The Heart Of Our Foundress
Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier
Once upon a time, two hundred years ago, on the remote but beautiful Island of Noirmoutier, France, a daughter was born to exiled prisoners of the revolution in France. Little Rose Virginie Pelletier delighted in her prison-island amid the pines and sand overlooking azure waters.
But a loving family was insufficient to hide the dark side of life: slave traders on shore, the untimely death of her father, a move to a bleak boarding school on the mainland away from all that was peaceful and secure, the loss of her mother as a young teenager.
A spark of compassion for others in a similar plight grew in this young woman's heart to consuming dimensions. When she heard of the work of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, who took in women and girls caught in abusive, destructive, and dangerous situations, her heart nearly burst: this is where she belonged. And the Sisters' home was in the very neighborhood of her boarding school. God had brought her here for a purpose and she responded with all her heart. In 1814 she entered the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge and took as her patron, St. Euphrasia.
Sr. Mary Euphrasia's generosity and trust in God grew and soon she was given responsibility for the care of a group of girls and later appointed as the leader of the community. Her zeal knew no bounds; she wanted all God's children to have a safe place to grow and learn about their loving Creator. She believed that every person was of deep importance to God, with a personal calling or purpose to belong and to make a difference with her/his life. She continued to grow strong in her confidence that God loved her unconditionally. She was led through daily prayer and deep listening to God and her own spirit to form a community that was missionary (apostolic), allowing for opportunities to reach out to the whole world in search of the wounded in spirit and heart.
She also formed a Contemplative branch of the community, closely linked to the apostolic Sisters through prayer. With the blessing of the Church, amid some painful misunderstandings of some of the hierarchy and many of her own Sisters of the Refuge, Mary Euphrasia formed the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Angers, France in 1835. She was an ingenious and practical leader who attracted the assistance of other dedicated women and many like-spirited persons. By the time of her death in 1868, she had established 110 centers in 35 countries, including North America. Today approximately 5500 Sisters', active and contemplative, serve God's people in 68 countries.
Mission (Spiritual Quest)
Mary Euphrasia believed in the Good News, that God was like a compassionate Shepherd. Christ of the New Testament had revealed God as an ABBA (Father), whose love was boundless by creating us with dignity. He himself gave his life to the Father's redeeming mission of salvation, through the Spirit's work of transforming each person into God's holiness. Mary Euphrasia was courageous to act always in light of this same mission: to love and respect the dignity of the person and do all she could for the sake of people's welfare.
Faith In God
She modeled her faith in God to her Sisters in her own manner of person and the priority she placed on prayer, respect for people, and love of her calling.
Taking Jesus the Good Shepherd as the quest in her life, happiness for her was to know she was following the graces that her loving God provided in her life. Fidelity to these graces instilled a depth of peace and contentment in her that others noticed. This practice of fidelity to her calling is what created oneness with Christ, her Shepherd God.
Her strong interior life (relationship with her God) meant for her that God would be her defense and her Shepherd all through her life. This gave her the self-confidence to act for the good in spite of sometimes severe personal criticism. Her complete trust in God meant for her to trust in others as well. People responded to her humble, respectful way of relating.
No one, including Mary Euphrasia, loved suffering in and of itself. She knew suffering was a reality in most people's lives and worked to make their existence happier. It was in going about doing this "Holy Work" of the Good Shepherd, that many days were full of physical and emotional pain. She saw her suffering as a positive reality. She believed and taught her sisters that life, growth, and hope can be born through pain, sorrow and disappointment. She and her sisters claimed the symbol of the Shepherd, who lays his life down for others.
Sacramental Life of the Church
Mary Euphrasia found a home in the Church through its sacramental life, liturgical year, and the scriptures as signs of the living presence of Christ in the world. The Eucharist, for her, was the greatest gift of God's mercy, the mystery of God's love for her. In receiving the Eucharist we are each joined with Christ who is given, blessed, broken, and transformed.
Her zeal is validated through the Church be extending and protecting her mission. This is the work and doings of the Spirit, which animates the mission and works of the Church. Mary Euphrasia's joy was knowing that she and the Church were one in Christ and with all the people of God.
Mary Euphrasia was herself transformed by her fidelity to the people of God. The Church declared this fidelity holy: she was made a saint in 1940. St. Mary Euphrasia probably said on that day, "I couldn't have done it without you." In fact, she always would say this in her many encouraging letters sent to the sisters ministering around the world.
This is just one story of a person who felt the inner movement of God in her heart and responded. God did the rest...and the harvest was overflowing and her joy complete. Each person can ask, "How is the merciful, Shepherd God speaking within me...how can I listen and act more faithfully?"