Marie Eugenie of Jesus: Foundress of the Religious of the Assumption
She is our contemporary in the problems that she lived with and the solutions that she attempted to bring to them. (Pope Paul VI)
All of us, we know, are called to be holy. Most of us, however, probably have little idea of what this means in the concrete. How are we to set about it? One answer is that we can do what others have done before us: we have the saints as our models. There are saints for all situations. It is in the belief that Marie Eugenie of Jesus is a saint for us and for our times that this booklet is written. The quotation at the top of the page comes from the Homily given by Pope Paul VI at her Beatification in 1975. At that moment the Church publicly recognised her holiness. Now, at the beginning of this new millennium, she is being canonised. So for us, in our times, the Church is putting Saint Marie Eugenie before us. In her life and in her teaching, all Christians – married and single, clergy and laity, religious men and women – can find inspiration and help in their journey towards the Lord. This little introduction to the life of Marie Eugenie is written in the perspective of her holiness. What made her holy? What message does she have for us?
My vocation dates from Notre Dame (M. Marie Eugenie)
Lent 1836 is a good moment to meet the future Mother Marie Eugenie of Jesus for the first time. She is 19 years old, still called Anne-Eugenie Milleret and she is sitting waiting in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris for the Lenten Sermon to begin. Having a seat meant getting there for the 10 o’clock Mass and staying on till the Sermon began at 1 o’clock. The preacher, Lacordaire, was young and drawing huge crowds. What she thought about as she waited we do not know, but we do know that the sermon itself was a life changing experience for her. Afterwards she wrote to Lacordaire and told him, Your words answered all my thoughts. They completed my understanding of things; they gave me a new generosity, a faith that nothing would be able to make waver again. I was truly converted. To her sisters she would often say: My vocation dates from Notre Dame. But what had brought her to Notre Dame?
Each of us starts life as a child in a particular family, speaking a particular language, situated at a given point of the world’s history and geography. We each have our own genes, our own gifts, our own difficulties. Grace, as we know, builds on nature, so if we want to understand the path to holiness of someone like Anne Eugenie we need to have some idea of her background. At first sight her early life seems charmed. The family were in easy circumstances and divided their time between Metz, a town in eastern France, and the country house they owned on the borders of France, Germany and Luxemburg. Her horizons were wide and she grew up learning to speak German and English as well as French. The family were not religious, though they felt the need to keep up appearances, so Anne Eugenie was baptised as a baby and made her first Communion, though rather later than usual and, as she tells us, with very little preparation. She went to school only for a short time and after a bad attack of typhoid fever her mother taught her at home. We know that she read widely and that her mother took a lot of trouble to form her character, taking her daughter with her on visits to the sick and the poor, teaching her the value of self sacrifice and generosity. They were values that Marie Eugenie considered fundamental and later she would say of her childhood that it always seemed to me as Christian as most so-called religious upbringing. Certainly it marked her character and helped form the ideas that she brought to her mission of education.
There was, however, another side to her life. There was the death of her nine year old brother and one year old baby sister, both in the same year when she herself was only 5. Her father, a banker and politician, was often away from home. Then suddenly, as a consequence of the revolution which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne of France in 1830, he went bankrupt. Anne Eugenie was 13. The family split up and she went with her mother to Paris. She enjoyed a short time then when she felt closer to her mother than she had ever done, but it was not to last and in 1832 her mother was taken ill with cholera and died within a few hours. At the age of 15 Anne Eugenie was totally alone.
Her father arranged for her to live with family friends, who could introduce the teenager into polite society: the world of balls and salons and visits. It was a world where what mattered was the colour of the ribbons on a bonnet, witty conversation and social gossip. Outwardly Anne-Eugenie seemed to fit in; she was pretty and intelligent and she appreciated compliments. But inwardly her mind was a mass of questions: I would like to know everything, analyse everything… pursued by some restless need of knowledge and truth that nothing can satisfy. Harder to bear was the solitude: I am alone in the world…when I am with them I am more alone than ever. At this point her father, ignorant of what his daughter was really suffering, but worried by the frivolous life she was leading, sent her to live with his cousins in Paris, very pious women she tells us, who bored her by their narrow-mindedness. It was while staying with them, because she was expected to attend a Lenten sermon somewhere, that she chose Notre Dame.
The call takes shape
The experience at Notre Dame was decisive. Anne Eugenie had discovered Christ and His Church and a flame of love was lit in her heart. She wanted to consecrate her life to Christ and to give all my strength, or rather all my weakness, to this Church, which, alone, in my eyes, had the secret and the power of Good on this earth. But how? She read and prayed. As she read she was fired by the ideas of the young Catholics who had formed round an intellectual and social reformer called Lammenais. In those years after the French Revolution and in the early days of the industrial revolution, she was aware of both the superficiality of the affluent and the miseries of the poor and her dream was to transform this society. She longed to work for the Kingdom of God in a society where no one would have to endure the oppression of others.
So Anne Eugenie read, but she also prayed, drawn more and more by the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As for all of us, her path to holiness involved reflecting on how God was at work in the events of her life. While she prayed, she reflected on her past life and how God had led her; and as she did so one event that she had almost forgotten and which at the time had not seemed particularly important to her, began to take on a very special significance. This was her first Holy Communion, which she had made on Christmas Day when she was 12 years old. She remembered that coming back from the altar she had had a moment of panic that she would not be able to find her mother in the crowded church and then a voice spoke in her heart, saying, you will lose your mother but I shall be for you more than a mother. A day will come when you will leave everything you love in order to glorify me and serve this Church that you do not know. Then she had felt, a silent separation from everything I had any attachment to, so as to enter, alone, into the immensity of the One whom I possessed for the first time. This experience of the utter greatness of God, which drew her in adoration, marked her profoundly. It contained within it her particular spiritual path and the way she would offer to those who joined her. Adoration, love of Jesus especially in the Eucharist and love of the Church were to be specific marks of the Religious of the Assumption, the Congregation she founded.
Each one of us has a mission on earth (M. Marie Eugenie) It was in 1837 that Anne Eugenie eventually discovered what her mission was to be when she met Fr. Combalot, a preacher known for his flamboyant style and fiery eloquence. For 12 years he had felt called to found a new religious congregation, under the patronage of Our Lady assumed into heaven. He saw the education of girls, which at the time was very neglected, as a way to re-christianise society. In Anne Eugenie he recognised the foundress with whom he could realise his dream. She was very reticent: she was aware of her ignorance of the faith and of the practicalities of religious life. Her desire was to join a religious congregation, not to found one. I am incapable of founding anything in the Church of God. There was another problem: she was not at all sure that Fr. Combalot had the stability of character that such an enterprise would need. But little by little he overcame her resistance and while he looked for other recruits, she lived as a novice in a Visitation convent and began her formation for this life.
It is Jesus Christ who will be the founder of our Assumption (Fr. Combalot)
On the 30th April 1839 the new community came into being. A life of prayer and silence, of study and housework, of poverty and sharing began. There was a spirit of simplicity and friendship. Anne Eugenie took the new name of Marie Eugenie, to which she added “of Jesus” when she took her vows. In so doing she indicated the whole sense of her life. Henceforth, under the protection of Mary, her life and her being would be completely “of Jesus”. Now she began to pass on to the others what she had learned at the Visitation. Fr. Combalot came every day to give conferences and to oversee the studies. For Advent of that first year he introduced them to the Roman Breviary and the sisters began to recite the Divine Office together. Its beauty and its profundity captivated them. To pray with the Church, to give their voices to Christ so that he could recite the psalms through them, to be united with all the saints who had prayed these same prayers throughout the ages, to intercede with God on behalf of humanity – all this became their passion and the passion of the sisters who have followed them right up to the present day.
The Cross is the sign by which Jesus knows his followers and a storm now swept down on this little community which was hardly on its feet. Marie Eugenie had been right to worry about the volatility and inconsistency of Fr. Combalot. His demands of the young sisters became more and more extraordinary. Marie Eugenie wanted to get advice, but the only priest Fr. Combalot would allow her to contact was one of his old friends, a priest that she had met only once some three years earlier and who lived hundreds of miles away in Nîmes in the south of France. Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon knew his old friend well and wrote back advising that she should not tolerate anything that would hurt the work.
At this point the Archbishop was also becoming concerned about this group who had no approved rule and no ecclesiastical superior. The suggestion that the Archbishop appoint a priest other than himself was the last straw for Combalot and he decided to move the group out of Paris and re-establish the community in Brittany. He now decided that the work would be better without Marie Eugenie and demanded that the other sisters leave her and follow him to Brittany. But the sisters had by now been living and praying together for two years and they were committed to the vision and to each other. They refused to leave Marie Eugenie and let the community be split up.Combalot left the house in a rage, saying they would never see his face again. The next day he left for Rome, but, to his credit, before leaving he wrote to the Archbishop asking him to take care of the group.
Marie Eugenie was left in deep distress. She was only 23 years old and the work had lost its founder. Yet at the same time her faith was growing stronger and she realised that God never takes anything away without giving Himself more profoundly in its place… He showed that it was He who was accomplishing the work and that he wanted to do it alone.
Our aim as I understand it (M. Marie Eugenie) Slowly the little community grew and was accepted by the Church authorities. At first the Archbishop could not understand why Marie Eugenie could not go back to the Visitation and the other sisters split up and go to other Congregations. She answered him:
It is fire, passion and ardent love for the Church and this society so far away from God that has given birth to this work. The irreligiousness of three quarters of the people necessitates a work of education… The vocation of a sister of the Visitation has quite other foundations.
Then she had to convince him that the deep contemplative life that the sisters were leading and in particular the recitation of the Divine Office was compatible with the work of education. Your Excellency, she wrote, our vocation is above all to join prayer to action. In the end he gave his blessing.
It is worth pausing and looking in more detail at the way of life of this first community, because it visibly embodies the response that Marie Eugenie and the sisters with her were trying to make to God’s call. In the early years she struggled to find the right words to express her conviction and her experience, but the sisters were already living it. At its heart is an intense love of Jesus Christ, God become man: Jesus who receives everything from the Father and gives everything back to Him in adoration and trust; Jesus who chooses to live in solidarity with humanity and freely gives his life for his brothers and sisters on the Cross; Jesus who remains with his Church always, especially in the Eucharist.
Loving Jesus Christ means adopting his viewpoint, seeing life as He sees it: it means loving as He loved, loving the Father, loving humanity. It means offering our humanity to Christ so that He can live in us and work through us. Such a love grows in lives that are rooted in prayer and this first Assumption community, like all Assumption communities since, had a rhythm of life marked by the celebration of the Eucharist and the Divine Office, as well as long moments of personal prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is this love that gives unity to a life which is both deeply contemplative and intensely apostolic. The contemplative life is the source of an active life of faith, of zeal, of liberty of spirit. The spirit that marked our beginnings (M. Marie Eugenie) One of the things that attracted people to the new community was the atmosphere of joy, simplicity and enthusiasm that reigned there. And this too is an outward sign of the response they were making to God’s call. They had adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine, which makes the community itself the foundation of a life lived for God. God, Saint Augustine teaches, has drawn them together by his beauty; they are “lovers of divine beauty”. As such they are ready to leave everything else behind to belong to God in poverty; they want nothing else but God.
This was Marie Eugenie’s own experience. She saw that it had also been the experience of Our Lady: who in her repeated ‘Yes’ to God is drawn closer and closer to Him, until in one final leap of joy she is assumed into heaven. The Assumption is a mystery which follows from the Resurrection and the graces which accompany the Risen Lord are joy, peace and forgiveness. It is a mystery more of heaven than of earth and it challenged them to a way of living which they called “joyful detachment”: to rise above earthly things, to make light of difficulties, to be ready to leave the places and even the people they loved whenever God called.
This is the family spirit that has marked the Assumption from the beginning. It can be sensed in the warmth and friendliness, mutual trust and sense of communion, which the sisters consider one of the greatest gifts God has given them. Such a spirit does not arise by chance and it is not maintained by chance. It arises as a response to the grace of God, who is always calling human beings into communion and it is maintained by the on-going choice of the good of others over selfishness. This can be seen clearly in the life of one of Marie Eugenie’s greatest friends and collaborators.
We were strongly bonded to one another, and that is what saved the foundation (M. Marie Eugenie) Although after the departure of Fr. Combalot, Marie Eugenie was left alone in carrying responsibility for this new foundation, she did not live the crisis in isolation. Among the first community was Kate O’Neill, an Irishwoman the same age as Marie Eugenie who had taken the religious name of Sr. Therese Emmanuel. Now she became the spokesperson for the other sisters. She was a natural leader, but she chose to use her leadership qualities, not to push herself forward, but to keep the community united to Marie Eugenie. It was the role she was to play till the end of her life. At the beginning the two of them had to learn how to live together. It would have been easy for each of them to be jealous of the other’s gifts and at times each of them struggled, but they realised that God was calling them to go beyond their differences, to give up their own ambitions so as to work together for the extension of his Kingdom.
For forty years Therese Emmanuel was the novice mistress of the Congregation. At the same time she was Assistant to Marie Eugenie, always there to give support and advice. Two years before her death, when she was already in poor health, there was another crisis of government. Feelings ran high and it looked as if the Congregation could split. Once again Therese Emmanuel, seeing that the unity of the Congregation was at stake, rallied the sisters around Marie Eugenie and the crisis passed. She lived just long enough to see the Church give its final approval to the Congregation she had done so much to build, dying in May 1888.
If I have given something, I have also received a great deal (Fr. d’Alzon) Another source of help and support was Fr. D’Alzon to whom she had turned in her worries about Combalot. She had met him first when she was a novice of 19 and he, at 28, was the Vicar General of Nîmes. After the departure of Combalot, he cautiously agreed to help her in her personal search for holiness, but they did not meet again until 1843 when he was visiting Paris. In the following year she spent time in Nîmes to work with him on the Constitutions - the detailed expression of the vision, aims and way of life of the Congregation. From these beginnings a deep human and spiritual friendship developed which lasted over 40 years until Fr. d’Alzon’s death in 1880. From time to time they met, but mostly they wrote to each other. We have literally thousands of their letters, which witness to the deep desire for holiness of each of them. They share their ideas, their vision, their hopes. He helps her to write the Constitutions, she encourages him to found a Congregation for men (the first Assumption Fathers make their vows in 1850). They send each other novices, lend each other money, and discuss the political situation in France and the needs of the Church everywhere. They have their problems of course. There is a patch when she is very insecure and constantly looking for signs of approval from him. Her doubts hurt d’Alzon but he re-assures her patiently, adding one day: I understand that what hurts God the most is for us to doubt his love for us. It is a telling insight into what he is feeling.Later when he requests sisters for a foundation in Bulgaria and she asks him to wait, as there is nobody suitable who could go immediately, he was deeply hurt. But their friendship survived, deepening and maturing over the years. He summed up their mutual influence as workers in the Lord’s vineyard:
If I have given something, I have also received a great deal. It is that mutual communication which is the source of what I have been able to say. We have purchased in the Cevennes a small property where there are two ravines. Each has a small spring that flows into a common river. When the waters come together, who can say what is the true origin of the stream?
On hearing of his death in November 1880, she wrote to the sisters:
I have made it a habit to see in people only what I shall see for all eternity. What I shall see eternally in Father d’Alzon is his love for Jesus Christ, his devotion to the Church, his zeal for souls. * * * * * *
In Marie Eugenie’s path to holiness we can distinguish three broad periods. In the first, she experiences God’s intervention in her life: it is clear that she has a life-changing experience of God. She hears a call, decides to say “yes” and begins to search for what this will mean in her life. Then comes a long period during which she is very active. In her prayer, in her life in community with her sisters, in the apostolates she undertakes, she is living out her response. There are successes and failures and she learns from both. Then there is the final period of her life when she is much less active and God again clearly takes the initiative. Let us look now at the middle period.
To make a real difference in our own small sphere (M. Marie Eugenie)
As soon as the community had the go-ahead from the Archbishop, they opened their first school. It began with only three children and Marie Eugenie wrote a little book Counsels of Education to help the sisters. For her, a truly Christian education was one that enabled the pupils to develop in themselves the mind of Christ, to see and judge the world and their own lives from His perspective. Intellectual development mattered and that was one reason why studies were so important for the sisters. Nevertheless, for her it was more important that the students develop a sound judgment based on faith, than that they learn a great many facts. What mattered was not so much what they knew as the kind of people they were. She looked for strength of character, generosity, simplicity, truthfulness and courage – the values that her own mother had given her. If this had been all it would already have made Assumption education very distinctive. But there was more. Drawing on St. Augustine, the development she was looking for was from a state of egoism and selfishness to one of generosity and dedication. She wanted to develop the spirit of self-sacrifice, so that the girls should become capable of living for others. To achieve this would be to create a different world, a world more like the Kingdom of God on earth. And for this she longed.
Such an education required the educators to be women of deep faith, living themselves what they wanted to develop in their pupils. She advised them that they would not make much difference with their pupils unless they were very united among themselves. If each one insisted on doing things her own way they would never succeed. She also told them that they would have no influence over their pupils unless they loved them, unless they saw and believed in the possibility for good in even the most difficult child. She had no illusions that this was easy and she encouraged them, when the going was hard, to turn to Christ and let Him love in them. He would give them the energy for one more effort, more than that, He would teach them that love never says‘that is enough’.
Thy Kingdom come! (Motto of the Assumption Fathers) From the very beginning the idea of the Kingdom of God had been central to the call of Marie Eugenie. She, like all her first companions, had been inspired by the passion of Combalot for the regeneration of society. When he left and she had to explain the spirit of the new community to their ecclesiastical superior, she does not hesitate to say that it is zeal that is at the origin of this foundation. A little later she encourages Fr. D’Alzon to found a Congregation for men because there is so much need to give young men a passion and a philosophy. Such an enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God was never going to settle for the mediocre, or for the routine and ordinary. To the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which characterise religious life, she and the first sisters added a fourth vow “to consecrate my whole life to extending the Kingdom of God in souls”. This apostolic energy had to find an outlet and it is not surprising that Marie Eugenie and the community responded enthusiastically to the request in 1848 of an Irish missionary bishop for a community to accompany him to South Africa. It was an heroic venture: the sisters were the first nuns to set foot in South Africa and the difficulties they had to face were extraordinary. But they were stretching too far – it took six months for a letter to arrive from one community to the other - and the link between Paris and South Africa broke. Some sisters returned to Paris, others stayed and adapted to the conditions of the country and the new demands of the Bishop. From them a new Congregation was born, the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption, that continues to this day to work in South Africa and Northern Ireland.
Marie Eugenie suffered enormously over this break, because the communion which bound the sisters together had been broken. She was ready for her sisters or for herself, to go to the ends of the earth for Jesus Christ, as long as they remained “one mind and one heart intent on God” as the Rule of Saint Augustine says. In 1850, when the sisters in the Cape were already in difficulties, she agreed to another foundation overseas, in Richmond, Yorkshire and this time it was successful. Numbers in the Congregation grew and other foundations followed in France, Spain, England and Italy. By the time of her death in 1898 there were 1100 sisters and communities in the Philippines and in Nicaragua as well as Europe. The readiness to go anywhere to extend the Kingdom of God continues in the Congregation and today the Religious of the Assumption have houses in 35 countries, including 11 African countries.
God alone (Motto of the Religious of the Assumption) At the time of her first communion Marie Eugenie had had the experience of being possessed completely by God. After her conversion her desire was to give herself to God as completely as He had given himself to her. The words “all”, “everything”, “always” are repeated again and again in her journal. A hall mark of her holiness is that she is never satisfied with half measures. The constitutions she writes for the sisters are very balanced: they do not propose anything extraordinary in the way of penances or prayer, but they set out a way of life which cannot be lived on a “both…and…” basis. You have to choose and if you choose God then you can’t have your own way as well. For her choosing God had meant being set on fire to work for the coming of His Kingdom.
For us, in the 21st century, it is helpful to see how this desire for God alone is lived out at every stage of her life. In the middle period of her life, after the early years of the foundation, the hall mark of her life is its busy-ness. There were communities to visit, foundations to be considered, money to be found somehow – they were always short - and always letters to be written. In 1858 she was elected Superior General for life. When we learn of all that she was doing we may well imagine that she was one of those lucky people with abundant good health and energy. In fact her health was always mediocre. A fall as a child had left her with a bad hip that caused her pain all her life and on one occasion confined her to bed for nine months. She often felt overwhelmed by tiredness, writing on one occasion:
I was suffering from despondency and would have liked to lie there and die, but it was precisely during that overpowering weariness that an infinite number of things would demand that I attend to them with all my soul, with all my attention and all the energy I could muster. There are material details and spiritual concerns, accounts and rules etc… and to all that, there is only one response inside me: I have a backache and would like to lie down, especially if it meant not having to get up again…
Many people have felt the same, where Marie Eugenie was different was in the habit she formed of uniting her sufferings with those of Christ and trusting Him to support her. When I feel devoid of strength and without my health, I trust in God for everything.
The life of the Church must be formed in us through suffering (M. Marie Eugenie) At the same time there were intellectual and spiritual struggles. The Church itself caused her to suffer. When she was young she thought that every member of the Church was as convinced and passionate as she herself. It was a source of shock and pain to discover the reality. She writes to Fr. d’Alzon: I did not know the members of this Church. I dreamed of finding in them apostles, but I was to find only men. On another occasion she tells him: The further I go, the less sympathy I have for priests or pious lay people… Their hearts do not beat for anything broadminded. Her ideas of what reform in the Church and transformation in society would look like had been formed through her contacts with men like Combalot and d’Alzon and a whole circle of others who had all been disciples of Lammenais. But Lammenais had been condemned by the Church some years earlier. In 1845 he published a new book called Voix de Prison (A Voice from Prison). His ideas attracted her and she wrote to Fr. d’Alzon: there isn’t even a hair’s breadth of difference between me and the present ideas of M. Lammenais. For her it was a vision that was wide and militant and she saw in it a way of integrating her compassion for humanity with her passion for God. The book, however, was condemned, because it was judged to be saying that the Kingdom of God could be established on earth by human effort alone. She was stunned because it seemed as if she would have to choose between the progressive vision of Lammenais and the very conservative ideas of the Church. This lack of openness in the Church made her say: My faith is passing through darkness. Fr. d’Alzon counselled her to humility and patience – and we can well imagine that he was advising her to do what he was struggling to do himself. She listened, and slowly she came to realise that changes in social or political structures cannot of themselves bring about the Kingdom of God, what is needed is conversion of heart. She began to see that her way of answering her call had to be modified: it must be God’s way of doing things, not hers. She had been concentrating on the reign of God in the secular society around her, now she realised that what God wanted was to reign in her heart. In the early years of the foundation she had written to Lacordaire of how she envisioned the Christian mission: we must seek how God can use us for the spreading of his Gospel and for its fulfilment. This must be done courageously. using the means faith gives us, the poor and powerless means of Jesus Christ. As life went on she had to learn the meaning of these words.
In 1845 her crisis had been intellectual, in 1866 she was attacked personally and her character and fitness to govern the Congregation was criticized. She had gone to Rome to ask for formal Approval for the Congregation. It was her first visit to Rome and clearly as much a pilgrimage as a business trip. She prayed at the tomb of Saint Peter and afterwards wrote: I prayed very much for the Congregation and I asked Saint Peter that the love of the Church might always be its main characteristic and that it might die out if it is not to be always tenderly united to the Chair of Rome. After hearing Mass in the room where St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, died, she wrote to the sisters: Saint Ignatius knew all the pains of a foundation; he learned through experience that it is through suffering that the works of God are born… Now the suffering came. An initially warm welcome from the ecclesiastical authorities turned into prevarication and she learned that back in Paris, their ecclesiastical superior, Mgr. Veron was delaying the process of approval and spreading rumours about her loyalty to the Church and her capacity to govern. Behind his action was a question of Church politics. He belonged to the “Gallican” (nationalist) party in the French Church and saw her request for the approval of Rome as a means of removing herself from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Paris. She came home to discover that her intentions and her character were being dragged through the mud. She decided to offer her resignation. The offer was not accepted, but it seemed to appease Mgr. Veron who decided to postpone further action against the Congregation until the end of the year. But before the end of the year he died suddenly; the Archbishop signified that he was perfectly happy with the Congregation and the Decree of Approval of the Institute was signed 1867. It was a situation which would have made many people bitter and turned them against the Church. Not Marie Eugenie, at 50 years of age she recognised that she had passed through a trial created by the Church in its own weakness, but her suffering had transformed her disappointment into a deeper love and she entrusted herself more completely to Christ: Here I am almost half a century old. I believe, I feel, that I am leaving the streams and going out to sea, and whatever this sea is fills me and intoxicates me. * * * * * I have nothing more to do except to be good (M. Marie Eugenie) In August 1886 the Congregation held a General Chapter which brought together superiors and delegates of the sisters from all the communities. As we look back, we can see that this Chapter marks the opening of the third and last phase of Marie Eugenie’s life. The Chapter confirmed her in her position as Superior General. It legally established the autonomy of the Congregation and the relationship with the Fathers of the Assumption. It was also able to complete the long work of writing and revising the Constitutions. Now they could be presented to Rome for final approval and thus the work of foundation would be complete. On April 11th 1888 Pope Leo XIII signed the Decree and placed it in her hands. She hurried back to France to place it in the hands of Therese Emmanuel just before she died on May 3rd. August saw the beginning of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Congregation. Leo XIII sent a special blessing. But Marie Eugenie was keenly aware that, one person was missing, regretted more than all the others. She had already lost Fr. d’Alzon in 1880 and Sr. Marie Therese, the one whom in 1838, before the foundation, she had called her first sister. It was a time of increasing loneliness and the motto of the Congregation “God Alone” took on a new depth of meaning.
Now too her body was failing. She still visited the communities. She was still just as inspired by the same apostolic zeal to make Jesus Christ and his Church known and loved, authorising the sending of communities to Nicaragua and the Philippines, both in 1892. But her memory was failing, her grasp of affairs not as sharp. She still wanted to remain in charge, feeling that her sisters needed her, but in 1894 the ecclesiastical superior suggested to her that she hand over the responsibility of the Congregation. She did not find this easy (which is perhaps an encouragement for the rest of us). Her initial response was Have I reached that point? But when he replied that it was the wish of the Archbishop, immediately she answered: Oh! If it is the Archbishop’s wish, then I have nothing more to say. The Archbishop was expressing the will of God in her regard and that was the end of the matter. She left the General Chapter which had appointed a “Vicar” to take over her responsibilities saying: I have nothing more to do except to be good. God had begun the work of sanctification in her and it is God who now completes it. Four more years remained to her and without the weight of responsibility she had, at first, a new lease of life. She was able to visit Spain in 1894 and Rome in 1895, giving enormous joy to the sisters she was able to see for one last time. She continued to write letters, attentively remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Sisters continued to ask her advice. To one she wrote revealingly:
You ask me how to grow old in a holy way? By working unceasingly under the eye of God, with the utmost patience and confidence, by preserving in one’s soul, in one’s affections, the immortal youth of Jesus Christ… Keep your mind occupied with the mysteries of Jesus or his words. Keep your heart fixed on heaven which is our homeland; through hope you must already live there in the peace of the children of God. Finally, as old age is ordinarily the time of infirmity and lack of energy, bear with it with the gentleness and simplicity of the Lamb. That is what makes old age holy!
By this time her legs were refusing to carry her and her speech was also slowing down. Gradually she became unable to speak at all, except a few words occasionally. Just the same she remained aware of what was going on around her and one day surprised her nurses by asking to be taken to visit the grotto of the Virgin in the garden, saying: I want to pray for a person who has hurt me. We can see that this reaction to being hurt is the result of a conscious choice from a note she had written for herself some time earlier: