This is the story of the great friendship between Julie Billiart, Françoise Blin de Bourdon, without which the Congregation would never have seen the light of day!
One of the gifts that the Congregation considers as its most precious is the fact that it is born of a deep friendship between two women. This is one of those friendships that can figure among the greatest in religious life.
Françoise possessed an immense capacity for friendship. We are going to speak especially of that which united her to Julie.
The story of 22 years of friendship between Julie and Françoise (between 1794-1816)
Born in the middle of the 18th century (Julie in 1751 and Françoise in 1756), in the north of France, from very different backgrounds, the first 40 years of their lives are not alike in their exterior circumstances but offer great similarities with respect to their relationship with God. They both had a rich interior life. Julie dies in 1816, after 22 years of friendship and collaboration with Françoise. The Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur is founded on an UNPREDICTABLE friendship between two very DIFFERENT French women. [Julie and Françoise had very different personalities: the first joyful, extroverted; the other more reserved. They also differed in their origins and education: the one from a modest milieu and who attended the village school; the other from the aristocracy with an excellent education. However, we will see how Julie and Françoise resembled one another in their way of living for God.
1. The Life of Françoise Blin de Bourdon before meeting Julie
In four words: Aristocratic, well-educated, chatelain and Carmel.
- Aristocratic: A noble birth in a wealthy family, fruit of the union between the Blin de Bourdon and the Fouquesolles families. Françoise’s family was one of the oldest in Picardy, in the north of France. It traced its heritage to the eleventh century. In the Middle Ages there was an adage with respect to the name. When something was considered good, people said that it was “good as a Blin.”
When her parents married in 1748, her father, Pierre-Louis Blin de Bourdon, was 42 years of age and her mother, Marie-Louise-Claudine de Fouquesolles, was 17. Born on March 8, 1756, and preceded by a brother, Louis-Marie-César and a sister, Marie-Louise-Aimée, she was the third and last child and was baptized the day after her birth, on the feast of Sainte Françoise Romaine. Only 25 years of age and with two other children, 2 and 3 years old, Françoise’s mother was encouraged to leave the newborn with her parents at Gézaincourt, a vast and beautiful country manor with gardens (about 19 miles from Amiens). Aside from a few trips to Bourdon where her parents possess a chateau, she spends her childhood at Gézaincourt with her maternal grandparents, the baron and baroness de Fouquesolles. Françoise’s grandmother, with the assistance of a governess, Mademoiselle Ursula, introduces the young child to her first educational experiences, religious and secular. Françoise is raised with love. She was an obstinate and strong-willed child.
At the age of six, Françoise became a boarder with the Benedictines in Doullens. It was there that she was confirmed when she was eight years of age. In 1768, she was sent for two or three years to the Ursulines in Amiens to complete her education. At 19, in order to prepare for her introduction into French society, she frequents the salons of Paris and is presented to the Court at Versailles. She was a friend of the sister of King Louis XVI, Madame Élisabeth.
Françoise was 25 when her sister and brother marry and she now finds herself alone with her parents at Bourdon. This is a sacrifice for her since she got along well with her brother who was a true friend and confidant. He establishs himself in Amiens where he buys a town home on the rue des Augustins.
Three years later, at age 28: her maternal grandfather and her mother died (her grandfather on February 24, 1784, and her mother on April 2). Her mother was 53 when she died, 10 months after a carriage accident.
Françoise suffered greatly from these losses.
- Chatelain and Carmel:
Françoise doesn’t stay long with her father because her duty calls her to Gézaincourt. She must assist her grandmother and assume her duties as chatelain of the vast domain. She gives herself to her grandmother and the villagers and she distributes alms to the poor. There she manages the vast domain and its dependencies. She also visits the sick and cares for them by means of medicinal herbs that she cultivates; the villagers freely ask advice of the “good young lady.” The pastor later affirms that Françoise went each day to Mass, prayed at length and received communion often. [Françoise seemed to be aware that she was preparing herself to manage the future Congregation by becoming a good administrator in order to make good decisions and expand the Institute. [Cf. Mémoire de Cécile Dupont for the purpose of obtaining her Masters in History: The SND de Namur, Educational Entrepreneurs (1804-1842), Louvain-la-Neuve, 2014].
In her writings are found notes that show a deep commitment to God. In these personal notes, she had written, in 1783, “partial conversion; imperfect light” and, in 1785 (age 29), “full or complete conversion with the unshakeable resolve to remove from my life all that could separate me from my end or goal.” She wanted to enter a Carmelite monastery.
In 1789, the Revolution breaks out. Françoise, because of her social standing, will suffer terribly during the French Revolution.
In 1793, the members of the Blin de Bourdon family (her father, more than 80 years of age, and Françoise’s brother) were among those falsely accused of having fled the country, were imprisoned. In February of 1894, Françoise is arrested in place of her grandmother – who dies on March 18 – and is conducted to prison in Amiens. Because of overcrowding in the prisons, prisoners were given the option of begin transferred to the Carmelite monastery where the Carmelites were being held captive. Only Françoise accepted the transfer. [Françoise will not encounter them but she hears them pray.] It is only after the death of Robespierre that they will all be freed on August 3 and 4, 1794; Françoise then rejoins her brother at the Hotel Blin, in Amiens. The Viscount leaves for Bourdon; Françoise stays in Amiens.
It is there that she will meet Julie.
A few words on Julie’s life:
As for Julie, she suffers terribly during the French Revolution because of her fidelity to the Church and her deep faith. Forced to flee her village that she had never left, at 40 years of age, paralyzed, having lost the use of speech, having known several dwellings in Gournay-sur-Aronde and in Compiègne, she was retrieved in October of 1794 by an aristocrat well known in Cuvilly, the Countess Baudoin.
2. The Meeting
A Little after Julie’s arrival at the Hotel Blin (cf. April’s theme), Madame Baudoin proposes to Françoise that she meet Julie.
Françoise, who didn’t have too many occupations at the time, accepts. Françoise was to write later about this encounter in her Memoires:
“This young woman had leisure in abundance and was quite willing to come, though when she found she could not understand the invalid’s labored speech the visits seemed less attractive…. Finally, in spite of a natural repugnance which she had at first experienced, a friendship grew between them, as events will show.”
Julie is immediately drawn to Françoise. She had already seen her in a vision (see the theme for the month of May) and recognizes her.
In the beginning, the encounter with Julie (43 years old) and Françoise (38) is difficult: Julie could hardly express herself and Françoise does not understand her.
It is interesting to note that it is Françoise who ministers to Julie. She makes the decision to perform an act of charity, a work of compassion. According to Saint Francis de Sales, the love of friendship is not merely a feeling but a resolute effort following a decision…. What begins with an act of compassion is transformed into one of the most beautiful examples of spiritual friendship between two women.
One of the foundations of friendship is that it should grow in time. Very quickly, then, the bonds of affection grew between the two women. Visits become more and more frequent. Both had an affinity for things spiritual.
3. In the friendship between Julie and Françoise, we can see 3 stages.
The first state is situated between 1794-1799.
The friendship begins
- with a resemblance between the two women. (The two women had been tested by the SUFFERING endured during the height of the French Revolution – Julie, paralyzed, and Françoise tested by the deaths of her mother and her grandparents and by a period of terrifying imprisonment. Both emerged from their sufferings more FAITH-FILLED and committed to growth in goodness.
The friendship between Julie and Françoise is the only perfect kind of friendship, the Ancients would say: it is based on goodness or virtue. Julie and Françoise resembled one another in their goodness. And, the RECIPROCITY in the recognition of the GOOD proper to each one is evident. There is a mutual benevolence which expresses itself by the fact that each desires growth in the love of God for the other. It is a “Jesus-centered affectionate friendship.” We can say that, from the beginning, the friendship between Julie and Françoise was of a spiritual order.
Saint Augustin writes that he would feel the need to approach, to know and to bind himself in friendship to a person whose love for Christ had been proven in some trial or persecution. Such was the case for Julie and Françoise whose love for Christ had been tested before their encounter.
Soon, a little community forms around Julie’s bedside. In addition to Françoise, the daughters of Madame Baudoin invited their friends, the young women of the Méry and Doria families. Father Thomas, in hiding at the Hotel Blin, guides the group and celebrates the Eucharist. Children are baptized and confirmed in Julie’s room. But this association had only an ephemeral existence. Françoise remains as Julie’s only companion.
Françoise stays one year in Amiens.
Between 1795 and 1797, Françoise travels to Gézaincourt and to Bourdon to be near her sick father. During these two years of separation, Françoise and Julie write many letters to each other. Françoise returns to Amiens after the death of her father. The letters from Julie to Françoise are saved: 33 letters where one can discover the affection that they had for one another. They expressed their friendship. And, as Saint Francis de Sales said: the lack of communication (union of hearts) can end a friendship.
- Julie quickly becomes the “Mother” in their correspondence. While Françoise is the one of social standing and the first to offer her assistance, it is Julie who becomes the spiritual director in whom there is complete trust.
After the death of her father, Françoise was free to consecrate herself to God as she wished. But, she had doubts as to the shape of the project: she was hesitating to become a Carmelite. It is then that Julie informs her what she had seen in a vision when she was hiding in Compiègne: some women religious and among them was the face of Françoise that Julie did not recognize at the time. Françoise returns to Amiens with confidence.
The end of 1797, a new “Terror” breaks out. Father Thomas, pursued into the Hotel Blin, escapes his aggressors on June 15, 1799. The next day, Father Thomas, Françoise, Julie and her niece, Felicity, seek shelter in Bettencourt. Together, they evangelize the village. Julie’s health improves and she begins to speak.
In every friendship, there is a second and a third phase:
- Between 1799-1803 (this is the second stage of their friendship relationship): Happy period where they live together in Bettencourt – the friends share their interior life and each shares in the qualities of the other.
Importance of communication: ) cf. Aristotle: “”If friends are not able to be present to one another and if they are not able to communicate, the friendship will die.”) Friendship has to be worked at and takes time.
There begins the time that Saint Francis de Sales calls, “the gentle struggle of friendship”. Friendship requires frankness; misunderstandings are inevitable (and there will be some between Julie and Françoise, notably due to the distance between them and their exchange of letters when one will be in Amiens and the other at Namur).
Friendship is strengthened through many shared difficulties, patience exhibited, tenderness, consideration, sharing of burdens.
There is a visible change in Julie and Françoise’s relationship from director and directee to that of a mutually recognized equality.
In February, 1803, Father Thomas, Julie and Françoise return to Amiens. The two friends receive some orphan girls in a modest house on the rue Neuve.
- The third and last stage in the development of true friendshipis its perfection: union in diversity. Friends at this point communicate every aspect of themselves becoming one of heart and soul. As Aristotle said: “One soul in two bodies.”
Testimonies abound related to the obvious union of Julie and Françoise who were in total harmony despite striking temperamental differences (cf. Memoires, Blin): “Mère Julie, in a spirit of humility and Christian prudence, which never relies on itself alone, consulted [Mother Blin] as collaborator and friend… and the two were one in heart and soul.” “Mère Julie’s character was very different from Mother Blin’s but they were so united that there was never any real disagreement between them.” Julie was rather extroverted, quick to act; Françoise was reserved, introverted.
On February 2, 1804, Julie, Françoise and Catherine Duchâtel (who will die a few months later) make their vow of chastity and commit to consecrate their life to Christian education. They take the name, Sisters of Notre Dame, and received a rule from Father Varin. Françoise, as was the custom at the time, takes the name Sister Saint Joseph.
On October15, 1805, Julie, Françoise, Victoire Leleu and Justine Garson make their religious vows. The next day, Mère Julie is elected superior general. On June 18, 1806, the statutes of the Association called Notre Dame are approved by Napoleon. The opening of free schools is authorized. Françoise brings her wealth to the Congregation.
A conflict breaks out in Amiens with the superior of the Congregation, Father de Sambucy. He demands that Sister Saint Joseph bequeath the totality of her fortune to the house in Amiens exclusively. The two foundresses refuse these propositions. Father de Sambucy skillfully influences the Bishop of Amiens, Monsignor Demandolx, and succeeds in obliging Julie to leave the diocese of Amiens on January 12, 1809.
During this conflict, Françoise gives witness to her deep friendship for Julie (sharing of burdens).
The first Sisters of Notre Dame are established in Namur on July 7, 1807, at the request of Monsignor Pisani de la Gaude. The Bishop of Namur welcomes them with great kindness and offers them a house near the bishopric. Sister Saint Joseph is named superior of the community. Thanks to Françoise’s fortune, the Sisters buy a larger house, rue des Fossés (the actual Motherhouse). Namur become the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Many schools are established.
4. After Julie’s death (After 22 years of friendship, Françoise will live another 22 years without Julie)
In 1816, after Mère Julie’s death, Mother Saint Joseph is elected superior general and will remain so until the end of her life. She faithfully continues the work of her friend; she edits the rule, completes foundations in Liège and Dinant, creates those at Thuin, Verviers, Philippeville and Bastogne.
Her great concern will be to preserve the unity of the Congregation under the Dutch regime between 1815-1830. By forbidding all foreign teaching authority, William I, is the source of many worries for Mother Saint Joseph.
-King William fixes the number of sisters authorized to be in each house.
-The Sisters are obliged to take an examination before a Committee of Instruction.
-Françoise wants to resign as superior general in favor of a sister of Flemish origin for the good of the Congregation.
Finally, in December of 1824, she receives the document of naturalization and becomes a citizen of the Netherlands.
[After having caused so much worry, King William 1 comes to Namur in 1829. He visits the school and leaves saying to her “Madame, a woman like you should never die!” (cf. the Annals of the Congregation)]
-Meanwhile, Mother Saint Joseph had accepted to take responsibility for hospices since the schools were no longer viable.
In 1835, in spite of the opposition of some sisters, she keeps intact the spirit of the Institute. This is what is called the great trial; a sad trial that came from her own daughters who threatened the existence of the Institute. One sister plotted the Reform of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame (18 sisters were in on the secret, one of whom was the Mistress of Novices). Their intention was to establish two membership categories: lay sisters who would be responsible for the domestic tasks and choir sisters for teaching. The intended goal of this new organization was to educate in the boarding school girls of the leisure class. This project directly targeted two of the original three essential founding purposes of the Institute:
-equality of the sister
-dedication to the instruction of the poor
The preservation of the general government had already earned for Julie an expulsion from Amiens.
With the assistance of Sister Ignace Goethals, Mother Saint Joseph prevailed in this struggle but at the price of great suffering. Three sisters left the Institute; the others recognized their errors and, after public reparation, were readmitted. Françoise died at Namur, at the age of 82, (February 9, 1838).
What touches us particularly with Françoise is the contrast between this woman of the nobility who tried to live simply (in the Congregation, there is no distinction between lay and choir sisters). And, this was not easy for her or her family. In Amiens, when she went into town dressed in a religious costume, this caused an embarrassment, to the discomfort of her family. Françoise came from the highest ranks of French aristocracy but she never used her fortune to exert any influence or power over others. As Sister Jo Ann Recker explains, her true power of influence resided, rather, in her ability to transform the life of others by means of friendship. And Françoise possessed a tremendous capacity for friendship. She had the unique ability to forget self and to be sincerely concerned about the welfare of the other: from her grandmother whom she loved so much, to her childhood friend, (Jeanne de Franssu with whom she remained close until her death), to her friend, Julie Billiart, and her dear sister in religion, Sister Anastasia Leleu. She was able to see the greatest good in each person she encountered. God drew Julie and Françoise together for something special. He led them to a unity in diversity to make possible the development of the Institute.
May this example of friendship between two women be a source of inspiration for you!
Jo Ann RECKER (SNDdeN) PWPT “A Treasure beyond Price,” FVP, 2016
Jo Ann RECKER (SNDdeN), Julie, Françoise and Our Heritage of Friendship: A Treasure without Price,” Julie Renewal, 1997.
Jo Ann RECKER (SNDdeN), “Françoise Blin de Bourdon – Woman of Influence: The Story of the Co-foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur” (Paulist Press, 2001).
Jo Ann RECKER (SNDdeN), “Très affectueusement, votre mère en Dieu : Françoise Blin de Bourdon, French Aristocrat, Belgian Citizen, Co-Foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur,” (Peter Lang Publishers, 2001).
Marie-Francine VANDERPERRE (SNDdeN), Julie and Françoise, Nov. 3, 2008.
Magdalen LAWLER (SNDdeN), « Pathways to God’s Goodness,” ,2004, p. 22.
Myra POOLE (SNDdeN), “Prayer, Protest, Power, 2001, pp. 52-69.
What are sources to become acquainted with this friendship?
- Memoires of Mother Saint Joseph
- The first Letters of Julie to Françoise
- Testimonials of the Sisters who knew them