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St. Madeleine Sophia Barat, Pray For Us!

St. Madeleine Sophia Barat, Pray For Us!

The statue of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat stands in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. (photo: Enrico Quatrini / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)


St. Madeleine led her new order for 65 years, through the Napoleonic wars, multiple regime changes and decades of social upheaval in her country.

I would like to think I could never become inured to the incredible lives of the saints. Many of the material fruits of the saints’ lives look similar. They founded schools, established orders, built monasteries and raised families. But each life is so brilliantly different, inspiring us with their bold faith, heroic deaths and great feats of perseverance, all carried out for love of God. Each saint, throughout the entire history of the Church, listened to God’s call and carried out their mission accordingly.

St.  Madeleine Sophie Barat was a nun in France at the beginning of the 19th century. She was a founding member of a new order and eventually the foundress of schools that spanned across the globe. But even as I read of her tremendous accomplishments and personal holiness, it was not her deeds in themselves that I noted, great as they were. It was the era in which she lived. After years of reading saint stories to my children, whenever I learn about a new (to me) saint, I look immediately to the birth year of the subject. Sometimes this is to anticipate the many questions my children pose, but it also allows me to form a picture in my mind of the dress and habits of the saints, the time in which they lived and the challenges they faced therein.

Madeleine Sophie Barat was born in 1779 to a Catholic family in France, just a few short years before the French Revolution would embark on its Reign of Terror, including the persecution of Catholics in its bloody fervor. I read that, as a teenage girl, she desired to become a Carmelite nun, an order that had already been banned in France. It seemed a distinctly terrible time to become a nun.

Perhaps she lived in the countryside, away from the violence and bloodshed, I reasoned, and was immediately refuted. Not only was Madeleine very much aware of her Catholic brethren’s suffering, but her own brother had also narrowly escaped the guillotine when he renounced the Oath of Loyalty demanded by the new regime of all clergy. Having escaped death, her brother refused to ignore his vocation. Instead, he went to Paris, taking his young sister Madeleine with him, where he lived in a safe house while conducting his priestly activities in secret as part of the Catholic underground operating in France. Far from dissuading Madeleine, this period only heightened her desire to give her life to God.

Ponder for a moment the extraordinary love and bravery of this young woman. While living in hiding from a brutal and bloodthirsty regime, which had tried to kill her own brother for his faith, Madeleine felt called to lean her head even closer to the threatening blade of Madame Guillotine. She could have fled from that call. Any reasonable person would have understood her fear. When she briefly returned to her father’s vineyard in 1800 to assist with the harvest, it would have been easy and natural to simply remain there, safe from the turmoil of the capital and away from the dangerous request God had made. But Madeleine, molded by the steely faith of her parents and older brother, had spent her young life attuning her heart to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and she was not going to hide from him now.

She returned to Paris that fall. In November 1800, when she was 20 years old, Madeleine and several of her Parisian friends with whom she lived in hiding, took their vows as the first members of a new religious order, the Society of the Sacred Heart. The order’s mission was to educate and catechize children who had been left unmoored by the violence and turmoil of the French Revolution. Even the name of the order was both an act of obedience to the Holy Spirit, from whom they felt their calling, and an act of defiance against the civil authorities, who had banned all devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Despite working in near-total secrecy, the society flourished, and as restrictions loosened, it expanded beyond the borders of France, establishing schools as it went and building a reputation for excellence both in education and catechesis. In 1826 the order received official papal approval.

Sister Madeleine led the new order for 65 years, through the Napoleonic wars, multiple regime changes and decades of social upheaval in her country. Struck by paralysis, she died on Ascension Thursday in 1865, dying much as she had lived, bravely and with joy. At the time of her death, the Society of the Sacred Heart had grown to over 3,500 members, with schools operating around the world in Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Madeleine Sophia Barat changed the face of education in post-Revolution France, and she did it at a time when even practicing her faith, let alone publicly establishing Catholic schools and cultivating devotion to the Sacred Heart, put her life at risk. God put her on earth during this bloody epoch in France, entrusted her with a gargantuan task and entreated that she trust in his providence. Madeleine did all he asked and thousands of children have been blessed by the fruits of her life. An untold number more have benefited from her wisdom and intercession.

St. Madeleine, pray for us!



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