COMPIÈGNE – THE VISION

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As a disciple of Jesus, Julie knew that the cross was inevitable in her life.  She went through the experience of trials and suffering.  But she also knew that it was by means of this cross that she would experience resurrection and new life.

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Drawing from the comic book, Saint Julie Billiart, Signe, 2000.  (Available in the Heritage Centre of the Sisters of Notre Dame – heritagecentre@sndden.org). 

Threatened at Gournay-sur-Aronde by the revolutionaries, Julie and her niece, Felicity, were brought to Compiègne and abandoned in the courtyard of an inn.  This must have been in April of 1792, as recalled in graffiti on the wall of the chateau of Gournay-sur-Aronde.  The years spent in Compiègne are without doubt the most difficult of Julie’s life.  Her health is quickly deteriorating. Completely paralyzed, she loses her ability to speak as testifies Father de Lamarche who knew her in 1793: “Mère Julie was living secluded in a bedroom with one of her nieces who took care of her.  I went to visit her and she could only speak by means of signs.  In order to hear her confession, it was necessary for her to be notified an hour in advance.”  Bedridden, she offers herself as a victim, giving to Christ her life as a woman dispossessed of all activity and all possibility of giving service.  Pursued and unwelcome, Julie and her niece changed lodging several times until October of 1794, the date when Madame Baudoin, who formerly spent her summers in Cuvilly, took Julie under her protection and had her brought to Amiens.

  • Compiègne and the Revolution

While Julie is in Compiègne, King Louis XVI is arrested.  It’s the end of royalty in France; the monarchy is replaced by a Republic in September, 1792.  The King is executed but, in order to face the many counter-revolutionaries and French monarchists, Robespierre puts in place exceptional measures that will be later called the “Terror.”  The most well-known is the terrible law of the suspicious that requires the taking of a census of all those who go against the revolutionary cause.  Everywhere committees of surveillance control opinion.  They send suspicious persons to exceptional tribunals or revolutionary courts.  Nearly 20,000 people, suspected of counter-revolutionary sympathies, are executed.

“Days of darkness are perhaps our best and happiest days for glorifying God.” Julie Billiart

  • Julie, “the unwelcome”

Everywhere they look for those who go against the cause of the French Revolution; this is the case of the 16 Carmelites of Compiègne who refuse to swear allegiance to the Nation (because it is opposed to their vow of obedience).  On July 17, 1794, the Carmelites of Compiègne are guillotined.  This news was no doubt very painful for Julie.  Julie was in contact with the Carmelites of Compiègne:

  • She knows Father de Lamarche who, disguised as a worker, had blessed each one of the Carmelites going to her death.
  • By means of her niece, Felicity, who washed the linens for them. We know this thanks to a letter from Mother Henriette de Croissy, Carmelite (between 1792-1794).

Like the Carmelites, Julie offers herself to God in order to save France and Christians; she will suffer profoundly from the knowledge of their violent death in Paris in July of 1794.  A letter from Father de Lamarche to Abbot Belfroy in 1820 allows one a little approach to the mystery of the surprising solidarity lived by Julie in Compiègne with all the oppressed, those left behind:  “I followed her intermittently for about a year; I admired more and more the progress that she was making in piety.  She offered herself continually as a victim to God to appease his anger… always calm, always united to God.  Her prayer was continual.”  The testimony of Abbot de Lamarche expresses his admiration for Julie’s faith and her strength of soul.

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  • Julie, isolated from much spiritual nourishment

Near Julie, few people:  her niece, Felicity, who from day to day had to keep abreast  of the external situation and, notably, the death of her father in June, 1792.  From 1793, Abbot de Lamarche who met her at that time “rendered his religious services” to pious persons and to the Carmelites.  One can hypothesize that Abbot de Lamarche knew, through Abbot Courouble in 1792, the name and address of the invalid.  Doubtlessly, before their exile to Liège in November of 1792, Abbots Courouble and Carlet, were spiritual directors – one of the Carmelites, the other of the Visitation community.

  • “Confidence, love, total abandon into the hands of God; there is your strength, your support.” Julie Billiart

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It is while she was suffering the most from her physical state, when she was totally powerless, hunted, surrounded by violence and the insecurity of the times, that Julie lived one of the most profound spiritual experiences of her life.  It is at Compiègne that, one day rapturous in ecstasy, Julie suddenly sees Jesus on the cross of Calvary, surrounded by a great number of women wearing a religious habit that she did not recognize.  Julie, then, received her vocation of foundress:  “These are the daughters that I give you in the Institute that will be marked by my cross.”

It is in the recollections of some boarders and, especially, in the depositions in preparation for Julie’s beatification (1881-1889), preserved in the archives of the congregation in Namur, that we find testimonials mentioning the vision that Julie had in Compiègne around 1793.

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Picture of the folders containing the depositions of the sisters in preparation for the beatification of Julie.  General Archives of the Congregation in Namur

“She had a vision in which the Good God revealed to her the work she was one day to found.  She had seen a cross, then, all that she was to endure:  suffering, persecutions, etc….    She had also seen some religious women with our habit and Our Lord had told her: ‘These religious will be your daughters.’”  Recollections of Mère Julie by Sister Reine Cambier, age 78, 1879.  [Green notebook 29 (General Archives), p. 130-134]

  1. Julie speaks very little of this mystical intuition.  These are always intimate revelations to one or other confidante. 

“Since I have never spoken to anyone since that was said to me in confidence, I have forgotten a little.”  Testimony of Mademoiselle Henriette Fallon, aged 84 (former boarder who knew Julie Billiart in 1809), Namur, 1879 [Green notebook 28 (General Archives), p. 78].

“Our foundress was so humble that she never spoke of this vision.  We knew of it from Sister Anastasia, superior of the Namur house (1816-23).  […] Sister Madeleine (the one who walked with crutches) told me the same thing, but Mère Julie rarely confided about it.”  Recollections of Mère Julie by Sister Reine Cambier, 1879. 

“In 1812, if I’m not mistaken, at the time when Mère Julie went to Amiens for the reunion, she had another vision and wrote to our dear Mother St Joseph.  We wanted to question her about this, but she answered: ‘You will know all about it in heaven.’  Then she smiled and, when we insisted, she said: ‘Mère Julie wouldn’t be happy if I were to speak of it because she had me tear up the letter that she wrote to me from Amiens, and in which she recounted to me what Our Lord had shown her and said when she approached Amiens.’”  Recollections of Mère Julie by Sister Reine Cambier, 1879.

Here are some details concerning the vision of 1812 about which Sister Reine speaks. (See the Proceedings of Fama sanctitatis in preparation for Julie’s beatification).  The bishop of Amiens had expressed his regrets on having sent Mère Julie away from his diocese and invited her to return.  At the moment of her entrance into the house (rue du Faubourg de Noyon in Amiens), Julie had an apparition of Jesus Christ carrying his cross and addressing these words to her:  “ I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  At the same time, the Savior seemed to be leaving the house on the Faubourg-Noyon.  Julie had many reservations on the subject of these extraordinary graces so the Sisters knew very little of what happened to her.  But, once again, the theme of the cross was present in Julie’s life.

  1. The description of the vision is always the same:  cross – persecution in Amiens – women religious in a habit
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Testimony of Sister Marie Adèle Claus deposed at Clapham (G-B) June 16, 1882.  Click to download  the document.

“The oldest Sisters of the Congregation spoke to us of a vision granted to our Mother, during the years of suffering and privation that she spent in Compiègne prior to her stay in Amiens, in the home of the Viscount Blin de Bourdon.  What was shown to Julie, still on her bed of suffering, (1793), was an ELEVATED CROSS, on a mountain and, at the foot of the cross, a large number of RELIGIOUS WOMEN, DRESSED AS WE ARE, and Our Lord said to her that these religious would be her daughters but that she would have to submit to a GREAT PERSECUTION IN AMIENS.”  Testimony of Sister Marie Adèle Claus deposed at Clapham (G-B), June 16, 1882, pp. 38-39.

  1. Persecution in Amiens

“Our good Mère Julie says that it was because of this vision that she had felt so much repugnance in coming to Amiens when Madame Baudoin appealed to her to come there.  She knew that the work of the Institute would occur but she didn’t know when or how.”  Recollections of Mère Julie by Sister Reine Cambier, 1879.

  1. Faces that she recognized later, among which…
  • Mother St. Joseph: At times, full of a confident abandon, good Mère Julie spoke to me of the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for whom she had such a great love and her miraculous cure. Then, while walking one day, she said to me that, while still being on her bed of suffering in Compiègne, incapable of budging because of her paralysis, the Good God showed her the work he wanted to accomplish through her.  She had also seen at that time that Mademoiselle Blin would be her companion in this work.  She added that when Mademoiselle Blin made her first visit after she had left prison, ‘I recognized her immediately!’”  Testimony of Mademoiselle Henriette Fallon, aged 84 (former boarder who knew Julie Billiart in 1809).  Namur, 1879 [Green notebook 28 (General Archives), p. 78.]
  • “From then on, she had distinguished our Reverend Mother St. Joseph who would later be the salvation of the Institute.”  Deposition of Sister Marie Claudine (in the world, Julie Godefroit), January 25, 1883, at Chimay, pp. 56-57.

After the death of her father in 1797, Françoise was free to consecrate herself to God as she wished.  But, she had doubts as to the shape of this project; she hesitated to become a Carmelite.  It is only at this time that Julie shared with her the role Françoise had in the vision she had had while hiding in Compiègne:  women religious assembled at the foot of the cross and among them was found the face of Françoise whom Julie did not yet know.  After the death of the Viscount Blin, Julie felt free to speak to Françoise of her intuitions in some letters:

“I always have before my eyes that about which I spoke to you once: that the Good God granted me the grace of finishing my days with you.  Divine Providence, having permitted that I meet you, you will have what it takes to exercise your zeal with me…”  “As soon as I learned of the death of your father, I saw you throw yourself in my arms.  It seemed to me that this was going to be the moment when the Good God would give you to me and me to you in so strong a manner that only death would separate us.”

  • Sister Ursule (Marie) Blondel: “In this vision, she knew distinctly each of her first religious. […] “When the young MARIE (BLONDEL) presented herself to our worthy Mother during a trip to Ghent, June 11, 1813, our good Mother, seeing this sincere girl of 17 years take a step toward her, and as soon as Marie said:  “Reverend Mother, permit me to ask a favor…,” our foundress interrupted the future postulant and embraced her enthusiastically saying to her:  ‘Yes, yes, you will be my good dear daughter:  I saw you at Compiègne.’”  Notes about sisters who have died, XIV, p. 47 and Deposition of Sister Julienne des Anges (Marie Philomène Berlenger), August 2, 1882, at Antwerp, pp. 3-4.
  • “But our respect for our venerable Foundress was such that, not one of us, not even our Superior, Sister Marie Steenhaut, dared to ask our dear Mère Julie to explain what she said.  “I saw you in Compiègne.”  Annals of Nouveau-Bois in Ghent. 

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