Stories of the Saints for Children – Saint Jane Frances de Chantal

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Jeanne de Chantal, church of Saint Martin, Cahuzac, France; date and artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsAbout three hundred years ago, a little girl was born in the quaint old city of Dijon, whom the world knows and loves now as Saint Jane Frances de Chantal.

The child grew up strong and healthy, but when she was about a year and a half old, her mother died, and she lost that loving care which no one else could quite supply. But Jane was well trained and taught, and had, from a very early age, a strong sense of right and truth. She was very much in her father’s company, and, upon one occasion, was present whilst a visitor was saying that he did not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Jane was then not quite five years old, but she could not hear such words in silence, and, going up to him, exclaimed, “But we must believe that Jesus is in the Blessed Sacrament for He said so Himself, and if you deny it you are making Him a liar.” The visitor was surprised and rather amused at his little opponent, and after vainly trying to puzzle her by difficult questions, he brought out of his pocket a parcel of sweetmeats by way of turning her thoughts to something else. The little girl received them gravely, and put them in her pinafore, but she walked straight up to the fire, and, putting them in it, said, “Look – that is how heretics will burn in the flames of hell, because they do not believe what Jesus Christ has said.”

Jane’s favourite study was the Christian doctrine, but she also got on quickly with reading, writing, music, and needlework, and as he observed her industry and intelligence, her father gave her the best education which was possible in those times.

As her First Communion and confirmation drew near, Jane began to feel a great longing to find some way of giving herself to God’s service – at times she wished she might be called to die as a martyr for the true faith, at other moments she thought of giving herself altogether to the care of the sick and dying, but always the desire was in her heart, although it was not immediately that it pleased God to show her the way in which she was to follow Him.

When Jane Frances (which was her name after confirmation) was about fifteen years old, her eldest sister married and went to live in Poitou, where the young girl visited her and became exposed to all the temptations of admiration, flattery, and vanity which exist in the world; still she seems to have suffered no harm, for, as a safeguard, she put herself specially under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, and redoubled her prayers. At last her father wrote to her, desiring her return home, and it was upon her arrival at Dijon that she saw the Baron de Chantal, who was to be her husband.

She was married in 1592, and instead of giving herself up to pleasure, Jane spent the first months of her new life in great retirement, making her soul her chief care. When they had been married three months, the King of France summoned the Baron de Chantal to join him at Paris, so that Jane was entrusted with the management of their property and of the householdintheircastleatBourbilly. Although she felt some shrinking from the responsibility, as soon as her husband was gone, the young baroness set about fulfilling her duties carefully and well. She began by restoring the habit of having daily Mass in the castle chapel, fixing an early hour, so as to allow the servants belonging to the house and the farm to be present. Then, when breakfast was over, Jane would take her spinning-wheel, or her knitting, and, sitting amongst her maids, try to teach them the truths of their religion, and turn their thoughts to God; every evening she said night-prayers with them, and on Sundays and holidays went with them to hear Mass at the parish church. At that time it was the custom for all to join in singing during the Mass, and Madame de Chantal taught them during the week, taking particular pains with the “Credo.” Thus the young baroness was the mainspring of her home, and she received her rich friends and neighbours kindly, and Bourbilly was spoken of everywhere as a model household. But it was amongst the poor that Jane Frances loved to be, and for them she had the sweetest smiles of welcome as they thronged the castle gates, and she would herself go down to the courtyard, helping to fill their [basins with soup, cutting bread, assisting the most helpless, speaking pleasant words to each and alL If she heard of any one kept at home by sickness, she would order a basket to be packed, and ride off with it herself to the cottages, where she was a most welcome visitor.

Madame de Chantal lost her first-born children almost immediately they came into the world, but one boy and three girls were spared to grow up, and over these she watched with the most loving care, offering them, at their birth, to God and the Blessed Virgin.

In the year 160], there was a dearth of all kinds of food; numbers of the peasantry died from want, and those who were able to wander about in search of provisions might be seen eating weeds and nettles, or even the remains of birds and animals.

The Baron and Baroness de Chantal did all that was possible to lessen the misery around them. Every day bread and meat were distributed in the courtyard, and people for twenty miles round came to be fed at Bourbilly. Some of them went and devoured their portions secretly behind the walls, returning a second time, but when this was found out, Jane could not bear to have them punished, saying, “My God, I am a beggar every moment at the door of Thy mercy, and what should I say if I were driven away by Thee after the second or third time?”

Her husband allowed her to fit up part of the castle as an hospital for the sick, and particularly to receive those poor women who had little babies, to whose husbands she sent a pound of bread every day. But the servants of the castle began to complain loudly at all this generosity, declaring that their mistress would spend all her husband’s money upon the poor; and when, at last, there was only one barrel of flour in the granary, they cried out more bitterly than ever against her charitable work.

The crowd was waiting at the castle gate when Madame de Chantal went to see with her own eyes the state of the provisions, but upon perceiving the solitary barrel, her heart filled with trust in God, and she bade the servants heap up other barrels with the flour, and give liberally to the famishing poor, and for six months the household and the beggars at the gate were fed from that one barrel, which was still full when the next harvesttime came round.

In the midst of this distress, the baron was taken ill, and his wife was so troubled that the fear of losing him was more than she could bear to think of. It was not God’s Will that he should die from that illness, but after a short happy time of renewed health, he was killed by a terrible accident which happened when he was out shooting, from the discharge of the gun which his friend and companion was carrying. He was carried to the nearest cottage, and there a priest was soon by his side, and the baroness weeping over him in the most violent grief, but in spite of the care of his physicians, he died, after lingering for nine days, and Jane was left a widow with four little fatherless children to protect and guide. At first she refused to eat or sleep, spending hours together before the Blessed Sacrament, forgetting everything in her bitter grief, but after a time, God aroused her from the violence of her first sorrow by the thought of her duty to her little ones and in her home. Now, her first action was to lessen the number of her servants, give her rich dresses for the use of the Church, and take that time which before had been rightly used for the entertainment of her husband and his Mends, to be devoted to prayer, reading, visiting the poor, and the care of her children.

A great change took place in the soul of Jane de Chantal at this time – some interior voice seemed calling her to sacrifice, to a life more wholly given to God; and yet she could not entirely understand what was His Will regarding her, so she set herself to pray that she might find some one to guide her according to the Divine Spirit. About this time, God showed her, by a strange and unusual favour, who this future guide would be; for one day, as she was riding near a little woody copse, she saw, at some distance, a person who looked like a bishop, walking to meet her in his cassock, rochet, and biretta. His face, so calm and holy, brought a feeling of peace into her heart which she had never known before, while a thought came to her mind, sent by God, “This is the guide in whose hands you will place your conscience.” Jane rode quickly to the spot, but no one was there, and it was not until the Lent of 1604, that during her visit to her father at Dijon, she saw, in the celebrated preacher, Francis de Sales, the director of her vision, whom God had given in answer to her prayer.

Madame de Chantal’s joy was very great, when, after her first interview with the holy bishop, she felt that every word he spoke came directly to her soul from God, and she begged him to guide her in the service of God, and teach her how to love and please Him perfectly.

From this time Jane made a rapid but steady progress in holy things, and Saint Francis, whose quick eye soon discovered her failings, her impetuous nature and inclination to disregard the convenience of other people, quietly led her to re-model all that needed improvement.

Noticing the expression of grief upon her face, which had never left it since her husband’s death, Francis bade her “be joyful for God’s sake,” and Jane immediately forced herself to look cheerful, and she soon found that the habit came naturally after a little effort,, and went from her face into her heart. She had also been particular about her eating, but under her wise guide she now tried to take anything which was before her, without choice at all, and so she mastered completely any whims or daintiness.

More time than ever was given now to the poor, and with her own hands Jane would wash and dress the sick, and carefully patch their clothing, and very often on her return home, after a long and weary round of visits, she would find a group waiting for her, many with terrible wounds to be attended to.

Once when the fever was raging round Bourbilly, Madame de Chantal was attacked by it, and her life was despaired of, but it occurred to her to make a vow to the Blessed Virgin, and immediately she got up and dressed, and was soon able to resume her duties amongst the poor.

But Jane still longed for a higher life; much as she tried to do, it seemed to her nothing compared with God’s demands upon her, and although she struggled to quench her longing by thoughts of her duty to her children, her efforts were useless, for the fire which the Holy Spirit had enkindled in her heart would not be put out. At last she opened her heart to Saint Francis de Sales, but he only spoke to her of “patience;” nor could she win any other reply from him during a long time. But after about a year of waiting, Francis sent for her and told her that he had decided for her to enter upon the religious life, and he began to explain his plan for founding the order of the Visitation, which he felt sure was to be her future work. The only painful thing to be done was the parting from her father and her son, for Madame de Chantal had a heart which clung with intense love to her children. But when God calls, there can be no drawing back in ‘one who is wholly devoted to Him, and Jane was prepared for any sacrifice which should unite her more closely with Him.

It was on the evening of Saint John’s Day that, with a beating heart and trembling lips, Madame de Chantal sought her father’s room, to tell him that the time had come when she must leave all for God. As she was going to turn the handle of the door, she knelt down, asking strength for the task which was before her, and then entered and began to speak about her children and of her desire to leave Monthelon. M. de Fr6myot replied that the girls would be going to school, and that the eldest was already betrothed, whilst he should take entire charge of the boy. But when Jane told him that there must be other changes, that it was she herself who must leave to follow out her long-delayed desire to enter religion, he burst into tears and remonstrated with her for thinking of doing so.

From all sides objections came; she was accused of being unnatural and cruel to wish to leave her old father and forsake her children, and it was only God’s grace in her soul which kept her firm and faithful in the path He called her to follow.

When the time came for her to bid her relations farewell, Jane went round the large saloon in which they were assembled, saying something kind and affectionate to each, with her face calm, although her eyes were swimming in tears. Oelse Benigne, her boy, now fifteen years old, used every entreaty to persuade his mother not to leave them, and at last threw himself at full length before the door, so that she was forced to step over him to get to the carriage. Then the bitterness was over; it had been like the agony of death to the loving heart of the Saint, but God’s strength had carried her through it without a wavering thought.

To follow Madame de Chantal through her religious life, would not be possible in a short history like this, but we must just glance at her now at Annecy amongst her novices, living in the sweetness of retirement and prayer. They were very poor, so that often the sisters had not even a candle to light the house, and once there was only threehalfpence in the money-box, yet God always sent them help in their needs, and marvellously supported them.

And so the institute flourished, and the number increased under the care of their wise mother and the guidance of Saint Francis of Sales, and new convents were founded in other parts as time went on. Then, in 1622, the holy bishop died, to the great sorrow of Mother de Chantal, who had been guided by him so long. But although she had now to carry on his great work alone, to try and sustain in her daughters his spirit of strength and sweetness, she was prepared to rise above her own grief and bend submissively to God’s Will.

Towards the close of her life, Mother de Chantal left Annecy to visit her convents in different parts, and during her stay in Paris, she was told by a Carmelite nun that her end was near. “O my God, what good news!” replied Jane, quickly, and during the rest of the day she referred joyfully to these words. From Paris she went to Melun, and as she journeyed, felt more and more ill, and by the time she reached Moulins she felt convinced that she would die.

On the morning of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, she got up at five o’clock with the rest of the nuns, but was seized with the shivering of fever; however, they could not persuade her to lie down until she had received Holy Communion and the Mass was concluded.

Then she went to her bed, never again to leave it, for after a few days’ suffering she died. At the last moment her confessor said to her:

“The Bridegroom is coming – He is here – will you not go forth to meet Him?”

To which she replied:

“Yes, father, I am going. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” and with that sweet Name upon her lips, which she had loved so well in life, her eyes closed, and her happy soul rested for ever in God.

– from Stories of the Saints for Children, by Mary F Seymour