Oil Dedicated to St Julia Billiart
The St Julia Billiart is dedicated to the 18th-century French saint. She founded and was the first Superior General of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
She was born on 12 July 1751, at Cuvilly, France, the sixth of seven children. By the age of seven, she knew the catechism by heart. Also, she would gather her companions around her to hear her recite it and to explain it to them. Her education was confined to the rudiments obtained at the village school kept by her uncle. In spiritual things her progress was rapid. Consequently, the parish priest, Father Dangicourt, allowed her to make her First Communion and to be confirmed aged 9. She took a vow of chastity five years later.
She was held in very high esteem for her virtue and piety, and was commonly called, “the saint of Cuvilly”. When twenty-two years old, she suffered paralysis of the lower limbs, due to a shock when her father was shot at. Consequently, within a few years, she was confined to her bed. She remained incapacitated for 30 years. When she received Holy Communion daily, Julie exercised an uncommon gift of prayer. She spent four or five hours a day in contemplation. The rest of her time was occupied in making linens and laces for the altar. Also, in catechising the village children whom she gathered around her bed. Julie gave special attention to those who were preparing for their First Communion.
Amiens and Vicountess
Billiart took refuge with Countess Baudoin during the French Revolution at Amiens. There she met Françoise, Viscountess of Gizaincourt. The Viscountess was 38 years old when she met Julie, and had spent her youth in piety and good works. However, she had been imprisoned with all of her family during the Reign of Terror. They escaped death only by the fall of Robespierre. A small company of friends of the viscountess was formed around the couch of “the saint”. Billiart taught them how to lead an interior life. They devoted themselves generously to the causes of God and the poor. Though they attempted all the exercises of an active community life, some of the elements of stability were wanting. Eventually, these first disciples dropped off until only the Viscountess remained.
Institute of the Sisters of Notre Dame
In 1803, in obedience to Father Varin, superior of the Fathers of the Faith, the foundation was laid of the Institute of the Sisters of Notre Dame. The society had for its primary object the salvation of poor children. Several young persons offered themselves to assist the two superiors, Julie and Françoise. The first pupils were eight orphans. On the feast of the Sacred Heart, 1 June 1804, Mother Julie, after a novena made in obedience to her confessor, was cured of paralysis.
The first vows of religion were made on 15 October 1804 by Billiart, Blin de Bourdon, Victoire Leleu, and Justine Garson. Their family names were changed to names of saints. They proposed for their lifework the Christian education of girls and the training of religious teachers who should go wherever their services were asked for. Father Varin gave the community a provisional rule by way of probation. These were so far-sighted that its essentials have never been changed.
The characteristic devotions of the Sisters of Notre Dame were established by the foundress from the beginning. Also, she was original in doing away with the time-honoured distinction between religious sisters and lay sisters. This perfect equality of rank did not prevent her from putting each sister to the work for which her capacity and education fitted her. She attached great importance to the formation of the sisters destined for the schools. In this she was ably assisted by Mother St. Joseph who had herself received an excellent education.
When the congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame was approved by an imperial decree dated 19 July 1806, it numbered 30 members, In that and the following years, foundations were made in various towns of France and Belgium, the most important being those at Ghent and Namur; Mother St. Joseph was the first superior of the latter house.
Mother Julie leaves Amiens
In leaving Amiens, Mother Julie laid the case before all her subjects and told them they were perfectly free to remain or to follow her. All but two chose to go with her, and thus, in the mid-winter of 1809, the convent of Namur became the motherhouse of the institute and is so still. Msgr. Demandolx, soon undeceived, made all the amends in his power, entreating Mother Julie to return to Amiens and rebuild her institute. She returned, but after a vain struggle to find subjects or revenues, went back to Namur.
The ten years of life that remained to her were spent in forming her daughters to solid piety and the interior spirit, of which she was herself the model. Msgr. De Broglie, the bishop of Ghent, said of her that she saved more souls by her inner life of union with God than by her outward apostolate. In the space of twelve years (1804–1816) Mother Julie founded fifteen convents, made one hundred and twenty journeys, many of them long and toilsome, and carried on a close correspondence with her spiritual daughters. Hundreds of these letters are preserved in the motherhouse. In 1815 Belgium was the battlefield of the Napoleonic wars, and the mother-general suffered great anxiety, as several of her convents were in the path of the armies, but they escaped injury. In January 1816, she took ill.
She died on 8 April 1816, at the motherhouse of her institute, Namur, Belgium, aged 64.