The story of FCJ foundress, Marie Madeleine d’Houët really caught my attention when I learnt that she was a wife and mother, as well as a religious sister; I suppose because this distinction resonated with me as a young wife/mother with a yearning for a deepening spiritual identity. In her latest book, Grit and Grace, Ann Rennie devotes a chapter to the maternal side of Marie Madeleine, surveying the various experiences Marie Madeleine went through during the course of her life, including her sudden widowhood, which was followed by motherhood. The chapter looks at aspects of her character from what we know of her relationships with others – with family, her in-laws, her son, Eugène, the students at the college he attended, etc. and what we find is a devoted, loyal and exceedingly faithful mother in Marie Madeleine.
But what of this business of founding a religious congregation? What of the fervent prayer and religious practices that sustained her spiritual life? What of the personal discernment, which resulted in entering religious life? In the second stage of her life as a religious, Rennie writes:
In the first half of her life, Marie Madeleine was able to prioritise the domestic and familial, while in the second half of her work [as founder of a religious congregation] – God’s work – was pre-eminent. | Grit and Grace (2013), p.23.
One anecdote on the maternal nature of Marie Madeleine that I personally love is the way in which she cares for and fusses over others, especially in matters of health and nourishment. In her letters to her daughter-in-law, Louise, Marie Madeleine seems insistent on sending the young family a case or basket oranges from her orchards.
Marie Madeleine writes:
My dear daughter, I am very distressed to know both of you are ill…I beg you earnestly, each of you to look after yourselves and not to tire yourselves. It is great foolishness not to look after your health and this will be the greatest wrong you could do for your children. …I would love to send you a case of oranges for them [the children] – for you too, but they are not quite ripe for another month. I shall put them on a coach and I hope that they will reach you promptly. | Letter, stamped Nice, 12 February 1839.
While many rightly understand this to be a show of Mme d’Houët’s generosity, I have on reflection, come to see it as particularly symbolic of her utmost devotion and continual fidelity as ‘mother’, even though she was well and truly immersed in the duties and domain of life as a religious sister. Of course Marie Madeleine was a generous and conscientious person, and it is normal that we read about her saving items to send to others, but there is something about these oranges that captivates my imagination.
Perhaps Marie Madeleine really loved oranges, or perhaps they were a favourite of Eugène, but that four of the twelve letters to Louise that we have translated into English express a great desire and almost urgency to send these oranges, seems to me, to point to something more.
Oranges are known for their high quantity and quality of nourishment. They are pleasing in fragrance, palatable to many (including fussy children, in the form of juice) and are wonderfully versatile around the home. What do you think about the possible link between these oranges and Marie Madeleine’s maternal nature? It seems that as a practical woman, experienced in both household and estate management, the ‘basket of oranges’ may well reflect Marie Madeleine’s overall approach to life: zesting and bursting with flavour, and always in the pursuit of perfection as a creature of God.
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