Claudine Thévenet (1774-1837)
CLAUDINE THÉVENET was born in Lyon on 30th March 1774, the second of a family of seven children. "Glady" as she was affectionately known had a strong influence on her brothers and sisters, thanks to her goodness, gentleness and self-forgetfulness in the desire to make others happy.
The French Revolution broke out when she was fifteen. In 1793, she experienced the tragic hours of the siege of Lyons by the government army and she witnessed the execution in revenge of her two brothers after the city fell in January 1794. Their last words, "Forgive, Glady, as we forgive" remained deep in her heart and her mind and were to change the course of her life. From now onwards she would dedicate herself to the relief of the great suffering caused by the Revolution. For her a main source of distress was the people's ignorance of God and thus was born in her the great desire to make Him known to every one, but it was to be the children and the young people who would be the main object of her zeal and her desire to make Jesus and Mary known and loved.
Her encounter with a holy priest, Father Andre Coindre, would help her to discover more clearly what God was asking of her and would be decisive in the orientation of her life. When Father Coindre found two little shivering children abandoned on the steps of the church of St. Nizier, he took them to Claudine who did not hesitate to take them into her care.
Her compassion and love for destitute children is, therefore, at the origin of the "Providence" of St. Bruno in Lyon (1815). Companions soon joined Claudine and they formed an association, the Association of the Sacred Heart of which Claudine was immediately elected president. On July 31st 1818, the call of the Lord was heard through the voice of Father Coindre who told some members of the Association to form a community without hesitation. "God has chosen you", he said to Claudine. And so the foundation of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary at Pierres Plantees on the hill of the Croix Rousse took place on October 6th 1818. In 1820 the new Congregation moved to Fourviere, in front of the famous shrine, to some land bought from the Jaricot family where it received canonical approval from the Diocese of Puy in 1823 and that of Lyon in 1825.
The first aim of the young Institute had been to receive poor children and care for them until they were twenty, giving them working skills and elementary education, as well as a solid religious and moral formation. But Claudine and her sisters wanted to do more and so with the foundation of a boarding school their hearts and their arms were opened to young girls of richer families. The apostolic aim of the Congregation was therefore the Christian education of all social classes, with a preference for children and young girls and among them the poor.
These two activities developed simultaneously in spite of the difficulties that the Foundress was to encounter during the last twelve years of her life: the suffering caused by the deaths of Father Coindre (1826) and the first sisters (1828); the struggle to prevent the fusion of her Congregation with another; the revolutionary upheavals of Lyon in 1831 and 1834, with all their consequences for those who lived on the hill of Fourviere, forming, as it did, a strategic area between the two warring parties.
The undaunted courage of the Foundress was never to be overcome by adversity; she bravely undertook new constructions, including that of the chapel of the Mother House, and at the same time, with great care and dedication, began to draw up the Constitutions of the Congregation. She was about to complete this when death overtook her on February 3rd 1837, when she was sixty three.
"To do everything in order to please God" seems to have been the goal of her life. This constant search for God's will in order "to a lead a life worthy of Him and to please Him in everything" was to give her that deep spiritual insight which would enable her to read the signs of the times and there discern God's plan, in order to give a full and complete response to His call; such was the life which was to make her worthy "to join the saints and with them to inherit the light" (Col 1: 10, 11).
"To see God in all things and all things in God" is also to live in a spirit of constant praise. In a world in which hope is all too often absent, the rediscovery of God's goodness, both in His creation and in people, restores purpose to life and leads to thanksgiving. Claudine made of her religious and apostolic life an act of praise of God's glory; her last words "How good God is" expressed her conviction that God is good, something that she had come to know, even in the most painful moments of her life.
Her Congregation was to be profoundly influenced by her strong personality. Gifted with an unusual "force dame", intelligent, a perfect organizer, she was above all kind-hearted and wanted her daughters to be true mothers to the children confided to their care: "Be mothers to these children", she would say, "yes, true mothers of both body and soul". She would tolerate no preferences, no partialities: "The only preferences I will permit are for the most poor, the most miserable, those who have most defects; those you will love a great deal".
The strength of a building is revealed only with the passage of time. Barely five years after the death of Mother Claudine, her daughters set out for India (1842). In 1850, they opened their first house in Spain and in 1855, they established themselves in the New World, in Canada.
One hundred and seventy five yeas after the foundation of the Congregation, there are now more than one thousand eight hundred religious of Jesus and Mary in one hundred and eighty communities across the five continents. With joy and gratitude, they welcome the canonization of the humble and generous daughter of France whom the Lord chose to be their Foundress.