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Vocation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur:  Education

“It is true that not only the educational links have been broken but education has become too selective and elitist. It seems that only people or persons who have a certain level or who have a certain capacity have a right to education, but certainly all children and all young people have a right to education. This is a global reality that makes us ashamed. It is a reality that leads us to a human selectivity, and that instead of bringing peoples closer, it distances them; it also distances the rich from the poor; it distances one culture from another … And here comes our work: to find new ways.”

Pope Francis, World Congress on Education, Rome, November 21, 2015

Logo of Notre-Dame Schools created by Mrs. Carla Findlay.

The tradition of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame is centered on education.  This latter is marked by the gospel values lived by Saint Julie Billiart, such as goodness, trust, respect for human dignity and for that of the Son of God.

Mère Julie in classes

On February 2, 1804, Julie Billiart and Françoise Blin de Bourdon consecrated themselves to God by means of the vows of chastity and poverty and they founded an institute dedicated to Christian education.  The act of consecration of Françoise Blin de Bourdon is preserved in the General Archives of the Congregation.  Here is what can be read related to the mission to which she gives herself:  Françoise commits herself to work with all her strength for the religious instruction of “poor orphan girls”.  To “compensate for her own inability to extend her service to all the abandoned poor of the towns and countryside” she proposes to “prepare school teachers” who would go wherever they might be needed. 

Click on the document to enlarge and read. First page of the Consecration on February 2, 1804, signed by Françoise Blin, no date. (General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Namur, BC300)
Click on the document to enlarge and read. First page of the Consecration on February 2, 1804, signed by Françoise Blin, no date. (General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Namur, BC300)

The historical climate and the beginnings of the work of education

We are in the days following the French Revolution of 1789.  Yes, the National Convention put forth the idea of schools accessible to all children and, moreover, drafted school legislation that was a source of hope but that did not produce significant results.  Not one primary school was opened.  The children whose families are able to pay fees are instructed by teachers who lived on this remuneration.  To combat the lack of education on the part of the poor, the Church created a few Sunday schools but no free classes were available on a daily basis.  The children of the poor grew up, therefore, in the most complete ignorance.  “Providence placed Julie in the place and at the moment where her life could be the most fruitful. Fifty years earlier, her work would have been impossible; fifty years later, it would have been too late.”  (Sister Mary Linscott, To Heaven on Foot, 1969.)

By consecrating her institute to the education of the most poor, Julie is filling an institutional void.  That is why, at the creation of her first classes, Julie only wants poor girls who are not able to pay for their instruction. 

Napoleon’s power does not make the life of teaching congregations, or of those who ran hospitals, easy.  He capitulates, however, realizing that education was too costly for the state and he authorizes congregations to do it.  An imperial authorization is required, a recognition not given by virtue of the right of freedom of association but incumbent upon services rendered regarding teaching or assistance. 

On June 19, 1806, the statutes of the Association called Notre Dame are approved by Napoleon.  The opening of free schools is authorized.  The first classes of the Sisters of Notre Dame open in Amiens in 1806.

Click on the document to enlarge and read. Approval by Napoleon of the statutes on June 19, 1806. National Archives of Paris, National Archives, F196310 num. 1150.

Upon the death of Julie Billiart in 1816, around ten schools exist.  Mother St. Joseph opens others, but between 1815 and 1830, the Dutch government of William I imposes major impediments on Catholic education.  The King’s project is to laicize education and to refuse any foreigners the right to exercise authority over instruction.  King William I sets the number of sisters authorized to live in each house.  The Sisters are obliged to take an examination before a committee of instruction.  Mother St. Joseph thinks about resigning as Superior General in favor of a Sister of Flemish origin for the good of the Congregation.  In the meantime, Mother St. Joseph had accepted taking charge of several nursing homes since schools were no longer viable.  Finally, in December of 1824, she receives her document of naturalization and becomes a citizen of the Netherlands. 

Click on the document to enlarge and read. Act of Naturalization of Françoise Blin de Bourdon. Document signed by King William of Holland and written in Dutch and in French. Notice the seal of the King. The parchment document was affected by water and fire during the bombardments of 1940.

Education:  qualified religious for an effective mission

  1.  A good formation

Given the demands of the profession, the candidate must possess the required qualities, among which are a sincere Christian faith and the ability to share it, to communicate it with warmth and joy but also with firmness.  “Persons of a cheerful character are chosen to form children…” (Julie, Letter 349, September 1, 1814).  “It must not be said of an educator that she is too kind.  We live in a century when so much strength of soul, so much character is needed!” (Julie, Letter 168, March 16, 1811).For Julie, character development and the personality of the teachers was of primordial importance.  “What the teacher is has more importance than what she does or what she knows.”

Old engraving of the Mother House in Namur around 1880

The period of formation (the novitiate) lasts two years and provides the sisters with a basic formation.  As Mother St. Joseph underscores:  “The novitiate is rather long.  Since they are in large part destined to teach, they must be well formed in religion and in the sciences; a few years are necessary even if some still come from good families, already well instructed, and if some of our students are destined for our state of life, which shortens the task” (Mother St. Joseph’s letter to her family, January 1832).  The Sisters are then sent to secondary houses sometimes far from the Mother House.  The experience that they will acquire will continue to form them throughout their life. 

Novitiate constructed at Namur in 1887 and destroyed at the time of the bombardments of 1940.

2. Curriculum building

In order to establish schools, Julie Billiart needs teachers sufficiently instructed and capable of undertaking the education of children.  Julie applies herself first to this work of formation to which she attaches great importance.  It is she who takes charge of the instruction for which she possesses competency.  The novices take classes given by Julie Billiart herself.  She describes in her letters the method that she is using: “…all the sisters learn their catechism by heart; I make them repeat it , and then the sisters ask one another the questions.  After that comes the explanation of the articles.  I can see that it is going well.”  (Letter 64, January 19, 1808).  The influence of Julie Billiart lasts beyond her death because her texts or the examples that come from her life are used for these pedagogical ends or for purposes of edification. 

The formation included at the same time both religious and profanes branches.  “We must always put the exercise of religion first in obligation, before writing and counting, etc.  We must do the one and, as much as possible, not neglect the other.”  (Julie Billiart, Letter 162, November 24, 1810).  Although prioritized, the two competencies are envisaged from the time of the novitiate.  Writing is very important.  The sisters also receive a formation in language.  The first religious also receive the assistance of the Fathers of the Faith with respect to their formation in the sciences.  The course in arithmetic was occasionally given by Father Thomas, a former professor at the Sorbonne.  “All that I ask the good God is that you may be occupied in improving your minds as much as possible.” (Julie Billiart, Letter 296, December 24, 1813). 

It is essential that the teachers know more than their pupils.  Lack of competence on the part of teachers can become the cause of the withdrawal of boarders and the importance of paying students for the good functioning of the Institute is known.  “It is a duty for us ‘not to spare either care or effort in becoming well educated.  It would be a great disadvantage for the education of our children to proceed too quickly.”  (Julie, Instructions)

3. A pedagogical formation

In addition to this knowledge, the novices receive a pedagogical formation.  Normal schools (for teacher training) did not exist until the beginning of the 19th century.  Julie Billiart developed a true methodology of teaching.  If order and discipline were indispensable conditions for instructing children, Julie insists very much on the love of and respect for children.  “Take care also to be very gentle with the children.”  (Letter 57, August 31, 1807)  “Be especially careful about speaking with respect to your children if you want them to respect you and love you.” (Letter 335, June 28, 1814)  Julie, herself, loved children “with a supernatural love, intelligent, and as tender as profound”: “I embrace all my little girls, whom I love very much.” (Letter 126, June 17, 1809)   “I am distressed at not seeing them.”  (Letter 144, March 14, 1810) “How pleased I shall be to find progress since my departure!  Write and tell me if they are very good.” (Letter 150, June 8, 1810)  The progress of the children is followed regularly by the Superior General who asks to look at their notebooks.  The religious teachers keep up to date on changes that are proposed in educational matters, whether to support them (in music, for example) or reject them.

The students

The teaching apostolate of the Sisters of Notre Dame has for its objective the education of girls in Christianity as well as to teach them disciplines that permit them to take an active role in society.  “Our institute only proports “to form, by means of education, Christian mothers, Christian families” (Julie, 23nd Conference).   Julie insists on respect for the dignity and the sacred nature of each student.  She wants schools where each student might become fully herself.  “Take a large view of all that belongs to religion but not with a view to forming ‘little devotees’ but good Christians, persons useful to society, great souls capable of persevering in the good.” (Julie, Letter 79, July 6, 1808)

  1. The different categories of students

The first sisters of the Institute welcomed into their classes girls younger than 16 years of age (Julie Billiart, Letter 222, October, 1812).  These children are separated into three different groups based on family means (poor students, paying day students and boarders).  It is very clear that the class of poor children is the principal focus at the origins of the Congregation. 

In her research, Cécile Dupont gives us information on these students.

“At the beginnings of the Institute, Julie’s main attention turns toward the poor“We exist only for the poor, for the poor, absolutely only for the poor.”  (Julie, Letter 86, end of November, 1808).   The main concern of the first sisters is to foster them, to have them return to class.  The children are numerous but not necessarily diligent.  One class counted close to 100 pupils; a teacher speaks of: “troupes of poor little children from desperate circumstances as much for physical needs as for their souls.”  (Letter from Catherine Daullée, January 2, 1809)  These poor children belonged primarily to the working class.  Before tackling the needs of the soul, the sisters tend to the body.  In front of these bodies “…dirty, eaten by lice, filled with scabs, with ringworms,  without blouses, without stockings …whose body can be seen bare from all sides…”  (Letter from Catherine Daullée, January 19, 1811).  The sisters distribute blouses, bonnets, handkerchiefs and other clothing.  These articles of clothing are a manner of publicizing the work of the Congregation but they are especially a way of causing poor children to return.  These gifts are accompanied by meals offered to the indigent children and sometimes gifts of money (Letter from Catherine Daullée, April 11, 1811).  “This is the disadvantage that exists in this country.  If the children are not dressed, they do not stay in the classes” (Letter from Catherine Daullée, January 19, 1811.  Françoise Blin de Bourdon conveys in her letters some of the most practical aspects.  The classes are given during her mandate as superior from 8:00 – 11:30 am then from 1:00 to 5:00 pm.  In some towns, however, there is the issue of children who arrive very early at the convent, among other things, to be fed there.  When the body is full and more presentable, lessons are able to proceed more effectively.  The schedule of the classes for the poor consist in studying religious principles, reading, writing and the basics of mathematics.  Practical competencies are taught, as well, to the poor students.  In Ghent, they practice lace-making.  However, the catechism remains the focus of their education.

Golden Jubilee of Mère Aimée de Jésus, September 14, 1899. Distribution of bread and a complete outfit to 640 children in the free schools of the Institute Notre Dame de Namur.

Boarders are less numerous.  From the first days of the Institute, there are often fewer than 10.  Attracting them becomes a question of survival because they are the principal source of revenue in the secondary houses.  Boarders wear a uniform.  Julie Billiart hopes in this way to combat coquetry and promote simplicity.  (Testimonies of contemporaries, Mother St. Joseph and education at the boarding school in Namur, 1816-1838). 

Desk used by the first boarders in the time of Mère Julie. This one is preserved in the Heritage Center of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur.

The boarders receive an education in their language as far as possible (Flemish principally) and learn French. Religion is also taught in the boarding school because the children of the leisure class must practice Christian virtues and, in particular, charity.  The other subjects taught are the same as in the poor classes to which are added the sciences and the arts in more depth (astrology, bookkeeping, music, drawing…)  The curriculum is expanded as instruction evolves.  Mother St. Joseph puts forth the fact that it is necessary to stay up to date with what is happening in the other Orders so as to “respond to the needs of the times” (Testimony of Félicité Minez, Mother St. Joseph and education at the boarding school in Namur, 1816-1838).

Art room, Institute Notre Dame de Namur. Photo taken between 1906 and 1920
Music room, Institute Notre Dame de Namur. Photo taken between 1906 and 1920

Some other students, paying day students, are welcomed into the schools of the Institute.  Their curriculum is less broad than that of the boarders.  They do not take music and drawing.  The classes are generally of medium size, fewer than 100 students.

A last category of students is mentioned occasionally in the letters of the Superiors General:  the neophytes, older girls whom the parish priest wanted to rescue from unfavorable moral conditions by having them live at the convent and who compensate for the burden they represent by making lace.  (Julie Billiart, Letter 189, October 19, 1811. 

 2. Curriculum and methodology

The first courses of study are simple and only slightly differentiated for the paying students or the free classes.  The interest brought to methodology and to the pertinence of a “new program of studies” is developed after 1830 (Annals of the General Archives, volume 3, May 3, 1833).  Circumstances become more propitious for reflection on method and curriculum.  In 1832, Françoise Blin de Bourdon, in collaboration with the Jesuits, established a broader curriculum.  The annalist of the sisters explains:  “Under the direction of Reverend Father Méganck and other Jesuit Fathers, our principal sister teachers are going to be occupied with drawing up a plan of studies more extensive and more appropriate to the needs of today.”  (Annals of the General Archives, volume 3, August, 1832.)

Methodology had already undergone significant modification by means of the adoption of that coming from the Christian Brothers (Congregation founded by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) for the purpose of forming free schools for poor boys.)  The sisters use signals to direct the children.  Those of Julie Billiart and Françoise Blin de Bourdon, little instruments of wood or metal and producing a dry sound or click, are preserved in the Heritage Center established in the heart of the Mother House. 

Signal used by Mère Julie. This one is preserved in a display case in the Heritage Center of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur.

In order to keep a friendly competition among the students and combat absenteeism, the sisters distribute prizes to the most deserving (Julie Billiart, Letter 347, August 18, 1814.)  In the Heritage Center, there are preserved, in addition, some books given as prizes to students and that bear the signature of Mère Julie. 

Catechism prize earned by Miss Jubert, signed by Julie, Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It is a Manual of Prayers, edited in Namur in 1805. This prize book and others (also signed by Julie) are preserved in the Heritage Center of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur.
Catechism prize earned by Miss Jubert, signed by Julie, Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It is a Manual of Prayers, edited in Namur in 1805. This prize book and others (also signed by Julie) are preserved in the Heritage Center of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur.


Who would have thought that Julie Billiart, humble country girl without a great deal of education, would begin one of the most fruitful teaching congregations of the 19th century?  As Sr. Mary Linscott highlights it: “Julie was an educator, not in theory but in practice.”  Julie, who had probably no familiarity with the pedagogical writings of the time, is nonetheless going to show herself to be a great pedagogue.  Her letters in which her educational outline is delineated reveal to us a person with a keen sense of humor and a limitless patience, always in a good mood.  Julie hid neither responsibilities nor difficulties of such a mission. “ Let us bless the good God for sending us children! Do not forget, your responsibility before the good God grows with the number of children. The formation of young hearts in accordance with religion is not a small task.  How difficult it is to form them well in the times in which we live!” (Julie, Letter 163, December 1, 1810)  These letters are full of encouraging words that inspire the sisters in their work: ”We should like to see more abundant fruit; that would be very desirable but we live in a century which is not favorable.  We must also pray for our dear children so that the good God may cause the holy seed to bear fruit in their young hearts.  At their age we were no better than they are.”  (Julie, Letter 204, April 11, 1812)

Map of Julie’s foundations. Julie founded the first schools in Amiens, Saint Nicolas, Namur, Montdidier, Rubempré and Jumet without having to cross frontiers since Belgium did not yet exist. If, in Amiens, Julie’s travels were poorly tolerated, it is not the same in Namur where she was supported by Monsignor Pisani who was looked favorably on all her efforts to establish foundations. She traveled for miles to assure that a house was suitable for sisters and their pupils. In 1809, she is a Saint-Hubert; in 1810, it’s the foundation at Nouveau-Bois in Ghent and, in 1811, the installation in Zele. In spite of war during Napoleon’s last years, Julie still pursued her work of education by opening school in Andenne, Gembloux and Fleurus.
Plaque fixed in the entrance of each SND school in Belgium and France.

Text:  Marie Felten, General Archivist of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and Sr. Christiane Houet, Coordinator of the Heritage Center of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

English translation:  Sr. Jo Ann Recker


  • All the documents reproduced in this text are preserved in the General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur (
  • Marie Halcant, The Pedagogical Ideas of Blessed Mother Julie Billiart, Paris, 1930. 

Who is Marie Halcant, author of The Pedagogical Ideas of Blessed Mother Julie Billiart (1930)?

Sister Marie Chantal (Elise Canivez, 1873-1934) is hidden under this pseudonym.  In 1918, the Superior General asks her to collect in the letters, the writings, and the recollections of Mère Julie, the notes relative to the teaching and education of youth.  This study was projected for a series of pamphlets entitled “Pedagogical Ideas of…” whose purpose was to honor “the founders of religious teaching Orders who had received from God gifted insights in order to achieve the aim of their Institutes.”

Sr. Marie Chantal establishes in the elementary classes of the schools of the Sisters of Notre Dame new procedures for instruction according to the “Montessori system.”  Thanks to her, a renewal movement in “infant schools” arose everywhere in Belgium.  Her exceptional work attracts the praise of eminent teachers of pedagogical studies and reaching into France and Switzerland.  The expertise of Sr. Marie Chantal was unique in the early childhood domain where she was an initiator and a pioneer. 

  • Sr. Marie-Thérèse Béget, The Pedagogical Ideas of Julie Billiart, no date
  • Cécile DUPONT, The Salvation of Souls by means of the Development of Feminine Education: The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Educational Entrepreneurs (1804-1842), UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, June, 2014
  • Sr. Mary Linscott, To Heaven on Foot, 1969

Multiculturalism: an international congregation


“From Mère Julie to Mère Ignace (1804 to 1842), the Institute has not stopped growing.”

This observation, Cécile Dupont, a young Belgian researcher from the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, developed in a brilliant thesis for her Masters degree in History for which she consulted the General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur.   She focused on the three first Superiors General of the Sisters of Notre Dame and, in particular, their correspondence,   (Cécile DUPONT, The Salvation of Souls by Means of the Development of Feminine Education: the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Entrepreneurs of Education (1804-1842), UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, June 2014.)

During her vision at Amiens, on February 2, 1806, Julie Billiart realized that her Sisters would spread beyond France and towards other countries of the world.  This expansion was predicted, from the origins of the Institute, by the Bishop of Ghent.  In her letters, Julie repeated several times the remarks of the prelate: “As the bishop had promised me to take a great interest in our establishment, I had told him very definitely that if they did not want to give another house to my sisters of St. Nicolas, I should take them away to Namur.  He told me clearly that to his way of thinking we were not made to stay in only one diocese.  ‘No, no, Mère Julie, that is not your vocation.’ ”  (Letter 113,  April 25, 1809).  The third time that she repeated the words of the bishop, she added to them an international dimension:  it was that the Congregation would extend to “everywhere in the world.”  (Letter 113, April 26, 1809).

1 Missionaries at home:  the French and Belgian Houses

From the beginnings of the Congregation, the foundress undertook to enlarge her field of action.  At first, without leaving French then Belgian territories, the sisters were missionaries.  They took on an apostolic spirit to which they obligated themselves no matter where the divine will sent them. 

Map of France in 1800: In 1804, Julie founded the Congregation in an expanded France. In fact, the French victory at Fleurus in 1795, led to the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands and of the French principality of Liège (Belgium today) to France for 20 years. The map was drawn again in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo: The “Belgians” were united to the Dutch in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Mother Saint Joseph would experience the independence of Belgium in 1830.

The frequency of the foundations closely follows the political evolution.  Mère Julie and Mère Ignace together found one to several houses per year.  The tenure of Mother St. Joseph’s term of office as Superior General is much less rich in new establishments.  The beginning of her term sees the realization of Julie Billiart’s final projects.  Afterwards, Françoise Blin de Bourdon founds hardly any new houses for around 20 years.  The cessation of foundations is due to the political context of the Dutch era and to the enmity of King William I toward religious congregations.

First experience of multiculturalism

The first of Julie’s trips outside of French territory is the one that she undertook in June 1806 with Father Leblanc into Flanders where the latter is charged with inspecting the college of Roulers.  Julie and Father Leblanc meet Monsignor de Fallot de Beaumont, bishop of Ghent from 1802 to 1807, who expresses the desire to have in his diocese a house of the Sisters of Notre Dame.  Mère Julie accepts the bishop’s request on the condition that she has young women who speak Flemish and forms them, first, to religious life and as teachers.

In Flanders, the region annexed to France for 12 years, an incomprehensible language for Julie is spoken.  French is not the language of the occupier. 

I have had someone read her letter in Flemish”  Letter 106 (February, 1809)

“I have had some difficulty in finding him for, while I was not able to speak Flemish, the good God permitted me to address a man who could not say a single word to me.  At last, I went quite straight to the church of St. Pierre, where I asked another man who could not answer me either.”  (Letter 113, April, 1809)

Returning from Ghent, Julie Billiart asks a young Marie Steenhaut what the populace says behind her back and, in particular, about her habit.

Click on the picture to enlarge and read the document – The next day, our Mother took me to high Mass and, in the street, she was more than once insulted by the boys because of her singular traveling costume. They gave her all kinds of names: our witch, ham hide, adventuress, sorceress, etc. Our mother had me repeat in French the Flemish shouts. She laughed at them while I was so humiliated to find myself near her that, upon entering the church, I let her go ahead of me a bit and heard Mass or rather, being far from her, confused and humiliated I gave into my distractions. Only in leaving the church did our mother notice. She questioned me in the street and I let her know about my pride. Satisfied with my sincerity, she gave me advice on humility. My esteem for her grew and I was stronger in other trials that awaited me. “First Trip of Mère Julie in Flanders (1806)” Handwritten account by Sr. Marie Steenhaut (spelling left as it was in the original text).

Mère Julie finds the Flemish generous and hard workers.  It is what she writes in her letters:  “All these good Flemings are so deliberate and ponderous in carrying out their business; and they do not mind delays, even if I have no time to listen to them.”  (Letter 47, January, 1807).  But the Flemish can also make her life difficult; thus some not-so-flattering expressions…

Upon leaving St. Nicolas for Ghent:  “We left at 1:00 p.m. in the midst of a hundred persons who, I can assure you, did not show any sign of sorrow to see the removal of an establishment that was of such value to them.  On the contrary, these Flemings offered us all kinds of mockery.  The other circumstances also, which I shall tell you by word of mouth, will show you that the good God did not want our good sisters to stay any longer in that part of the country.  So now we have left.”  (Letter 117, May, 1809)

In her Memoirs, Françoise gives us details about the first Flemish postulants:

“The Bishop of Ghent was kind and promised every assistance while the postulants were in training, which pleased our mother and gave her the hope of working in Flanders for the glory of God.  She returned on June 29, 1806, from this first trip with a postulant, Thérésia Lauvers, who unfortunately did not speak a word of French.  In Flanders they had promised to find more vocations for us and this they did; in fact, she left again on August 28, of the same year, returning on September 18, bringing home with her five postulants, two of whom did not speak French at all, while one spoke very little.  She left on November 13 taking Thérésia Lauvers back to Flanders.  We did not suit her; nor she, us.”

Note also, that during her trip to Ghent, Mère Julie stopped with the young postulants at Courtrai where she stayed, notably, with Madam Goethals, aunt of Mère Ignace, the third Superior General and promoter of foreign missions, then only six years old.  The little Thérèse Goethals received a blessing from Mère Julie who embraced her tenderly. 

For Mère Julie, Flanders is important.  There, she received as postulants many young women in whom she discovered solid virtues.

“I must tell you that many Flemish girls want to enter with us.  But I think I shall bring only one back with me, whom my good little Sister Marie will be very astonished to see, for it is her good sister Franciska.”  (Letter 43, November, 1806).  These are Sister Marie Steenhaut and her sister Ciska (Franciska). 

“You have done well to speak to the confessor of the Flemish girls about their Communions as I told you to do, so that there may be some order.  I am glad that you are pleased with the little sister of Marie (Steenhaut) and I am also very pleased with Marie herself.  She is a good little sister and very useful to us with all our Flemish girls.”  (Letter 46, December 1806)

It is interesting to note that in the General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame, we have many signed documents of Sister Marie Steenhaut; these are very precious to us in retracing the history and discovering the feelings of the sisters of that time.  Among these:  Julie’s first trip to Flanders in 1806; the Annals of Saint Nicolas and Ghent; some letters. 

Click on the picture to enlarge and read the document – First page of the Annals of Saint Nicolas: Announcement of the Sister Julie’s establishment of St. Nicolas, transferred to Ghent after two and one-half years of existence in the parish of St. Pierre, written in 1844 by an eye and ear witness, Sister Marie de Jésus Steenhaut Superior.

The younger sister of Sister Marie Steenhaut, Françoise (Sister Ciska), was greatly appreciated by Mère Julie who spoke of her in her letters with much affection.  In her Memoirs, Mère Saint Joseph leaves no doubt as to the qualities of this young woman:

“But let us return to the point from which we have digressed.  We left Father Cottu in Mère Julie’s room.  As he turned to go, he asked which sisters she was taking with her.

Julie named several, among them Sister Ciska Steenhaut, a young Flemish woman from Ghent, who was seventeen years old and knew French well.  Father de Sambucy set a great store by her and wished her to stay in Amiens.  This is the way the dialogue went:

-‘No,’ said Father Cottu.  ‘Let Sister Ciska remain.’

-‘But, Father, did you not just say that I might take all the sisters?’

-I repeat, let her remain.  I cannot be sure but that the bishop will want to keep a few.’

-‘Father, I am sure she will not wish to remain.’

-‘Leave her, just the same.’

-‘I promise you, Father, she will want to go.’”

Mère Julie founded three schools in the diocese of Ghent (in Flanders).  On December 9, she established the house at Saint Nicolas.  Three sisters were sent there among whom was Sister Marie Steenhaut charged with looking after Flemish classes.  But, in May, 1809, the sisters were forced to leave this house because it was unsanitary.  They arrived in Ghent where Mère Julie had trouble finding proper lodging.  It was only on November 21, 1809, that the Sisters settled on the rue des femmes in Ghent and founded the school of Nouveau-Bois on February 15, 1810.  On November 11, 1811, the Sisters established a school in Zele

Click on the picture to enlarge and read the document – Extracts from the list of Mère Julie’s trips. (Pages 1 to 3: from 1804 to 1809 – foundations of houses in Flanders). Handwritten by Mother Saint Joseph
Extracts from the list of Mère Julie’s trips. (Pages 1 to 3: from 1804 to 1809 – foundations of houses in Flanders). Handwritten by Mother Saint Joseph

Once installed, the sisters must establish themselves with the populace and settle into the premises.   The language is one of the most important obstacles which they encounter at the time of their arrival in Flanders.  Among the children that they receive “out of a large number there are only five or six who understand French.”  (Letter of Sister Catherine Daullée to Sister Saint-Jean at St-Hubert, Gand (rue des femmes), December 29, 1809)  In order to overcome this obstacle, the Superior General immediately asks for the formation of Flemish postulants.  She shortens as well their novitiate to two months in order that the sisters might begin to teach in the children’s language as soon as possible.  (Annals of Saint Nicolas).  The sisters also adapt their needs to the populace to which they are sent.

2. Some international perspectives:  the Netherlands and America

First foreign establishments:  Holland

Before America, the first attempts at establishments outside of the France-Belgian area were directed towards Holland.  At the very end of the year of 1809, Julie Billiart undertakes a trip to Breda.  She went there at the request of a woman proposing her house for the establishment of a foundation.  The charitable woman did not convince Julie Billiart and the foundation was not made.

Some years later, in 1819, it is again Holland from which comes another request.

Father Matthias Wolff

Father Wolff, a Jesuit, asks Mother Saint Joseph to place with the Sister of Notre Dame two women to be formed in the religious life.  The Superior General accepts the request and receives in the house in Ghent three Dutch novices (Marie Stichters, Sophie Miltner and Lubuina van Elck). 

Between 1820 and 1821, four other postulants present themselves.  These young women are received and formed by the Sisters of Notre Dame but stay under the direction of Father Wolff.  These foreign religious are not destined to remain in the Congregation.  From the beginning, they were to return to found an establishment in Holland.  They establish a new Congregation on July 29, 1822 which is dedicated to education and they adopt the name “Christian Education.”  This Congregation evolves independently of that of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.  They follow all the Rules, nonetheless, but adapted to the particular context of the country.  Today, this Congregation is known by the name Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and, although they do not recognize Julie Billiart as their foundress, they honor her with a special devotion. 

Departure for America:  desire for a voyage matured over a long period

Let’s consider attentively what Cécile Dupont writes in her excellent work of research in the General Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame.

“The will to leave on a distant mission is present with the Sisters of Notre Dame for a long while before the actual departure.  Already under Mère Saint Joseph, allusions to this desire to evangelize beyond Europe are present.  A concrete project does not yet exist but words are disseminated here and there in the correspondence testifying to an idea that make its way into the minds of some:  “…you give us the desire to go on mission by all that you say to us… but our turn will come, I hope, and we think that the good God will call the Sisters of Notre Dame beyond the great river.  There is nothing new in our novitiate if not that our desire to go on mission grows from day to day.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Sister Stéphanie, 1832)  It is with this objective in mind that Thérèse Goethals joins the Congregation in 1821.  During the mandate as Superior General of Françoise Blin de Bourdon, in 1824, she (Thérèse) thinks a little too strongly about America and Mother Saint Joseph, who knows the missionary desire of Sister Ignace, tempers her: “It seems that you seem to be still dreaming about America.  But I doubt that you do so seriously.”  (Letter of Mother Saint Joseph to Sister Ignace Goethals, May 31, 1827)  However, it is this dreamer who will permit the realization of Monsignor de Broglie’s prediction. 

Mère Ignace, although promotor of the departure for America, does not leave Belgium.

Portrait of Mère Ignace

She makes her choice of eight sister pioneers according to their character, their abilities and their desire, and she accompanies them to Anvers from which they embark on September 3, 1830, in spite of Monsignor Purcell’s warnings and the reticence of their Belgian families. 

Sister Louise Van der Schrieck, Superior of the Province of Ohio, during 38 years (between 1848 and 1886).

“The boat chosen for the crossing takes on board, as well, Dominican and Jesuit priests who are their traveling companions.  The sea-sick sisters recount with good humor, to their sisters who remain in Belgium, the events of their crossing.”

“Having arrived on the new continent, they travel by train and by boat.  Throughout, the sisters from Belgium take up their pens as they discover an America both wild and modern.   The destination reached, the sisters are temporarily housed with the Ladies of Charity.  In this way, the site of their future home is not imposed on them.  In spite of the difficulty of finding a house in town, the sisters do not want to set themselves up in the country unless as a last resort because it is important that they live near the poor.  Moreover, they are afraid that they might not be able to be provided with the necessary material there.  The Sisters of Notre Dame finally have the opportunity to acquire a building on Sixth Street, in the center of Cincinnati.”

Building on Sixth Street, in the center of Cincinnati.

The establishment of the sisters in the United Sates is not done without difficulties.  This new country puts up several obstacles along their way.  The primary difficulty, of which the sisters are immediately aware, is the language.  From the time of their boarding, the sisters endeavor to learn English.  Reverend Father French, a Dominican passenger on the same crossing, serves as their first teacher (Letter of Sr. Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace.  October 21, 1840)  Once arrived, the sisters quickly realize their deficiencies in their mastery of English and of its capital importance in attaining their goal.  They continue to practice two to three hours a day.  They point out that it is necessary that the sisters who will come someday to join them master English prior to their departure.  Only Sister Louise (Joséphine van der Schrieck), one of the pioneers of the American mission who follows Sister Louis de Gonzague as Superior of the Cincinnati house in 1848, succeeds in managing the language correctly; the other sisters labor to comprehend it.  It is evident that that does not make their apostolic tasks easy.  The division of tasks according to skills depend on language acquisition; in this matter it is less easy to strictly respect the level of acquisition.  The limited number of sisters is also a hindrance.  Nonetheless, their Cincinnati establishment is a success.  A great number of students apply.  The expansion of their community and the absence of a novitiate on site oblige the Sisters of Notre Dame to continually ask for reinforcements.  […]

Little by little they adapt to their host country, shaped by their new environment.  From their culinary habits to their conception of space, their perspectives are transformed.  In America, the sisters encounter a new flora and fauna.  They discover new tastes, unknown fruits, and local dietary practices come to enrich their senses.  The sisters marvel, for example, in discovering colorful and unknown animals populating their environment in the summer climate much warmer than in Belgium.

One’s world view changes in this immense land.  Their first trip leaves on the sisters an impression of the immensity, but quickly they come to relativize it.  “…it crossed the ocean in 12 and ½ day; you see that it’s not such a great affair to go to Europe.”  (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, September 1, 1841).  Very quickly they realized the difference in perception:  the missions of Father Rappe are around 300 miles from the sisters. “It is not such a great distance they say in America.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, October 1, 1841)  New customs also enter into the everyday life of the sisters; thus, at first, they are astonished by the exchange of gifts at Christmas, something that is not done in Belgium.  (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, January 4, 1842)  There are also differences in practices of courtesy; “…the Americans do not greet one another and, when they are seated, the ladies do not stand up for anyone.”  (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, December 25, 1840)

In addition to the fact that the sisters must adapt to the American system of education, another fundamental difficulty between the Europe and the United States, in which the sisters function, is the religion of their majority protestant population.


Today, the distances that separate the houses founded by Mère Julie in Belgium and in France appear to us as being very short.  But, in Julie’s time, there did not exist easy transportation between towns and, to link villages,  it is practically nonexistent.  The coach is often inconvenient; one walks a lot and the trips are long.  In order to preserve the unity of the Congregation, Julie undertakes numerous long trips by coach, on the back of a donkey or even often on foot.  Between two trips, Mère Julie maintains contact with all the houses by writing numerous letters to her daughters, especially to the Superiors of the secondary houses. 

“In a community like ours, several nations must necessarily be gathered together but charity takes no account of differences because we are all one nation in Jesus Christ.”  (Julie, Themes)

In America, the sisters tried to hold as close as possible to what is done in Belgium: “we do everything as it is done in Belgium, as much as possible.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, May 7, 1841)  In order to maintain unity, we know the importance that Superiors General give to correspondence.  Mère Ignace permits the Superior of Cincinnati to write every month in spite of the high price of mailing.  She wishes to maintain strong ties and a united Institute. 

Text: Marie Felten, archiviste générale des SND de Namur and Sr Christiane Houet, coordinatrice du Centre d’héritage des SND de Namur

English Translation : Sr Jo Ann Recker


-All the documents reproduced in this text are preserved in the General Archives of the Sister of Notre Dame in Namur (

-Cécile DUPONT, The Salvation of Souls by Means of the Development of Feminine Education:  the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Entrepreneurs of Education (1804-1842), UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, June 2014

-Read the numerous works of Sister Gaby Peeters on the spread of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the provinces in the north of Belgium.

-Also read the works of Sister Louanna Orth, such as Remember, Rejoice, Renew, 1840-1990, Cincinnati, 1990. 

Mission, Evangelization


  •  Introduction:

After the Concordat of 1802, great missions were preached in France as urged by Pope Pius VII in order to restore the faith and renew Christian life.

The Fathers of the Faith simultaneously gave, in the five parishes of the city of Amiens, a mission that opened on April 29, 1804, and that lasted until May 24.  The mission was a huge success!  Julie and Françoise collaborated by instructing the women of the populace.

Julie is brought to the Cathedral of Amiens in a sedan chair in order to give catechetical instruction. Drawing by Sr. Genevieve of the Sacred Heart (1878-1941) in the book The Charred Wood.

After her miraculous cure (Amiens, June 1, 1804), Julie left for Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and Abbeville with Fathers Thomas and Enfantin.  Her letters give testimony to her active apostolate and to the success of the mission at St. Valery, during which 40 marriages were rehabilitated.   Of the mission at Abbeville little is known, the archives having been burned during the year of 1940. 

In the Heritage Center in Namur, can be seen the prie-Dieu of Mademoiselle Oeuillo with whom Julie lodged in St.Valery. “Here is my address: Melle J.B. at the home of Melle Oeuillo. In order to teach catechism, I have at my disposition a little garden and a large bedroom.” (Letter 34)
Home of Mademoiselle Oeuillo, situated at 39, Quai de Romerel. A commemorative plaque was affixed there on July 23, 1992.

Here is a letter from Julie to her friend Françoise:

“To Sister Blin, Amiens                   (St.Valery)  June 23, 1804


The mission at St.Valery is going very well… our good fathers are pleased, especially the parish priest.  A great many people come to the evening instructions; there are fewer at the morning ones.  I cannot tire of admiring the goodness of my God.  How good he is!  Pray to him with all your hearts, my dear daughters…!

Shall I tell you something?  At St. Valery I have to instruct men who are just as ignorant as those who were sent to me during the mission at Amiens.  I do what I am told, always a poor useless servant; I am convinced the good God could very easily do without me, poor frail creature that I am.  I am writing you in a hurry—you will have to read my writing as best you can.  I am finishing this letter in the presence of a man to whom I am teaching the Creed.  He is nearly ninety!  He has not made his first Holy Communion, but has the best will in the world….”

The order, given in August by the powers that be to the Fathers of the Faith to leave the diocese of Amiens, interrupted Julie’s missionary activity.

View of Saint-Valery-sur- Somme

Julie must certainly have remembered this endless expanse of water at Saint-Valery-sur Somme at the moment of the vision she received on February 2, 1806, knowing that her daughters would one day go across the seas.  This was confirmed for her by Monsignor de Broglie at the time of her arrival in Ghent in 1807 (in spite of the strong opposition she received at the time from the bishop of Amiens and the superior of the community in Amiens, Father de Sambucy, who did not understand her point of view):  “No, Mère Julie, you are not made to stay in a single diocese.”  

Does this not connect us to the Gospel message: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  Mk. 16:15

It is thus that, cured of her paralysis that gave her so many occasions to engage in contemplative prayer, Julie always held the conviction of what God had given to her to see and to proclaim.  “What we have seen and heard, we proclaim now to you.”  1 Jn. 1: 3

  • What is the source of evangelizing action?

Let’s first listen to what is said to us today by Pope Francis in his exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” (all the numbers indicated across from the words of the Pope come from this document):

“For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (No. 8)

Simultaneously, here is now the voice of Julie:

“A person who truly loves the good God does great things with him and becomes a powerful apostle.”  (Julie, Themes)

“In mercy and love, God gave us enough grace and strength to become an apostle.”  (Julie, Conference 1812)

“How good is the good God, ah!  Yes!  How can we make it known to the whole world?”

Some other words from Pope Francis:

“In every activity of evangelization, the primacy always belongs to God, who has called us to cooperate with him and who leads us on by the power of his Spirit.  The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first (1 Jn. 4:19) and that he alone ‘gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3;7).  This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life.  God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”  (No. 12)

Wasn’t this also the Julie’s personal conviction?

“If one simply opens the eyes of faith, said Mère Julie while going to the chapel, one would feel in the place where the good God waits for us, where he looks at us, where he offers himself to us, hands full of graces and a heart ready to receive them.”

Our spirituality is apostolic, in the tradition of Saint Julie.  Her unique experience of prayer and of action caused her to find the presence of God everywhere, and in a special way among the poor. “We are only for the poor, absolutely for the poor.”

Let’s us trust in the good God – it is his work. That is the only prayer I can say:  ’My God, it is your work!’ With this prayer, I pass through all difficulties.”  (Julie, Letter 434)

“God has permitted me to be deprived of every kind of support.  God alone is necessary for his work, since he has permitted things to be as they are.” (Julie, Letter 74)

We must put all our confidence in the good God, my good daughter; you and I, we must do only that from morning to night and say to him: ‘My God, it is your work, it is your work.’” 

  • What is evangelization and what it is not.

In “The Joy of the Gospel”, Pope Francis reminds us in No. 15:

“All have the right to receive the Gospel.  Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.  Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.  It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows but ‘by attraction.’” 

Julie’s voice:

“I am confident that you accomplish all your little labors for the greater glory of the good God, who calls you to the sick poor.  Ah, above all, know how to be filled with the spirit of the good God when going to them!  Do not speak immediately of religion unless you see an opening.  It often puts off persons with little or no religion.”

Pope Francis in No. 10:

“And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.”

The voice of Julie:

We choose persons with a cheerful disposition to form children.”

Wasn’t Julie herself called:  “the smiling saint?”

“The good God loves a soul who recognizes in Him her beloved Father; He cherishes a child who gives herself peacefully, joyously to his love.”

“If we give authority to a gloomy person soon the whole house will be joyless.”  The joy of the Holy Spirit must appear in your whole exterior; only thus will you be able to attract souls to God.”  

Pope Francis in No. 242

“Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason since ‘the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God’” 

Julie’s voice:

“Talk sense to your children, religion without doubt, but let us begin by sense; that is the most useful thing in the world for finding an entrance to their hearts.” (Julie, Letter 206)

  • A universal message

Pope Francis in No. 181: 

This is the principle of universality intrinsic to the Gospel, for the Father desires the salvation of every man and woman, and his saving plan consists in ‘gathering all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.’(Eph. 1:10)”

The voices of Julie and Françoise:

“Our charity must not limit itself to the love that we have for one another.  It must make our love as wide as the world.”  (Julie, Themes)

Nourish in yourselves the apostolic flame and hold yourselves ready:  the mission of the entire world enters into the end of our Institute,” also said her friend, Françoise Blin de Bourdon. 

“How good the good God is!  Yes, indeed.  Why can we not proclaim it to the whole world?”

For Julie and Françoise it wasn’t only a vision, nor advice, but it was their entire life given indefatigably to the directly of universality.  Let us remember the opening of communities everywhere in the world.

Map of the expansion of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

In the book, “The Call of the Road,” by Agnès Richomme, after having described the Amersfoort and Coesfeld foundations, we read: “Thus, without any juridical tie with the Institute of Namur, founded directly by Mère Julie Billiart, two Congregations claimed to be from her spirit and remain faithful to her memory, rightly considering themselves her daughters.”  These are our cousins, the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and the Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld.

And is this not a beautiful testimony given, not only to the intrinsic value of this spirit of Mère Julie, but also its value of adaptation?

The congregation of SND Amersfoort founded July 29, 1822 was formed after three Dutch candidates were admitted to the novitiate of Ghent by Mother St. Joseph in 1819. To learn more: Click here

The three first Dutch sisters in the Registry of Entrants from the Novitiate; of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in GHENT (1815-1840)

In 1850, Abbot Elting, from Coesfeld, and the bishop of Münster, sought the help of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort to form in religious life two teachers who took care of orphaned girls.  Three Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort arrived in Coesfeld, in Germany, where the candidates were instructed according to the spirit and the Rule of the Sisters of Notre Dame.  To learn more:  click here (

Hilligonde Wolbring and Elisabeth Kühling (the two German teachers formed by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort) with an orphan girl.

It is thus that the strong ties were established between the three congregations.  Even if they didn’t acknowledge Julie Billiart as their foundress, the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and of Coesfeld have a true devotion to her. 

Today, the Sister of Notre Dame of Amersfoort are present in Holland, Indonesia, Malawi, the Philippines and Malasia and are engaged in education, pastoral work and health care ( As for the Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld, they are principally engaged in education but also work in clinics, are occupied with homes for the elderly, for abandoned children; they work in special education for the handicapped. …  (

Regularly, we receive at Namur the visit of our cousins coming from the four corners of the world!  It is always a great joy for us to discover to what extent their love for St. Julie is very strong. 

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of their vows, 7 Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld, from the North of India, came to Namur to follow in the footsteps of Julie and Françoise. September, 2019.
The 7 Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld discover with joy the bull of Julie’s canonization promulgated by Pope Paul VI, June 22, 1969, and conserved in the General Archives.
  • A Message that is always new

“If we succeed in expressing adequately and with beauty the essential content of the Gospel surely this message will speak to the deepest yearnings of people’s hearts since we were created for what the Gospel offers us:  friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.” ( No. 265)

  • With Mary, Mother of evanglization

Pope Francis:

“With the Holy Spirit, Mary is always present in the midst of the people.  She joined the disciples in praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14) and thus made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost.  She is the Mother of the Church which evangelizes, and without her we could never truly understand the spirit of the new evangelization.  (No. 284)

Julie’s voice:

“We must remain united with the Blessed Virgin in the sacred cenacle, to be with the disciples, the apostles, to persevere there in prayer with the entire holy Church.”  (Julie, Letter 208)

Ceramic created by Sister Albert Gosse.

Illness, Cure and Healing


“Decide, my dear; better mistakes than paralysis.”

These are Julie’s words, a woman overflowing with energy, prevented from moving during the 22 years of her paralysis.  An active girl in Cuvilly, traveling, shopkeeper, comforting the sick, leading the parish, Julie lost the use of her legs at the age of 31 years and would only regain her active life at the age of 53.  During the 12 years that remained of her life, she displayed an intense activity, completely devoting herself to the realization of her apostolate, the Christian instruction of poor girls.  The long days of inactivity and pain during her paralysis taught her to appreciate the joy of being able to perform the simplest tasks!

The circumstances of her paralysis

In 1774, Julie was speaking with her father at home, when a large rock was thrown through the window and a shot was heard.

Gunshot at father. Picture by Sr Genevieve of S.H. (1878-1941) in the book The Charred Wood.

Neither Julie nor her father were hurt but this attack caused such an extreme shock to her overworked body that it was the cause of a serious illness.  In 1782, an epidemic erupted and the unenlightened doctors thought it was best treated by bleeding the feet.  The village surgeon submitted Julie to such abundant bleedings that, little by little, she was deprived of the use of her two legs and she had to stretch out on a bed that she would not leave for 22 years. 

The importance of prayer during her illness

Formerly so active, Julie waited on an invalid’s bed and she drew strength in her faith passing several hours each day in prayer.

In “To Heaven on Foot,” (1969), Sister Mary Linscott writes:

“Julie conceived prayer as the key force in a cycle which bore the soul to God and then, in him, poured it out in the service of others.” 

“Julie said to Sister Stephanie Warnier that during the course of the first eight years of her paralysis, she knew neither isolation nor weariness because she was filled with the presence of God and was sustained by the strength and joy of which the effects were almost tangible. It is during these years of paralysis that Julie became aware of the divine paradox that action is accomplished in inaction.  Julie was energetic by nature; however, she accepted no longer being able to walk because she saw in it the will of God.  Physically inactive, without plans for the future, Julie learned in the school of suffering and silence the lessons that she would one day teach with all the strength of a return to health.  When, at the age of 53, she took up her active life, she fully appreciated the paradox in the of the weak things of the world that the providence of God uses to realize great works.  Her joy and confidence in God never weakened.” 

The circumstances of her cure  

Cure of Julie. Picture by Sr Genevieve of S.H. (1878-1941) in the book The Charred Wood.

On February 2, 1804, Julie founded the Congregation of the Sister of Notre Dame with Françoise Blin de Bourdon.  Since her legs were still paralyzed, Julie experienced some difficulties actualizing her apostolate.  On a beautiful morning, Father Enfantin, a Father of the Faith, suggested that she make a novena to the Sacred Heart, without telling her the reason.  Julie accepted and, on June 1, 1804, she was miraculously cured. 

Handwritten from the Memoirs of Mother Saint Joseph, preserved in the General Archives in Namur, with respect to Julie’s cure.

In her Memoirs, Françoise wrote: “One of the missionaries, Father Enfantin, was so zealous and full of faith that he was inspired to make a novena to the Sacred Heart to obtain our mother’s cure.  When he began, he merely told Julie that he was making a novena and requested her to join him, which she did without questioning. 

On June 8, Friday, Feast of the Heart of Jesus [In reality, the cure occurred on June 1st and not the 8th as Mother Saint Joseph indicates.] , the fifth day of the novena, when Mère Julie was in the garden alone, Father Enfantin came to the house, in the evening after supper while it was still light.  Mère Julie was in the garden alone, in her chair to take some air.  He came up to her and said:  “If you have faith, Mother, take a step in honor of the Heart of Jesus.”  Julie rose and took a step, something she had not done for twenty-two years.” “Take another,” he said.  “Another.”  Then, “That will do; you may sit down now.”  Julie took her seat, though she assured Father that she was able to walk even further. 

Henceforth, Julie was able to participate in the Amiens mission preached by the Father of the Faith and, then, she accompanied them to Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme and at Abbeville where she evangelized the populace. 

In “To Heaven on Foot,” Sister Mary Linscott speaks to us of this cure:

“A careless surgery had so damaged one bone in her foot that the doctor, who was asked to verify her relics when they were exhumed in 1888, hesitated to authenticate it, as he said that a person with such a malformed bone could never have walked at all.  Julie knew that she walked in virtue of a miracle.  In 1804 she had taken her first steps after twenty-two years of helplessness, in obedience to a command: ‘If you have any faith in the Sacred Heart, take a step forward.’  Whether the power of walking was restored by rectifying the surgeon’s clumsiness or simply in spite of it, she never paused to question.  It sufficed for her that God had restored her health and energy.  Her one ambition was to use both for his glory.” 

Concerning the influence of the Fathers of the Faith

Thanks to a caring Faith of the Faith, Father Enfantin, Julie regained the use of her legs and was able to begin her apostolic vocation.

In 1799, a new society called the “Fathers of the Faith” was formed in the spirit of the Company of Jesus (suppressed in 1773).  Although Julie does not clearly mention the Ignatian inspiration in her work, this is evident.  The Fathers of the Faith were present at important moments in the foundation of the Congregation as at the time of her cure. 

Among them, we can cite Father Enfantin who invited Julie to stand up while in the middle of a novena to the Sacred Heart but also Father Thomas who said Mass in Julie’s room at the Blin town home in Amiens and fled to Bettencourt with Julie and Françoise.  Father Varin invited Julie to work for the glory of God and offered the first rule to the community or Father Leblanc who accompanied Julie to Flanders where she would establish several schools.  On October 14, 1805, Julie took, moreover, the name of Sister Saint Ignatius.

Concerning her devotion to the Sacred Heart

It’s not for nothing that her miraculous cure proceeded in the name of the Sacred Heart.  Julie had grown up with a strong personal attachment to the devotion to the Sacred Heart.  Elle propagated it in Cuvilly, introduced it in Belgium and left it as a heritage in the Congregation.

As we have already mentioned in the theme for the month of March, Julie had a devotion to the Sacred Heart as did other members of her family.  In her juridical deposition made in Beauvais in 1882, Madame Victoire Berthelot (great-niece of Julie Billiart) attested that the cult of the Sacred Heart was transmitted as a heritage: My mother told us: ‘I pray to the Sacred Heart, children.  Preserve this devotion. It is a family devotion.’”

Confraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus established in Cuvilly. Handwritten list by Father Dangicourt found in a manual of prayers. The tenth name of the first list is that of Julie Billiart, followed a little lower by those of her sister, Marie-Madeleine, her brother Louis-François and several relatives. The original document has disappeared but fortunately this list is reproduced in Father J. Clare’s, The Life of Julie Billiart, Sands and Company, 1909.

Importance of walking during the last twelve years of her life

After 22 years of paralysis, Julie never was able to hope to walk again.  In a space of ten years, she undertook many trips in a stagecoach, on the back of a donkey or even often on foot in order to establish schools for poor girls.  Although she accorded the greatest importance to prayer, Julie spent the last years of her life on the road, caught up in action. 

In the General Archives in Namur, one can find a little note on which Françoise counted Julie’s trips:  120 in ten years!

Note signed by Françoise

According to a study of Sister Mary Hayes, Julie would have made, in reality, 119 trips.  But if one takes into account the many times that Julie redirected her travels in order to cover a broad range of preoccupations, Sister Mary Hayes estimates that Julie’s trips would reach the number 378.

Julie established the first schools in Amiens, Saint Nicolas, Namur, Montdidier, Rubempré and Jumet without needing to cross boarders since Belgium did not yet exist.  If, in Amiens, they frowned on Julie’s travels, it was not the same in Namur where she was supported by Monsignor Pisani who was in favor of all her actions on behalf of her establishments.  She traveled for miles to assure a welcoming home for the sisters and their students.  In 1809, she was at Saint Hubert; in 1810, it was the foundation of Nouveau Bois in Ghent and, in 1811, the installation at Zele.  In spite of war during the last years of the Napoleonic regime, Julie still pursued her work of education by opening schools in Andenne, Gembloux and Fleurus.

On the map, Mère Julie’s foundations:
  1.  Saint Nicolas (1806)
  2. Montdidier (1807)
  3. Namur (1807)
  4. Jumet (1808)
  5. Rubempré (1808)
  6. Saint Hubert (1809)
  7. Ghent (1810)
  8. Zele (1811)
  9. Raineville (1812)
  10. Andenne (1813)
  11. Gembloux (1813)
  12. Fleurus (1814)

Her strength of soul

How was Julie, a girl so active during her youth and who did not spare any effort to help her parents, able to find strength during her long years of illness?  Among Julie’s most striking characteristics, her contemporaries relate, in particular, her greatness of soul and her courage.  Struck by so many trials, among which was her illness, she didn’t let them get her down. On the contrary, she placed her confidence in God, whose “will expressed itself in all things.”  She gave proof of a courage, a lucidity and a sense of humor which affected all who knew her. 

Sister Mary Linscott speaks to us of this fortitude that Julie exercised:

“Fortitude is a great gift and a root of greatness.  It is the quality of attack, of strength, vigor and energy.  Positively, it brings confidence, with power, success and limitless desire; negatively, it gives rise to the refusal to give in, to endurance and perseverance, and to patience.

Saint Julie wrote: “More than ever I see the need of strong, brave, generous souls, manly souls, who are afraid of absolutely nothing on this earth except sin and displeasing God….  Come on now, courage!  courage! courage!  but a manly courage, my dear sister, don’t let any difficulty ever put us off…  We need brave apostolic souls for our vocation, those who are not afraid of difficulties and who have no reserves with God….  If we only have a middling virtue, the work won’t last, it needs souls of steel to hold firm in the world we live in.”

Saint Julie and Françoise, Sisters of Notre-Dame, two friends and educators


Françoise Blin de Bourdon (Mother Saint-Joseph between 1816 and 1838).

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.” 
Françoise Blin de Bourdon, Lady of Gézaincourt

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. 
* Well-educated
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.  

Illustration by T.J. Bond dans Mother St. Joseph by SND, Sands and Co, Glasgow, 1964.

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.

Illustration by T.J. Bond dans Mother St. Joseph by SND, Sands and Co, Glasgow, 1964.

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. 

Comic of Saint Julie, Editions du Signe, 2000.

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. 

Illustration by T.J. Bond dans Mother St. Joseph by SND, Sands and Co, Glasgow, 1964.

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. 

Mother Saint Joseph and King William I, illustrated by T.J. Bond dans Mother St. Joseph by SND, Sands and Co, Glasgow, 1964.

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). 

5. Conclusion

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?

  1.  Memoires of Mother Saint Joseph
  2. The first Letters of Julie to Françoise
  3. Testimonials of the Sisters who knew them



SIMPLICITY relates to us as Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

Simplicity, didn’t Julie live it as a simple Picard farm girl of Cuvilly, before we began to speak of it? 

Julie among the harvesters, drawing made by Sr Callista McEechan.

Julie chooses beautiful symbols from nature such as the sunflower that she admired in the fields around her or crystal that she also used to express how she understood this characteristic that she wished for each sister.

“Those who are not simple are neither children of God, nor mine.”  Julie Billiart

“Simplicity is like a clear crystal which the rays of the Sun of Justice penetrate, light and warm.” Julie Billiart

Sister Mary Linscott develops the idea:

“The analogy of sunlight shining through crystal suggests the complete penetration and irradiation by which God influences human beings through simplicity, and the transparency which is the human disposition in reply….

The simplicity of white light is not lack of colour but the potentiality for the full range of colours, unactualized so long as there is no object to refract its prismatic brilliance.” 

Mary Linscott, impregnated with the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, quotes him: 

“’Til now, to adore has meant to prefer God to things by referring them to him….  Now adoration means the giving of our body and soul to creative activity, joining that activity to him to bring the world to fulfilment.”  (Christologie et évolution)

“Julie’s simplicity involved her in the problems of her time.  Indeed, it was difficult for her to conceive of a Christianity that would not involve itself in the sufferings of life.” 

What is today’s suffering that is powerfully expressed by youth of the entire world and echoed by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si?

Is it not precisely:  the urgency of an ecological conversion at all levels?

Let’s refer to a passage or two from Laudato Si, to read and, above all, to attempt to apply to our life with its particular charism of simplicity:

“#222.  Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption….  Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation….  It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us….”

Another example #227.  One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals.  I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom.  That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.”

Sister Mary Linscott continues:

“It was the Spirit whose brooding over the waters gave life to creation, and whose overshadowing of our Lady brought about the incarnation.  His action transforms the soul in the life of active, practical mysticism which Julie describes.  She therefore often commends her work to him, urging the sisters to invoke him and to let his light shine through them, illuminating their work….” 

The Sisters of Notre Dame actively participate in ecological conversion.

Haven’t our successive General Chapters, open to the Spirit, taken seriously the current suffering of our world?   In article 65 of our Constitutions, we read: “Gratefully aware of the goodness of God’s creation, we reverence the resources of the earth, and we are careful to use them in a spirit of stewardship to foster the life of all people.” 

In 2014, the Congregation explained itself in this way: “Impelled by the ecological crisis, we examine every facet of our relationship with the community of creation.  All members and units of the Congregation commit to take action on this defining issue of our time.” 

How many concrete actions have been undertaken across the world, notably by Sisters of Notre Dame, concerning this major preoccupation in this entirely shared concern to preserve the earth and safeguard humanity!  We recall so clearly the Pope: “The intimate relation between the poor and the fragility of the planet; the conviction that all is connected in the world.” 

Clean energy, solar panels, water purification, healthy food, methods respectful of the earth….  One sister has even given her life in martyrdom for the cause:  let’s remember Dorothy Stand defending the Amazon forest in Brazil; after her, the struggle continues.

Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN

Closer to Namur, let’s take the example of Jumet, in Belgium, where the large park is going to permit permaculture with its principle: “nothing gets lost all is transformed.”  To learn more about the redevelopment of the Jumet convent (founded by Saint Julie in 1808) into an urban farm,  click here:

Photo of the Jumet park, Belgium.

Another aspect that links our charism is the emphasis that is put on education

Pope Francis reminds us: “We are faced with an educational challenge.”

#213 of the encyclical Ladato Si: “Ecological education can take place in a variety of settings:  at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere.  Good education plants seed when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.”

Didn’t Julie have this educational meaning when she said: “Let’s prepare girls for life.”

With respect to the biological project at Jumet, we read:  “Education constitutes one of the principal axes of the project.  The presence of a primary school on the site is an asset in order to heighten the awareness of children to natural food.  We will be thus able to welcome students from all the disciplines for onsite training.”  

Let’s close with the meaning that Pope Francis so admirably gives to the Eucharist:

#236: “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation.  Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures.  The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.  He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours….  Indeed, the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love….  The Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.”

To learn more:

Mary Linscott (SNDdeN),To Heaven on Foot, 1969 (French translation, 1990).

Mary Linscott (SNDdeN), The 4th Essential, 1971.

the persecution of the church (the carmelites of compiègne guillotined)


 Saint Julie Billiart and the persecution of the Church at the time of the French Revolution

In Cuvilly, Julie becomes such an example of confidence and steadfastness in the faith that the revolutionary forces see her as a threat.  In 1791, persecuted because of her stance with respect to “constitutional priests” (those who took the oath of allegiance to the nation), Julie was forced to flee from her village and hide, first to Gournay-sur-Aronde, then, in Compiègne and, later, in Amiens.

Julie is in Compiègne at the time of the height of the politics of dechristianization (September 1793 – September 1794).  Dechristianization, during the French Revolution has for its goal to suppress Christianity in the daily life of the French; priests are deported or assassinated, religious are forced to renounce their vows, churches are closed or transformed into temples of Reason or of Liberty (as in Compiègne), crosses and pious images are destroyed, religious holidays forbidden, programs abolished, public and private worship is prohibited. 

In order to deal with the many counter-revolutionaries and French monarchists, Robespierre implemented exceptional measures that would later be called the “Terror.”  The most well-known is the terrible Law of Suspects which required the identification of all those who served the Revolutionary cause.  Nearly 20,000 people, suspected of sympathizing with the counter-revolutionaries, were executed.  It is in this context that 16 Carmelites are guillotined in July of 1794.

Relations between Julie and the Carmelites of Compiègne

  1. Julie living in CUVILLY is in contact with the Carmelites of Compiègne.

Julie, living in Cuvilly, knew the Carmelites of Compiègne whom she visited in order to provide them with cloth and embroideries.  Let’s study the General Archives of the Congregation in Namur.

The two older biographies of Julie written by Father Charles Clair, in French. (1895) and by Father James Clare, in English, (1909) mention Julie’s visits to the Carmelites of Compiègne. 

Father Charles Clair based his book on the “recollections of her first companions” of which we keep copies in the Namur Archives. 

  • On October 7, 1881, Sr. Marie Victoire Carez writes :  « […] At the height of the Revolution, she [Julie] sought refuge in Compiègne; there she was looked upon as a saint.  She was in contact with the saintly Carmelites, who died on the scaffold. […]. “
  • In her deposition of January 25, 1883, taken at Chimay, Sr. Marie Claudine (in the world as Julie Godefroit) notes:  “She [Julie] was in contact with the saintly  Carmelites, who died on the scaffold.” 

As for Father James Clare, he finds information in the Annals of the Congregation written in 1844 by Sr. Stephanie Warnier: “Around the age of 18 […], she [Julie] visited at that time the Carmelites of Compiègne who instilled in her heart the love of God and zeal for the salvation of souls.”

Father Charles Clair and Father James Clare add interesting details that are not found in written sources:

  • The reasons for Julie’s visits with the religious of Compiègne: “with respect to the sacred vestments that she had embroidered put her in contact with the Carmelites of the city” (Father Clair)
  • The talent of this girl.  Her skill in church embroidery, to which we have already alluded, took her from time to time to the Carmelite Convent of Compiègne, renowned at that time through all the countryside for its strict observance and the holy lives of its inmates.  Thus she formed an intimacy with that band of noble women who, a few years later, were one and all to win the martyr’s palm; and the annals of her life note that their saintly conversation fanned to yet brighter flame her ardour in the service of God.  Surely it was not a mere chance, but rather God’s eternal seal upon that friendship, that eight days after the hand of Pius X had placed the coronet of the Blessed on the brows of the Virgin of Cuvilly, it was lifted again to set it on those of the martyrs of Compiègne.”   (Father James Clare, pp. 20-21)

Here is another proof of the relationship between Julie and the Carmelites of Compiègne.

Abbot A. Odon (pastor of Tilloloy) written around 1887:

“When circumstances permitted, it was for her a sweet recreation, on Sundays and holidays, to go to visit the Carmelites of Compiègne.  Julie was so happy to speak with an open heart to the holy daughters of Saint Thérèse through their blessed grilles!  What a joy for her soul to pour out her feelings to these seraphic souls, so well formed to understand her!  Could she have drawn from a better source the desire of perfection, the attraction for the religious life, and this robust faith, this valiant love for Our Lord, this generous ardour, this ardour […] that came to be the distinctive character of her holiness and a mark of the profound imprint on the work that she was called to found?” 

2. Julie, refugee in COMPIÈGNE, has connections with the Carmelites by means of her niece and Abbot de Lamarche.

Julie is in contact with the Carmelites through her niece, Felicity, who accompanied her on the road of exile.  We know this thanks to a letter written by Mother Henriette de Croissy.  This note from the Carmelite, written between 1792 and 1794, unsigned and undated, but recognized as authentic, is interesting and delivers some details on Julie’s life:  the room that she will soon occupy permits her to receive visits.  We learn that Felicity did the Carmelites laundry (or that Julie and Felicity’s laundry was done in the Carmelite convent).  A name is evoked by Mother Henriette de Croissy:  it’s that of a certain Madame Gabriel to whose home Julie would be transported.  She suffered at the time from rather violent toothaches. 

“[… ] Felicity had just come to get the laundry that she thought was here but she was not able to take the time to go to your place as it was necessary that she go to the druggist.  Julie has a very bad toothache and tomorrow she will be transported to Madame Gabriel’s home; she would not be able to keep the (?) crippled without suffering from her great sensibility.  The surgeon thinks that she will have a rotten fever; in her new dwelling she could be visited but she will not be able to keep anyone.  This happy inconvenience is not frequent… […]  Felicity will gladly see that you send her the laundry through Thérèse, if that can happen.”

Letter (between 1792-1794) from Mother Henriette de Croissy, Carmelite guillotined in Paris in 1794. Arch. Dép. Q. FFI no. 50. Click to enlarge the image.

Julie is in contact with the Carmelites also by means of Abbot de Lamarche, priest at Compiègne.  He met Julie in 1793 when “he ministered to some of the faithful and, notably, to the Carmelites.  It is he who, disguised as a workman, will bless each Carmelite going to her death.  The testimony left by Abbot de Lamarche expresses his admiration for the faith and strength of soul of Julie in spite of her paralysis and the threats associated with the “Terror.” 

“February 2, 1820.  It was not until 1793 that I made the acquaintance of Julie.  She had left Cuvilly, her native place, and taken to Compiègne for greater safety in the troubles which at that time agitated France.   I was ministering to the spiritual needs of some faithful souls who dwelt there, notably the Carmelite nuns.  Julie was living in retirement in a small room with one of her nieces who took care of her.  I went to visit her; she did not speak or rather she only spoke by signs.  When she went to confession, I had to give her an hour’s notice.  She then prepared herself with intense fervor and obtained, as she owned to me, the grace of articulating distinctly.  It was only after absolution that she fell back into speechlessness.  It seemed clear to me that it was by no effort by nature that she was able to express herself in confession, but that she obtained this favor by her lively faith.  I saw her from time to time for about a year. I was more and more astonished at her progress in perfection.  She offered herself continually to God as a victim to appease His anger.  Her resignation was perfect; always calm, always united to God.  Her prayer was so to speak unceasing… […]”

It is through Father de Lamarche that Julie must have learned that the Carmelites of Compiègne offered themselves as a holocaust to appease God’s anger, so that peace might return to the Church and to the State.

When the Carmelites were guillotined in Paris in 1794, Julie had been in Compiègne for two years.  The news of their death was without doubt very painful for her.  As Sr. Roseanne Murphy (SNDdeN) says: “their heroic deaths made a profound impression on Julie; she often referred to them years later.  She felt the loss of her friends for they had been a prayerful support for her since she was a child.” 

The Martyrdom of the Carmelites of Compiègne

The 16 Carmelites of Compiègne

In the context of dechristianization, on September 14, 1792, the Carmelites are expelled from their convent by the civil authorities.  They then lived their vocation in different houses in Compiègne, where they were separated into 4 groups.  They pronounce each day a “vow of total consecration to the Divine Will” – even were it at the price of their life – to obtain the end of the massacres of the Terror and peace for the Church and the State.

Commenorative plaque affixed on one of the three houses where the Carmelites sought refuge in Compiègne.
Church of Saint Anthony in Compiègne where Abbot Jean-Baptiste Courouble (or Caroube) celebrates Mass – with the authorization of the constitutional pastor Thibaux – for the Carmelites expelled from their convent and who resided in houses near this church.

They were arrested on June 22-23 1794 and incarcerated in a former convent of the Visitation, converted into a prison.  The Reign of Terror is then at its apex and affects, notably, religious orders.   Thus, at Arras, on June 26, four religious of the Daughters of Charity are executed and in July, 32 religious, Ursulines, Sacramentarians, Bernardines, as well as 30 priests are guillotined.

On July 12, 1794, the 16 Carmelites are transferred from Compiègne to Paris, where they are judged on July 17 under accusation of “plotting against the Revolution.”  The act of accusation is drawn up by Fouquier-Tinville.  They are condemned to death and executed that very day as “fanatics and insurrectionaries.” 

On July 17, while walking toward their martyrdom, they pray and sing the Miserere, the Salve Regina and the Te Deum.  At the foot of the scaffold, they intoned the Veni Creator and renew their baptismal promises and their religious vows.  Sister Constance de Jésus (Meunier), a novice, is called first.  She asks the Mother Prioress, Thérèse de Saint-Augustin Lidoine) for her blessing and her permission to die.  She then climbs the steps of the scaffold while singing the Laudate Dominum omnes gentes.   The same scene is produced for the other sisters.  The prioress is sacrificed last.  They are then buried in a common grave in the cemetery of Picpus. On May 27, 1906, they are beatified by Pope Pius X

“What happiness to die for one’s God!” cried out one of them.  “Let’s be the last to die.”  In effect, ten days after this sacrifice, the turmoil, which during two years had spread on French soil the blood of France’s children, ceased.  (Decree of Beatification)

The Carmelites of Compiègne were beatified two weeks after Julie had received this honor on May 13, 1906.

Like the Carmelites of Compiègne, Julie, humbly, participates in the mystery of love of a God wounded by the world’s suffering.  In spite of the danger of the troubles tied to the French Revolution, her deep conviction in the Goodness of God, is unshakeable.  Entirely paralyzed and not able to express herself, she gives meaning to her life by offering herself as a victim and by presenting to Christ her life as a woman dispossessed of all activity and of any possibility of service.  This abandonment leads her to an absolute confidence.  She will later write:

A sign was given to Julie, as a response and also as a call to an absolute gift (see the theme for May):

If the cross is present, Julie knows that it is the expression of the infinite goodness of God and his immeasurable love.

The Universal Call to Holiness



In 2019, the Sisters of Notre Dame, forming a large international family, are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the CANONIZATION of their foundress, Saint Julie Billiart.

The General Archives of the Congregation and the Heritage Center produced an EXPOSITION in order to understand the process as to how Julie became a saint.  Several panels displaying some of the documents of the time tell you, by means of a timeline, the events between 1881 and 1969. 

The exposition is accessible during the hours when the Heritage Center is open (Motherhouse of the Sisters of Notre Dame, 17, rue Julie Billiart in Namur, Belgium):  Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm (weekends, holidays and groups as requested).

Holiness by Popes Paul VI and Francis. Click and read the document.

Pictures of the exposition in the Heritage Center in Namur.

Illustration1a edited

Illustration1b edited

Illustration1c edited

Illustration1d edited

Illustration1e edited

The 6 stages of the process of the canonization of Julie Billiart:

1.  The diocesan inquiry into establishing the reputation of holiness (1881-1889)
2.  Acceptance of the “dossier” by the Vatican; Julie becomes Venerable (1889)
3.  The apostolic process (1890-1897) and the endorsement of three miracles (1905).
4.  Julie becomes Blessed (1906)
5.  The resumption of the cause and approval of two miracles (1924-1968)
6.  Julie becomes a saint (1969)

Investigation in the ARCHIVES on the canonization of Julie Billiart 

50 years later, how does Julie’s holiness still serve as an example?  How does she inspire all those who walk in her footsteps:  the sisters, volunteers, friends, teachers and students? 

  1: THE SMILING SAINT. Click to read or download


Illustration2-editedMother Aloysie, 6th Superior General (1875-1888)

Illustration3 editedMonsignor Gravez, Bishop of Namur (1867-1883)

Illustration4 editedLetter of Monsignor Gravez, Bishop of Namur, which accepts the request of Mother Aloysie with respect to the introduction of the causes of Julie and Françoise.

Illustration5 editedNote of invitation to the diocesan process

Illustration6-edited-2Three large related volumes with all the letters of postulation for the purpose of the Introduction of Julie’s cause, General Archives of the Congregation, Namur.

Illustration7Cabinet with all the official documents related to Julie Billiart’s cause, General Archives of the Congregation, Namur.

Illustration8 editedLetter of postulation to introduce Julie’s cause signed by the Queen of the Belgians, Marie-Henriette (wife of King Leopold II), 1888.

     2: VENERABLE JULIE. Click to read or download


Illustration9 editedTestimony of Sister Marie Adele Claus deposed at Clapham (Great Britain), July 15 1882, for the purpose of Julie’s beatification.

Illustration10_1889_DecretDecree of introduction of Julie’s cause, 1889.  Julie becomes Venerable.

 3: BLESSED JULIE. Click to read or download


Illustration11Shrine of Saint Julie exposed in the Heritage Center at Namur. To know more:  mort-de-Julie/chasse

Illustration12-editedPope Pius X, Cardinal Ferrata (Protector of the Institute in Rome). Monsignor Heylen (Bishop of Namur) and Mother Aimée de Jésus with their crest.

Illustration13-editedOrigin and meaning of the crest of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Illustration14Poster of the celebrations in Namur for the beatification of Julie, May 17-21, 1906.

Illustration15Picture of the celebrations in Namur, 1906.

 4: SAINT JULIE. Click to read or download


Illustration16-editedReverend Ugo Märton, O. Praem., Postulator of the Cause, thanks Pope Paul VI for Julie’s canonization.

Illustration17-editedCanonization in Rome by Pope Paul VI.

Illustration18-editedOfficial decree (in parchment with illuminations) signed by Pope Paul VI, June 22, 1969.  Julie Billiart becomes a saint.


In his homily of June 22 (1969), Pope Paul speaks to us of holiness and miracles:

“This is hagiography, the study of saintliness.  This very praiseworthy study has often turned its passionate gaze upon the MIRACULOUS ASPECTS of saintliness; and it has been so engrossed but the latter as to fix attention on observation of miracles, almost equating saintliness and miracle.

Thus sometimes, IN OTHER AGES, devotion to saintliness was considered as having leave to adorn it with IMAGINARY MIRACLES AND AMAZING LEGENDS, not, perhaps, with the intention of offending historical truth, but as a gratuitous and conventional tribute, a floral and poetic one.

NOW it is no longer so.  Miracles remain a proof, a sign of saintliness; but they do not make up its essence.  Now the study of saintliness is focused rather on HISTORICAL VERIFICATION OF THE FACTS and the documents that bear witness to it, and on the exploration of the PSYCHOLOGY of saintliness.”

To be recognized as blessed, Venerable Julie must have accomplished at least one miracle after her death.

The recognition of a miracle is subject to strict rules. A medical investigation is conducted on people to prove their miraculous healing through the intercession of Venerable Julie.

In 1905, three miracles are attested by the Sacred Congregation of Rites.

  1. In 1882, 16-year-old Armand Hubin (Liège) was miraculously cured after his mother went to Julie’s grave and applied a relic to the ulcer of his leg.
  2. Jean Noël Grégoire (from Namur), aged 20, suffered for many years at one of his legs following a bad fall. In 1881, in desperation, a novena was begun at Julie and a relic was applied to his wound. From the first day, he found a perfect health.
  3. Louis Waëlens (from Bruges), 28, suffered from an ulcer in the stomach. He was unable to eat for years because of the pain and was wasting away. In 1886, his wife went to the sisters to explain the suffering of her husband. They gave him a relic and suggested starting a novena to Venerable Julie. That night, Louis Waëlens was able to eat without pain for the first time in years.

Illustration19-editedLouis Waëlens miraculously healed by the venerable Julie in 1886.

Illustration20-editedDecoration of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, May 13, 1906


The sisters received hundreds of letters attesting to miraculous cures by means of the intercession of Blessed Julie.  Among the hundreds of files, only four had been examined by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (and two will be finally recognized in 1958 and 1967).

The first miracle recognized is that of Otacilio Ribeiro.  The story takes place in Campos Novos, in Brazil, on September 29, 1950.  Otacilio Ribeiro, a young farmer of 29 years, is taken to the hospital by his father because of a tumor in his lower abdomen.  They are welcomed by Sister Maria Bardona and Sister Mary Ludivine, of the Cosfeld Sisters of Notre Dame.  Having performed an incision, Doctor Janh Martins Ribeiro determines it to be impossible to proceed with the removal of the tumor which is inaccessible and he pronounces the patient doomed.  “Sister,” says the doctor, “he will not live an hour longer.”

The two sisters of Coesfeld and a third, Sister Maria Adelaide, then begin to pray to Blessed Julie.  The next day, Otacilio revives; Sister Ludivine invites him to join in their prayers and she applies a relic of Julie to the site of the incision.  The doctor only gives him three days to live.  However, a few days later, Otacilio calls to sister:  “Sister, there is something unusual.  I can’t explain it but it’s different.”  The next day, Otacilio is able to sit up.

A week later, Otacilio is cured.  His parents offer to the sisters 3 1/3 lbs. of wax for candles and Otacilio promises to name his daughter Julie if he has one someday.

In 1957, Mother Mary Verona, the assistant to the Superior General of the Coesfeld Sisters of Notre Dame, writes to Sister Ludivine in Brazil so that she might submit Otacilio Ribeiro’s miracle to the Sacred Congregation of Rites.  On January 17, 1958, the miracle is authenticated.

As for the second miracle, it is recognized by the Vatican on March 10, 1967.  It concerns the miracle of Homère Rhodius, dating from 1919.  At that time, Homère Rhodius was 69 years of age.  He suffered from a uremic crisis that, in but a few days, reduced him to a critical state.  The doctors judged the illness to be incurable. Homère Rhodius’ daughter, Sister Marie Ludovica, was a Sister of Notre Dame of Namur; she began a novena in the Garden Chapel where Julie was interred.  A relic was applied on the site of the malady and, instantly, the condition of the patient improved significantly.  In less than a month, he was perfectly cured.

Submitted in 1924, at the time of the resumption of Julie’s cause, this miracle had not been validated by the Vatican.  It is the first time that a lawyer at the Consistory, Giovanni-Battista Ferrata, succeeded in obtaining a reversal of the first ruling of the Medical Consultation.

Illustration21-editedMr. Otacilio Ribeiro (miraculous cure) and his daughter, Julie. 

Illustration22-editedPositio Super Miraculis listing the two miracles of the canonization, 1968.

Illustration23-editedBanner made by Missori en 1968 for the canonization of Saint Julie.  On can see Saint Julie with a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and two “cousins” (a Sister of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and a Sister of Notre Dame of Coesfeld who claim the same spirit and follow the same rule but without juridical ties with the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur), surrounded by children from all the nations.



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.


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

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.


  • 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


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.

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

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. 




Refugees, Homeless, Immigrants



Because of the turmoil associated with the French Revolution, Julie was forced to escape from her native village in May of 1791.  Now at the age of 40, she had never left Cuvilly, her parents or her family.  For three years, she fled and hid.  Although she was the recipient of the protection of some benefactors, who took great personal risk in hiding her and, as well, had the assistance of her niece, Felicity, who accompanied her throughout her exile, this period was the most bleak of her life.

However, her suffering and great difficulties took nothing away from her confidence in God.


  • January to May 1791: Religious unrest in Cuvilly

When the Revolution broke out in Paris in July of 1789, Julie celebrated her 38th birthday.  She had been paralyzed for several years:  in 1782, Julie had been affected by an epidemic that doctors of the time thought they could cure by abundant bleedings which, little by little, deprived her of the use of her legs.  This was for her a time of profound spiritual growth.  Bedridden, Julie prayed a great deal and continued with her catechetical work by welcoming villagers among whom were her benefactors.  Julie opened paths of total confidence in God to the inhabitants of Cuvilly, disoriented by the new ideas and the turmoil associated with the Revolution.

In 1791, the disturbances reached Cuvilly.  On July 12, 1790, France adopted a new decree, the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy.”  Thus the clergy became a body of civil servants payed and selected by the State; these latter were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the nation.  Priests had until January 1, 1791, to take this oath.

Illustration that shows how priests were obliged to pledge allegiance to the nation. 

On January 9, 1791, Father Dangicourt, stationed in Cuvilly for more than 15 years, and his assistant pastor, Father Delaporte, took the oath in the parish church in these terms:
“I swear to watch with fidelity over the faithful who are confided to us, to be faithful to the nation, the law, and the king, and to sustain, with all our strength, the Constitution which has been decreed by the Assembly and accepted by the king, in all which is not contrary to religion, as it is written in the supreme law:  “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.

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Text of the oath of Fathers Dangicourt and Delaporte, January 9, 1791 (sent to the Department on January 16, 1791), Municipal Library of Compiègne (B.M.C.), Mss 169, article 36.  

This oath was considered to be improper by the district.  By opposing the ideas of the Revolution, Father Dangicourt and his assistant became enemies of the State.

Invited on January 29 by the authorities of Compiègne to retake their oath, the two men refused.

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Handwritten letter of Pastor Dangicourt regretting his inability to go to Compiègne on April 4, 1791.  B.M.C., Mss 169, art. 47. 

In distinction to the majority of the other cases, the two ecclesiastics found solid support among most of their parishioners and in the surrounding municipality.  The notables of Cuvilly presented to the District, on March 12, a petition to keep their pastor and his assistant and to pay them by means of voluntary contributions while the municipality of Cuvilly asked the district to permit them to keep their pastor:  “… the loss of a pastor, that the residents of Cuvilly considered to be their father, would be for them a subject of affliction that they wished to avoid…”.  Finally, the post was declared vacant and a former Cordelier monk from Compiègne, Jean-Baptiste Rollet, was invested on May 8 with the heavy responsibility of replacing Father Dangicourt.

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Proclamation of priests, elected to vacant parishes, May 9, 1701.  Municipal Archives of Compiègne, File P4 18-21, religion.

From the day of his arrival in Cuvilly on May 15, the new pastor received threatening anonymous letters while the municipal reception was among the least warm.  On May 24, he sent a letter to the district asking for help.

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Transcript of an extract from the Registry of Deliberations of the Board of Management of the District of Compiègne, May 25, 1791.  Departmental Archives of Oise – Series L.

The district then dispatched three of its members along with a detachment of the national guard and of the du Berry regiment to go to Cuvilly to establish order.  They arrested the ex-assistant pastor, Delaporte, as well as several residents considered to be leaders of the disturbance.  Three of these prisoners, the Guilberts and Lanvin, were relatives of Julie.  The defendants, Delaporte, assistant pastor, and François Lanvin, mason, were brought before the tribunal of the Department of Oise while the Guilberts were sent back to Cuvilly to be under the surveillance of the municipality.  Finally, the defendants were beneficiaries of the Court’s indulgence.  Calm seemed to be reestablished in the parish of Cuvilly where a new mayor was soon elected.

Father Dangicourt is thought to have set out for Mont Valérien in June 1791 as he died in Paris in October of that same year.  Father Delaporte, once again in the village, continued to say Mass in the chapel at the chateau of Séchelles.  We don’t know where he went between 1791 and 1829, the date where one finds him again as a pastor in Ressons-sur-Matz.

As for Julie, she suffered more and more but her confidence in the goodness of God only strengthened her.  She became such an example of confidence and determination in the faith that the revolutionary forces saw in her a threat.

“Julie had the happiness of keeping from schism many people whom she instructed when they came to see her.”  (Father Trouvelot, 1820)

“Such was the esteem that the villagers had for the poor invalid that when they saw themselves deprived of their legitimate pastor, they consulted Julie to know if they were to obey the constitutional priest.  Strong in her faith, she prevented the populace from sinking into schism earning for her persecution from the partisans of the revolution.”  (Sr. Theresa of the Passion)

It is interesting to note that in 1793-94, Cuvilly remained one of the communes of the district the most rebellious to de-christianization.  The national official, Bertrand, deplored the “reluctance of this cult” manifested by the inhabitants and their reproaches “their obstinacy and stubbornness in favor of a superstitious and fanatical regime.”

  • Path of exile
    May, 1791 Julie finds refuge in Gournay-sur-Aronde

Persecuted because of her position vis-à-vis some “constitutional priests” (those who swore an oath of fidelity to the nation), Julie was forced to flee Cuvilly and to go into hiding.  Madame de Pont l’Abbé whose chateau was in Gournay-sur-Aronde offered hospitality while taking enormous risks as did all those who wanted to help people considered to be undesirable. “This lady, who was one who gathered around Julie’s sickbed and whom she loved a great deal, in order to save Julie from persecution, came to get her in her conveyance and took her to the chateau.”  She took care of Julie until the frenzy of the Revolution forced her to abandon her chateau.  Julie was accompanied by her niece, Felicity, aged 16, but would never again see her father who died when she was in Compiègne.  She would see, for the last time, her mother when she was transported from Compiègne to Amiens.


9_GournayChateau of Gournay-sur-Aronde

Julie stayed approximatively one year with Madame de Pont l’Abbé.  Tormented herself, Madame de Pont l’Abbé had to flee to England, along with other aristocratic emigrants, where she died, leaving Julie and her niece, Felicity, under the care of her concierge, Monsieur Camus.  This man, son-in-law of the property manager for the Pont l’Abbé family, had just acquired, what was now a national good or property, the chateau’s farm that had been managed by his father-in-law.  According to Father Charles Clair:  Monsieur Camus and Julie quickly became friends.  In spite of this pledge given to the Revolution, Monsieur Camus did not seem to have been a devoted partisan of the ideas of the day; because he demonstrated to the “fanatical devotee,” a respectful attachment, one whose memory was cherished in his family.

Chronology of the Gournay-sur-Aronde chateau, click here. 

According to the testimony of Father Sellier, “when the revolutionaries came to seize the chateau and put it in receivership along with all that it held, the servants drove Julie in a cart filled with various pieces of furniture (other depositions speak of a haycart) to the town square in Compiègne where a charitable family, whose name we do not know, took pity on her.

This must have been in April, 1792, as mentioned in the graffiti on the wall of the chateau.

10_Graffiti-1Graffiti on the chateau of Gournay, side wall: souvenirs of the troops who were quartered there during the revolutionary period: “the second battalion of Haute Vienne will stick it to the aristocrats – 1792 The Nasion – 1794 Hemeri”

Did the patriots of the environs want to go after Julie, “the devote,” or after Madame de Pont l’Abbé, the noble woman who protected her?   One would be surprised that a paralytic was able to be under suspicion by the revolutionaries.  But, one must not minimize the incidents of May 25, 1791, in Cuvilly.  Among the population opposed to the arrival of the constitutional priest, there were the Guilberts and Lanvin who were relatives of Julie.  She herself was known in Cuvilly as a fervent Christian in contact with some non-juring or non-constitutional priests.  And, who more than she was connected with the nobility, the Pont l’Abbés, who had emigrated.  Hence the attribution of devote…fanatic…suspicious.

April 1792: Julie is abandoned in Compiègne

11_CharretteJulie transported in a hay cart with her niece.

According to the testimony of Father Trouvelot, pastor of Ressons-sur-Matz, Julie and Felicity received hospitality from some young women named de Chambon, who lived on the rue des Grandes Écuries.  We know almost nothing about these women, except for the bravery that they demonstrated by welcoming a stranger who was very much in a bad way!

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  (Mt. 25:35)

In Compiègne, Julie’s health deteriorated quickly.  Completely paralyzed, she lost the use of speech.

Pursued and unwelcome, Julie and her niece changed lodging several times in two and one-half years but, as Sr. Marie-Francine Vanderperre pointed out, the Archives of Compiègne kept no remembrance of any refugee who did not amount to some sort of news story.   Only a note written by the Carmelite, Mother Henriette de Croissy, listing the names of Julie and Felicity and a requisition for flour drawn up in 1794, indicates the presence of Julie and her “niece”, rue Dufour.

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Letter (between 1792-1794) from Mother Henriette de Croissy, Carmelite. Archives, dep. Q, FF1 no. 50.  As one can see in this letter, Julie is in contact with the Carmelites of Compiègne through her niece, Felicity, who, it seems, does the laundry for them.  In 1793, Julie received several visits from Father de Lamarche who also knew the Carmelites of Compiègne.  Like them, Julie offers herself to God in order to save France and its Christians; she suffered profoundly from their violent death in Paris in July 1794.

13_RequisitionCardonClick to enlarge and read
Requisition record with the signature of citizen Cardon and dated May 27, 1794.

October 1794:  Julie is welcomed in Amiens

In October of 1794, Madame Baudoin, who had formerly spent her summers in Cuvilly, had Julie brought to Amiens to the Blin de Bourdon town home where she rented an apartment for herself and her three daughters.  She hoped that the presence of the invalid would bring her strength and courage after the death on the scaffold of both her father and her husband.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”  (Lev. 19:33-34)

  • The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were also strangers, new arrivals.

On February 2, 1806, during the chanting of the “Nunc dimittis,” Mère Julie has a vision of the future apostolate of the Congregation that would cross the seas and carry to the world the message of the “Good News.”

“Like many other international congregations, we Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, traveled far beyond the borders of our roots.  Sisters moved into social groups, neighborhoods and countries where they were strangers.”  Newsletter of the leadership team of the Congregation (CLT), March 2019

“Our history reveals that a single-minded focus on the mission and the fear of being criticized (What would they think of us?) prevented us from welcoming local citizens as members. Fortunately, our eyes and hearts were opened.  […].  Sharing our life stories allows for the loss of the stranger, welcomes the person at my side and exposes the heart.”   Newsletter of the leadership team of the Congregation, March 2019.

  • The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur also welcome refugees

In this tradition, let’s note what the sisters recognized, what these “Just among the nations” accomplished in order to save Jews during the war.

To know more about the sisters who saved Jewish children during the Second World War, click here.

Still today, many Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur welcome and support refugees and migrants, sisters like Sr. Marie-Dominique Kohler who lives in Switzerland and gives classes in the German language to refugees.

To read the testimony of Sr. Marie-Dominique Kohler, click here.

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”  (Eph. 2:19)