The saints help us see how to live out the Gospel. In the saints, we have concrete examples of followers of Christ who took Him at His Word and pursued the path which He laid out for them to follow. For example, Jesus told us that, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." The saints know that following Jesus can be difficult. The path is not easy. It involves putting others ahead of ourselves and suffering. Today's saint shows us that this indeed the path that one must follow in order to answer the call God places on your life.
Early Life and the Daughters of Charity
St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret (1765 - 1826) was born in the village of Sancey, in the Diocese of Besançon, France. She was the fifth of eight children born to her parents François Thouret and Joan Claudia Labbe. Jeanne's father was a farmer and a tanner. At the age of 16, Jeanne stepped into the role of her mother after her mother passed away. An aunt opposed her father placing her in that role and made life difficult for young Jeanne.
Soon, however, her father was working to arrange a marriage for his daughter. Jeanne had other plans because she believed she was called to the religious life. Jeanne had received a dream in which hands were reaching out to her from the grille in the parlor of a convent. She took that as a sign that the Lord was calling her to become a religious sister. For a time, her father actively opposed her desire to join a religious order, but eventually he gave his permission.
At the age of 22, Jeanne joined the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris. She was at home with the life of prayer and service in the order, and she flourished in providing services to the poor and the ill while she went through her novitiate. Through various illnesses, she had fallen behind in receiving her religious instruction which delayed her vows.
At this time, the Revolution was in full swing in France. In 1792, the government, in its efforts to secularize the population, disbanded all religious orders. As a result, Jeanne was never to make her final vows as a Daughter of Charity.
However, the impact of the order on Jeanne was to be profound. In St. Vincent de Paul, she found an ideal spiritual guide whom she strove to imitate in his virtues and would call "father" for the rest of her life.
At the time when the religious orders were suppressed, Jeanne was working in a hospital, and Jeanne refused to comply and continued to serve the ill. She also would carry in her backpack vestments for priests in order that she could secretly help them to say mass. For her noncompliance, Jeanne was severely beaten by the authorities and needed eight months to recover from her injuries. When she was able to leave, she begged her way back to her hometown.
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Returning Home, Leaving Home Again
In her hometown she decided to continue the work of her religious order as best she could. With the help of others she began to serve the poor by nursing those who were ill and running a soup kitchen. She also started a school for the children in the village and secretly provided aid to priests who had remained faithful and had not taken the government oath.
However, the call to be a religious sister remained strong within her, and she eventually left her village of Sancey to join a community based on the order of the Daughters of Charity which had relocated outside of France to avoid the dangers of the Revolution and the French government. Over the next two years, Jeanne would journey with this itinerant group who traveled from Switzerland to Germany to Austria and then back again to Switzerland.
It was a very difficult and chaotic time for her as the group seemed to be poorly led and Jeanne was frustrated in her desire to serve the poor and the ill and witnessed many people die because of a lack of basic care. She decided to leave the group because of these problems.
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A New Mission for Back Home
Instead, Jeanne set off a journey of her own that took her 64 days to reach the village of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, near the sanctuary of the Madonna of the Hermits. For a time, Jeanne thought that she might simply remain there for quite some time until she consulted with one of the hermits who told her that,
"My daughter, here's God’s will: He wants you in France. The abandoned ignorant young people are waiting for you; go, therefore, as a generous daughter of St. Vincent de Paul and evangelize the poor."
As the ecclesiastical leadership of her Diocese of Besançon was also in Switzerland, she traveled to Landeron in order to meet with them in 1787. The clerics order her to return to her village and to gather like-minded women and to start an order that would serve the poor of her region. Although Jeanne had never considered starting an order, she agreed to take on the challenge and returned to Sancey.
However, the path was not straightforward as the dangers of the Revolution prevented her from heading home, and for almost a year she had to remain in the room of a friend in La Grange which was only about six miles from her village of Sancey.
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Starting a New Order
Finally able to enter Sancey in 1799, Jeanne began the work that would eventually form the Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul. Leaning heavily on the rule of St. Vincent de Paul which she had learned as a Daughter of Charity, she developed her own rule to guide her young order. The foundation of the rule was the same, namely, love of God and love of the poor. The rule was soon approved by the Bishop of Besançon.
"While I was forming my daughters for the active life I formed them for the contemplative life to support and sanctify the active one. Right from the start I had laid down a little rule, for every day, every week, every month, every year."
The little order grew as it ran a school for children and a hospital, helped feed the poor, and ministered to prisoners. By 1810, the order had branches in Switzerland and Savoy. The order's efforts drew the attention of Napoleon who commended their work. His mother offered Jeanne a home in Naples, Italy in which the order could extend their service to the poor in that region.
Jeanne moved to Naples to start this new house. As the ministry in Naples grew, the order's Rule was approved by Pope Pius VII in 1820. The order had become universal and thus, was no longer under the control of the Bishop of Besançon. For some reason, this bothered the Bishop of Besançon, and he forbade Jeanne from being received in any of the order's homes in his diocese. This prohibition effectively prevented Jeanne from returning to France to visit with her sisters.
Despite an attempt made by Jeanne to reconcile any differences with the bishop, the peace effort failed and Jeanne never returned to her native region to see her sisters in person. Instead, she moved the mother house to Naples and remained the head of the order until her death there in 1826.
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Feast Day (Memorial): August 26th