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Human Services student Kristin Dawson has written this beautiful reflection about the lives of Saint Julie Billiart and Sister St. Joseph, who founded the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, bringing home the relevance of their story and message in the busy chaos of the lives of evening students today. Thank you so much, Kristin! She’s even included discussion questions, which are attached.
Moreover, Kristin has organized a founders event that is specificically geared toward our evening students, inviting you to “Come celebrate the Past, Present, and Future of NNDU with ‘Hearts As Wide As the World,'” on Wednesday, February 5, just before class or at your class break, with FREE CAKE AND COFFEE in the Quad or cafeteria. Kristin offers her email for questions; let her know that you appreciate her work, too! at firstname.lastname@example.org
See attached for the full schedule of Founders Week events.
Founding Notre Dame de Namur with Hearts as Wide As the World
“The beginnings will perhaps be a little tiresome,
But remember that all depends on the beginnings”
-St. Julie Billiart
If we were to summarize the life of a professional studies student in one word, we may be tempted to say “busy”…or “full”…”hectic”…perhaps, even “chaotic”. We may wonder, at times, how we can “do it all”….raising families, working, volunteering, keeping up a home while writing papers, finishing reading assignments and attending night classes. When the challenges may seem overwhelming, where can we find inspiration to move forward and persevere? A Notre Dame De Numar University student has opportunities every day (and night) to find inspiration. NDNU was literally built on the foundations of perseverance through numerous physical, spiritual, financial and political challenges.
The lives and work of NDNU Founders, St. Julie Billiart and Marie-Louise-Françoise Blin de Bourdon (who would later become known and called Sister St. Joseph) were extraordinary by any standards. Their friendship was born of both faith and suffering, and ultimately, a commitment to serving the poor. The backdrop for their profound commitment to justice and faith was the turmoil of the French revolution. Just as students in modern times are confronted by shifting economic landscapes and political policy, the Founders lives and views were shaped by living through one of the most tumultuous revolutions in history.
Julie Billiart was born in Cuvilly, France in 1751. Her parents were farmers and merchants. In other words, Julie’s family was working class. Julie began working alongside her family as soon as possible. She went to school only when there was no work to be done in the fields. After her family was robbed, Julie’s work to help support them became even more important. Because her brother was physically disabled, Julie not only worked outside of the home but took care of her brother as well. He eventually died, which left Julie and her family emotionally devastated. A professional studies student may have had to make similar choices, putting off schooling in order to support their families through financial crisis, illness or major loss. They, like Julie, may make the choice to help where they are needed most, when they were needed most.
It was while working alongside the field hands as a teenager that Julie’s charisma, warmth and love of God began to attract admirers. Field hands would gather around her and ask her to tell them about the books she was reading, which were often about the spiritual life or gospels. Her calling, to teach the word and love of God, was becoming evident. But political unrest, poverty and challenges to the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church were all events that would determine Julie’s life path. Modern students do not live in a vacuum, we face challenges that are beyond our immediate control – administrations change, policy shifts, country-wide financial concerns direct our destiny as well.
After an attempt was made on Julie’s father’s life, the stress and fear inherent in living in times where food, money and security were scarce, took an enormous toll on Julie. She became paralyzed and, following a medical procedure that further complicated her health, she became bedridden and nearly mute. As the revolution raged on in France, citizens of tiny Cuvilly were not exempt from the unrest. And Julie’s reputation as a devoted Catholic drew attention, as direct challenges to the church’s authority were the order of the day. Unable to walk, much less run for her life, Julies friends and supporters, including local priests whose lives were also in danger, loaded Julie into a wagon and sent her away, to what they could all only hope and pray was safety.
What Julie found was a lifelong friendship that would be a source of strength, support and encouragement – as well as the foundation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Julie lived in Hotel Blin in Amiens, France where she continued to suffer from paralysis, as well as the effects of life threatening illnesses that had ravaged her body and left her barely able to speak or care for herself. When Françoise Blin De Bourdon, having been invited by a mutual friend to visit, walked into Julie’s bedroom, it would have been extremely difficult for either woman to know what care and affection would grow between them. Julie could barely speak, had to be carried from room to room and was racked by malnutrition and illness. Françoise could barely understand Julie when she spoke and admitted that she was “repulsed” by Julie’s sick room and its surroundings. But Françoise, like so many others was drawn back again and again by Julie’s indomitable spirit — and her warmth, devotion to God and good humor in the face of tragedy.
Their friendship grew despite physical separation. Letters between the two women show that when a need was presented, it was met. Spiritual comfort as well as material needs were given freely, when each had the means. At one point, Julie was so ill that she sweated profusely, night and day. She had no means to get new sheets or towels for her sick bed. Françoise was able to provide these comforts. Julie was able to provide the loving kindness and spiritual guidance that helped Francoise through sorrows and family difficulty.
Walking the NDNU campus at night, it is common to hear laughter between friends echo across the quad. We can often see friends walking together, discussing assignments, goals and ideals. These friendships, formed in the class room or in study groups, give us strength when we may feel like giving up. They echo the bonds and solidarity in purpose that formed between Françoise and Julie. They help us to reach our dreams as much as our studies do.
In 1803, Julie and Françoise were blessed to be together again in Amiens. Their lives were devoted to helping the poor and their days filled with Julie teaching children who were drawn to her in their tiny home. Eventually, they were able to move to a larger home to accommodate the growing crowds, and their new home in an abandoned orphanage became known as “The Cradle of the Institution” of the Sisters of Notre Dame. From here, Julie and Francoise reached out to women to come teach, love and care for the many children who had been victims of poverty, food deprivation and abandonment. Julie and Françoise were at the center of restoring education and spiritual guidance following the revolution.
At this time, Julie had been paralyzed for 23 years. It was now, in the midst of her good works, love and giving to others that she was inspired to walk again. When a visiting Father, enjoined her with these words “Mother, if you have any faith, take one Step in Honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” Julie responded with great effort by taking not just one step…but two. Julie’s faith was of the highest order.
Julie and Françoise committed their lives to education, the love of “a good God” and to helping those members of her society who were most in need, most in danger of being left behind. There is record of Julie’s humiliation and terrible abuse at the hands of those she trusted most, even within the Church she loved most, and yet her desire to help and educate shone through. Francoise’s wealthy family begged her to renounce her ways and “Stop humiliating them” by walking the streets looking like she was not born into a wealthy family. But her desire to serve along side Julie, to teach and help the poor prevailed. And this was just the beginning of the remarkable works these women would achieve.
The professional studies program is “just the beginning” for us as well. As students, we walk these halls, learn in these classrooms, commit to bring our abilities and care to the wider community because we, like Julie and Françoise, persevere. Their legacy is our future. Our determination, strength and support of one another will be our legacy to the next generation. We are all students of Sister St. Julie and Sister St. Joseph. Our community foundation was laid over 400 years ago in a small village in France. Each time we walk these halls full of history, may we be inspired to carry their spirit out into the world.
The information contained here was culled primarily from the wonderful book “Julie Billiart, Woman Of Courage” by Roseanne Murphy S.N.D. de N. (Paulist Press)
To continue learning more about of Sister St. Julie and Sister St. Joseph and to be further inspired, you may like to read “Julie Billiart, Woman Of Courage,” as well as the following books:
Dialogue Letters between Julie Billiart and Françoise Blin de Bourdon, Edited by Anne Stevenson, SND
To Heaven On Foot by Sister Mary Linscott
You can also read more about this history in a short piece found at the Sisters of Notre Dame site.