To teach girls like Jesuits did boys
French saint founded Sacred Heart community
By Tony Staley
St. Madeleine Sophie Barat
What: Founded the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, dedicated to educating girls
Feast: May 25
St. Madeleine Sophie Barat provides a reminder to men and women everywhere of the equality of the genders and women's ability to excel if given the opportunity.
Madeleine was born Dec. 12, 1779, in Joigny, Burgundy, France. After her brother, Louis, who was 11 years her senior, was ordained a deacon, he was named master of a college and put himself in charge of the 10-year-old's education.
Because Louis believed that God wanted Madeleine, who also was Louis' goddaughter, to do some great work, he made sure her education was comparable to that of a boy. He also was a strict disciplinarian and gave her harsh penances.
In 1800, as the first fury of the French Revolution abated, Fr. Père Varin began seeking women to start an order dedicated to teaching girls, a female counterpart to the Jesuits. Louis recommended Madeleine, who, with three companions, started the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The next year at Amiens, they founded their first convent and school. Soon, they opened a second school to educate the poor. In 1802, Fr. Varin chose Madeline to serve as superior of the 23-member community, even though she was its youngest member. She held that post until her death 63 years later.
The congregation spread throughout France. In 1804, they absorbed a community of Visitation nuns at Grenoble, whose members included St. Philippine Duchesne. Philippine, 14 years later, brought the society to the United States.
In 1826, Pope Leo XII granted formal approval to the society. When the July Revolution of 1830 forced the closure of their novitiate at Poitiers, Madeleine founded a novitiate in Switzerland.
By the time of her death in Paris, on Ascension Thursday in 1865, she had opened more than 100 houses and schools in 12 countries. She also insisted education build the body and moral character.
For many decades in the U.S., her sisters were best known for educating the wealthy. Today, the 600 sisters in the U.S. work in religious and academic education in parishes and schools, and in social and health care ministries.
(Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints, Dictionary of Saints, Encyclopedia of Catholicism and 365 Saints)