St. Sophie Marie Barat: Dealing with Betrayal

· Religious Saint,French Saint,Founder,French Revolution
Dealing with Betrayal: Saint Sophie Marie Barat from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of a statue of Saint Madeline Sophie Barat

How many of us have not been betrayed? It seems that at one point or another, someone, even someone very close to us, turn against us. Not only are we often caught off guard, but we can become uncertain as to how we should respond. St. Madeline Sophie Barat shares with us one way that we can respond when we are betrayed.

Early Life and Education

Sophie was born in 1779 Joigny in the Burgundy region of France. She was the youngest daughter of Jacques Barat, who was a vine-dresser and cooper, and his wife, Madeleine Foufé. Her birth might have been somewhat premature as it was hastened by a fire and, consequently, put her mother's life in jeopardy. Her mother fully recovered, but young Sophie was somewhat frail and sickly for several of her early years. Eventually, she gained her strength and began to run around among the hills covered with vines while also learning about life and the faith from her mother.

Her older brother, Louis, who was eleven years her senior had been chosen to be her godfather when she was baptized the day after her birth. The young man would take the responsibility very seriously. When Sophie was fairly young, Louis, had answered the call to the priesthood and left for Paris to begin his education. After receiving minor orders at the age of twenty-two, he was assigned to teach at a college in his hometown.

While teaching seminary students, Louis undertook to provide Sophie with a quality education. For the seven-year-old girl, it was almost too much to sit and read or receive instruction when there was a beautiful world outside to explore. Eventually, when given her own space in the loft to study, she began to tolerate and then accept and finally embrace receiving an education. Louis was a bit of task master and maintained high expectations for Sophie. Over the course of the years, Sophie would learn subjects such as mathematics, history, literature, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. 

The French Revolution and Imprisonment

All went well until the age of fourteen when, in the midst of the French Revolution, her brother, who by now had been ordained a priest, was taken prisoner when he was in Paris. The family despaired of his life while he rotted in jail for the crime of simply being a cleric and refusing to cooperate with the Revolutionary government. Sophie's mother became so distraught that, at one point, she refused to eat. Sophie saved her mother's life by telling her mother that she, too, would stop eating in order that they might die together. Out of love for her child, the mother was able to be coaxed to eat.

This difficult time would be the beginning of Sophie's lifelong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. During the time of Louis' two-year imprisonment, the family would pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in order that Louis might be freed and that the family would have the strength which they needed. And, their prayers, were answered when after the fall of Robespierre, Louis was released from prison.

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The Move to Paris

In order to continue Sophie's education, Louis asked his parents that Sophie be allowed to move to Paris where he could continue to personally oversee her education and formation. After Louis' imprisonment and the continuing dangers of Revolutionary France that was both anti-clerical and anti-Catholic, Sophie's parents were reluctant to agree to such a plan. Finally, a compromise was made that Sophie would return home during vintage time.

Sophie and Louis lived in the home of a Mademoiselle Duval. Each day, he would secretly celebrate mass which was a risk for all three of them. In addition, Louis began to change Sophie's course work. In place of reading Homer, Virgil, and Cervantes, Sophie was reading the works of the early Church Fathers. His plan was to insure that she developed her soul with the truths of the faith rather than to develop too much of a taste for secular works.

Although his intentions were most likely good, Louis could take things a bit far when trying to insure that Sophie developed self-control and detachment. She was an accomplished seamstress and worked on several sewing projects in secret. When her brother learned of these, he had the dress she had made for herself destroyed along with a piece of needlework that she had done as a gift for him.

The Fathers of the Sacred Heart

A more productive use of Louis' zeal was when he joined the Fathers of the Sacred Heart which followed the rules of St. Ignatius of Loyola. At this time, the Jesuit order had been suppressed, and the priests of this order hoped to become Jesuits when the order was restored. The first superior, Father de Tournely, had died at the young of age of thirty, and he been replaced by Father Joseph Varin.

In the wake of the devastation of the French Revolution, there was a great need to restore, and in many cases, rebuild what had been destroyed. In response, Fr. de Tournely had planned for a women's religious order also devoted to the Sacred Heart which would provide education to all classes. As the succeeding superior of the order, Fr. Varin would take up this plan as his own.

One day, in the course of a conversation, Fr. Varin asked Louis what attachments he had to the world. Louis told Fr. Varin of his sister Sophie who was under his care. The more Fr. Varin learned about Sophie, and her gifts, education, and temperament, the more intrigued him became. Finally, he insisted that he meet her. 

Prior to her meeting with Fr. Varin, Sophie, who had probably never seen an actual nun or sister, had become convinced that she was called to the religious life. From her reading, she was familiar with the Carmelites of Spain, and she envisioned herself one day entering the Carmel. However, after meeting with Fr. Varin both Sophie and Fr. Varin sensed God's plans for her to help found the new order or women religious with a mission of teaching.

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The Founding and Being Made Superior

Not long after their meeting, Fr. Varin wrote up some rules for the nascent order, and soon Sophie and three other young women who attended Fr. Varin's masses were preparing to take the first steps of founding an order. Thus, at the age of twenty, on November 21, 1800, Sophie along with the other young women made a solemn consecration to the Sacred Heart as postulants for what would become the Society of the Sacred Heart.

Less than a year later, on October 17, 1801, the women took over control of a failing school in Amiens in order to begin their first formal teaching work. After the first superior did not work out, Fr. Varin chose Sophie to be superior at the age of twenty-three. When she learned that she had been selected, she burst into tears and asked to be relieved of this burden. However, Fr. Varin insisted that she be the superior. Sophie acquiesced, and immediately kissed the feet of the other young woman to demonstrate that she would be their servant rather than their master.  Later, when the formal rules were approved, Sophie would continue to be re-elected as superior of the order until she passed from this life.

That she was up to the task was very clear even from the outset. Under her leadership, the initial school quickly became such a success that it had to move several times in several years in order to find accommodations to fit the ever growing number of students. Along with the original women, new postulants joined the order. All of them had been tried by the furnace of the French Revolution which helped them to prepare for a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience and passing along their wisdom to the children under their charge.

The order soon founded two new convents in Sainte-Marie-de'en-Haut and Poitiers. The latter convent became the home where new members went to undergo their noviceship. And, Sophie herself moved to this convent in order to serve as the head novice mistress.

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A Storm Cloud

Several years later in 1808, Sophie returned to visit the first convent in Amiens only to find that the spiritual life of the sisters had radically changed from what was expressed in the general rules of the order. The life of the convent has secretly been changed by the superior of the convent Madame Baudemont under the supervision of the chaplain Fr. de St. Esteve. Fr. de St. Esteve had cast aside the spirit of the order and replaced it with a very austere approach. The motives of the priest could not be deemed innocent as he not only wanted to control the convent but had his sights set on taking over control of the entire order. In fact, Fr. de St. Esteve was referring to himself as the founder and had abandoned any real following of the rule of St. Ignatius and devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Interestingly, Sophie decided to allow the conditions to remain as they were within reason. She thought that any type of direct confrontation would only bring about conflict that would not yield positive results. Instead, she submitted the entire matter to prayer, penance, and patience. In addition, she reasoned that it would not be good to try to assert her authority and correct the abuses as the school was doing well and there was peace and unity in the community of sisters. Instead, Sophie placed her emphasis on supporting the other convents and continuing to lead the development of the new candidates and postulants.

The Fruit of Patience and Prayer

Sophie's approach proved to be correct. In 1812, Fr. de St. Esteve was arrested by the Imperial government. His proposed constitution which had been sent to the other houses had been rejected for lack of devotion to the Sacred Heart. In light of these events, Sophie went to visit Fr. Varin who had been exiled in order to draw up a formal constitution for the order.

Nonetheless, the troubles were not over. When the French Empire fell, Fr. de St. Esteve was released from prison. The priest traveled to Rome to make his case that he was the actual founder of the order and that his constitution was the only one that should be approved by the Holy Father. 

By this time the Jesuits had been re-established. Sophie appealed to the Jesuit provincial to intervene and correct this situation. It is likely that the provincial never saw Sophie's letter. Instead, a secretary responded that the Holy Father had only recognized the rule presented by Fr. de St. Esteve and that anyone who sought to withdraw from being under Fr. de Esteve's leadership would be excommunicated. And, furthermore, any house which would not submit to his rule would be suppressed.

Fr. Varin advised Sophie to submit to this directive which she readily did. The Lord rewarded her humility as it was soon discovered that Fr. de Esteve had authorized the sending of the letter without any permission from the Jesuit provincial. The scandal of this deception caused Fr. de Esteve to lose his supporters in Rome and finally his influence over the order came to end.

Through the prayers, suffering, waiting, and hoping of Sophie, the Society of the Sacred Heart was saved and was allowed to continue to grow from its original Ignatian spirituality and firm devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. By the time of her death in 1865, the order had grown to 105 houses with 3,500 sisters who provided education to girls and young women in Europe, North Africa, and North and South America.

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