a woman, an intuition, a missionary impulse
“The founders are our roots, not so that we can follow them in any way, but so that it will bear fruit. To return to the beginnings… of our Institutes is to go to that root to drink from it, as from a fountain, and to be able to respond in a just manner.” Pope Francis, The strength of Vocation.
Born Hélène de Chappotin in 1839 in Nantes, in religion, Mary of the Passion, Foundress of the Institute of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in 1877, died in 1904 in San Remo, beatified in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. A classic journey of consecrated life in the missionary impulse of the 19th century? Not really! Her path was strewn with pitfalls and ruptures, enlightened by a profound experience of God. Mary of the Passion, her name sums up her life.
Hélène, Marie, Philippine de Chappotin, was born in Nantes on May 21, 1839 to Charles de Chappotin, Public Works Engineer, and Sophie Galbaud du Fort; families of the aristocracy whose history had already crossed in the distant West Indies. Life was shared with his uncle’s family, in Nantes, and then in the property of le Fort.
Education to a deep faith, quite severe, with a deep respect for the Pope and the Church, willingly idealized. Assured instruction at home. Joy of an extended family life. Full of character, spirited nature, gifted and willing child, young Hélène grew up, full of life.
But life also brings its tragedies: the death of a young cousin and two of her sisters; a time of political upheaval in France and Rome, which was keenly felt in her family environment. “What was there worth loving?… Everything seemed to me so empty!” Hélène, teenager, was looking for what could fill her heart and her existence.
1856. At the age of 17, during a retreat, before the Blessed Sacrament, she was overwhelmed by the Love of God: “I am the One who will always love you more than you will ever love Him, the One whose Beauty is spotless….” God has burst into her life, everything changes, she enters into prayer, into an intense search for God. One day, religious life imposes itself on her as the only way to respond to Love.
1859-1861. Her desire for religious life was delayed by the sudden death of her mother. Finally the time comes when she can leave and must choose. The call to the Franciscan life is clear: “Poverty took possession of my heart! I became a daughter of St. Francis”. She entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares of Nantes on December 9, 1860. Poverty, even destitution, joy… There, God seized her again. In a sudden mystical experience, she felt and knew that she was called to offer her life “as victim” for the Pope and the Church: words that express, in the spirituality of the time, the total offering of self with Christ. It was on January 23, 1861, a key date in her life. An event so overwhelming that she fell ill, had to leave the Monastery and return to her family.
1861-1864. Years of retreat, solitude, searching for God’s will. What does He want from her after this ‘failure’? Where to go? Finally, she was led by Fr. Petit, SJ, to request her entry into the Society of Mary Reparatrix, a recent Ignatian congregation dedicated to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in a spirit of reparation for the sins of the world.
1864- 1865. Hélène leaves without delay for the novitiate in Toulouse. On August 15, 1864, she took the habit and received the name of Mary of the Passion. “The day… when the name of Mary of the Passion was imposed on me, I was penetrated by this unique word which sums up Mary’s suffering and Jesus’ agony: ‘Ecce?. Behold I come to be Mary of the Passion. I want to be among the small number of those who truly love Jesus Crucified.”
1865-1876. She was sent, still a novice, to the mission of Madurai in India, recent mission of the Jesuits who requested the collaboration of the Reparatrixes for the formation of Indian nuns. She took her first vows in 1866, was appointed superior of the community of Tuticorin and the following year, as provincial of the three communities of the Madurai. In 1871, she made her final vows. In 1875, she opened a new community in Ootacamund at the invitation of Msgr. Bardou, MEP. Mary of the Passion lived and worked in India for eleven years, rich in human and missionary experiences and spiritual deepening. These years were also marked by serious difficulties. They led to the separation of a large group of sisters who went to Ootacamund where Msgr. Bardou took them under his protection.
1877… What future for these women who do not want to leave religious life? Mary of the Passion felt responsible for the group, and went to Rome with three sisters in November 1876 to clarify their situation. They obtain permission from Pope Pius IX to remain in Msgr. Bardou’s vicariate as Institute of the Missionaries of Mary. It was on January 6, 1877, the feast of the Epiphany, considered the date of the foundation of the Institute.
A new page opens! At the demand of the ‘Propaganda Fide’ (Roman Congregation responsible for the Missions), Mary of the Passion quickly wrote a ‘Plan for the Institute of the Missionaries of Mary’: a life entirely oriented towards the universal mission, centered on the Eucharist, the offering of self without reserve, in imitation of Mary. Then, it seeks a place for formation. Barely opened at St. Brieuc, in Brittany, the novitiate receives young people attracted by the missionary ideal and by the life of this small group of religious sisters, fragile, poor and ardent. In 1880, it was transferred a few miles away, to the property of les Châtelets.
Mary of the Passion went to Rome in 1882: she wanted to assure the future of her sisters in India as well as of the young people who were preparing themselves. She also felt the need to rely on the support of a strong spiritual family. There she providentially met a superior of the Franciscan Friars Minor, Father Raphaël Delabre. After having understood her situation, he asked her to draft the Constitutions (the Rule of Life) without delay and to consider a foundation in Rome. In a few days this was accomplished and the community in Rome could open on August 18. Father Raphael becomes spiritual counsellor of Mary of the Passion who asks for her admission to the Franciscan Third Order. She finds there her Franciscan anchorage and a support that will prove to be precious. In 1885, all the sisters will in turn enter the Third Order and the Institute will henceforth be called Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.
1883-1884. In Rome itself, persistent opposition to Mary of the Passion led Pope Leo XIII to remove her from her charge as superior. This was a time of incomprehensible trial, coming from the Pope himself, uncertainty for the future, a storm during which she confided herself to God alone. After a year, a serious re-examination of her situation is granted; she is finally rehabilitated in March 1884.
1884- 1904. From this time on, the way is open for the Missionary Institute. The life of Mary of the Passion was then divided between foundations and incessant journeys, writings, direction of her Institute, commitment to the human and social issues of her time. And all this in spite of a health already tested by the climate of India and the exhausting work.
Foundations: Mary of the Passion will never return to India but will establish the Institute in the four corners of the world. During her lifetime – in Marseilles, Carthage, Ceylon, China, England, Belgium, Canada, Mozambique, Burma, Japan, Spain, Madagascar, Chile… She responded boldly to the calls of the Church or governments: education, health, social works, with a constant concern to form and promote women. The choice of “the most perilous and distant missions”, inscribed in the Constitutions, is not an empty word. In 1900, 7 FMM sisters will pay for it with their lives, martyrs in China, canonized in 2000.
Writings: She gives a strong spiritual and missionary impulse to her sisters, writing books of daily meditations, lives of saints; giving retreats, assuming a huge correspondence and launching “Missionary Annals” for the public.
Organization of the Institute: She firmly establishes the Institute, centralized for the needs of the mission with a strong uniformity proper to the times: formation, organization as Provinces, communications, rigorous management in these times of great poverty and immense needs.
On November 15, 1904, Mary of the Passion dies in San Remo. There ends a life anchored in God, eventful and extraordinarily fruitful. She left 2, 000 sisters in 88 communities, inserted in 24 countries.
At her Beatification in Rome on October 20, 2002, Pope John Paul II will say of her:
“Mary of the Passion let herself be seized by God
Who was able to satisfy the thirst for truth that motivated her…
At the heart of the missionary commitment, she placed prayer and the Eucharist,
because for her, adoration and mission blended to become the same work.
Nourished by Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, mystical and active, passionate and
fearless, she gives herself with an intuitive and audacious disponibility
to the universal mission of the Church.”
*References: Short Life of MP; Hélène de Chappotin and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary; 15 days of Prayer with Mary of the Passion.