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Clauda Chastel: One Of The First CSJ Sisters

One way to gain a new perspective on history is to listen to the voice of someone who was there. Sister Marie McNamara has fashioned the following story in the first person and used historical texts as sourcebooks. She helps us hear the voice of Claua Chastel, one of the first Sisters of St. Joseph.

"My name is Clauda Chastel. I am an ordinary 17th century French woman. But I am also one of the first women to become a Sister of St. Joseph. Let me tell you how this came about and what it means.

"When I was quite young, I felt a call in my heart, a call from God.  And I felt a call to express the love that I received in prayer and in reaching out to the neediest of God's people. But there was a problem. The invitation to prayer seemed like a call to be a religious. But that would mean living an enclosed life and I would not be able to serve the poor actively. And there was another problem.

"My family was not wealthy. I could read a little and I could write my name, uncommon at this time for someone like myself. Even though I had some education, there was not enough money for the dowry required to enter a religious order.

"But God made his design known in a different way. One day a visiting Jesuit missionary, Father Jean Pierre Médaille, came to our parish church. He preached about the great compassion of God, of the Son of God who gave himself for us so totally, and of the Spirit, the love that binds us all together as one. He spoke about the dear neighbour so hungry for God's compassionate love. As he spoke my heart caught fire. Was this not the very awareness and desire of my own heart?

"I requested to speak with Father Médaille. It was easy to share with him all that was moving within me and how what he said seemed an echo of my own desire. How attentively he listened to me.

"Then he told me of several other women who had shared similar desires with him. He discerned that God was at work here. He suggested that I meet with these other women.

"And so it began. Under the guidance and with the help of Fr. Médaille, we began to live together in groups of three. We prayed together. We left our little dwellings to tend to the needs of God's little ones — the orphans, the prisoners, the street women, the widows, the sick. Then we would share with each other 'the state of the heart' — as Fr. Médaille called it – sharing the action of God's spirit in our prayer and in our work.

"People were very confused about us. Who were these women who prayed like nuns but who did not live in a cloister but moved about serving those in need? Nuns didn't go out! And we earned our keep. We were excellent lace-makers and the money we earned in this work was used for those we served.

"Then something extraordinary happened. A new bishop came to Le Puy, Bishop de Maupas by name. Fr. Médaille visited him and told him about the "Little Design" taking shape in his diocese. Bishop de Maupas was a man of prayer and discernment. After listening to Fr. Médaille and after praying about the matter, he approved of what Fr. Médaille told him. He asked Fr. Médaille to choose some of the women he directed to take charge of St. Joseph's House of Charity in LePuy. This was a place of welcome and care for young women who were homeless and for widows and pilgrims.

"And so we became truly "women religious" placed under the protection of Saint Joseph. On Oct. 15th, 1650, six of us pronounced our vows: Marguerite Burdier from Vienne, Anna Chalayer from Lyon, Anna Vey, Anna Brun, and Francoise Eyraud from LePuy, and myself — Clauda Chastel,  from Mende. I must tell you that I was the only one in the group who could sign her name at the ceremony.

"Our Little Design flourished as we tried to live entirely for God and the dear neighbour. Our model was Jesus in the Eucharist. We were given a rule of life and we lived in the spirit of the Maxims of Perfection, which we knew by heart.  Many houses were established both in the towns and in the countryside. We lived simply and dressed like the widows of the day. We were inspired by the self-emptying love of Jesus and by his zeal, by the gentle attentiveness of Mary to God's spirit, and, of course, by the cordial charity of Joseph our patron.

"We began to gather other women into Confraternities of Mercy. These women, called associees or agregres, came from all classes of society. Each of them received spiritual formation that helped them live good and holy lives. They joined with us in promoting the mission of the Great Love of God."

Written by Marie McNamara CSJ
Drawing from Frontier Women: Sisters of St. Joseph by Veronica O'Reilly CSJ, published in 1986 by Sadifa Media.

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