The Month – Anne de Xainctonge

painting of Venerable Anne de Xainctonge, c.1687, artist unknownArticle

The life of Anne de Xainctonge1 takes us back to the age of the Huguenots, with its fierce civil and religious tumult. But out of the seething confusion emerge the figures of civic and social life in French provincial towns. Grave men of the law go their way, now dignified statesmen, now squabbling partizans. The women of their households look well to their affairs, exchange visits, gossip, quarrel. And a girl growing up in these surround ings conceives the idea in the storm and stress of the time of founding a teaching congregation.

Theories about education were rife in that age. The battle of the new learning and the old philosophy was being fought out. But the erudition of Erasmus, the University reforms of Ramus, the encyclopaedic knowledge of Rabelais, the gentlemanly culture of Montaigne, were realizable, if at all, only by the few. Practical efforts for the improvement of general education lay with those whose primary concern was not with learning for its own sake – that is to say, with religious leaders and associations. Anne de Xainctonge was far from standing alone in her ideas and aims, but she carried them into effect with a rare fixity of purpose. It is the object of these pages to set forth her influence in this way rather than to dwell, with her biographers, on the secrets of her personality, her long discipline of difficulties, her burning desire to set other human beings in their true relation with God, and the high degree of spiritual perfection which she reached. It will be enough to say that the process of her beatification has been introduced, and that she was declared Venerable by a decree of the Congregation of Rites of 24 November 1900.

She was born in Dijon in 1567. Her people for three generations were advocates and councillors in the Parlement of Dijon, she sprang, that is to say, from that legal caste that gave so many illustrious names to France. Her father bore the highest professional character, and moreover signalized himself by his staunch Catholicism even in Dijon, a stronghold of orthodoxy.

The repeated attempts to introduce the Reformation into Burgundy, the sack of Chalons, the devastation spread by the foreign troops that came to the help of the French Calvinists, had given a fresh impetus to the Catholic feeling and ideas of a population that had never viewed the new doctrines with sympathy.

In many if not in most men’s minds politics and religion became strangely entangled. But in the earlier years of our narrative religion for Jean de Xainctonge was less a cause than a practical and personal matter. Attendance at Mass every day, family prayers, and religious instruction were part of the household routine, and we are told that the young lawyer of thirty himself prepared his nine year old daughter for the Sacrament of Confirmation. His wife was equally devoted, and the little Anne was filled “as far as her youth permitted with strong and generous thoughts and feelings, that she might dare and do something for the service of God.” She was a ready pupil, and at her Confirmation, which took place in circumstances truly characteristic of the disturbed time, the Bishop was so struck by her that he “prayed God to finish His work and make of her a Christian champion, who would fight the good fight in an age when religion is threatened on all sides.”

Her training was in almost all respects severely practical. She and her step-sister, Nicole, while still little more than children, were entrusted with the care of the poultry-yard, cellar, and fruit-rooms, and occasionally even with the entire charge of their country house, which was something between a mansion and a farm. At seventeen she made her appearance in high Dijon society with all the pomp of her position – hair decorated with gold ornaments and rich ribbons, taffeta slippers and farthingale. On great festivals rosary beads of gold and enamel and prayer-books set with five diamonds distinguished the magistrate’s family, while more ordinary women had to content themselves with silver and crystal chaplets and four jewels on their book-covers. She frequented the social reunions then in vogue, to which ” mothers liked to take their daughters that they might acquire the good manners and the polite speech to which great weight was attached in the capital of the duchy.” Anne is described as vivacious and witty. Though she took her appearances in society literally as a duty, she could be all things to all men. A highly acceptable suitor for her hand soon presented himself. But when she opposed a firm if gentle resistance to the proposal, her parents reluctantly let her have her way.

The good people of Dijon were much perplexed by Anne’s conduct, and she became the subject of some ill-natured gossip. If she did not want to marry, why did she not enter a convent? At the age of twenty, however, she was still waiting for some hint of God’s will in her regard. She at length found one in the impression, produced on her by the catechism lesson of a Jesuit Father, that she could do something towards instructing the poor and ignorant. As it would have been too great a departure from established custom for a woman to teach in the church, she began by gathering the most backward together and preparing them for the regular class. She went about her task practically, by providing herself with a little library of books. There were available:

a number of good authors whom God had raised up in defense of His Church against the attacks of Lutherans and Calvinists. Never, perhaps, had such a number of excellent works appeared simultaneously, and the arts of copper and steel engraving rendered a wonderful service to the text of most books of devotion.

This was the beginning of her career as a teacher. The stages of it are pointed off by occurrences slight in themselves, a chance remark, a sermon. The final impulse came through the erection of a Jesuit college between 1587 and 1614, itself an evidence of Dijonnais zeal for religion. A president of the Parlement, Odinet Godran, had left all his property to the town for educational purposes, and chiefly for this foundation. In accordance with his wishes classes were opened at once, and a suitable building was begun close to the house of the Xainctonge family. The sight of the scholars at work or play suggested to Anne a sad contrast between the opportunities of the town boys and those afforded to the girls. In this connection it is worth while to quote the following passage:

Up to that time there were {i.e., in the north of France), with the exception of the Flemish Beguines, or Sisters of Christian Charity, who nursed the sick in the hospitals, no associations but cloistered Orders. In some convents young girls, mostly relatives of the nuns, were brought up ; but the boarding-schools were so rare that they must properly be regarded as an exception. In most towns a few cross-grained maiden ladies, who did not spare the rod, kept little schools in which girls learnt the strictly necessary things. Reading, writing, sewing, knitting, and mending, was the limit of the instruction given to women of the people. These poor results, which were aimed at and reached in the village and town schools, had already drawn the attention of many persons. Thus among other things, the President Odinet Godran, had willed that a part of the property he left should be devoted to a school for poor girls, to be taught by mistresses. The difficulty was not to find poor girls, but capable and devoted teachers. The municipality of Dijon had great trouble in realizing the intentions of the founder. It was much the same everywhere. These conditions alone explain the rapid spread of the congregations which arose towards the end of the sixteenth century, and devoted themselves to the instruction of the female sex.

As a result of her meditations on this state of affairs, Anne resolved at last to devote herself to the education of girls of the middle and lower classes, and to do so by means of an organization which would be more effective than individual effort.

But nothing could be done in a town so faction-rent as Dijon was during the next six years, the years that preceded its submission to Henry IV. And the peace at length established in 1595 was nominal. Those identified with the late opposition were the butt of victorious reprisals, especially the Religious Orders and societies. Worst of all for Anne’s projects, the banishment lately decreed by the Parliment of Paris against the Jesuits, was now extended to the provinces. “The Jesuits were the scape-goats which, after the Ligjie, the Parliments and the Universities drove out into the wilderness, laden with their iniquities.”

Anne lost in them her chief supporters. Besides, as a known friend of theirs she became the object both at home and abroad of disapproval and petty persecution. The death of her step sister, which occurred at this difficult time, threw her back still more on herself. She had become convinced, by a direct inspiration, according to the best testimony, that Dôle, the capital of Franche-Comte, then a Spanish possession, was to be the scene of her labours. Though there was unity of faith and feeling there, a strong dislike of foreigners also prevailed, and the prospect of working there had sufficiently little natural attraction for an unknown and friendless girl. Whatever reason may be conjectured for this seeming strange feature of her vocation, the subsequently easier task of providing Dijon with a teaching Congregation was reserved for her younger sister. Anne, after waiting a year and a half for her father’s consent, was angrily dismissed by him, and made her way to Dô1e. There she spent ten years, partly in works like those she had already undertaken, partly as assistant teacher in a school. Trials such as poverty, loneliness, misunderstandings, and a very wavering allegiance on the part of certain volunteer helpers, culminated in a serious illness. She went home to rest, and Jean de Xainctonge set on foot a kind of canonical investigation into the plan that had now become matured in his daughter’s mind. The result was as she wished. After six months’ further trouble with the Parliment of Franche-Comte, she at length formed herself and her helpers into an Ursuline Congregation, modelled on those recently founded in Italy and the south of France. While most of the Ursuline communities sooner or later followed the example of the older Orders and became cloistered, the Ursulines of Dole kept closer to the original plan of St. Angela, the idea of their foundress being that they were to visit the sick and have a freer intercourse with the people among whom they worked.

Their success and influence for good were so obvious, that many towns in Burgundy and Switzerland obtained offshoots from the society before the death of its foundress in 1621. The Congregation of Dijon, established by Anne’s sister, Francaise, was also largely influenced by her. These foundations, especially that of Besançon, were not made without many difficulties from municipal authorities. A letter is extant from Saint Francis de Sales to Anne in which he expresses a strong wish to see her nuns established in his diocese, a wish of which the fulfillment was prevented by her death and his own.

Her Congregation still flourishes, having weathered even the storm of the Revolution, and in 1902 counted twenty-eight houses in different countries, including two in England. Under the present regime in France two new houses have been founded in Belgium, two in New York, and one in Rome. The Novitiate and the older Sisters have been transferred to Belgium; but even yet the schools have not been entirely abandoned.

Only the briefest indication of Anne’s actual work can be given. She and her first associates had enjoyed such an education as was afforded by the old convents, which included “all the useful occupations and accomplishments of a woman,” and even gave them, we are told,

an advantage over the learned women of our time, for they were taught to keep household accounts, to manage a country property, to deal with tradespeople, farmers, and workmen.

Anne had had this kind of training at home. Besides, her father had taught her Latin, and we may reasonably infer from her school regulations that she had a nice sense of the excellencies of her mother tongue.

The most novel feature of her school was its orderly discipline, the uniform teaching method, and the bringing to bear of the whole weight of the teacher’s personality. The rod was banished. Moral influences superseded mere strictness, and to ensure their efficacy the girls were divided into classes. The advantages of separate class-rooms soon became evident, and though nothing seems more obvious to us, “in those days it was a feature of great wisdom thus to solve the problem of popular education.” A mistress of studies was entrusted with the general supervision, and Anne herself filled this difficult post for some years. Her manifold duties included examining the children monthly (!) with a view to promotion, seeing them prepared for the sacraments at a suitable age, and keeping a roll with their names and addresses and absences from school.

There were six classes carefully graduated, from the little ones in the alphabet, who were instructed to say “Good-morning” and “Good-night” to their families, up to the girls leaving school, who were initiated into the mysteries of astronomy and the construction of the calendar, and taught how to behave in the big world they were about to enter. Prayers, catechism, reading, speaking and writing well and fluently, drawing, needlework of all kinds, were the staple of instruction. The powers of observation and memory were especially cultivated. The religious teaching was given a practical and spiritual turn, according as the girls were supposed to be able to assimilate it- They were taught at least to read Latin, and were encouraged to use mainly liturgical devotions as a preventive against superstitious practices. Indeed, they were familiarized with the prayers and Offices of the Church to an extent at first sight altogether surprising. But “Franche-Comte had gone through long and fierce struggles with the Calvinists, and therefore Christian teachers could neglect no means of enlightening their pupils.”

The Council of Trent had ordered the publication of a Missal and a catechism, “to which we may add the Catechism of Bellarmine, which was composed at the command of Pope Clement VIII…. [These three books] were the only ones found everywhere, really popular, and they remained afterwards in use in families. It must also be remembered that elementary school books were not then the object of so extensive and profitable a trade as now. Such books were rare and dear. But psalters, catechisms, missals, legends, and saints’ Lives formed the literature of the people.”

There seems to have been no social distinction made in the school. All, except a few boarders who paid something like ten pounds yearly, were received alike gratuitously, and it was expressly laid down that the poorer children were to be as respectfully treated as their betters. They left school earlier as a rule, but they were not prevented from going through the whole course if their circumstances and abilities permitted.

Making due reference to the conditions of the time, it would be hard to devise a better all-round system of education, moral, mental, and practical. Physical education, of which we now hear so much, was apparently left to take care of itself: perhaps it was less necessary for those vigorous generations. It is true that the things taught make but a poor show beside our crowded curricula, but the principles underlying all education must have run the less risk of being forgotten.

MLA Citation

  • M. Ryan. “Anne de Xainctonge”. The Month, 1908. CatholicSaints.Info. 11 October 2018. Web. 12 December 2018. <>