Nine Heroic Efforts of St. Jane de Chantal to Combat One of Europe's Worst Plagues
With the daily alarming reports of the COVID-19 pandemic it is helpful to recall how the saints in the Church responded with clear-mindedness and charity.
One such saint, St. Jane de Chantal, prayed assiduously and took noble action in her role as the superior of her community of Visitation Sisters in Annecy, in east-central France. Her virtues shone in the face of one of Europe's most devastating plagues, which killed nearly a million people in France alone between 1628-1631.
St. Jane, along with St. Francis de Sales, founded the Visitation Sisters which grew throughout France and eventually to America and other parts of the world.
Nine Heroic Efforts
A brief review of the accounts of the day reveals St. Jane's thoroughness and zeal. She:
- Sent food and medicine to seven of her convents.
- Called a council of physicians in Paris to find what could be done to combat the scourge.
- Assembled a body of theologians to examine whether the Sisters could in conscience leave their enclosure in order to avoid the contagion.
- Sent circular letters to all her houses to encourage and console the Sisters, and to remind them to prepare for the coming of the Spouse.
- Refused to leave her community when demanded to do so by the local duke with the declaration that she would not abandon her flock.
- Recommended the exact observance of the Rules, which are guidelines for daily living within each community.
- Prepared her sisters in the event of her own death.
- Served the poor and sick near the convent by making available to them food and spiritual aid.
- Prayed and fasted with the other sisters on bread and water, performed public penances in the refectory, and fervently begged that God would remove the plague from their midst.
Plagues Nothing New
Historians have tracked various plagues in Europe since the 700s. In Christian countries, plagues have sparked great supplications to God and acts of public penance for relief of the suffering.
A historian of the Visitation Sisters, Emile Bougaud, recounts in his book, St. Chantal and the Foundation of the Visitation, Vol. 2, the acts of the saint at the time.
"Never did Mother de Chantal appear more admirable than under these circumstances. The old ardor of her nature, which for so many years she had been trying to moderate, now reasserted itself.
'I have written three or four letters to you, my dear daughter,' she wrote to the Superioress of one of the convents attacked by the plague, 'and of what are you thinking not to answer me? Do you not know that I am on thorns?'
"It was also at this trying period that she displayed that industrious activity, that practical knowledge, that enthusiasm tempered by coolness, so valuable on such occasions. She thought of, she provided for everything. Her heart embraced in its tender solicitude all the wants of her daughters; her mind was as large as her heart."
Bougard also noted,
"Her burning words fired the enthusiasm of the Bishop, Monseigneur Jean-Francois de Sales, who, with a handful of heroic priests, went about ministering consolation to the dying for more than ten months."
The Convent's Peace and Serenity
In the midst of such tribulation and unrest in society, how did the sisters in St. Jane's community at Annecy fare?
"It was indeed wonderful, the peace and serenity of her spiritual daughters in the very centre of the infection, and face to face with a death imminent and horrible, that put the bravest to flight. The community exercises were not once interrupted. In the midst of the mournful silence of the city their bell rang out as sweetly and regularly as before, and the same soft and devout chanting was heard behind their grate.
"'I always saw our Sisters in their usual tranquility," wrote St. DeChantal; 'there never appeared in the community fear, anxiety, or dread. The customary exercises of our state went on exactly without interruption or dispensation, with the usual peace and cheerfulness. . . . Although two or three times there was reason to believe the disease was in the house, yet I never observed the least consternation among our Sisters. They took their little remedies quite cheerfully, each one keeping herself ready to pass into eternity as soon as notified…."
The way their confessor was treated shows the practice of their own version of social distancing. St. Chantal recalls a practice that might well be practiced today in our 21st century liturgies:
"...we were determined not to expose our good and holy confessor. If anyone had stood in need of him, he would have heard her confession from a distance. To administer the Holy Eucharist to her, he would have put the Sacred Host between two small slices of bread and laid it upon the place prepared for the purpose, whence it would have been taken as respectfully as possible by the Sister nurse. This is the way the sacraments are administered in this country to the pest-stricken."
The historian concludes, "The plague yielded, at last, to these ardent prayers. It abandoned the city after having ravaged it for nearly a year."
We can discern three takeaways from this experience of St. Jane and the other sisters:
- Help your own family, as well as other people.
- Keep a consistent routine among those you live with.
- Pray and however it turns out, resign yourself to the will of God.
By Kevin J. Banet
Kevin J. Banet is a journalist and publicist. He works mainly for Catholic religious communities and non-profits. Kevin worked for years for family-based organizations, and then really got his eyes opened when he got married and became the father of two children. He and his family live in the Chicago area. His website is VocationPromotion.com.
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