In the second half of the Apostles Creed, we acknowledge the Communion of Saints. Over 10,000 individuals have been recognized as saints in the Catholic Church. Saint Julie Billiart, the Smiling Saint, is one of these recognized individuals. But who is Julie and what is her story?
The French Revolution
Saint Julie lived during the tumultuous times of the French Revolution. As a child, she experienced severe paralysis of her legs after witnessing an attempt on her father’s life. Despite her physical limitations, she remained true to her Christian upbringing. Her prayer life was evident to all who knew her. People were drawn to her bedside to pray with her and listen to her words of wisdom.
The French Revolution brought restrictions to clergy requiring priests to take an oath to the government, rather than the Church. Julie, with the help of her friends, provided shelter for priests in a variety of locations. The goal of the revolution was to de-Christianize the entire French region.
One day, while still paralyzed and hiding from government officials, Julie experienced a vision of women around a cross wearing a habit that she did not recognize. She then heard these words, “These are the daughters that I give you in the Institute that will be marked by my cross.”
Julie loved God but did not understand how she could fulfill the vision considering her inability to move her legs. During this intense time of revolution, Julie learned of the killing of several of her friends who were Carmelite nuns. These nuns were guillotined in Paris because they refused to submit to government control. With the help of her friends, Julie moved several times during the terrors of the revolution to avoid the same fate as her Carmelite friends.
One of the safe places Julie moved to was a chateau in Bettencourt. It was here that Julie began to understand her call to teach the Catholic faith to young people. On February 2, 1804, Julie and her two friends committed themselves to God by a vow of chastity to the care and education of young girls. This was the founding day of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Amiens, France. Shortly after her commitment to this calling, Julie prayed a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. During this novena, Julie received healing in her legs and was able to walk again. In another vision in 1806, Julie saw her Sisters as a “light of revelation” traveling the seas to other parts of the world.
After receiving healing, Julie walked many roads in France and Belgium organizing communities of Sisters and establishing schools for young girls. Life was not easy for this Smiling Saint. Yet throughout her struggles, she proclaimed the goodness of God in all things.
The Goodness Spreads throughout the World
In 1809, the Sisters moved from Amiens, France to Namur, Belgium. The name of the congregation changed to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Many years later, after the death of Saint Julie, the Sisters of Notre Dame established communities and schools in Amersfoort, Holland and in Coesfeld, Germany. Before long, the Sisters of Notre Dame were well established in communities and schools throughout the United States. Currently, the Sisters of Notre Dame are located in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, the Sisters of Notre Dame provide services in five continents, fourteen time zones, and seventeen countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, India, Papua New Guinea, and Philippines.
The Sisters of Notre Dame provide pre-school to university education at all socio-economic levels. In the 1950’s, the Sisters of Notre Dame began teaching children Braille in Covington, Kentucky. Tommy Rettig, star of the TV Show, Lassie and other known celebrities were also educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame. In 1973, the Sisters began writing the Christ Our Life book series that taught children the love God and the richness of the Catholic faith.
The charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame is rooted in prayer and contemplation. This charism is marked by a deep experience of the goodness of God. Many times, in the life of Saint Julie, she would proclaim, “Oh, how good is the good God!” Whether she was amid the torments of the French Revolution or walking through the towns of France and Belgium to establish convents and schools, Saint Julie proclaimed the goodness of God with a smile. She saw God’s goodness in all things and instilled that charism within the congregation she founded.
The Sisters' Cross
The cross worn by the Sisters of Notre Dame is a special design. The front of the cross depicts the Trinity. At the top of the cross is the Father’s right hand as He sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The face of Jesus is not tortured but reflects dignity and peace as He submits to the Father’s will. The hands of Jesus are pointed downward which indicates His extended love to all mankind.
On the back of the cross is the symbol of the Sisters of Notre Dame congregation. This symbol is the initials ND with a cross in the top center of the letters. The ND stands for Notre Dame. Notre Dame is French for Our Lady, who was one with Jesus, her Son, in His sacrifice for us.
Saint Julie was canonized in 1969. Her feast day is May 13. Saint Julie used the image of a sunflower as a metaphor for how our lives should be focused on the goodness of God. Saint Julie encouraged her Sisters to “be like the sunflower that follows every movement of the sun, and keep your eyes always turned toward our good God.”
Saint Julie Billiart, pray for us!