By CAROLE BRESLIN
Across North America there are churches and schools named after St. Julie Billiart. They carry on the tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur founded by Julie and her friends during the turbulent years of the late 18th and early 19th century of the French nation when Catholics were being persecuted.
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been saints from families of both the very rich and the very poor. St. Julie Billiart, the sixth of seven children, arrived on July 12, 1751 to Jean-Francois Billiart and his wife Marie-Louise-Antoinette Debraine at Cuvilly in the Diocese of Beauvais, Picardy, France. Her parents were poor peasant farmers who could little afford an education for their seven children. If not for her uncle, Thibault Guilbert, the village schoolmaster, she may have not received any education at all.
However, little Julie knew her catechism by heart before her eighth birthday. In fact, a foreshadowing of her future vocation took the form of Julie teaching other children the catechism. She not only could repeat it back from memorization, but she internalized it and understood it in a way that can only come from time of prayer and wisdom granted by the Holy Spirit.
Recognizing her special gift, her parish priest, Fr. Dangicourt, prepared her to receive her First Communion at the early age of nine — the normal age to receive it being 14 years of age at the time. Remember that this was nearly 150 years before Pope Pius X changed the age for receiving the First Holy Communion to seven years of age.
At the age of 14, Julie took a vow of chastity, pledging herself to Christ. Despite the hard work required of her after the losses her family endured, she found time to visit the sick and the poor and to instruct children in the catechism. The villagers thought so highly of her piety and her charity that they began to call her the “Saint of Cuvilly.”
Sadly, this apostolic work would come to a sudden halt. As she sat in her family’s small house next to her father, the sudden and thunderous report of a pistol shot aimed at her father through the window brought on a paralysis and pain that would leave Julie bedridden for 22 years. Doctors could neither explain nor alleviate her situation, seemingly caused by the shock of the assassination attempt.
Julie did not let time pass her by. She spent many hours each day in prayer and contemplation, setting the foundation of her later work for the Lord. In addition, she lay in bed making laces for the liturgical linens and vestments for the priests. She also received many visitors seeking advice and spent time instructing children as well.
By 1790, the priest at the local church was replaced by a “constitutional priest.” The longstanding pastor had refused to take the oath demanded by the revolutionary government. Largely because of the influence of St. Julie, the people boycotted the schismatic priest, refusing to attend his services.
Furthermore, she was known to be hiding faithful priests who were being sought by the government agents. For these reasons she became a fugitive herself, moving from house to house to escape those who had threatened to kill her for her faithfulness to the true Church.
Finally, she was hidden in a wagon, carrying hay to Compiègne. Once again her friends had to carry her from house to house to escape the agents. Their pursuit was so relentless that she cried to our Lord, “Dear Lord, will you not find me a corner in Paradise, since there is no room for me on earth?”
The trauma brought on by the gunshot many years ago was greatly aggravated by the Jacobins’ pursuit. As a result, for quite some time her pain not only increased, but her ability to speak was lost for several months.
When the Reign of Terror came to end, she experienced some peace for a little while. A friend came to her and accompanied her back to Amiens where she stayed in the home of the Viscount Blin de Bourdon. This providential turn of events brought her together with the Viscountess of Gizaincourt, Frances Blin de Bourdon. These two women would pray and work together for the rest of Julie’s life.
Of course, the period of serenity was cut short when the persecution of Catholics reared its ugly head again. The two women were forced to move once more. This time they settled in the home of the Doria family in Bettencourt. Their teaching efforts were so successful that almost all the children came to their catechism classes and the adults returned to their practice of the faith.
Impressed with the personality and effectiveness of the bedridden girl and her friend, Fr. Varin urged them to set the foundations of the Institute of Notre Dame, which would devote itself to the teaching of children, young girls, and see to the formation of religious education teachers.
The devastation wrought by the French Revolution left the Church with few priests and many orphans. The sisters dedicated themselves to opening an orphanage and beginning night classes. Soon a group of priests came to lead a mission for the Sisters of Notre Dame. At the end of the mission, one of the priests, Fr. Enfantin, asked Julie to join him in a novena for a special intention to which she readily agreed.
After five days of the novena, the priests and sisters celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Fr. Enfantin turned to Julie and urged her, “Mother, if you have any faith, take one step in honor of the Sacred Heart.” After 22 years of paralysis, she stood and walked, realizing that she had been completely cured.
With her health restored, she worked even harder to spread the good work of the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Fathers of the Faith in other towns. Despite major setbacks by those who tried to destroy her work, she established many houses throughout the area.
Before her death on April 8, 1816, she established 15 convents and made over 120 trips. As she recited the Magnificat in the convent at Namur, she died. One bishop remarked that by her interior life and example of prayer she had saved many more souls than she did by her outward endeavors and activities.
St. Julie was canonized in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. Her feast day is April 8.
Dear St. Julie, how much you accomplished though bedridden for 22 years! Let us not hide behind our weaknesses, but trust in the grace of God to do His will. As St. Paul said, “I can do all things in Christ.” Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)