we to eat, or what are we to drink?” Your heavenly Father knows all that you need. Seek first His kingship over you, His way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6: 31-33).
Bring forth good from evil
But if God the All-Powerful Father, Creator of the world, takes care of all His creatures, why does evil exist? Evil does not come from God. Originally, man was created good and invited to an intimate communion with God by virtue of a marvelous grace. The radiance of this grace reached all aspects of life: as long as man remained in divine intimacy, he could neither die nor suffer. But, tempted by the devil, he disobeyed the commandment of God and thus lost the state of grace. The harmony in which he was established no longer existed. Visible creation became for man strange and hostile. Death made its entrance into humanity. From the first sin, a veritable “invasion” of sin and of evil has inundated the world. But after his fall, man was not abandoned by God. Christ, by His death on the Cross and His Resurrection, has broken the power of the demon and has freed man. From now on, man can, through suffering and death, which have become means of salvation, reach the bliss of Heaven. “The ineffable grace of Christ has given us possessions better than those which the envy of the demon had taken away from us,” said Pope Saint Leo the Great. Where the offense has abounded, grace has abounded yet more (Rm 5: 20).
Saint Augustine likewise affirmed, “For almighty God, because He is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in His works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself” (cf. CCC, 311). Evil however does still not become a good. In fact, “From the greatest moral evil ever committed-the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men-God, by His grace that abounded all the more, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption” (CCC, 312). The mysterious ways that Providence takes will never be completely known except in Heaven, when we will see God face to face, but from now on we know that for those who love God all things work together unto good (Rm 8: 28). The testimony of the saints does not cease to confirm this truth. “Everything comes from love,” Saint Catherine of Sienna said, “all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind” (cf. CCC, 313).
“To not make anyone suffer anything”
Without having sought to, Claudine Thévenet founded a Congregation. The interior disposition that she desired to arouse in her sisters was to “perform all their actions with the goal of pleasing God, and by a principle of faith.” She and her companions took a religious habit as well as a new name: Claudine would call herself from then on Mother Marie Saint Ignatius. In 1822, Father Coindre was transferred to Monistrol, in the diocese of Puy. At his request, Mother Marie Saint Ignatius sent several sisters there, and the Bishop of Puy approved and established their congregation under the name of “Congregation of the Sacred Heart.”
Numerous sufferings would yet await Mother Marie Saint Ignatius: the death of Father Coindre in 1826; the premature death of two young sisters on whom she counted greatly; serious illness which placed her life in danger; the threat of the merging of her congregation with the Ladies of the Sacred Heart of Saint Madeleine-Sophie Barat; the revolution of 1830, which saw dramatic battles on Fourvière Hill and up to her House, etc. All these trials were hard blows for the Foundress who remained nevertheless energetic and serene, loving to repeat to her nuns: “May charity be like the apple of your eye,” and again, “Be disposed to suffer everything from others and to not make anyone suffer anything.”
In February 1836, Father Pousset was appointed the sisters’ chaplain. Quite soon thereafter, Mother Saint Ignatius, who counted on him to help in obtaining from Rome the approval of her Congregation, was disappointed. This priest could not endure the spirituality of Saint Ignatius which inspired the sisters. In addition, despite his speaking abilities, his zeal, his order and good taste in liturgy, he surpassed his rights. In all conscience, Mother saw herself constrained to resist him humbly but firmly. She could not allow the priest to establish himself as the absolute superior and transform as he wished the style of life and the spirit that God wanted for the Congregation. Numerous painful scenes resulted. With the passing of months, Mother Marie Saint Ignatius’ health declined.
“How good the Good Lord is!”
On January 29, 1837, she received the Last Rites in the presence of the entire community. Father Pousset then publicly addressed to the dying woman an icy reprimand: “You have received graces to convert an entire kingdom-what have you done? You are an obstacle to the progress of your Congregation. What will you respond to God, who will ask you to make an account of everything?” Mother Marie Saint Ignatius kept a calm face. She would admit nevertheless to some of her religious that in hearing these words she had nearly burst into sobs. But her merciful heart knew how to grant a final pardon. The same day, struck with paralysis, she entered into agony, incapable of speaking a word, except these: “How good the Good Lord is!” Two days later, she gave her soul up to God.
The seed planted, humbled, conformed to Christ, gave much fruit. The religious family of Saint Claudine Thévenet, become the “Congregation of Sisters of Jesus and Mary,” numbers today more than two thousand sisters in convents on five continents.
Saint Marie Saint Ignatius, help us to imitate your example of humility, forgiveness and abandonment to God. We entrust to your intercession all the friends of the Abbey of Saint Joseph de Clairval, living and deceased.