I was recently introduced to Saint Julie Billiart, the Smiling Saint, who lived during the French Revolution. Since my initial introduction, I have learned more about this remarkable woman and the founding of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
The initial religious congregation founded by Saint Julie is known as the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. This congregation was founded in Belgium. After Saint Julie’s death, two separate religious congregations were inspired by the work of Saint Julie and organized in Holland and Germany.
Saint Julie’s Story
As shared in my previous article, 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
Sister Julie Biliart died in 1816 at the age of 65. Shortly after her death, Reverend Mathias Wolff, SJ in Amersfoort, Holland sends three young women to the Sisters of Notre Dame in Belgium to be trained in religious life. His goal is to establish a congregation for women religious. In 1822, after receiving training from the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur, the women worked with Reverend Wolff to establish the Sisters of Notre Dame in Amersfoort, Holland.
The Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld, Germany was founded by Sister Maria Aloysia Wolbring and Sister Mary Ignatia in 1850. Both women received training from the Sisters of Notre Dame in Amersfoort, Holland prior to founding the Coesfeld congregation.
Through Saint Julie, the Belgium, Holland, and Germany congregations shared a common bond of spirituality. This common bond continues today.
Before long, the Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld were well established in communities and schools throughout the United States. Currently, the Sisters of Notre Dame are located in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin. In addition, the Sisters of Notre Dame provide services in five continents, fourteen time zones, and seventeen countries including Germany, Italy, England, the Netherlands, United States, Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.
The Sisters of Notre Dame provide education at all socio-economic levels from pre-school to university. 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 cross worn by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Coesfeld 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 Biliart 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!