In the footsteps of the Venerable Marie Madeleine d’Houet

Tuesday 28 October 2014
A pilgrimage is both an inner and an outer journey; a body and soul experience that takes a person beyond the daily routine into new terrain.

A pilgrimage can be a time of discovery and renewal, a reinvigoration of the truths and stories that have sent you searching in the first place. And so it was that 10 Victorians, five each from Melbourne and Benalla, recently experienced the surprises, solaces, serendipities and spirit of pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Venerable Marie Madeleine d’Houët, the devout and inspirational foundress of the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ).

We would be walking where she had walked and, in doing so, coming to see some of what she would have seen in her lifetime. The pilgrimage would link us across the years and across the globe.

People are often surprised when told that Marie Madeleine was both a wife and mother before she came to found the society in Amiens, France, in 1820. That she was wife and mother informs much of the founding story; and to see the places she was born, grew up, married, educated her son with the Jesuits and began and ended her apostolate is to be invited to reconsider her story—a story that is nearly 200 years old, yet is being refreshed every day by FCJ communities around the world.

In total, 36 pilgrims from various FCJ communities from around the world met at the Gare du Nord, Paris, in late June to begin a week-long pilgrimage to places of significance in the FCJ story. We were guided by four FCJ sisters whose wealth of knowledge, spiritual insights and good humour set the tone for the tour of important sites relevant to all those who value the founding story and wish to make it more meaningful.

That the weather was a blessing boded well for a week that would include the visiting of many churches, the saying of many prayers and the seeing of an inordinate number of beautiful stained-glass windows.

First stop was Amiens, where Marie Madeleine, aghast at the poverty of the cotton-picking children who collected threads from the factory floors, established her first house. A doting mother to her son Eugene, it broke her heart that other children were so deprived. So, she established schools and welcome centres for the poor of the town. Her faith was the driving force for all her work and in the course of her life she established 29 schools in France and elsewhere on the continent. The oldest Catholic school in London, Maria Fidelis, near Euston station, was founded by Marie Madeleine in 1830 after she had been advised to leave France during a period of anti-clericalism.

Of particular interest was the world heritage-listed Amiens Cathedral, where the photo opportunity for us was the recently laid plaque commemorating the founding of the FCJ Society.

We visited her birthplace in Châteauroux in central France and the areas of sunflower and vine-growing Parassy and Pouplain, where the De Bengy family was raised at the time of the French Revolution. To visit the site of her parents’ graves was particularly poignant for members of the group, who recognised that the faith we inherit is often enriched by our own parents’ devotion.

Marie Madeleine was a child of her faith and social class and knew both the elegance of polite society and the hardships of the poor. We visited Issoudun and the Hospice of St Roch, where as a young woman she developed her social conscience, and perhaps even became something of a young whistleblower, when she reported that the patients’ food was being stolen by those meant to care for them.

To see Bourges Cathedral and the beautiful chandeliers donated to the cathedral on the occasion of her marriage in 1804 to Joseph de Bonnault d’Houët, a suitable young man who died from typhus in the eighth month of her pregnancy, was to recognise the family fidelity to faith—and their not inconsiderable wealth!

We were delighted by the gracious hospitality shown by Marie Madeleine’s descendants, who welcomed us to morning tea. Their family pride shone brightly as they greeted us with wine from Parassy and gastronomic delectables. A pilgrim, after all, must feed the body as well as the soul!

In Paris, we visited the FCJ school, Notre Dame de France, not far from the metro St Jacques, to greet the sisters there and to see the Heritage Room where Marie Madeleine died and where the society keeps many spiritual and historical heirlooms. We saw the harp she played as a young woman, her wedding shawl and the crucifix at which she knelt to hear the words ‘I thirst’, which would become integral to her work for the glory of God and the good of others.

We attended several Masses during our pilgrimage but none was as important as the one at St Dominique in Rue de la Tombe-Issoire in the seventh arrondissement. Here Marie Madeleine’s remains were placed in a beautiful reliquary in a moving ceremony on 21 September 2012, the anniversary of her birth. For many FCJs this was her homecoming, as until then she had been interred in the Wirral and in Broadstairs in England at the former FCJ Generalate. For the pilgrims it was an opportunity to pray in an especially holy place and also to come home to the woman whose story we so revere.

We are reminded in Gaudium et Spes that we, as Christians, are on pilgrimage towards the heavenly city and that while on earth we should seek and think of things which are above. We are also reminded that our obligation is to build a more humane world. Marie Madeleine d’Houët was doing just that two centuries ago when she cared for those least cared about, for those on the fringes, those who were deprived and despairing. In fact, she often reminded the teachers in her schools that every little urchin was to be treated as if he or she were the little Jesus sitting right in front of them—a lesson for today’s teachers in Catholic schools, too,
no doubt!

Irish poet John O’ Donoghue writes in The Traveller that when you are abroad, sojourning, a stranger in a strange land, or on pilgrimage,

… what meets you

Touches that part of your heart

That lies low at home.

Back home now, our pilgrim hearts have been replenished. We have a new understanding of our founding story and our hearts will not lie low. They will be lifted up, joyous in a faith story we hold dear. Like Marie Madeleine d’Houët, whose mission we share today, wherever we are and whatever we do back in the dailiness of our lives, we too can be faithful companions of Jesus.

Ann Rennie is a teacher at Genazzano FCJ College, Kew.

Photos by Ann Rennie


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