St. Julie Billiart: The Paralyzed Woman Who Started a New Religious Order

· Religious Saint,French Saint,French Revolution
Saint Julie Billiart: The Paralyzed Woman Who Started a New Religious Order from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of Saint Julie Billiart

God's Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

At some point in time in your life, you probably have been presented with some type of task or responsibility and you have thought to yourself it really is not possible for me to do that. And then you have cited all of the limitations and excuses of why you cannot do what you are being asked to do. I know that I have done that many times.

The saints show us that it is not our abilities and skills that ultimately matter in whether we can do something we are asked to do. What is necessary is a willingness to do what God has called us to do.

Consider how many times God has chosen people who seemingly are the least qualified to do His work. For example, the apostles before Pentecost really do not seem like a very impressive group upon which the Church would be spread. They argued about who was the greatest among them, they never really seemed to understand what Jesus was teaching them, they failed to grasp what Jesus told them about being put to death and rising again, and in the moment that Jesus needed them the most, they fell asleep and then scattered in fear when He was arrested. Then, although Jesus had told them He would rise again and the disciples had seen Him raise at least three people from the dead, they struggled to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead even after the women told them He was alive.

Yet, Jesus entrusted to these men the beginnings of His Church, and through the Holy Spirit, they indeed began the mission of the Church to go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel and baptize the people of every nation. They were willing to put their trust in God, and even after they stumbled and fell, by God's grace, they were raised back up and sent out again to be His witnessed to the whole world.

Let's look at another saint who might not have seemed the most capable of resisting a hostile government, yet she showed the way to keeping the Catholic Faith in a very violent and dangerous time and joined the ranks of the many French holy women.

The Spiritually Precocious Child

St. Julie Billiart was born in Cuvilly, France on July 12, 1751 as the sixth of seven children to Jean-François Billiart and Marie-Louise-Antoinette. Her formal education was limited to what she received at a the village school run by her uncle.

In her spiritual formation she was precocious. By the age of seven she had memorized the complete catechism she had been taught and would gather other children from the village in order to teach them the basics of the Catholic Faith. Because of her knowledge and piety, her parish priest allowed her to receive her first Holy Communion and Confirmation by age nine which was earlier than usual for that time. Then, at the age of fourteen, Julie made a vow of perpetual chastity.

Her family which had been wealthy began to lose its money, and Julie was forced to work long hours to help support the family. However, ever the teacher, she continued to make time to teach the catechism to the children of the village despite her busy work schedule.

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Her Response to a Life-Changing Event

A dramatic event took place when Julie was twenty-two that changed her life. She witnessed her father being shot at by one of his enemies. The shot missed him, but Julie had a psychological reaction to the attempt on her father's life that manifested in paralysis from her waist down through her feet. Soon, she was confined to her bed and would remain that way for thirty years.

Julie did not let this stop her from leading an active life of faith and service. She received Holy Communion daily. Through four to five hours of contemplative prayer per day she developed her interior life. Julie would also spend hours sewing linens and lace for church altars. And, very dear to her teacher's heart, Julie continued to teach the children their catechism from her bed.

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Resisting the Government and an Escape

Naturally, her village of Cuvilly, which is only sixty miles north of Paris, was caught up in the French Revolution which began in 1789. Within a year after the revolution began, her parish had a new priest who was a schismatic as he had forsaken his allegiance to Holy Mother Church and sworn allegiance to the revolutionary government. The new priest wanted get to know his new flock, and he was interested in meeting the "Saint of Cuvilly" as Julie was called.

Julie absolutely refused to meet with the priest who had forsaken the Lord for the state. Instead, from her bed, she was able to convince the entire village to boycott him as she was convinced that there was no ground for compromise regarding this matter. The boycott infuriated the revolutionary government as it undermined its authority and its plans to control religion. A group was sent to put an end to her resistance, but she escaped from Cuvilly in a hay wagon just in time.

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A New Friend and Starting a New Order

Julie was taken thirty-five miles from her home village to Amiens where she was able to hide. Her life reached another turning point in Amiens when she met the Viscountess Frances Blin. Thirty-eight years old, Frances came from a noble family and had spent her youth growing in piety and good works. During the Reign of Terror, Frances' entire family had been seized and imprisoned. Only because the architect of the terror, Robespierre fell from power, was her family spared from death. The two women became best friends and combined their efforts.

They initially went to the nearby village of Bettencourt where they taught the catechism to both children and adults. Through their efforts, the villagers returned to the Catholic Faith after the devastation of the influence of the secular revolution. Julie and Frances returned to Amiens and were encouraged by Fr. Varin and the Bishop of Amiens to found the Institute of the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1803. The women's religious community was founded in order to help and teach poor young girls. They began their work with two other religious sisters and eight young orphan girls.

On the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1804, Julie completed a novena which she made under obedience to her spiritual director. Julie was then encouraged to try to take a step which she had not done in thirty years. She took that step of faith, and she was completely healed of her paralysis.

Over the next twelve years of her life, Julie along with Frances and the other sisters, founded fifteen additional convents for Sisters of Notre Dame. She taught the young women how to grow in the interior life by drawing upon her lifetime of contemplative prayer. And, indeed, prayer was seen to be the key for the Institute. One bishop who knew Julie noted that she helped save more souls from her interior life than she did through her active ministry work. Julie died on April 8, 1816 at the mother house at the age of 64.

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