Royal Ladies, by Father Hugh Francis Blunt

“What women there are among the Christians!” exclaimed a pagan in the early days of the Church. He had known woman only in her degradation, as the plaything, the slave of man, his chattel, his inferior. No wonder he marveled when he saw the kind of womanhood the Church produces; for to the man with even the smallest knowledge of history, there is nothing more evident than the fact that it was the Church that put woman back on the pedestal from which she had been cast. Christ had raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. In His Church His Mother occupied a unique place. To give Mary the honor He wished her was to glorify the womanhood of which she was the representative. This is so true, that history since then has shown that the dignity, the honor given woman in any age is in proportion to that age’s veneration for the Mother of God.

The history of the Church may be traced in the history of the women she has produced. She has found her women-saints in every condition of life, in the cloister, in the world, in the palace, in the cottage. We have seen the great saints that God made out of some of the queens. And now we would take a rapid glance at the other great women of royal blood who, amid the temptations that come from worldly grandeur, found the way to serve God.

Sometimes the world runs away with the idea that it is essentially an impossibility for those in high station to be “poor in spirit.” How false is that notion is plain from the study of the lives of the saints. Often in life the royal robe covers the hair shirt. There is for us all an example in this. It is that if these women, flattered by the world, surrounded by all that panders to the passions, yet put aside all contentment in these things to choose humility of heart, how much is expected of us whose eyes are not blinded by the glare that beats upon thrones!

Saint AmalbergaIt is not only among the Roman matrons that we find these high-souled women. They flower forth in every age and in every clime. Sometimes we find them, as in the case of Saint Amelia, not only attaining sanctity themselves, but also leading their family to holiness. Amelia was married to Witger. They had three children, all of whom are canonized saints – Saint Gudula, the patroness of Brussels; Saint Reinelda; and Saint Emembertus. After the birth of their last child, Gudula, Amelia and her husband withdrew from the world, she becoming a nun and he a monk. All this happened in the seventh century, a long time ago, you say; but life was as sweet in those days as in our own; there was the same affection between husband and wife, the same love for children. Yet this holy woman and her husband, in order to come nearer to God, made a sacrifice of their affection to each other and to their children. Little has been preserved of their history, yet what greater tribute can be paid to this mother than this, that she not only sanctified herself, but also raised up for God three saints?

In that same century we find another saintly mother, Saint Rictrude. She was a grand lady of France and was married to one of the lords of the court of Clovis, filer husband was assassinated, and then she entered the cloister, where she led a life of penance. She had four children, and all four are saints.

Sometimes, too, we find both wife and husband saints. In that same century we have the striking example of Saint Waltrude. She was a countess and the daughter of a princess, Bertille, who was also a saint. She had two sons and two daughters. She induced her husband to enter a monastery, and founded a religious community where she lived a life of great penance. The husband is canonized as Saint Vincent of Soignies.

In later times we find another instance of this double sanctity in the case of Saint Delphina and her husband, Saint Elzear. He was a very charitable man and she assisted him in the work of caring for the poor. He was a count and very wealthy. It is interesting to read the rules which he drew up for the conduct of his house. “Yet I desire,” says he, “not that my castle should be a cloister, nor my people hermits. Let them be merry, and sometimes divert themselves; but never at the expense of conscience or with the danger of offending God.”

detail of a painting of Blessed Mary of Oignies, date and artist unknown; swiped from Santi e BeatiWhat a union between husband and wife when both find their greatest joy in serving God! One finds an example of it in Saint Mary of Oignies in that same thirteenth century. Her parents were wealthy, but she and her husband did not think it beneath them to serve the lepers.

So with the Venerable Raingarda. A great lady was she, but her true greatness consisted in the care with which she trained her children to virtue. She and her husband agreed to leave the world and enter religion. He died before he was able to put the plan into execution, but she entered a monastery and gave herself up to a life of penance. There are so many of these cases that one can only give them the barest mention. We read in the life of Maria de Agreda that she and her mother entered the convent of the discalced Franciscans, and that at the same time her father and her two brothers became Franciscan friars.

Sometimes we find holy widows withdrawing into the convent with their children. This was so in the case of Saint Bertha in the early part of the eighth century. She had been nobly born, being the daughter of a count at the palace of King Clovis II. She was married to Siegfried, a relative of the King. After twenty years of married life he died, and Bertha determined to build a nunnery and leave the world. This she did and was followed into the convent by her two elder daughters, Deotila and Gertrude. Bertha became abbess. Sometime before her death she resigned the office and shut herself up in a little cell against the wall of the church to be alone with her soul.

No doubt when these holy women made such sacrifices, there were many of their friends who laughed at them and thought them fools for giving up the enjoyments of the world. Yet, strangely enough, it is only the names of these women who hid themselves from the world that are now remembered, while those that served the world are forgotten. So it is even with the world. But what of the glory that God has shown in heaven to them that chose to serve Him rather than the world? Sometimes, as in the case of Saint Ida, they lived the life of the cloister even in the midst of courtly pleasures. She was the daughter of a count, and was educated at the court of Charlemagne. She married a great lord of the court, and the Emperor gave her a fortune. It was a happy union while it lasted, but the husband died young and Ida devoted herself to penance and prayer. She lived in the world and looked after her family, yet her life was that of a nun. She suffered, too, but patiently bore her ills. She devoted the immense revenues of her estate to the care of the poor. She is a fine example of a saint, in the world but not of the world.

detail of a statue of Saint Godelieve, National Cultural Treasure, Binondo Church, Chinatown, Binondo, Manila; photographed on 24 January 2014 by Ramon FVelasquez; swiped off Wikimedia CommonsSometimes the story of these saintly wives and mothers reads like a romance. That of Saint Godelina is a veritable novel. She was born in 1049 in France, the youngest child of a great lord. Even in her childhood she was noted for her great piety and charity. The poor used to flock to her, for they knew she was always ready to help them. So great was her generosity that her father’s steward, and her father himself, pious and charitable as he was, used to find fault with her, and seek to restrain her generosity. Soon the fame of her beauty and virtue spread over all the country, and her hand was sought by many suitors. But the girl – she was then only eighteen – did not care to marry. She wanted to enter the cloister. Finally she was prevailed upon by political influence to marry Bertolf of Ghistelles, and set out with him for her new home. It was an unfortunate marriage. Bertolf’s mother at once hated her son’s wife, and persuaded him, on the very day they arrived home, to put her aside, and to imprison her in a narrow cell where she almost died from starvation. But even in her want she found a way to help the poor, and shared with them what was barely enough for herself. At last she escaped, and returned to her father, brokenhearted and ashamed, for her mother-in-law had circulated the vilest calumnies against her.

Her father, indignant at the treatment accorded her, so managed things that Bertolf was threatened with all the punishments of the Church and State if he did not take back his wife and give her the honor due her. Bertolf appeared to relent, and finally took back the young wife. But persecutions again broke out against her, and Bertolf, anxious to be rid of her, arranged that, while he was away from home, two of his servants should strangle her and make believe that she had died a natural death.

And so she was murdered at the age of twenty-one. Soon Bertolf married again, and a daughter was born to him, but she was blind. It was a hopeless case. Bertolf knew it was a punishment for his sin against Godelina. He invoked her help for the afflicted child, and the child was miraculously cured. To Bertolf it was the hand of God. He became converted, went to Rome to seek absolution for his sin, and after that made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So sincere was he in his penitence that he entered a monastery and lived there until his death. The daughter that had been cured afterwards erected, at his request, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Godelina, and into it she retired from the world. It is of such stories of suffering that the lives of the saints are made. A hard life for the young wife of twenty-one, yet by that way of the Cross she came to eternal life. There were many Godelinas, no doubt, in those days who went through life happy, singing, without a care, and thought the life of this afflicted one a terrible calamity. Yet all are gone, not even their names remain, and she, the suffering one, has been glorified during these thousand years. God has the final judgment.

We have seen in the case of Saint Bertha that she entered the convent and brought her two eldest daughters with her. Sometimes it was the other way about, and we find the daughters leading the way for the mother. So it was in the case of the Blessed Hortulana, the mother of the great Saint Clare, foundress of the Poor Clares. Hortulana had belonged to a noble family, and had married Favorini Scifi, Count of Sasso-Russo. The family was very wealthy and lived in a great palace at Assisi. The mother, Hortulana, was a woman of great piety. This is as evident in the lives of her children as in her own life. She had turned their hearts to God.

It was the time of the great Saint Francis of Assisi. He had come to preach the Lenten course of sermons at Assisi, and Clare, who had always longed for a life of deep spirituality, begged him to help her lead such a life of poverty as he himself was leading. The result was that she left her father’s castle, and, accompanied by her aunt, Bianca, and another companion, came to the humble chapel of Saint Francis, and there, laying aside her rich dress, had her hair cut off and was clothed in a rough garment, and so vowed herself to Jesus Christ. Her father was furious, and even tried to drag her home by force. His anger was all the greater when, some days afterwards, her sister Agnes – Saint Agnes of Assisi – came to join her.

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Clare of Assisi; date unknown, artist unknown; church of Saint Stephen, South Kensington, London, England; photographed on 22 December 2014 by Oxfordian Kissuth; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsWe have not to deal with the life of Saint Clare. It was a life of extraordinary beauty and sanctity. She had the happiness of seeing not only her sister Agnes, and another sister, Beatrix, but also her mother, Hortulana, enter the Order which God had raised her up to establish. The glory of the daughter obscures that of the mother; but as we contemplate the graves of all these holy women of one family buried together in the Church of Saint Clare at Assisi, we must not forget how much of the sanctity of the children was due to the pious mother who, amidst wealth and luxury, formed the hearts of her daughters to love the meanest poverty. One can never think of Saint Clare without thinking of her mother, the Blessed Hortulana. Indeed, how can one think of the life of any saint without remembering her who did so much to turn the little heart to God in the days of childhood?

Queen Blanche is remembered today for the warning she gave the little boy who later became the great Saint Louis: “I love you, my dear son, with all the tenderness a mother is capable of; but I would infinitely rather see you fall down dead at my feet, than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”

Every day, we are told, he remembered those words. Saint Louis is inseparable from his mother, Queen Blanche.

One sees that same spirit of faith in the bringing up of her son in the life of the mother of Saint Antonio Maria Zaccaria, the founder of the Barnabites. His father had died when Antonio was a mere infant, but the good mother set about his training, and above all else taught him compassion for the poor and made him her almoner. It was this training of childhood that turned his heart to the work that occupied his life. When his work was done, at the early age of thirty-seven, he came back to the house of his mother to die. What a reward to her to see her son die the death of a saint!

Even in the peaceful days of the Church there have been martyrs, and as such Saint Helen of Skofde, in Sweden, is venerated. She lived in the early part of the twelfth century, belonged to a noble family, and had all that the world could give. She was married, but as soon as her husband died she devoted herself to a life of prayer and charity. She was especially fond of the poor, and her home was always open to them.

Her sorrow came through her daughter. She was married to a tyrant who was finally put to death by his servants. They declared that they had been incited to the crime by Helen, and as soon as she returned from the Holy Land, whither she had gone on a pilgrimage, she was murdered by the relatives of her daughter’s husband. Many cures were said to have been wrought through her intercession; so much so that from that time on Saint Helena was a favorite saint in Sweden. Near the church which she had built was a holy well, which became the scene of many miracles. It was the tribute of God to one of the world’s great mothers.

A truly great wife and mother was Saint Hedwig, Duchess of Silesia. She was born in 1174 at the castle of Andechs, the daughter of a count. She was one of eight children, all of whom occupied a high place in the world. Two of her brothers became bishops and one sister an abbess. All the others became rulers or were married to rulers. Her sister Gertrude married the King of Hungary and was the mother of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.

Hedwig was educated in the monastery, and at the age of twelve married Henry, who later became Duke of Silesia. He was a splendid ruler, a man of great piety, and a fit husband for the woman that was to become a great saint. In his government he was helped greatly by the wisdom of his wife, who by her support and encouragement of the monasteries contributed much to the spread of civilization. Monastery after monastery was founded by the pious couple; hospitals, too; and we see the pious Duchess tending with her own hands the poor leper women. She had the happiness of seeing her daughter Gertrude abbess of one of the monasteries established by her. It was a life of devotion to God; yet it was a life filled with worldly duties. Hedwig was the mother of seven children, some of whom died in infancy. After the birth of the last child the husband and wife made a vow of chastity.

They were a devoted couple, but they had their trials. Once, when he was set upon by his enemies and severely wounded, we find her hastening to his side to tend him; and again, when he was taken prisoner, it was she who went to seek his release. When at last he died, she went to live in one of the monasteries she had founded, in order that she might devote the rest of her days to penance and prayer. She was to the end a lover of the poor, and used up her great fortune in acts of kindness. Of all her children, only one, Gertrude, survived her. Hedwig had many sorrows, yet she bore them all for the love of God. With all her cares, how she might have pleaded that she had no time for prayer and charity. But she was a valiant woman. She knew that one thing only is necessary – the love of God; and so with that thought a great mother became a great saint.

It is no uncommon thing, after all, in the history of the saints to find several saints in one family. A saintly mother inspires her children. It was so with Saint Kentigerna of Ireland. She was of royal blood, the daughter of Kelly, Prince of Leinster. After the death of her husband she left Ireland and consecrated herself to God in the religious life. Not only did she become a saint, but her son, Felan, the abbot, also was a saint. How much of the credit of his sanctity is due the good mother that inspired him with a love of virtue!

Frequently as this case has happened in the Church, it is always a marvel. Does it not show the importance of good example? How many a wife has sanctified her husband! How many a mother has sanctified her children! As Louis XIV said of his great queen, Madame de Maintenon, who had always been so charitable, “She helped me in everything, especially in saving my soul.” One sees that power of good example manifested to a remarkable degree in the story of Saint Bridget of Sweden and her daughter, Saint Catherine of Sweden.

Saint Bridget is the most celebrated saint of the North, due to her founding of the Brigittines and the writing of her Revelations. She was born in 1303, the daughter of the governor of the province of Uppland, a very wealthy landholder, and his wife, Ingeborg. They were a very pious couple, and it is needless to say that Bridget received a thorough grounding in piety and virtue. Even from the time she was seven years old she showed signs of one day becoming a great saint. When her mother died, she was placed in the care of an aunt, to whose wise guidance she owed much of the glory that later came to her name. When she was thirteen she was married to Ulf Gudmarsson, who was then eighteen. He was well suited to her, and she to him.

Ulf was a pious youth and became more so through the good example and prayers of his young wife. Bridget surely has every claim to be called a great mother, since she had eight children, among them Saint Catherine of Sweden. But great as her home duties must have been, she had time for the service of God. Like all great saints, she had a love for the poor, and was always interesting herself in works of charity. Soon her name became a household word on account of her piety and charity. Even the learned theologians of the time looked with admiration upon her. Her influence was felt even by them; in fact, it was felt by everybody. Her husband died when she was about forty years of age, after they both had returned from a pious pilgrimage to Spain.

The widow, who had always been saintly, now devoted herself entirely to the pursuit of sanctity. There was no room in her life now for anything but prayer and penance. So holy did she become that Christ Himself appeared to her, and made revelations to her which she wrote down, and which were widely read during the Middle Ages.

But there was practical work for her to do. She founded the new religious congregation of the Brigittines, or Order of Saint Saviour, which did so much for the uplift of the society of that day. In 1349 she went to Rome and lived there the rest of her life, twenty-four years, edifying all by her piety and charity. She died in 1373, and her remains were brought back to Vadstena, one of the monasteries she had founded, where her daughter Catherine was later superior. She was canonized in 1391, only eighteen years after her death.

The example of this woman, mother of eight children, is truly remarkable. She did not allow her children to stand in the way of her sanctification.

We often see her spirit in the lives of these holy mothers. Like Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, they stepped over the prostrate bodies of their beloved ones in order to come to God. They knew, after all, that the better they served their God, the better they served their children.

The youth of Saint Catherine was very similar to that of her mother. Even from her childhood she showed signs of great piety. She would have liked to become a religious, but at the command of her father she married, at the age of thirteen, a German noble. He, too, was a very devout man, and was persuaded by his wife to join with her in a vow of chastity. They made the vow, and then together sought the life of perfection. Yet they both had a great love for each other. When her mother went to Rome, Catherine went with her, and while she was away her husband died in Sweden. She remained with her mother and together they lived a life of holiness. Catherine was sought by other suitors, for she was very beautiful, but she would never marry again. So she remained at Rome till the death of her mother, and then brought her remains back to Sweden. She was made the superior of the monastery at Vadstena, the mother-house of the Brigittines, of which she was an able head, and which she ruled till her death in 1381, at the age of forty-nine.

About the time that Saint Catherine died, there was born in Rome a child whose life of mysticism reminds us much of the life of Saint Bridget. This was Saint Frances of Rome, born in 1384. She belonged to a noble family, and had all that the world could offer the rich. In spite of that, she wanted to leave the world and become a religious. But her father objected, and at his wish she married Lorenzo de Ponziani. She was then only twelve years of age. She had several children, but the care of them did not keep her from serving God in a special manner. She was a devoted mother, and perhaps on that account became a great saint. Like all saints, she loved the poor. Besides that, she had a great desire to save souls. How successful she was in that we see in her action in turning a great many of the ladies of Roman society from their frivolous amusements and associating them in a society similar to that of the Third Order, in which, without strict vows, they led lives of devotion.

Frances went further, and with her husband’s consent practised a life of continence. So great was her piety that God blessed her with visions, and also gave her the power to work miracles. But the greater His gifts to her, the more humble she became. She had many trials in her life. Her husband was banished, her son was imprisoned, and finally she lost all her property. But she did not complain. Her sufferings brought her closer to God.

When her husband died she joined the Oblates, which she had been the means of establishing, and was made their superior. One day, when her son was visiting her, she fell ill and died on the day she had foretold, at the age of fifty-six, a woman who had done her full duty to her family, yet found time to help other souls and to become a saint herself. Surely wives and mothers can look to her as a grand exemplar.

In the Middle Ages the spirit of the cloister was everywhere. The flood of sanctity poured forth into the world. They were truly the ages of faith.

The life of Blessed Margaret of Savoy is representative of the times. She was born in 1382, the daughter of Louis of Savoy, Prince of Achaia, and through her mother was the granddaughter of a Count of Savoy. When she was twenty-one she married the Marquis of Montferrat, a widower. Her married life lasted fifteen years, during which time she advanced in piety; and when her husband died she decided to leave the world, gave over the management of the marquisate to her stepson, and went to join the Third Order of Saint Dominic. The Duke of Milan wanted to marry her, and even asked the Pope to relieve her of her vow, but she refused. She had given herself to God, and would not take back the gift. With other women of rank, she founded a monastery, and there led a life of holiness till her death, in 1464, at the age of eighty-two. It was a calm, holy life.

But not always were the lives of these holy women calm and peaceful. Sometimes the crown of thorns was pressed down upon their heads. So was it with Blessed Seraphina Sforza, born in 1434. She was the daughter of the Count of Urbino, and her mother belonged to the famous Colonna family. Her mother’s brother was Pope Martin V, and under his care Seraphina was brought up in Rome. At the age of fourteen she married Alexander Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. It was a happy marriage at first, but ten years after the marriage the husband began to lead a wicked life, so that her heart was broken. She tried to reform him, but it was a thankless task. He abused her and even attempted to kill her, and at last he forced her to enter a convent of the Poor Clares. Far from being discouraged, she prayed for him all the more fervently, and sought to sanctify her own soul. Her prayers were answered and the husband was converted. After his death she became the abbess of the monastery at Pesaro. It was a life with a heavy cross, yet it was through that suffering from the husband she loved that she became a saint.

Her story is similar to that of another saint of this same period, Saint Catherine of Genoa. She was born in 1447 of the noble family of the Fieschi. Even as a child she was holy and wanted to be a nun. But at sixteen she was married to Giuliano Adorno, a gay young nobleman. He broke her heart, being a profligate, and squandering her money as well as his own. But she kept on praying for him, and he died penitent. She devoted herself to the sick in the hospital of which she became superior. It was a life of sacrifice, of penance, sickness, humiliation, yet she sanctified it, a model wife.

During the lifetime of these two good wives there lived in Brittany another holy wife whose life in its trials resembles theirs. This was the Blessed Frances d’Amboise, Duchess of Brittany. She was born in 1447, the daughter of a viscount, and at the age of fifteen was married to the Duke of Brittany. It was far from being a happy marriage as the world goes, for the Duke abused her. But she never made complaint, and her sweet disposition finally opened his eyes to his unworthiness. He did penance and then joined her in her works of charity. When he became duke she was of great service to him in the government of the duchy. In his will he testified to her devotedness. At length, when he died, she determined to enter the community she had helped to found, but was delayed in following out her plans. After years spent in charity she entered the Carmelite Order, of which she was elected prioress for life. In this office she edified all by her holiness, and died in 1485 in an ecstasy.

There is, indeed, a sameness in the lives of all these wives. Over and over again it is the story of a holy life in the world, rewarded by the opportunity to lead a life holier still in the cloister.

So with Blessed Margaret of Lorraine. Soon after her birth in the castle of her noble family, in 1463, she was left an orphan. She was then brought up by her grandfather, King Rene of Anjou; but after his death she was sent back to her brother, Rene II. When she was twenty-five she was married to the Due d’Alengon. Four years later he died, and she governed the duchy. After her children were reared she decided to leave her high position in the world and entered a monastery, where a year later she died at the age of sixty-two, after a life of prayer and penance. At the time of the French Revolution her body was profaned and thrown into the common burying-place.

In the history of the establishment of religious communities one sees that God often chose these holy widows to do His work. It was so in the case of the founder of the great community that has done so much for the Church – the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. This was the Venerable Louise de Marillac Le Gras.

detail of a state of Saint Louisede Marillac; by Antonio Berti, 1954; Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Rome, Italy; photographed on 25 May 2013 by Christoph Wagener; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsShe was born in Paris in 1591, the daughter of Louis de Marillac, Lord of Ferrieres, a good man who educated her well. Her mother had died when she was very young, and an aunt who was a religious looked after the religious education of the girl. To her in great part the holy life of Louise may be attributed. She was a talented girl, and became very learned. When she was sixteen she wanted to be a nun, but her director advised against it, and finally she married Antoine Le Gras, a young secretary under Marie de Medici. A son was born to them, and Louise was a devoted mother to him. Busy as she was, she found time for works of charity, an inclination which finally brought her the great blessing of her life. She always felt that she should have been a nun, and she made a vow that if her husband died she would never remarry. She became a penitent of Saint Vincent de Paul, and through his direction, after the death of her husband in 1625, she became especially interested in the work for the poor of Paris.

Saint Vincent had founded the Association of Charity for the relief of the poor and the sick, and this led finally to the work of establishing the Sisters of Charity, which grew out of the association of young ladies whom he had brought from the provinces to look after the poor. They used to meet at the home of Louise, and thus she began what Saint Vincent used to call the “little snowball.” The snowball has grown mightily in all these years, thanks to the energy of the great Saint Vincent de Paul and the holy widow whom God raised up to do the work. She died in 1660, a few months before Saint Vincent.

Real Christian motherhood is a thrilling thing. No doubt Saint Augustine was thinking of his own mother, the good Saint Monica, when he declared that one woman had more humanity than a whole nation. There was many a great saint who could thank God for a holy mother. What an affecting thing is this very human prayer of thanksgiving of an old monk of the Middle Ages, the Abbot Guibert de Nogent: “God of mercy and of sanctity, I render Thee thanks for all Thy benefits. At first I thank Thee for having granted me a beautiful, chaste, and modest mother who was infinitely filled with the fear of Thy name.” With such mothers the great thought was the glory of God and the sanctification of the souls of the children rather than their worldly advancement. Thus an old chronicle tells us that when the mother Willa heard that her long-lost son Theobald had been found under the cowl of a hermit, she left home and country and fled to the desert of Salonica, where side by side with him she served God till her death. Her joy was not so much that she had found her son as that she had found him trying to be a saint. It was this vigilant mother-love that made it possible in those ages to find whole families saints. It was nothing remarkable to hear of family after family, father, mother, sons, and daughters, entering the religious life. There were great mothers in those days, mothers whose first thought was of God.

But of all Christian mothers, there is none so strikingly human, and at the same time so thoroughly spiritual, as the great wife and mother, Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, a woman who lived on earth and in heaven at one and the same time.

She was born in 1572, the second child of Benignus Fremiot, who was not only a great man of the world, having served as President of the Parliament of Burgundy, but also a man of great piety. His character was seen in his children, for it was to him that they could attribute all that they became, their good ‘ mother having died when they were yet almost infants. His eldest daughter, Margaret, became Countess of Effran, and his son served the Church well as Archbishop of Bourges. Whenever we think of Jane Frances – she received the name Frances at her confirmation – we think of the good father who educated her, and to whom she was the favorite.

In his worldly wisdom he sought to have her well married, and chose for her the Baron de Chantal, a young officer in the French army who was highly favored at court. The Baron was twenty-seven and Jane was twenty. It was one of the happiest of marriages, and the young Baron thought himself the luckiest man on earth when he took home his young bride to his fine home at Bourbilly. Young as she was, Jane was filled with common sense. She never was an idler, and at once she set out to be the real mistress of her home. The Baron’s household during his long absence had been mismanaged, and not only did she restore order, but she thought it her duty to look after the souls of her charges, and saw to it that they attended Mass regularly and assisted at the daily devotions in her home. She was bound that they would not lose their souls through any neglect on her part. Even in those days her great aim was to please God. When her husband was away from home, which happened frequently on account of his profession of arms, she led the simplest life possible, cutting herself off from company as much as she could and busying herself about her home duties and the care of her soul. Once, when some of her friends reproached her during the absence of her husband for dressing so plainly, she replied, “The eyes which I must please are a hundred leagues from here.” Yet with all this fervor of soul, she was a happy wife and mother, all the happier, indeed, because she gave her greatest love to God.

But the worldly happiness was about to end. God had chosen her to do a great work in His Church, and to prepare her for it He required that she should suffer in her dearest affections. He took from her the husband she loved so dearly. One day he was out hunting, and his companion, mistaking him for a deer, shot him. He survived the accident nine days, during which time he prepared his soul to meet His God, and showed himself a good Christian, the worthy husband of a great woman.

Jane was thus left a widow at the age of twenty-eight, with four small children, one son and three daughters. She had six children in all, but two had died in infancy. She was heart-broken over the loss of the Baron, but she wasted no time in fruitless grieving. She recognized the hand of God even in this greatest affliction that could come to a happy wife. She felt God drawing her closer to Him, and so she made a vow of chastity, and led a life of true widowhood, indeed, giving her rich clothes to the poor, and devoting herself to a life of penance and prayer. She would have liked then to enter religion, but her duties as mother kept her in the world as yet. For the sake of the children she was obliged to live with her father-in-law for seven years, during which she endured a species of martyrdom.

In the Lent of 1604 she went to visit her father at Dijon. There she met the great Francis de Sales, whom she chose as her director. At once he saw in her the special marks of sanctity. As he said of her: “In Madame de Chantal I have found the perfect woman whom Solomon had difficulty in finding in Jerusalem.” And a perfect woman and mother she was. Her life was one long prayer, yet she never neglected her family duties on that account. As those of her household used to say, “Madame prays always, yet is never troublesome to anybody.”

Every day she rose at five o’clock and made an hour’s meditation; then she called her children and took them to Mass. She prayed with them morning and night, and instructed them in their catechism. Her first aim was to build up the Kingdom of God in their souls. And all the time she was living the life of a religious, even wearing the hair shirt. With a life of prayer went the life of charity. The poor and the sick found in her their best friend.

Leading such a life, it was no wonder that she desired to enter a more perfect state and dedicate herself to God in religion. Finally she obtained the consent of Saint Francis for this, and having provided for the future of her children, she at length began the work of establishing the Congregation of the Visitation. It was not without a struggle that she was able to accomplish this. Many considered that she was a fool and wanting in motherly love to think of cutting herself from her children. On the very day that she left home her little son, thinking to keep her with him, threw himself weeping across the threshold to bar her way. She was overcome with grief; but she stepped over his body and then came back to console him. “Can the tears of a child shake your resolution?” asked a priest who had witnessed the affecting scene. “Oh, no,” she replied; “but, after all, I am a mother.” She was, indeed, a mother, but one who knew that God had the first demand upon her.

No need to enter into the history of the Order which she was raised up to establish. It prospered greatly because of the admirable character and the sanctity of this woman who ruled its destinies.

But her life as a religious was not without its trials. She had her temptations – violent ones that continued almost to the time of her death. Even with all the cares of her Congregation, she never forgot her duties as mother. She kept up her interest in her children, knowing that nothing could relieve her of that duty.

And at last, after a long life of service to God and her neighbor, she died in 1641, at the age of sixty-nine. Her epitaph might well be her own words: “After all, I am a mother” – a great mother because she was a great saint.

Endless is the list of these holy women of noble blood who attained a life of sanctity. Yet closely allied to them are others who, though not specially mentioned in the Church’s roll of honor, deserve consideration for their great service to the Church. Such a woman was the Duchess of Acquillon, niece of the famous Cardinal Richelieu. She was born in 1604, and had married, at the age of sixteen, the Marquis of Combalet. Two years later he was killed at the siege of Montpellier, and the saddened young widow entered the Carmelite Order. When her uncle, Richelieu, was made premier of Louis XIII she had to come and live with him, and was made lady of the bedchamber to Queen Marie de Medici. She now presided over the Cardinal’s house, even while her heart was in the convent. But she tried to live the life of a religious as much as possible, having no love for the vanity of the world and the high place to which she had been elevated. So great was her charity that she was known as “the great Christian” and “the heroic woman.” Her charities were innumerable. She founded or helped every good work possible. The Seminary of Saint Sulpice, the foreign missions, hospitals, convents – all the religious houses of Paris regarded her as their benefactress. She had a high regard for Saint Vincent de Paul, and was the very soul of his work. She helped the missions in China, but more than all she loved the missions in Canada. The Hotel-Dieu at Quebec was erected at her expense, and ;t was at her request that Richelieu sent the Jesuits and Ursulines to Canada. In a word, charity dominated her life. Princes of the royal blood sought to marry her, but she preferred to remain a widow and to lead her life of charity.

When Richelieu died he made her his heiress and she devoted all her great fortune to the interests of charity. Well was she called “the Almoner of God.” When she died in 1675, at the age of seventy-one, the Church of France sustained a great loss.

Such were some of the noble women who served the Church, noble not only by blood, but more than all by their deeds. They could have pleaded their position, their dignity, their care for things of state, as reasons for leading a worldly life. Yet their greatest glory was to be humble wives, humble widows, humble servants of the poor, humble servants of God. Their lives are well described in the picture which Spenser paints of the Matron in his Faerie Queene:

“Whose only joy was to relieve the needes
Of wretched soules, and helpe the helplesse pore.
All night she spent in bidding of her bedes,
And all the day in doing good and godly deedes.”

Surely one of the greatest glories of Catholic womanhood, something in which every Catholic wife and mother can take pride, are these noble wives and mothers who, amid all their dignities, showed a great example of poverty in spirit. What a reproach are their lives to those who set aside their devotions, their very salvation, in the vain pursuit of the unreal glory of life!

– text taken from the book Great Wives and Mothers by Father Hugh Francis Blunt, 1917