April 7, 2017
Saint Julie Billiart, Visionary and Foundress
April 8th is the optional memorial of Saint Julie Billiart. For the little girl who loved to play “school” as a child, founding a religious order dedicated to the education of the young was something that God apparently had in mind for her all along. Although her own formal education was very rudimentary, St. Julie Billiart was very well versed in the teachings of the Catholic faith, and she dedicated her life to passing them on to the generations that came after her.
Marie Rose Julie Billiart was born into a family of relatively prosperous farmers in Cuvilly, France in 1751. She was the sixth of seven children and showed a great interest in things religious. By the age of 7, she had virtually memorized the catechism; one story recounts how she used to gather her playmates around her to hear their recitations, after which she would explain to them what the lessons meant. She was so gifted with spiritual understanding that her parish priest allowed her to receive her First Communion at the age of 9, in an era when most children waited until the age of 13 to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Julie’s carefree childhood came to an abrupt end when she was 16 and the family suffered a severe financial setback. In order to help her parents, she went to work doing manual labor in the fields to earn what money she could. In her spare time, she continued to teach the catechism, although this time, in addition to teaching children, some of her pupils were also her fellow adult farm workers.
At about the age of 30, Julie suffered an emotional shock that left her paralyzed for the next 22 years; she was sitting next to her father when some unknown enemy shot at him, with the intent to either seriously wound or kill him. In the aftermath of that incident, Julie, now confined to her bed, continued to instruct from there even as word of her holiness spread among the Catholics in Cuvilly.
In 1789, the French Revolution broke out and Julie began to shelter fugitive priests in her home, where they would be safe from the revolutionaries who hunted them. This in turn made her a “wanted” woman, and, despite the physical pain involved, she herself had to be smuggled from safe place to safe place at least five times. It was during this period that two important things happened: first, Julie had a vision in which she saw a group of women in religious habits, standing around the crucified Christ. She then heard a voice say, “Behold these spiritual daughters whom I give you in an Institute marked by a cross.” The second thing was connected to the first; she met François Blin de Bourdon, an aristocratic woman who would become a lifelong friend and an instrumental part of the founding, in 1803, of the Institute of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
In 1804, the same year that the first Sisters of Notre Dame made their vows, Julie Billiart was miraculously cured of her paralysis and walked for the first time in over two decades. With renewed enthusiasm, she and her sisters continued their work — the Christian education of girls and the training of catechists.
Renowned for her charity toward the poor and the sick, Julie became aware that other classes in society were in as much need of Christian education as the poor. From the time her order was founded until her death in 1816, Julie labored to open schools that would service the needs of both the rich and poor, as well as various vocations and those called to be catechists. Pope Paul VI. canonized Saint Julie Billiart in 1969. Lord, who enkindled in the heart of Saint Julie Billiart the flame of ardent charity and a great desire to cooperate in the mission of the Church as a teacher, grant us that same active love, so that, in responding to the needs of the world today, we may lead others to the blessedness of eternal life.