Jane Frances Fremiot (+1641) was a beautiful, refined young woman from Burgundy, betrothed to the handsome Baron de Chantal at 21 years old – a veritable Austen-esque marriage of true minds, in a French mode; and a happy union it was, before the Baron was killed by an arquebus in a tragic hunting accident, leaving Jane a young widow with four small children.
Yet she was resourceful, like the good wife of Proverbs, running her husband’s estate and finances prudently and well. Upon meeting the Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales, she adopted him as her spiritual director (after his death, she was guided by Saint Vincent de Paul, so Jane was a fortunate woman – two saints in a row to guide another saint to heaven!). After ensuring her children were provided for, Jane committed herself to a life of chastity and almsgiving, eventually founding the Congregation of the Visitation (officially, the Ordo Visitationis Beatissimae Mariae Virginis) in 1610, in which Order she would spend the rest of her life. Originally dedicated to external good works, the Congregation, was obliged to ask the nuns to remain contemplative and enclosed, due to external pressure and carping voices. Bishop de Sales – who was overseeing things, and who originally approved the practice, was obliged to acquiesce. The world and culture were not yet ready for Sisters outside the convent, but the day would soon arrive, and Chantal helped pave the way. It was for them that de Sales wrote his Treatise on the Love of God. In the words of Pope Benedict:
“The Foundation of the Visitation, as the Saint wished, was characterized by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility, in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well: “I want my Daughters”, he wrote, “not to have any other ideal than that of glorifying [Our Lord] with their humility” (Letter to Bishop de Marquemond, June 1615).
The Congregation was unique in taking in even those rejected by other communities due to age, health or some other factor. When people complained about their taking in those who were considered outside the pale for vocations, the older and the infirm. Jane replied, What do you want me to do? I like sick people myself; I’m on their side. The rule of the Order was not as strict as others, with no perpetual abstinence or prolonged fasting, or night hours, saying instead the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin before retiring for the night.
Jane, formed early on in the practical world of housekeeping and business, was filled with good, solid practical advice, much needed in the spiritual frippery of seventeenth century France:
There is no danger if our prayer is without words or reflection because the good success of prayer depends neither on words nor on study. It depends upon the simple raising of our minds to God, and the more simple and stripped of feeling it is, the surer it is.
And one that hits home in our time:
An evil discovered is half healed.
By the time of Jane’s death on December 13th of 1641, when she was just shy of 70, there were already 86 houses throughout Europe; and when she was canonized in 1767 by Pope Clement XIII, there were 164. Her feast was originally on December 12th, but when Pope John Paul II included Our Lady of Guadalupe in the calendar in 2001 on that day, he moved Saint Jane de Chantal, August 12th, where she now resides.
Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, she who received the private revelations of the Sacred Heart, was a Visitation Sister, as was a sister of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Léonie Martin, whose own cause of beatification is in process.
By their fruits, ye shall know them, and the Visitation Sisters to this day do marvelous work for the kingdom of God, which is always closer than we think.
Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, ora pro nobis! +