Let’s go back to February 4, 1505. What is the state of the Order on the day of its Foundress’s death? There is only one convent – the one in Bourges. The founding of the other one in Albi will take place only three years later: in 1508.
Saint Joan knew only the convent in Bourges. She had great confidence in her spiritual director, Fr. Gabriel Maria. In the Chronicles of the Order we find the following: “It is my will to be called the Foundress of the Order that I wish to call to life. You, Father, will be its first director, teacher, primary defender and visitator, and the nuns shall call you Vigilant Father” (Chronique, 40).
Before dying, she entrusted her spiritual daughters into the care of Fr. Gabriel Maria, making him her spiritual heir and continuator of her work. He will create new convents and watch the growth of this young and still fragile offspring.
The co-founder of the Annunciade dedicates himself to continuous work. He carries out many various duties in the Franciscan Order, he travels across Europe, but he remains faithful to St. Joan’s primary intuition in everything and untiringly spreads the Marian cult. In 1513 he founds in Nurinburg a Confraternity of 10 Ave Maria. In 1517 he obtains the papal approval for two confraternities of the BVM associated with the Annunciades. Thus, the Order of Peace (l’Ordre de la Paix) was born. Today it is called the “Confraternity of the Annunciation. The Way of Peace” [Fraternité Annonciade. Chemin de Paix].
The character of the time is very much Franciscan. Father Gabriel Maria meets with several influential women, third-order members of the Annunciade, who contributed to the creation of new convents of this Order. The untiring Franciscan personally participated in establishing seven new foundations: Albi in 1507, Brugia in 1517, Béthune in 1516, Rodez in 1519, Bordeaux in 1520, Chanteloup in 1529, and Louvain in 1530. When Fr. Gabriel Marian died, he left the Order in full bloom! Thanks to his efforts, the Order reached Aquitaine and Flanders. Quick growth of the Annunciate Order’s foundations is due primarily to the influence of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was betrothed in her childhood to Charles VII and brought up at the French court. When she became the Regent of Holland, she showed great interest for the Franciscan Order and for the Order founded by Joan de Valois, whom she had known personally.
Religious wars hindered the creation of new foundations. The 16th century saw the last new foundation to be established: Ligny-en-Barrois, in 1554. The next would appear nearly 50 years later – in 1602, in La Réole. The Order of the Annunciades suffered tremendously as a result of religious wars, especially its convent in Bourges where the earthly remains of the Foundress were profaned and then burned.
THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES
Growth of the Annunciade
The beginning of the 17th century, which coincided with the counter-reformation, became, generally speaking, the beginning of the renewal of the consecrated life of women. Numerous new foundations sprang up. The Annunciate Sisters fitted well into the renewal movement dominating the entire 17th century; however, they did not open any new foundations in the following century.
As much as the 17th century was a time of the Order’s flowering, it was also the time of the departure of some of its members, mainly from the convents in Lorraine, Picardy, and Holland badly hit by wars. However, the wars did not stop the Order’s growth. More than 40 new convents were established within French, Belgian, Dutch, and German borders of the times. Convents in Louvain (1530), Albi (1508), and Ligny en Barrois (1554) had the greatest number of new foundations: 7, 4, and 5, respectively. Also, the community in Bourges founded 5 new religious houses, while the majority of other communities founded on average 1 to 3 new convents. Some communities did not found any.
In the 17th century the Order experienced an expansion in the territories occupied by the Holy Roman Empire. Convents were established in Antwerp and Venlo. In addition, the community in Antwerp also established a convent in Dűren (1628) in upper Rhine, out of which sprang up the foundations in Aachen (1646) and Andernach (1657). The community of Velno created the convents in Coesfeld (1657) and Wiedenbrűk (1669).
Contribution of the female Franciscan Third Order
to the growth of the Annunciade
Starting in 1610, the French Provincials of the Franciscans in France, namely Fr. Pierre Boiteux (1619-1622) and Fr. Jacques Lafroigne (1622-1626) conducted a “reform” of the female Franciscan Third Order that was, just like the Annunciades, part of the Franciscan religious family. The Provincials established for them enclosed convents and allowed the taking perpetual vows. This way numerous third-order communities from Roye, Melun, Gisors, Gandawy, Venlo, Alost, etc., were added to the Annunciade. The decision of placing the third-order Franciscans under enclosures registered itself well in the general climate after the Council of Trent, when religious rules were standardized for all consecrated persons.
Thus, the Annunciades owe much to their Franciscan roots, which proved to be a blessing for them. By helping the Friars Minor in reforming the third-order communities, they gained the numerical growth of new foundations of their own Order. The co-operation with the Annunciades proved just as profitable for the Franciscans, who had the Annunciades under their legal care, because the Annunciades were fully involved in the life of the Franciscan Provinces into which they were incorporated.
SITUATION OF THE CONVENTS DURING THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR (1618-1648)
Apart from the time of the French Revolution of 1789, the Thirty Years’ war and the Fronde proved to be the most difficult periods of the 17th century, just like the war for Spanish succession in the 18th century.
In 1633, a conflict arose between Louis XIII, supported by Cardinal Richelieu, and Charles IV, the Duke of Lorraine. These conflicts caused plundering, fires, famine, and epidemics... However, they did not hinder the development of the Order.
The convent in Varennes-en-Argonne, founded in 1624, was badly damaged by war activities. Endangered nuns found refuge in Clermont-en-Argonne, the civil authorities from whom they requested permission to settle, required promise that they would not become a burden. Their temporary legal status was regulated by a decree of the Bishop of Verdun, Francis of Lorraine who found refuge in Cologne. When the truce was signed in 1644, the community returned to Varennes, but left several sisters behind in Clermont.
On May 29, 1635, the Swedes burned down the church and convent of the Annunciades in Saint-Nicolas-de-Port Mother Handmaid (Mère Ancelle – the official title assumed by every prioress of the Annunciades’ convent, name derived from Latin “ancilla” meaning “handmaid”) Margaret of Saint-Vrain and several sisters found refuge in France. The wife of Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, offered them a building on the outskirts of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, at the place called "Le Petit Vaugirard". The community was rebuilt there, and as soon as it was possible, Mother Margaret sent some sisters to Lorraine to have rebuilt the abandoned convent.
The religious house in Neuchâteau also was ill-fated. Mother Thard who sought safety in the Benedictine convent in Lyon, canvassed local residents for money to benefit her destitute community, living mainly in dispersion. Upon learning in 1648 about the opening of a new convent of the Annunciades in Vaucouleurs, she asked for admission and was accepted. In 1650, she and the last living nun from Neuchâteau divided between themselves the remaining convent’s possessions. In the 1680’s Mother Thard reclaimed the former religious house in Neuchâteau and decided to re-establish a community there under the direction of the local bishop.
The convent in Bruyères existed for only four years. In May of 1635, Mother Ancelle, Catherine de Bar, and the nuns were forced to flee before the Swedish army and found refuge in Badonviller. Subsequently, in accord with the Franciscan Provincial’s decision, they settled in Commercy and opened a boarding school for girls there. Unfortunately, not all the nuns were able to reach Commercy. Some nuns exhausted by hardships fell ill with the plague. Only six survived out of 20. Mother Catherine took them away to Saint Dié, where her father invited them to come. With an aching heart she viewed the ruins of a great many religious houses of her Order, which were either destroyed or abandoned. Along with other Annunciate nuns, she accepted the hospitality of the Benedictine nuns in Rambervillers and decided to enter their Order in 1639. She took the name of Mechtilde of the Most Holy Sacrament and shortly after became the foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament.
After years of wandering, three from among the nuns that left Bruyères along with Catherine de Bar found hospitality at Mrs. Des Armoises’s in Burey-en-Vaux, with whom they had previously been acquainted in Commercy. Their benefactress found them a house in Vaucoulers, where the nuns moved in 1647. We may consider this house to be a “posthumous” foundation of the convent in Bruyères.
In 1635-1636, the nuns from Brayer-sur-Somme went into dispersion due to the turmoil of war. However, three among them refused to leave the convent. On April 30, 1636, while celebrating the chapter, they acknowledged that they weren’t able to conduct proper religious life and fulfill the rule’s regulations because of their little number. Thus, they made a decision to give all their possessions to the convent in Roye, which was supposed to pay each one of them an annual rent sufficient to support a church and a convent in Braye. The Annunciades from Roye accepted the proposal on May 19, 1636. However, 20 years of war so weakened the community in Braye that it was unable to re-establishing proper religious life there and the convent was finally closed down in 1690.
Flanders and Holland
In the Chronicles of convent in Venlo we can find descriptions of attacks that it sustained. We shall recall just a few of the most important titles of its chapters:
- 1632. Recounting how the town was taken over by beggars and paupers and the troubles that the nuns had because of it.
- 1632. Recounting the death of our Reverend Mother Ancelle and her funeral as well as the fear that the beggars instilled in us.
- 1635. Recounting the death of our second Mother Ancelle and her funeral.
- 1637. Recounting how the town returned to Catholicism.
- 1639. Recounting the death of our very dear Sister Digne Cornelis.
- 1646. Recounting how we survived the siege for a second time.
POVERTY CAUSED BY WARS
Situation of the convents in Normandy
Similar to all other religious congregations of the region, the Annunciades in Normandy suffered destitution, and their material situation awoke serious concern of the Church authorities. In 1742, the Archbishop of Rouen wrote: “I am deeply concerned with the situation of the communities of nuns in my diocese. Their majority is starving. After all, they cannot be accused of not being thrifty, they spend very little on themselves. The problem is much larger...”
Significant is the example of the convent in Montfort-sur-Risle. In 1758, the local Annunciades suffered such an utmost destitution that it became impossible to preserve the rule any further. In October of 1749 there were only three nuns of the first choir (we assume that the extern sisters were not accounted for). Ten years later (1758), all three nuns moved to different convents: Sr. Theresa Aroux joined St. Clara Sisters in Bernay, while Sr. D’Ivry of St. Cecilia and Sr. Margaret Grouard of St. John went to the Annunciades in Fécamp. In 1771, all possessions of the convent in Montfort-sure-Risle were transferred to the Benedictines Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Rouen who were also suffering from poverty.
Convents within the borders of modern-day Belgium
On June 28, 1630, Mother Josiane wrote from Antwerp to Any Niellant, Mother Ancelle from Louvain concerning the formation of novices. In the lines describing the poverty reigning in both convents, we read the following: “I expect the Novice Mistress to teach the young novices humility, honest obedience, and love... I expect her to instill in the novices and our young nuns the love and attachment to our Holy Order, the Rule, the Statutes, and regulations, which she ought to explain well and help them to get to know.” The author of the letter assures the addressee – Mother Ancelle from Louvain – that she would remain available for her should she need additional explanations. She also writes (and from it we can deduce that the convent in Louvain suffered financial problems) that she would pay off the debts of the Louvain house, if she were able, but... the convent in Antwerp also struggles with poverty. Mother Josiane adds: “We feel for you very much, because we know only too well how much the spirit suffers from material poverty. The only thing we can do is to pray for one another. If only we could pay off your debts, we would’ve done it gladly, because I better like giving than receiving...”
So, what were the convents living on back in those days? Mainly by selling what the nuns made, by farming, on rents, donations, Mass stipends and dowries. However, even all this wasn’t often sufficient. Sometimes, the nuns ran schools at their convents (Clermont-en-Argonne, Tirlemont), boarding schools for girls (Popincourt, Boulogne), nursing homes (Fécamp, Louvain, Chanteloup), the latter had a ward for women suffering from hydropsy. Expenses were abundant: food, clothing, upkeep of chaplains, friends of the house, gardener... cost of lighting in the church (how much the candles for Corpus Christi or Paschal Triduum alone should’ve cost!). In addition, there were taxes and repairs that diminished considerably the Annunciades’ funds, especially in the 17th century. On the threshold of the French Revolution of 1789, buildings of many convents were nearing ruin, anyway. Even if there were periods of relative wealth, like in Popincourt, they never lasted long. In fact, even the convent in Popincourt was eventually closed down in 1780s’ for economic reasons, similarly to the religious house in Lille.
SPIRITUAL RADIANCE OF THE ORDER OF THE ANNUNCIADES
In the 17th century, Catherine de Bar, former Annunciades’ superior in Lorraine, who took the Benedictines’ habit in Rambervillers during the Thirty Years’ war, founded a new branch of the Benedictine Order –Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament. The charism of this new congregation included giving praise, celebrating the Eucharist, and choosing the Blessed Mother as their perpetual prioress – three characteristics clearly related to the tradition of the Annunciade.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the charism of St. Joan of France quite unexpectedly found its way to Poland, where Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczyński founded the Congregation of Marian Fathers in 1673. In fact, he wrote his own rule of life (Norma Vitae), centered on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.. However, this rule, which was supposed to be both the rule and the constitution (constitutiones pro regula)was not approved by the Holy See, (probably due to the decree issued by the IV Lateran Council of 1215, which forbade the approval of a newly founded religious orders based on any other then an already existing rule). His envoy therefore accepted in Rome the Marian rule composed by Fr. Gabriel Maria. For more than two centuries, the Marian Fathers lived by the Rule of the Ten Evangelical Virtues of the B.V.M. adopted for male communities, as a contemplative and apostolic order. Historical events in Poland occasioned, at the beginning of the 20th century (1909), that the Congregation of Marian Fathers undergo a renovation and/or reform when they accepted the new Constitutions foreseeing more apostolic work. Their new laws are thoroughly Marian, emphasizing the importance of the Immaculate Conception and encouraging the imitation of the Blessed Virgin’s virtues.
Also in France, the Marian charism of St. Joan of France blossomed in the 18th century with the creation of the apostolic branch of the Annunciade. In 1787 Fr. Pierre de Clerk assembled several young women at the old farm in Veltem. Their task was to teach children from poor families. Today, his modest foundation radiates with our Foundress’s charism on different continents.
During the Great French Revolution more then 1,000 nuns of the Annunciade had to leave their convents as the result of their dissolution. It cost some their lives, others were imprisoned, and the majority had to continue their religious life clandestinely. All possessions belonging to the Order were pilfered, destroyed, and partially profaned. The nuns were able to save just a few relics and implements. However, in the midst of the general destruction of goods, the spirit of the Order was far from extinguished!
Not all convent buildings were sold. Some were used for military purposes (like the religious house in Bordeaux); others served as jails during the Revolution (Boulogne, Rodez). Chapels that avoided destruction were turned into parish churches, like the former Chapel of Our Lady Patroness at the convent in Paris-Popincourt that was transformed into St. Ambrose’s parish church.
Initially, the total dispersion of the Annunciades impeded their return to communal life. The nuns’ circumstances were different. Some were accepted into other congregations (i.e. Sister of St. Cecilia initially resided at the Visitation Sisters’ in Boulogne). The majority either returned to their families or stayed in towns where their convents used to be and for years preserved the status of former nuns. Elderly and penniless nuns went mainly to nursing homes (i.e. Sr. Magdalena Sorel who came to the end of her days in Bar-le-Duc). In 1818, the pastor from Bar-le-Duc mentioned in his memoirs four more infirmed Annunciate sisters in need of care.
Very touching is the story of Sister of St. Francis of Assisi. For 23 years following the dissolution of her convent in Bouglone she was saving every penny received from good people so that she could “rebuild her little convent cell” as she was saying.
The convent in Germany mostly suffered during Napoleonic wars. The last one there was closed in 1813.
It was possible to save only one convent in Belgium – this in Tirlemont, which in 1852 gave birth to the foundation in Geel, which produced in turn a foundation in Merksem in 1898. The attempt to settle in Maastricht was unsuccessful.
The 19th century was not exclusively the time of closing the Annunciades’ convents in France: religious houses in Villeneuve-sur-Lot and Boulogne-sur-Mer were re-opened then. While the convent in Villeneuve was protected from the impact of the law of 1901 (possibly thanks the recognition of Napoleon himself) the Annunciades in general had a difficult time in the 20th century France. The convent in Boulogne was closed down while the nuns sought refuge in Germany. In 1922, despite enormous obstacles, the Annunciades made attempts of getting back to France. It was only due to Mother Ancelle’s (Marie-Emmanuel Agnéray) strong personality that the nuns were able to settle in Thiais, their present convent.
The Order’s new flowering came about in 1950-1996 when Mary of St. Francis of Assisi became Mother Ancelle. In December of 1957, upon the petition from all the Order’s convents, Cardinal Maurice Feltin “most graciously” agreed to become the protector of the Order. Mother Ancelle from Thiais was making regular visits to our religious houses in Belgium, tightening up our connections that proved indispensable in the future.
The time of 1966-1968 was a very important stage in the life of our Order. The renewal of the consecrated life proclaimed by the Vatican II occasioned all our nuns to receive a questionnaire from the superiors of the Franciscan family, to which we belong. Something long awaited and desired by all of us began to come to life, although in a manner different from what we expected. All our communities in France, Belgium and England joined in completing this task. Each of the Sisters had the opportunity to express in writing her personal opinion; individual communities also did so on behalf of the entire religious house. Each convent prepared a synthesis of replies, which was compared with the expectations of others. Finally, in the peace of the spirit, we worked out our communal conclusions. In May of 1968, the General Chapter was celebrated in Thiais to begin the reform. The spirit of unanimity reigned. The New Constitutions were sent to the Apostolic See. They were approved on July 30, 1969. We did not have to wait long, because, as we were told, we were the first religious Order to ask for approval of its renewed constitutions. The final ratification of our Constitutions according to Canon Law, after the period ad experimentum (1972-1977), came on August 24, 1984.
In period of 1960-1972, more than 20 young women entered the novitiate. Our community began to grow and we started thinking about new foundations.
On the initiative of the Ordinary of Bayeux and Lisieux, Bishop Badré, who knew us for a long time, we opened a religious house in Brucourt on August 4, 1975.
Our venture in Bartèu began in 1980. Opening a religious house at a Diocesan Center seemed to be impossible considering that both parties had to be satisfied. We took a long time to think it over. Finally, a positive decision was made! This story continues, because a year ago the community from Bartèu asked to be transferred to a mission in Costa Rica.
On July 18, 1985, Bishop Plateau let us know that there was a house in his diocese, in St. Doulchard near Bourges, which was left to us in a last will and testament. On July 16, 1988, thus began the history of another new foundation!
In 2000, the brother of our Sister-Treasurer sent us a newspaper clipping reporting on our Order, from which we learned of the sale of the Franciscan monastery in Menton, where our apostolate Sisters settled a short while afterward. I hope that another beautiful venture will be our new 2009 foundation in Lichen, Poland, where we were invited by the Marian Fathers.
Forty two of the Annunciate Sisters have left Thiais for new foundations since 1975. Seven settled in the convent in Villeneuve, nine – in Beaucourt, 12 – in Bartel, eight in Doulchard, and six in Menton. Shortly four of our Sisters will be traveling to Poland, thus bringing the total up to 46. I do not count those who left in the meantime for the foundation in heaven!
What words should we choose to sum up a brief history of our Order? We must go back to the source, to what Our Blessed Mother gave St. Joan of France as the charism of the Annunciade: “Imitating Mary in order to please Christ.”
Seeing that our Order survived for five centuries despite historical turmoil, isn’t it a confirmation of our faithfulness to our original charism, which is still very much alive among us? Isn’t it the fact that all our convents, in spite of their inner fragility, were able to respond slowly but consequently to the “signs of the times,” whose challenges we’ve been seeing even before, a sign of our submission to the Holy Spirit? If we were able, in the spirit of unity and peace, to open new foundations recently, does it not signify that the same Holy Spirit through the service of the Church (our bishops) called us to it? To all of the above I will add that everything happened thanks to a living, radiating and enduring faith of our Mother Mary of St. Francis, our Mother Ancelle in Thiais who was guiding us for 46 years!
At the very heart of our Order is Our Blessed Mother who leads us to Christ. She is our acting and enlivening “secret.” If our Order is “to survive until the end of times” as it was announced to our Foundress, it means that it is up to us to humbly but firmly preserve and pass down our Marian treasure.
Edited after the article of Mother Mary of Christ, OVM,
Mother Ancelle from the Annunciades’ convent in Thiais, France.
Copyright © 2013 The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sisters of the Annunciade)