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