St. Jane Frances de Chantal & St. Francis de Sales



Jane Frances Fremiot was born on January 23, 1572, into a prominent and prosperous family of Dijon, a major city in the province of Burgundy in France.  Her father was the president of the parliament, a wealthy landowner, a respected jurist, a man of impeccable integrity, loyal to the Church and the Crown.  He was also brave, learned, congenial, and a devoted father to his three children.  Her mother, who died in childbirth when Jane was about eighteen months old, was descended from the same ancestral lineage as St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Jane and her older sister Marguerite and her younger brother Andre were educated at home by tutors and, more importantly, by their father who happily assumed the responsibilities of being both father and mother to his children.  They were taught everything considered essential for young people of their time and station, and this basic education was enriched by lessons in religion, history, and other subjects learned from their father whose household has, with good reason, been compared to that of St. Thomas More in England.

By the time she was twenty, Jane was a beautiful, lively, charming young woman, not only rich and clever, but also possessing high ethical standards of service and a capacity for hard work; all of this, combined with her strain of nobility, made her a most desirable match for marriage.  In 1592 she was wed to Baron Christophe Rabutin-Chantal, a member of the aristocracy and a soldier in the king’s service, who did not hesitate to leave the care of his somewhat neglected estate to the management of his young wife.  She so justified his confidence in her that before long the growing family was comfortably supported by the income from her diligent efforts.

In spite of the fact that her first two children died in infancy, Jane was supremely happy in her role as wife and mother and administrator of a large property which gave her a chance to practice great charity toward the poor.  She set up soup kitchens and ovens to bake bread to feed the hungry of the neighborhood, she went to the homes of the sick to serve them as nurse and housekeeper, she organized a sort of relief work on a large scale, involving her servants and friends in her charitable interests.

About two weeks after the birth of her sixth child, Christophe was fatally wounded in a hunting accident, leaving his cherished wife distraught with grief.  Jane’s mourning was deep and thorough; she made a vow of chastity and gave her husband’s and her own elaborate state clothing and jewelry to neighboring churches for vestments and revenue; she reduced her household staff and devoted her spare time to prayer and works of service to the poor.  Within a few months her truculent father-in-law demanded that she and her children come to live at his estate at Monthelon, which also needed a capable and firm management.

In the interests of her children’s future, Jane submitted to this demand, and, typically enough, turned this unhappy period of her life into a means of growth.  Not only did she succeed in bringing order out of the domestic chaos, but did so in spite of the hindrances of a disagreeable housekeeper who resented her presence and who used her influence with the old baron to make life as difficult as possible for Jane.  At the same time Jane continued to carry on her works for the poor and sick, and undertook the care and education of the housekeeper’s children along with that of her own.

It was during this time that she met the Bishop of Geneva, the future St. Francis de Sales, who became her spiritual director and provided her with invaluable support and encouragement as she strove to cope with the difficulties of her position.  Under his guidance she learned to live a life of constant prayer in the midst of action, and to profit from the insults and arrogance she endured by increasing her patience, charity, forgiveness, and compliance with God’s will.  The alchemy of suffering was beginning to transform a naturally gifted woman into a supernaturally gifted one.

After eight years of this transforming action, the affairs of her children were fairly well settled and she felt free to follow the call which had become more intense with the passing of time – that of consecrating her entire life to God as a religious.  St. Francis de Sales, who had grown to know and admire her, confirmed her desire and invited her to join him in establishing a new type of religious life, one open to older women and those of delicate constitution, one that would stress the hidden, inner virtues of humility, obedience, poverty, even-tempered charity, and patience, one disciplined enough to be quite ordinary in the eyes of men, but quite extraordinary in the practice of love for God and others, one founded on the example of Mary in her journey of mercy to her cousin Elizabeth.

Over the strenuous objections of her family, Jane readily agreed to accept this challenge, and spent the remainder of her life, another thirty years, bringing the Bishop’s project to fruition.  She traveled extensively throughout France and into Italy establishing foundations of the new Order, winning over opponents and securing the acceptance of the sisters.  At the same time, she worked to consolidate the spiritual foundations of the communities by collecting and disseminating the teachings of their Founder, stressing the need for fidelity and unity in order to preserve the integrity of the legacy he had bequeathed to them.  The success of her endeavors is attested to by the existence of eighty-six houses at the time of her death; the endurance of her labors is witnessed in the continuing devotion of Visitandines up to our present time.

Death was no stranger to Jane de Chantal, who had lost not only her mother and husband, but also her father, sister, brother, five of her children, her beloved director, and her closest companions in religious life.  She felt that she herself must be a piece of insipid and unripened fruit to remain alone on the tree with nearly every link with the past broken.  In December of 1641 when she fell ill during a visit to the monastery in Moulins, she was more than ready to answer the summons of the Bridegroom.  After dictating a circular letter to all the monasteries and making a firm act of faith, she received Holy Viaticum with great fervor.  Slowly and distinctly she pronounced the name of Jesus three times and died.

At that moment in Paris, St. Vincent de Paul, her director after St. Francis de Sales, had a vision of a small globe of fire rising to join a more luminous globe, and the two rising higher to blend with an infinitely larger and more splendid sphere, and he knew that the souls of the two saints that he had known on earth had been reunited in death and had together returned to God, their first and last end.

The above summary of the life of St. Jane de Chantal was extracted from Madame de Chantal – Portrait of a Saint, written by Elisabeth Stopp, and published in 1963 by Newman Press.  It is recommended to anyone who would like to learn more about this valiant woman who had such an impact on the religious climate of seventeenth century France and has continued to lead souls to God for nearly 400 years.

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