Jeanne Chézard de Matel was born 400 years ago in Roanne, France, on November 6, 1596. Her birth was a joyful answer to prayer for Jean Chézard, a French nobleman, and Jeanne Chaurier, whose first four children had been stillborn or had died as infants. Jeanne was baptized on the day of her birth in St. Stephen’s Church. Two small children who came to the door begging were her Godparents. When Jeanne was born no one could have known that she would one day be called by God to be a Foundress of a religious order, mystic, teacher, spiritual director and writer.
Jeanne grew up in a loving atmosphere of faith, an environment that seems to have been primarily created by her mother. Although she knew her father’s love for her, he was absent from the home much of the time, and was known to have a violently explosive temper. In her Autobiography, we read about Jeanne’s interest in spiritual things from the time she was a very small child. She wondered what the saints did in heaven all day, and worried that the good thief God let into heaven might fool God and steal God’s Paradise away. Before she was five years old she begged her father to teach her to read and to pray, and to tell her the stories in Scripture. At an early age she learned stories of the saints, loved her Guardian Angel, and talked to Mary with complete trust.
As a young person, Jeanne was energetic, interested in learning, and always looking for new things to do. In her teens she lived an active social life, loving parties, dancing, fun and laughter. In the midst of the fun she was having with her cousins and friends she sometimes neglected attention to her relationship with God. This caused some unrest in her, because in her heart she always felt called to live for God. Jeanne’s teenage years were times of questions, growing uncertainty, struggle, learning to make choices, and trying to balance her love for social life with her search for God.
When Jeanne was about eighteen years old, she experienced God’s love for her in a way that changed her life. God taught her at this time that her way to God was a way of love. In the following years of her young adult life, Jeanne was blessed by God in many special ways. She received a special God-given understanding of scripture, comprehending Latin even though women in seventeenth-century France were not able to be educated in languages or theology. This time in Jeanne’s life was a time of solitude, retreat, and meditation, during which God quickly moved her to contemplative prayer, Scripture, Eucharist, Mary and a relationship with the Trinity, which were to become central to her spirituality and were evidenced in her spiritual life even at this time.
Her twenties were years of discerning her vocation. Jeanne felt that God was calling her to religious life, but she wasn’t clear about where. At one time, she thought she had a Carmelite vocation; at another time, she had considered joining the Ursulines. We also know from her writings that she pondered becoming a member of the Visitation and Franciscan Orders. With the help of spiritual direction and a faithful life of prayer, Jeanne’s spirituality became more and more centered in the Person of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. In 1620, at the age of twenty-four, Jeanne received special permission to receive Communion daily, an unusually rare privilege in the Church at that time.
It was after this that Jeanne became clear about God’s unique call to her. She tells us in her Autobiography that, in an extraordinary experience of prayer, she understood God to say to her: “You love recollection, but my Wisdom wants something different. I have destined you to institute an Order in My Name that will honor My Person become incarnate for the love of human beings.” By 1625, Jeanne was much clearer about God’s call, and understood that God wanted her to found a new religious congregation.
On July 3, 1625, Jeanne was joined by two other young women, Catherine Fleurin and Marie Figent, and together they lived in a small house in Roanne that had been vacated by the Ursulines.
This small beginning was the birth of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. (Although Jeanne and her Sisters would have to wait for almost fifteen years for the establishment of the first canonical house.) When they came together, God made even clearer the purpose of the new community. While preparing breakfast in the kitchen one morning, Jeanne understood God to say to her: “In this establishment, I who am the Incarnate Word will make an extension of My Incarnation.” Jeanne grew to realize that these words meant that through this Order, the Word would be born a second time in the world, that wherever the Order was present, Jesus would be present.
The fifteen years that followed were years of growth and disappointment, struggle and grace. Many women joined Jeanne with a desire to live a religious life. During these years Jeanne sought consent to found the Order in Roanne, Lyons and Paris. While waiting for church approval to establish the new group as an Order, the community established boarding schools for girls. During this time, Jeanne spent time writing about her spiritual experiences, and essays about the spiritual life to instruct her Sisters.
Finally, in 1639, Jeanne and her young community experienced one of those wonderful turn of events that can only be attributed to the God of Surprise. Jeanne was invited to make the first canonical foundation of the Order in Avignon, a foundation which brought her great joy.
After spending several months in Avignon, and seeing the first novices of the Order received there, Jeanne returned to Lyons where she continued to wait patiently for the establishment of the house there and in Paris. In 1643, Jeanne was approached by two Jesuit priests and invited to found the community in the city of Grenoble. The monastery of Paris was canonically established in January, 1644, and Jeanne lived in that monastery for ten years. The Monastery in Lyons was fully established in November, 1655, after almost thirty years of faith-filled waiting.
During these mid-years of Jeanne’s life, she focused on a life of prayer…often making the needs of the Church and civil leaders a central concern. She developed an extensive ministry of spiritual direction and companioning. Jeanne also saw vocation ministry to be a need of her time, and assisted many men and women to discern how best to live faith-filled lives. She placed emphasis on children receiving the highest quality education in the community’s boarding schools. A war in France, a breakout of smallpox, difficulties in the community…especially in the Paris monastery, and the deaths of some of her closest friends and strongest supporters, were among some of the hard things that challenged the later years of Jeanne’s life. Although these years were filled with writing, travel, extensive personal correspondence, and active ministry, she remained at heart a contemplative.
Jeanne’s extensive writings show her to be a woman deeply and passionately in love with God. In all things, she listened for God’s Will. Scripture, the rhythm of the liturgical year, and the lives of the saints provided Jeanne with continual spiritual nourishment. The Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes, most clearly characterizes Jeanne’s spirit, and that of the Order. Jeanne’s life and prayer and writings were extensively enriched by images from scripture, nature and life…images through which she always sought to express the inexpressible mystery of God’s “presence in our midst.” Jeanne has inspired men and women for four hundred years to focus their lives on the Person of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, by being evangelizers of the grace of the Gospel of Love and Goodness in the tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan Woman, and other disciples of the Lord.