Imagine a Mother Teresa in the France of Napoleon’s day and you will have a picture of Anne-Marie Javouhey. Nanette, as she was called, was a “velvet brick,” a thin layer of gentleness covering her determined core. A competent leader, Nanette dominated every scene in her adventurous life.
In 1800, she tested her vocation with the Sisters of Charity at Besançon. One night she heard a voice say, “You will accomplish great things for me.” A few nights later, St. Teresa of Ávila with black, brown, and bronze children appeared to her. “God wants you to found a congregation to care for these children,” said the saint.
In 1801, Nanette and her three natural sisters opened a school for poor children near Chamblanc. During the next decade she ran two day schools and an orphanage. In 1812 she founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. Then the dam burst, with demand for her sisters’ services clamoring throughout France.
Nanette, now Mother Javouhey, held her sisters to a high ideal of community life that she articulated in the following communiqué:
As we are joined together in community, we should live in unity with all its members, having one heart and soul. We should be always willing to labor and suffer privations without troubling others. We must possess nothing of our own, aware that everything belongs to the community according to the spirit of community life.
If we find that we are in want for certain things—and surely we will be often—we should rejoice because holy poverty does not imply that we should want nothing. But rather it means that we should be happy to do without anything for the sake of God and the sake of others.
Each sister should be prepared to accept willingly the duties assigned to her, no matter how hard or how menial they may appear…
In 1817, Mother Javouhey sent sisters to the African island of Reunion to open her first missionary outpost. It wasn’t long before she had sisters serving black, brown, and bronze people at remote places in Africa at Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, and in South America at French Guiana. With dogged faith the sisters battled extreme hardship everywhere.
At the government’s request, Mother Javouhey undertook some very unusual tasks. For example, she spent four years supervising the establishment of a colony for blacks at Mana, French Guiana. Then in 1834 she accepted the most remarkable assignment of her life. Six hundred slaves were to be liberated in Guiana, and she was asked to prepare them for emancipation by training them in the ways of religion and civilized society. As each family was ready to be freed, Mother Javouhey arranged for them to have money, some land, and a cottage.
Anne-Marie Javouhey spent the last years of her life in France directing the work of her burgeoning congregation. When she died in 1851, her sisters were in thirty-two countries and colonies.