A Woman of ‘High Courage’

Saint Claudine Thévenet, 1774-1837 Foundress of Religious of Jesus and Mary
Saint Claudine Thévenet, 1774-1837 Foundress of Religious of Jesus and Mary

This courageous woman was born in Lyon, France, the second of seven children of a silk-merchant, whose family nickname was “Glady.”  In 1789, the French Revolution brought chaos into her life and her world. 

Lyon was placed under siege, and many of its citizens, including two of Claudine’s brothers, joined the anti-revolutionary resistance movement. They were captured and imprisoned, and sentenced to death by firing squad in January of 1794.  Claudine courageously visited them in prison, and decided to walk with them to the killing fields, where she witnessed their brutal execution.  On the way to their death, the brothers gave her a letter for the family, and spoke their last words:  “Forgive, Glady, as we forgive.”  Part of her died with them on that day, but their message invited her to a new life, and a pilgrimage of courage, compassion, and pardon.  

From that time on, Claudine dedicated her life and resources to alleviating the moral and physical ravages left in the chaotic wake of that period. She came to have but one conviction: that the greatest misfortune is to live and die without knowing God. In 1818, under the guidance of her spiritual advisor, she gathered friends around her to offer shelter and basic education for poor girls at risk, whom she considered the “weakest, the most shameful, the most deprived” of the victims of the Terror that had ravaged France. The beginning of her religious congregation was “founded on nothing,” as her nephew later wrote: it began in a small apartment, with one child, one worker, and sparse furnishings.

Originally a parish-based pious association of laywomen, with Claudine as its president, the sisters of the new religious congregation began to assist orphans and the daughters of impoverished silk-weavers of the Lyon region in workschools known as “providences.” Later, they directed boarding schools for girls of more affluent families. However, it was always clear to everyone that Claudine’s preferences were for the poor and those at greatest risk.  Her trust in God’s goodness gave her the courage to undertake works that seemed foolhardy.

Her last words remain a legacy to her sisters: “How good God is“!

At Claudine’s death in 1837, her institute seemed to be in decline: of the five establishments she had founded, only three remained, all within a thirty-mile radius of Lyon. Yet, her faith and trust bore fruit. By 1842, a small band of sisters left for Agra, India. Today, there are over 1,000 Religious of Jesus and Mary ministering in 29 countries, sharing the goodness and forgiving love Claudine wanted so much to offer the children of her time. 

One of the early congregational documents praises her ‘high courage.’  That courage continues to inspire her sisters and associates today, in a world rent by violence and poverty.

Read more about the history of the Religious of Jesus and Mary Congregation and about the USA-Haiti Province.