In a room with aged paintings transformed into a chapel while renovating other buildings of their parent house in Paris, the sisters of Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny sing “Lord, take pity! in Lingala. In the assembly, nuns from Africa, India, America, and some French women from mainland France and overseas… who, every morning, before breakfast, begin their day with lauds and Mass together. “Here, the whole world is present! exclaims Sister Tiaheitapu from the Marquesas Islands, responsible for one of the two communities that live here, seventeen sisters of eight different nationalities, serving the generalate. The superior general and her council form the second community – eleven religious of nine different nationalities.
Like many international congregations, the Sisters of Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny have experienced a shift in their numbers by country from North to South. Why, then, keep the parent company in France and launch major works there? Is this relevant, as Sister Clare Stanley, the current Superior General, is from Sierra Leone, a small West African country on the Atlantic coast? “I come from the most beautiful country in the world,” she says to any visitor who enters her office. On the wall, portraits of superiors general since the foundress, Anne-Marie Javouhey, who was herself a missionary in Africa and worked for the liberation of slaves in Mana in Guyana. Under their gaze, Sister Clare willingly agrees to an interview in French, the official language of the house, even if all the documents are translated into English, Spanish and Portuguese. Keeping the motherhouse in France is an element of stability for an international congregation dependent on geopolitics, she explains. The changes of regime, the rise of extremisms indeed weaken the sisters in certain regions of the world that she prefers to remain silent in order not to put them in danger. In these circumstances, the Generalate appears as a source place where, whatever their origins, the Sisters of Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny are at home. Moreover, all the communities contribute, to their extent, to the financing of the renovation work.
“Here is our family home. When we arrive, we are expected, welcomed”, confirms Sister Sabine, Malagasy, passing through the house before going to a symposium on leprosy in Rome. This director of a leprosarium in Madagascar lived for thirteen years in Senegal and three years in Niger before returning to her country. Due to the massive vocations in India and Africa, the communities are increasingly made up of indigenous sisters. In order to preserve the missionary spirit of the origins and the international dimension of the Congregation, it is necessary to ensure that the sisters move, are mixed together in the communities. This does not happen without resistance. “I cried so much when I arrived in Senegal. I wondered what I was doing there when there were already many missionaries and I wanted to serve the poor of my country”, recalls Sister Sabine. Little by little, she realized that she treated the Senegalese with the same benevolence as if they were Malagasy. Above all, this life of prayer and self-sacrifice was all she had come to seek when entering the congregation.
Throughout the world, the daughters of Anne-Marie Javouhey are thus united by the same call to mission, their belonging to the same family, and the charisma of “bringing every man on his feet”, of helping him to believe in his destiny, to regain his dignity. Depending on the needs of the environment and their skills, they experience it as teachers, nurses, catechists, accountants… It doesn’t matter. “Our mission is to bring the love of God, of Jesus, to the world. Love is not a work, it is a spirit that dwells in us, that can be seen,” recalls Sister Clare Stanley.
“Our father was always late to pick us up from school at night. While waiting for him, I saw a sister watching over us while praying her rosary. It touched me,” says Sister Marie-Angéline, who works in accounting. Like her, many nuns in the congregation are former pupils of the sisters. Now a board member, Sister Marie Fatima, from Senegal, was “saved” by the Sisters of Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny. In her cell-sized office, she says, “There was nothing in my village when the missionaries arrived in 1967, the year I was born. My mother having lost all her other children, the sisters did everything to keep me alive. With priests, they built a dispensary and a school where Sister Marie Fatima was educated.
Is embracing a religious vocation, in certain countries, a means of escaping poverty? Seeing these autonomous women, living among themselves, housed and fed, can indeed seem attractive. In the eyes of Sister Clare Stanley, this is one of the prejudices that die hard. She herself comes from one of the poorest countries in Africa. If it were true, poor women would come knocking on their door every day, she comments, while acknowledging that this temptation can exist in Madagascar. This is why, during the novitiate, “formation in interior freedom is essential”, emphasizes Sister Marie Fatima, who had the good fortune to train novices from Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville for six years in Dakar. Availability to follow Christ, openness to discernment to seek together to do his will by responding to the needs of the times are also part of the human and spiritual formation of religious, which is the same regardless of the province where a novitiate.
This formation continues, once the temporary vows have been pronounced, by learning a trade and, often, at the university level. The more the sisters are formed, it is estimated here, the more they will be able to collaborate, in particular with the priests, in a spirit of complementarity, not of competition. The more they will also be protected from possible abuse. It is indeed the lack of education that creates inequalities and relations of domination. In India, many nuns today are better educated than priests. In Africa, it is beginning, according to the superior general.
With or without pepper? Peals of laughter come from the dining room. “Here, we are forging a missionary stomach! », proclaims Sister Agnès, « one of Sister Clare’s arms ». The sisters cooked dishes from their countries alongside those prepared by the cook. It’s hard not to talk about work at the table. January and June are intensive months when the counselors report on their canonical visits. The rest of the year, they travel the world in the name of the Superior General.
After the pandemic that grounded them in the parent company, they run and fly away as soon as possible. Depending on the territory, a visitation can last up to three months during which the councilor meets with the superior and each religious in the province. She also goes to see the works of the congregation. “Our goal is to encourage the sisters, to help them find their solutions”, explains in a soft voice Sister Luciana, Indian, in charge of her vast country with her calm-faced compatriot, Sister Teresa, who adds: “This they are the soldiers on the spot. This direct contact with the field offers them a privileged observatory of the state of Catholicism in the world and of the missionary dynamism of their congregation. When she talks about it, Sister Clare Stanley’s plump face lights up: “When I see how much the sisters give to make life better, I think wow! Their confidence helps me to love them. »
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