Abbey Préteseille's letter to the 1994 General Chapter

Almost 25 years after the beatification of Marie Poussepin, we reproduce the letter that Abbey Bernard Préteseille addressed to the General Chapter of 1994.


 - In loving and grateful memory -

Sisters, excuse me for mixing these minor reflections with your so important works on “Marie Poussepin, Social Apostle of Charity”. I have one excuse. It is upon the request of Mother Inés Mercedes, and you understand that I insist, at all cost, to give her this testimony of my very deep appreciation.

I am aware of having said with scrupulous exactitude all that I could have said regarding your venerable Foundress, but I was a prisoner, at that time, of the framework of the Positio. Everything was predetermined to bring out favorable elements in order to reach the Cause of Beatification. It was strictly necessary and by the grace of God, the result was achieved. But today, free from all these demands, I feel compelled to freely look at her physiognomy and her works. Nothing obliges me to do so. I do not have a new work in mind regarding the subject, but just some personal pleasure which allows me to go forth and make a few remarks to picture her in a pragmatic way, and to better discern the hand of Providence in her holiness. Allow me to share with you a few of these thoughts on the fringe of your chapter work. You are free to accept my point of view or prefer others. At least, I am happy to communicate them to you as a sign of the affection I have for you.

My first reflection, that is becoming more and more a conviction, is the importance of the events in the life of Marie Poussepin. It is engraved in her tombstone: “She saw and she did what was good in the eyes of the Lord.” It is true, but she only saw it little by little, progressively. She had no calculated and pre-established plan. It was the events which successively revealed God’s designs for her. It was already true in Dourdan and I have demonstrated that. The death of her mother, the frustrations of her father, and her responsibility to give her young brother a secure position, each event dictated what she had to do and determined the way to do it. I have the impression it was the same for her work as Foundress. God put forth the circumstances which traced the course of action. It was the work of Providence more than her own.

Twice she recognized it as such. In 1712 first of all, in her letter to lawyer Arrault, she presented herself as “a woman inspired by Providence”, and in 1724, after having obtained the Letters Patent, while presenting the state of the Congregation to the solicitor, she declared: “It is the work of God, who has used such a weak creature.” Don’t believe that these were only verbal formulas of humility. Marie Poussepin was too simple and sincere for that. She only said what was her deep conviction. God conducted everything as He wanted.

This was evident in the foundation of Sainville. She had no idea, when she went to visit her family, of what was waiting for her. She discovered greater misery than what she was attending to in Dourdan. There were numerous orphan girls “without shelter and without help,” the sick were without assistance and it was a place “where ignorance was widespread to say the least”. The fine pastor of the village must have told her about the pathetic situation and the project for an establishment was drafted.

A few months later, in January 1696, it was realized. There was still but only one parish in Sainville, as she states on November 13, 1697 in the act of surrender of her property to Noelle Menard: “to found a community of the third-order of Saint Dominic for the service of the parish”.

You may ask me how it was possible when two months previously Marie Poussepin had already made a foundation in Janville. There is an explanation. That year, following an ordinance of Louis XIV on the re-organization of hospital establishments, the three houses for health care in Janville were restructured into one hospice, but they did not have the personnel for the services. The authority responsible for this was none other than the duchess of Beauvillier, the great minister Colbert’s own daughter. At the time, there was a small clan of devout persons in Versailles who followed the duke of Bourgogne, the grandson of Louis XIV and his presumed heir. The Beauvilliers were influencial, the duke having directed the prince’s education. Mespolie also has his share. In 1710, he dedicated the second edition of his writings on the Rosary to the duchess of Bourgogne. We can see how all was linked. In her distress, Madame de Beauvillier turned to Mespolie and he insisted that Marie Poussepin respond. It was a very difficult undertaking. Sainville had no more than one year and a half of existence and very few subjects capable of assuming this responsibility. But how could she refuse Father Mespolie, to whom she owed so much? Painfully, two sisters were sent but Marie Poussepin waited for years before renewing such an improvisation.

It was in 1708 that the second foundation was made in Auneau. Auneau is ten kilometers from Sainville, and here again there were hidden reasons. Other than a parish church in Auneau, there was an ancient priory entrusted to a prior and endowed with revenue. In 1705, the bishop of Chartres had taken all the property. The last prior, the canon of Segonzac had a house at the entrance of the priory, which he kept without interest. He sold it to Marie Poussepin in order to establish a work of charity which was lacking in the area. This was a strange transaction, the seller promised to give it to Marie Poussepin for one quarter the selling price “to support her good intentions and for the continuation of the works of charity which she would undertake with such success.” It was clear that the canon pushed her to this foundation.

Nevertheless, we must recognize that these foundations of establishments correspond well to the desire of spreading out that Marie Poussepin had. No doubt, Sainville was what she wanted before all else. It was the place of government, formation and regular renewal for all the sisters. Moreover, it was to this house that the Letters Patent and the approval by the bishop of Chartres referred. With regard to the documents of 1712, she had declared that she was “of good will to have other establishments, as many as would be in agreement with the parish priests and the inhabitants” and she named the seven villages where she had already sent sisters. We do not doubt the zeal she had to extend the good work which she had undertaken.

We must also note that this expansion did not follow a systematic plan and she depended upon (the) providential circumstances. The foundations were often connected to one another and responded to the wishes of certain dignitaries.

Thus, the distant foundation of Jouarre in 1718 can be explained by the fact that the abbess of this great monastery was also dame de Coltainville near Chartres where a foundation was established in 1712. It was the same for the Bishop of Orleans, Monseigneur Fleuriau, who was very much satisfied with the Sisters of Janville. In 1713, he asked for sisters for the hospice and the school of Meung-sur-Loire, in 1728 for his family property in Armenonville, in 1733 for Puisseaux and in 1738 for Tourry. In the same way, when Monseigneur Languet de Gercy, bishop of Sens, made a call to the daughters of Marie Poussepin to come to Joingy in 1739, after terminating a very delicate situation there, he did it on the recommendations of Monsieur Lepelletier-Desfort who in 1737 had placed them at the head of his hospice in Saint-Fargeau. Evidently, God directed everything through circumstances which He prompted and Marie Poussepin had reasons to recognize it as such in 1724. Yet we have the right to ask ourselves if there was not a personal part of the “weak creature” which He used to realize His designs.

Portada 1

She saw what was good in the eyes of the Lord and she did it.” This is the exact summary of her entire life; the prominent characteristic being simplicity. It is a trait of which we have not exhausted all the richness. Canon Brillon reports that the Bishop of Chartres, Monseigneur Godet des Marais, had recognized “the candor and simplicity of this good woman”. Marie Poussepin herself wrote to the lawyer, Maitre Arrault that she “wished to remain in great simplicity.” But what is simplicity?

It is a pleasant natural quality which is felt rather than defined. It excludes all complication and pretense. It accepts to appear just as we are and to act in good faith.

Indisputably Marie Poussepin had this quality. She had more than an attitude of humility. “Simplicity, Fenelon said, consists in showing who we are, modesty in hiding it. It is the uprightness of a soul which avoids turning everything to oneself and one’s actions.” It is also a virtue. The Scriptures mention it often; there it was more than simplicity of character. Simplicity is uprightness and integrity with God and others. It resists having a divided will and heart. In all, it only looks at what is pleasing to the Lord, what is His will and resolutely does it without hesitation.

In summary, it is precisely what is inscribed on Marie Poussepin’s tombstone: she saw what was good in the eyes of the Lord and she did it. We can perceive it at the time she was in Dourdan, the events showed her duty and she responded immediately, and she did so when her mother died as well as when her father went bankrupt and when she had to prepare her brother to face life. Upon the foundation of Sainville it was the same: she saw the misery of the countryside as a call from God and without hesitation she gave herself to giving them care. The virtue of simplicity was her usual attitude. It is evident that her attitude is equal to perfect charity, that which the Church will recognize in her through the beatification.

In the first chapter of her Rule, she said how you should be. It was her own rule of life: “Imitate the charity of Jesus Christ: ...that all his life was a continuous exercise of charity. His adorable heart burned with love for His Father and for all men. The sisters will make every effort to maintain in themselves this divine virtue.” Here, she said all that she was.

Let us say however, that her real personal Charism was to love God in her neighbor. In my book, “Marie Poussepin or the Exercise of Charity” I tried to show that the progressive development of her spirituality was due to her faithful devotion to the confraternity of charity in Dourdan. Her mother introduced her to it and we can admire her fidelity in accomplishing the tasks in spite of her family and business responsibilities. When we read the rules established by St. Vincent de Paul for this association, we can see how demanding they are and how, through the daily repetition of these minute acts towards the sick poor, they constituted a true school of charity. For more than twenty years Marie Poussepin did this assiduously and with such dedication that she was entrusted with the principal responsibilities. Entering the third-order of Saint Dominic in 1691 or 1692 changed nothing since the works of mercy were one of the main obligations of the tertiaries. We would like to have some indications of her soul’s progress in charity. We only have two.

When in 1691 she left all the responsibilities of the enterprise to her brother, she retires to the upper room to give herself to no other work but to that of the Confraternity. We then see that in 1693, she welcomed the poor Marie Olivier to her home and diligently cared for her until she died. This is only a fact, but a very enlightening one. It explains why two years later in 1695, the misery of Sainville will find in this soul full of charity the response which we know.

The forty eight years that followed would be nothing but an exercise of charity. The villagers, during the “commodo and incommodo” inquiry unanimously testify to it. I will not repeat it since you know about it and you have read it. It is from this same source which is charity that I believe I should attribute her founding of the establishments. She wrote, “The community (153) will not confine itself to closing in upon itself the abundance it has received from heaven. It will take the means to spread it abroad generously and abundantly.” As the community was gradually able to, why not look elsewhere to duplicate the good achieved in Sainville, there, where others wanted it? It was not the desire for expansion and growth, but it was new productions of the same charity. A sure sign for me that it was really supernatural charity that was operating, is that Marie Poussepin asked her daughters not only to instruct the children in the schools, but above all, she insisted that they teach them to become real Christians. Before all else, she wanted them to bring “with them, (124) wherever they are called, the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His mysteries, and that they may kindle in all hearts the love for His divine Majesty.” She did not only send them out to care for the sick at home and in the hospitals, but she also wanted them to be concerned about the good of their souls and their conversion to God.

And again she extended their mission to conferences or retreats for adults and families; it was a question of spiritual progress. In all, Marie Poussepin, in her person as in her works was authentic charity and she whom the church will beatify is not a Foundress who made many foundations, but a soul of charity who made these foundations through charity.

Let us not mistake what is her true nature. We have seen in the last twenty years before the Revolution a certain number of bishops who have taken credit in society and used their fortunes for great social endeavors: opening canals, campaigns for vaccination, petitions regarding the treatment of black people, or foundations of schools for the deaf and mute, etc… Through all of this they wanted to respond to the attacks of the philosophers of enlightenment and to prove that religion had a social usefulness. They were called “physiocrat prelates”. Noble initiative, no doubt, but they were not inspired by charity. That was one of the great differences between the 17th and the 18th century. In the 18th, especially in the second half of the century, the scientific progress allowed for significant economic improvements. At the same time, the poor and marginalized had become useless beings, lazy or unfortunate. The decline of Confraternities of Charity like the one in Dourdan, during this time, shows it well.

On the contrary, the 17th century was a century of charity. Saint Vincent de Paul inspired others, and with him a whole galaxy of men and women multiplied charitable foundations. It was the time when Bossuet proclaimed in Paris “the eminent dignity of the poor in the Church of Jesus Christ”. The poor, the sick, the miserable were sacred beings, images of Jesus Christ whom we respected and who aroused benevolence and devotion, according to the gospel of Saint Matthew: “that which you do to the least, you do to me”.

We can see the difference between the two centuries. Marie Poussepin was a woman of the century of charity. It is thus that we should look at the person and her work, and that is why you did well to entitle your present works as “social apostolate of charity”.

So, did Marie Poussepin have a social role? To respond with exactitude, we must consider short term and long term. While she was living, there was the period of Dourdan and that of Sainville. In Dourdan, it was her belonging to the Confraternity of Charity. She did not initiate it, as she was only ten years old when it was started. She joined it after her mother died; but for twenty years she was one of the principal animators and with such devotion that she received the most important responsibilities: that of treasurer and then president. Essentially a Christian association of charity, the Confraternity equally assured a mission of help to the poor sick population, without her they would not have benefitted from this assistance. Today it would be a social service sponsored by the government. It was therefore, real social action, although inspired by charity.

Sainville was also created through Marie Poussepin’s charity and her diverse establishments as well. It was before all a work of charity, charity towards neighbor first, according to the personal charism of the holy Foundress and her compassion towards the sick poor and ignorant little girls. But at the same time we cannot deny that this work brought about improvement to the social condition of the country at that time. Teaching and caring for the sick were useful public works. It is all the more evident that they were in perfect agreement with the policy of Louis XIV. At the time when Marie Poussepin founded her Institute, the King was effectively reorganizing the deplorable situation of the hospices and hospital establishments and had given a ruling that all the communes procure a school teacher. The work of charity of the Foundress of Sainville was therefore at the same time social work. But we must measure its real importance.

Marie Poussepin did not create anything new. She just inserted herself in the whole vast movement which was developing in France during her time. I will let Sister Madeleine (St. Jean) tell you about all the charitable initiatives which were devoted to public teaching and to health establishments. They were only one among many. Let us also acknowledge that her twenty establishments were limited to an area. Others had more. Did her works have any original characteristics? It seems to me there were two. First, her field of action was one of the great afflictions of the time, that of rural misery. It was urgent. The other characteristic was her tenacious will for gratuitousness. All the depositions of the inquiry of “commodo et incommodo” have freely repeated it. She saw very well that her actions regarding schools and hospitals could only be accomplished, if the people without money did not have to pay. To reach that goal she found an original formula: that her charitable work was done in poverty and work. I will leave the development of this aspect to Sister Madeleine. If it were necessary for me to conclude this, to summarize my thoughts, I would say: Did Marie Poussepin accomplish a work of charity? Yes, and even a distinguished one. This is one of the elements motivating her imminent beatification. Did Marie Poussepin have a social action? Once again I say yes, as I have tried to show you, but adding, it was a limited social role.

And now I must speak about the long term that is beyond her death in 1744. Everything did not stop at that moment and I would like to recall it now. Marie Poussepin was before all else a Foundress. She repeated it twice in the act of 1697 and she wanted that her community be established “forever.” She cared for the recruitment and formation of the novices until 1732. For the future of her institute she struggled for twelve years in order to obtain the Letters Patent for establishments, and took the necessary steps to transmit the possessions of her community to her sisters. Always with the future in mind she wrote the “Rule” where she expressed her ideas and her spirit. This happened in 1738, she could die in peace six years later: her work was going to survive her. In the work done by her sisters, the Institute continued until the Revolution. A few new establishments were opened but former ones closed. We can see the continuity of the foundation until the moment of the catastrophe. In 1791, it was the suppression of religious institutes. Sainville was desecrated and the sisters were expelled.

The law of 1794 excluded religious from the schools and teaching. On the contrary, the municipalities which had no health personnel often asked for the ex-hospital sisters to wear lay clothing and to continue to care for their sick. That is what happened especially in Janville where a small nucleus of the Community remained. Was the work of the Foundress going to die?

Providence did not want it to. When Napoleon took over the government, everything changed. He authorized the former communities to be reconstituted, but only the teaching and hospital sisters. This was the case of the “few remaining” in Sainville who obtained in 1803 to have a superior and to accept vocations. Then all started again, always in fidelity to Marie Poussepin. Her Rule was until 1887, for about 150 years, the only Rule of the Congregation. It was to be the Rule of Mother Saint Pierre and Mother du Calvaire. It was also that of the sisters who established themselves in Spain, Colombia and Iraq. The connection is unique. The works are also the same as in Sainville: hospitals and teaching with some adaptations due to the needs of the times. Then they were extended significantly during the 19th century.

The hospital establishments could only function due to the dedication of the sisters, and most of the schools were in the hands of the religious until the disastrous “lay laws” at the end of the century. This was the time of the great expansion of the Congregation of the Presentation. But the XIX Century is also the great century for missions and the daughters of Marie Poussepin did their share, in Iraq responding to the request of the Dominican missionaries and in Colombia with a spectacular development. Today this effort became a priority in all Latin America, India and Africa.

Rest assured sisters: I do not have the intention to recount history. You know it very well. I only wanted to invite you to reflect upon the incalculable amount of good you have brought to humanity in 250 years. That is the long term of the social work of Marie Poussepin, for all of this came from the will of the Foundress and the spirit with which she inspired her institute. “Our works follow us.” The work of Marie Poussepin is immense.
And today where are we? Great changes have been made in the world. School and hospital initiatives are still in place in many areas, especially through their Christian character and their role of evangelization. But we must recognize that they are in competition with the social policy of each country. Does this mean that there is nothing more to do for the misery of the world? Certainly not, but it is necessary to discern the new orientation to be taken according to the diversity of the areas. I have no competence in such matter and it is the very delicate task of your general chapter with the help of the Holy Spirit. All I can say is that your social work must continue, but it will only succeed through your fidelity to the spirit of supernatural charity. That is especially what I wanted to remind you of and that is the prayer which I will faithfully bring for you at her tomb.

Bernard Préteseille, 1994


Photo by Sor Gemma Morató (Mr. Preteseille with Sr. María Fabiola Velásquez and Sr. Marie Bernard du Rosaire during the visit of John Paul II to Grande Bretèche).