On this day: St. Madeleine Sophie Barat

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

"Sophie was living in Paris when the Revolutionary period gave way to the rise of Napoleon and the establishment of the Empire. At this time many women all over France, in a bid to restore the primacy of religion and the place of the church, initiated small communities focused on social work, mostly in education and health."

"Sophie Barat's chosen area was the education of young women of the aristocracy and upper middle-classes and the education of the poor. To this purpose, she established boarding schools and poor schools, usually on the same property."

--Madeleine Sophie Barat, 1779-1865: A Life, by Phil Kilroy, RSCJ, Paulist Press, 2000.

In Sister Kilroy's book, a biography of Mother Barat and a history of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, there are descriptions of the letters Sophie Barat exchanged with Rose Philippine Duchesne, who established the Society of the Sacred Heart in the United States.

"Sophie responded to Philippine's comments on Grand Coteau and suggested that a certain flexibility with regard to life in the houses in America was needed. . . . She asked Philippine to show latitude and to allow prayers in the schools to be said in English, not Latin; to permit English be taught in the afternoon classes; to ensure that Protestants not learn the Catholic catechism; to let the community walk in the woods and fields; to accept those of mixed blood, or born outside marriage, as members of the Society, as long as they fulfilled the other usual conditions for entry; to all the coadjutrix sisters to wear the same kind of cloth as the choir sisters, on account of the climate; to allow the coadjutrix sisters be taught writing on Sundays."

Living conditions in Louisiana and Missouri were difficult in the 1830s, and Sophie, in her letters, "presented herself as a superior general who was critical and negative with regard to the American houses".

Kilroy's description of Sophie Barat's relationship with "Elizabeth Galitzine, a Russian Princess, and a convert from the Orthodox faith", is fascinating. "The rule against particular friendships and the dire warnings about the dangers inherent in them were happily disregarded by the key figures in this book".

--from a review of Phil Kilroy's book by Joan Hutchenson, RSCJ, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 2001.

Sr. Kilroy's lovely web site about Madeleine Sophie Barat has a great deal of information about the saint and a warning about her letters:

"We may be shocked by the openness and frankness in the letters of Sophie Barat and Philippine Duchesne.They are open about their love and affection, their difficulties and strains, their ups and downs, their misunderstandings and reconciliations. In Sophie and Philippine's day people often spoke the truth more directly to one another than we do, and so the wounds and misunderstandings could be exposed honestly."

(I've noticed the same thing in letters written by the mother and sisters of St. Therese. French women wrote openly of things English-speaking women might avoid altogether or couch in euphemisms.)

See also, on Kilroy's page about the "Spirituality of Sophie Barat", the explanation of how her early immersion in Jansenism cast a shadow on her life.

For more about Mother Barat's philosophy of educating girls of the upper class and the curriculum at her schools, which included "studies in the basics as well as history, geography, literature, and mythology", see From the Salon to the Schoolroom: Educating Bourgeois Girls in Nineteenth-Century France, by Rebecca Rogers, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005, page 57.

Civilizing Habits: Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire, by Sarah Ann Curtis, Oxford University Press, 2010, explains why Mother Barat's Society succeeded in attracting students immediately, and how it differed from pre-Revolution orders. Page 37.

Click here for a Glossary of terms used in Sacred Heart schools.

A very happy feast day to all Religious of the Sacred Heart, their students and alumnae, associates, and friends!

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