By CAROLE BRESLIN
After the fall of Napoleon, the Catholic Church needed to regroup. Under Napoleon, the government of France held all Church property, closed many of the Catholic schools, and persecuted Catholics. The number of priests and religious declined dramatically, but with the heroic work of the laity as well as other faithful priests and religious, the number of priests was restored. One of the persons deeply affected by this era and by the Restoration in France was St. Marie Eugenie de Jesus.
Anne Eugenie Milleret de Brou was born on August 17, 1817 in Metz, France, about 50 miles south of the border with Luxembourg. Her parents were barely practicing their faith and her father was a follower of Voltaire, known for his attacks on the Catholic Church. Thus, her family was wealthy and worldly.
Her parents’ inquiring minds inspired Eugenie to be curious and questioning, which helped her find her ultimate purpose in life. They lived in a beautiful chateau in Priesch, a suburb of Paris.
Eugenie had been baptized — motivated more by cultural expectations than piety — and received her First Holy Communion when she was 12 years old — an experience that affected her profoundly. She had a mystical event in which she intimately felt the true presence of God that remained with her for the rest of her life.
Her father was a banker and a broker and made a very comfortable living until shortly after Anne Eugenie received her First Communion. Then his fortune changed drastically and he lost everything, leading to the breakup of her parents’ marriage.
Eugenie lived with much sorrow in her life. Not only did her parents separate, but a brother and younger sister had died. Her other brother, Louis, in whom she confided frequently, stayed with her father when she and her mother moved to Paris. Eugenie felt alone and very discouraged. Furthermore, having fallen from a horse, she was left with a debilitating injury.
Then tragedy struck again. Her mother, who went to the poor and sick in Paris to minister to them for nearly three years, caught cholera, dying when Eugenie was 15 years old. From then on she was shuffled between friends and relatives, with one set being worldly and the other group being overly strict in their piety.
This conflict of lifestyles and her excruciating heartache at the loss of her family left Eugenie hurting and confused. She struggled to maintain the life of faith, generosity, and compassion that her mother had taught her. In an effort to cope with all of this, she learned to master her feelings and accept the crosses in her life. She longed for stability and security — that peace that can only come from God.
After several years of searching for a closer relationship with Christ, Eugenie attended the Lenten Conference at Notre Dame in Paris when she was 19 years old. The conference speaker, Abbé Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, was a gifted orator and what he preached expressed exactly what Eugenie’s thirsting heart sought.
Lacordaire was a follower of Hugues-Felicité Lamennais, who for a while supported the Catholic Church’s freedom from control by the state in post-Napoleon France. Lacordaire, however, separated from Lamennais when he became more and more radical, eventually renouncing Christianity.
Lacordaire’s presentations on the Church in the world and talks on remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church while resisting the temptations of secularism and worldly pleasure encouraged Eugenie. Finally, she had received answers to her questions — she understood the way to satisfy her longing heart.
This was where she could focus her resources as she wrote, “I was truly converted, and I was seized by a longing to devote all my strength or rather all my weakness to the Church which, from that moment, I saw as alone holding the key to the knowledge and achievement of all that is good.”
Around the same time, Eugenie met another priest, Fr. Theodore Combalot through the Sacrament of Confession. He soon became her spiritual director, recognizing a kindred spirit longing to extend God’s kingdom. He urged her to consider God’s will since he was convinced of the need to re-educate Catholics on Church teachings.
Society needed to rediscover its roots in Catholicism. In order to aid people in this effort, Eugenie needed to educate their minds so that she could evangelize them and thereby make families Christian again. Eugenie continued to receive spiritual direction from Fr. Combalot and soon decided to work with him to restore the Catholic culture.
In 1839, Eugenie, 22 years old, founded the Religious of the Assumption, and took the name Sr. Marie Eugenie de Jesus. Both resources and young women came to the endeavor. One woman was an Irish mystic who became her closest associate, Mother Therese Emmanuel.
In 1841, joined by two other young women, they began living together in a flat on Rue Ferou near St. Sulpice Catholic Church in Paris. With Fr. Lacordaire as their spiritual adviser, they opened their first school with the financial assistance of Madame de Chateaubriand.
When the community grew to 16 members with four nationalities, the sisters decided to join the ancient treasures of Catholic spirituality and wisdom to the demands of modern thinking. This did not mean compromising on doctrines or proven spiritual practices of prayer and meditation.
In the era of advancing industrialization and scientific exploration, the sisters especially emphasized meditating on Christ and His Incarnation. They remained faithful to contemplation and apostolic activity. While they encountered God in prayer, they served Christ by loving and serving their neighbors.
During this time she met Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon, who became her spiritual director, guiding Mother Marie-Eugenie to channel her energies and heart into spreading the love of Christ. She in turn assisted the priest in his foundation of the Augustinians of the Assumption.
Her health began to decline and she became weaker and weaker. The once lively and vivacious woman then spent her days in silence and humility. She received Viaticum on March 9, 1898 and died peacefully on March 10, which is now her feast day.
At the time of her canonization there were 1,300 Sisters of the Assumption from 44 nationalities and from 34 countries. The nuns continue to foster participation of the laity in restoring Catholic culture with their philosophy on learning: “Education is to allow the good in every person to break through the rock that imprisons it and bring it into the light where it can blossom and shed its light.”
Marie Eugenie de Jesus was beatified on February 9, 1975 by Pope Paul VI and she was canonized on June 3, 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Dear St. Marie Eugenie, as our world falls deeper and deeper into worldly secularism, pray for us. Help us to love our Lord more and more in the Holy Eucharist that we may receive the graces to bring Him to the world — the only source of peace in our hearts, our families, our communities, countries, and in the entire world. 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. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)