Failure, criticism, inadequacy, anticlericalism, petty church politics—none of these prevented St. Joan Antide-Thouret from pursuing her vocation.
After Joan’s mother died, from age sixteen she managed her father’s household at a village near Besançon, France. In 1787 a compelling divine call prompted her to join the Sisters of Charity at Paris. There two serious illnesses impeded her religious training. The revolution dispersed the community in 1793, before Joan had made her profession. She returned to her hometown, where she ran a school for the village children.
When political conditions had improved, the vicar general of Besançon invited Joan to open a school. Reluctant at first because she did not feel she had been adequately prepared for the work, Joan overcame her reticence and started the school in April 1799. Six months later she added a soup kitchen and dispensary. Critics denounced her for not returning to her original community. But she had not taken vows and had acted in obedience to the bishop. Joan also ran the female asylum at Belleveaux, which housed orphans, criminals, the homeless, and the mentally ill. Her sisters labored there under hopeless conditions, and opponents criticized and persecuted them for undertaking this work. In the following letter, Joan encouraged the sister in charge at Belleveaux:
Hello, my dear daughter Elisabeth! How are you? Still holding on firmly to the handles of the plow? Is the ground hard and dry? Is the corn growing well? The weeds not stifling it? If so, dig out the weeds with a hoe, without damaging the corn. Have courage. The good corn of the elect will ripen and will nourish you for eternal life.
You face many troubles in serving the poor unfortunates entrusted to your care. I am sure that you do so from charity and the love of God. That you treat your dear companions as you would like them to treat you. That you do justice to them all. I have also the quiet assurance that you love and carefully practice our holy rule.
By 1810 the community had spread to Switzerland, Savoy, and Naples, where Joan herself moved to administer a hospital. In 1819 the pope approved the order as the Daughters of Charity. Because the pope removed the sisters from the authority of the bishop of Besançon, he detached all the convents of his diocese from the rest of the community.
In order to maintain control over the sisters in his diocese, he banned St. Joan from visiting her convents in France, a painful separation that troubled her for the rest of her life. She died at Naples in 1826.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi