Clémentine (Le Fer de la Motte) de La Corbinière.

The life and letters of Sister St. Francis Xavier (Irma Le Fer de la Motte) of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana online

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Online LibraryClémentine (Le Fer de la Motte) de La CorbinièreThe life and letters of Sister St. Francis Xavier (Irma Le Fer de la Motte) of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana → online text (page 1 of 33)
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f 1 CA:"*







8ti. Ludovici, die 7. Sept. 1917

F. O. Holweck,

Censor Librorum


Bti. Ludovici, die 7. Sept. 1917

^Joannes J. Glennon,

Sti. Ludovici

Copyright, 1917,

Sisters of Providence,

Att rights reserved
Printed in V. 8. A.


The apostolic fire burning in the heart of Sister Saint
Francis Xavier furnished to her biographer the un-
translatable title "Une Femme Apdtre" The spirit of
the Twelve had so completely possessed her that no
other term could accurately portray her; yet, in the
present edition we have dropped the old French title
through courtesy to the language, which gave so much
in the chosen word and received so little from an alien
tongue. Seldom does a work carry into a foreign dress
the artistic niceties of the original, and we can not hope
to have succeeded in producing the native charm of
"Une Femme Apdtre"; there is, however, an amount of
hitherto unused material letters and notes that can-
not fail to add new interest to the present work, and its
opportuneness, when devotion to the Most Blessed Sac-
rament is assuming an ever-increasing ardor, will be

The Life of our saintly Sister was first published in
France in 1879. By the time the English translation
appeared in 1882, it had run through ten editions in the
French, four in the German, and one in the Spanish.
The English translation has long been out of print.
As incessant demand has urged a reproduction, this re-
vised and enlarged edition promises to be not less warmly
welcomed than the former. Encouraged by this hope
we send forth the little work on its mission of con-
quest, to the glory of God, always admirable in His


We hereby protest that in portraying the character
of our beloved Sister it has been our intention to con-
form in all things to the teachings of Holy Church, and
to use such terms as saint, miracle, and the like, in the
sense authorized by the decree of Urban VIII and other
pronouncements of the Holy Apostolic See, whose judg-
ments we accept with most filial affection and humble




A revised edition of the Life and Letters of Sister
Saint Francis Xavier is especially welcome at this time,
when the centennial celebration of Indiana's statehood
has revived the memory and the worth of those who
have laid the foundation of Indiana's position and power
among the States of the Union.

The Life and Letters of Sister Saint Francis re-
freshens our memory, in a special manner, with the
heroic deeds of those, who, in the designs of Wisdom
Eternal, were destined to plant the seeds of faith, since
then grown and still growing into the mighty tree of the
Gospel. Looking only to God's glory and to the spread
of His kingdom among men, it is not surprising that
they have written so little concerning themselves.
Fortunately, in the correspondence preserved and here
presented, we have virtually an autobiography of one of
these great servants of God.

This is a remarkable book, from any point of view;
one containing the simple recital of the history of a soul
very dear to God, and of the wonderful influence over
its companions, who readily discerned the rare, super-
natural gifts of this heroine of Saint Mary-of-the-
Woods. Wholly and irrevocably had she given herself
to God, profoundly convinced as she was that "all is
vanity save to love and follow Him."

The reading of this Life will dispel the misunder-
standings, the doubts, and the fears, sometimes enter-
tained by fond mothers, concerning the true nature of


the sacrifice made by those who have chosen the better
part ; and will, we hope, fire the heart of many a young
woman with the love of the Heavenly Bridegroom, and
the longing to join the "thousands who follow the Lamb
whithersoever He goeth."


Indianapolis, Bishop Coadjutor.

October 22, 1916.


In all sincerity I can say that the invitation to write
an Introduction to the English translation of the Life
and Letters of Sister Francis Xavier, Irma le Fer de
la Motte, is an immense joy to me. I seize the occasion
eagerly, for it gives expression to my veneration for a
peculiarly gifted heroine of God's service. And, be-
sides, I am hereby placed in affectionate relationship
with a religious community whose praises are on the lips
and in the hearts of so large a portion of Catholic

Sister Saint Francis Xavier, who was a child of
benediction from her mother's womb, was chosen by
God to be the trusted associate of the sainted Mother
Theodore Guerin, the Foundress of the Sisterhood of
Providence of Saint Mary-of-the- Woods. She ranks
among the foremost of the pioneer religious of the
Church in America, as well for the bright qualities of
her noble nature as for her remarkable endowments of

Born and reared in the sanctuary of a typical
Christian family of Brittany, this elect soul enjoyed the
earliest favors of that Providence whose very name was
to be the proud title of her Community.

Irma's mother, worthy to be the Novice Mistress of
saints, spoke of her child's First Communion as if it were
her dedication to highest perfection. She wrote to a
friend about her preparation of Irma for the sublime
event :



"The child's father and I shed our tears upon the
little one, sweet tears, the prelude of still sweeter ones.
On that beautiful morning, what joy was mine while
clothing my little Irma in her white garments, symbols
of the innocence adorning her heart 1 What a moment
for a Christian mother who beholds her child for the first
time approaching the God of Angels!" words like
those of the angels of holy baptism ; but they especially
voice the feelings of a priest who officiates at the altar
when young maidens are invested with the sacred habit
of religion.

And the mother's holy anticipations were justified by
the event, for a marked change was seen in Irma after
her First Communion. I quote from the first letter of
Irma printed by the author of the Life, addressed to
another young girl, an effusion of childish love lighted
up by the earlier gleams of that divine vocation destined
to attract her to the American Apostolate. ( The italics
are mine.)

After describing the sweet air of devotion in her home,
she says:

"You dread the seductions of the world. I thank
God that He has inspired you with so great a fear of
its dangers. It is thus we should feel and act. God
cannot be placed in the balance with the world. For
Him we should be willing to leave country, family all,
even ourselves." How clearly did this happy little girl
know the entire wisdom of life. Even so early did Irma
feel that the only worth of existence is to know and love
Jesus Christ ; that the test of all excellence is the straight
line drawn between time and eternity ; that the principal
subject of all thought, and aim of all conduct, is rightly
to choose between the things of God and the things of
the world.


It seems to have been a grace prevenient of reason's
fuller activity a sort of divine instinct that inspired
this young girl of an ideal Christian home to long to give
it up, with all its parental love, all the love of brothers
and sisters, in order to bury herself among savages in
some remote wilderness. One cannot fix too early her
calling to the apostolic life. And practically forecast-
ing the future, she began in her young heart to arrange
for her departure for the foreign missions. Vocation!
That divine word had been spoken in the hidden depths
of her soul, and she had hearkened to it gladly.

It was several years later that God spoke it to her
outwardly by the lips of her spiritual adviser, the Jesuit
Pere Besnoin. "You will go to the foreign missions to
convert little savages," he said to her, and his words
sounded in the inner chamber of her soul, waking the
echoes of heaven's earlier calling. Writing to a favorite
of hers she said: "I saw a missionary from Indiana
[Monseigneur de la Hailandiere] walking in the garden
with Abbe Cardonnet, and as I saluted them I learned
that they had been talking about me about my going
to the Indiana mission. O my God, what a moment
was this! What! to give up everything that I loved,
and so suddenly! How shall I speak of this to my
father, and to my mother! But let me tell you, dearest
Elvire, that here at home I am happy, most happy, and
yet for God, and only for God, do I give up everything.
God! oh! He, indeed, is worth a few tears, a few
bruises of the heart."

We must pass over the interval elapsing between
these preliminary movements of grace and her novitiate
and profession in the Providence Sisterhood, founded
some thirty years previously in the diocese of Le Mans,
referring the reader to the detailed account of this in-


teresting period, as well as of the voyage to America,
given in the Life.

When Sister Saint Francis Xavier joined her Sisters
in Indiana in the early forties of the last century, that
state had been admitted to the Union for more than a
score of years. None the less that region was still a
sylvan wilderness, its homes were log cabins the cradles
of a hardy stalwart race of citizens its entire existence
a warfare with the forest, hewing down its giant trees
and burning them up, and then, a most toilsome labor
breaking up the soil for a crop, a soil rich only in
promise, and yielding the pioneer farmer and his wife
and little ones but frugal subsistence. "We live in the
woods," Sister Saint Francis Xavier wrote home,
"where everything is chopping trees and clearing up
new fields, sowing and reaping."

Like so many others of our first missionaries, the
Sisters had come over seas to convert the children of the
savage Indian tribes. But Providence so arranged that
they were to establish schools to train the children of the
white settlers the Indians having been deported far to
the westward; "The Americans," she exclaims in a
letter, "whose traits of character are so calm, so cold, so
meditative." She marveled at them, and she loved
them at first sight. She knew their defects, however,
and with instantaneous readiness her apostolate directed
all its energies to them, as they were scattered through a
diocese embracing Indiana and Illinois, equal in area to
the half of France. "In this whole wide diocese," she
writes, "there is but one Catholic school."

No sooner had the Sisters arrived at Saint Mary-of-
the- Woods than vocations began to be added them from
heaven in reward of their apostolic fervor. These were


noble-minded girls, children for the most part of the first
Catholic settlers of the Great West. But even more
precious gifts of Providence were vouchsafed in the re-
inforcements of new Sisters and Novices from the Old
World; so that in not many years Saint Mary-of-the
Woods, as the Mother House was appropriately called,
became the center of a system of schools from primary
grades up to the Academy diploma and, later, the Col-
lege degree, established in almost all the cities and towns
of that vast region. This enforced, of course, an im-
mense activity in the outward apostolate, and it calls for
a profound depth of piety for the sanctification of the
souls of the Sisters ; which is not so much a coordinate
necessity for success in God's outward work, as it is the
overmastering element in the making of the apostle.
Sister Saint Francis Xavier's help was essential to both
departments of the religious vocation. She was Mother
Theodore's right hand. She was apt for every duty,
willing for every humiliation, a fountain of sympathy in
the many calamities that befell the first fifteen years of
the Institute. She was always the premier counselor
of both Superior and Sisters ; a woman truly valiant and
prudent. And in the spiritual life she was a pattern by
which to plan and build the tabernacle of Christian and
religious perfection. Naturally she is at the present
day venerated as one of the saints of the order, her
memory a sweet incense to heaven from every shrine of
the community now become a widespread, powerful

It is thus that she is manifested in this volume, made
uj> principally of her letters. This feature makes the
book almost an autobiography. Newman says that the
only adequate story of any one's career is his letters. It
is fortunate that so very many of those of Sister Saint



Francis Xavier were preserved. They exhibit her
apostolate as vexed with every trial and surviving with
not a single blemish. She was absolutely devoted to her
divinely appointed task. In educational work she was
true to Christ's ideal of forming human character, un-
flinchingly true, and she shared the triumphant success
that heaven vouchsafed her order.

Meanwhile she was just as steadfastly true to Christ's
ideal of personal perfection, namely, the practice of the
maxims of the gospel with hearty earnestness. Her de-
sire of perfection was a constant growth from the living
root of divine love planted in her soul in childhood; a
frame of mind which, says the Founder of the Paulist
community echoing all spiritual teachers is "the
backbone of every religious order."

Sister Saint Francis Xavier was called away to her
divine Spouse prematurely; so it seemed to human
judgment. She had scarcely completed her fortieth
year when her health, never strong, showed a weakness
that alarmed her Sisters. But this failing of her bodily
strength imparted to her spirit a strength of resignation
to the divine will not felt before. It was the autumnal
breath of God ripening all the fruits of virtue upon the
tree He had planted in the beginning.

When near the end Sister Saint Francis seems to have
claimed a place among the ascending and descending
angels on the patriarch's ladder between earth and
heaven. Back and forth went her prayers, adoring
Jesus Christ on the altar and the Blessed Trinity in the
highest heavens, and again offering her life and its
dearest treasures of love for her Sisters and their aposto-
late. In the last months of her life she seemed fasci-
nated with thoughts of the future stretching out before


the community she loved so well, and which was then
beginning to open with more generous vistas of growth
and usefulness. The following prayer was penned by
her, the dictate of truest apostolic zeal, when she was on
the threshold of eternity, as if waving farewell to the
earth and her loved ones. It is called by her Sisters her

"Remember, O Lord, this land of Indiana, which
Thou didst possess from the beginning, of which Thou
thoughtest from all eternity, which Thou heldest in Thy
almighty hand when Thou didst create the world, and
which was hidden in Thy adorable heart when, dying on
the cross, Thou didst confide its poor inhabitants to the
care of Thy divine Mother.

"O Lord, remember Indiana. Say but the word and
all here shall be made children of Abraham. Send good
laborers into this Thy vineyard, holy missionaries who
will have no interests other than Thine own, men accord-
ing to Thy heart, and true servants of Mary, Thy holy

"They will defend Thy glory, they will publish Thy
name, they will save souls that have cost Thee Thy
precious blood. Visit us by Thy power and in Thy
mercy. These favors we ask by the intercession of our
holy patrons, Saint Joseph and Saint Francis Xavier.

Does not this prayer forecast many a conversion to
the true faith?

And now it remains for us only to bid the reader to
measure his steps through this book with deliberation,
for its every page holds lessons of virtue taught with
living insistence. It is especially full of the missionary
spirit. Its chapters are as interesting as any novel;
they ever tell of happenings of deep religious import,


and not seldom bordering on the miraculous. The book
edifies and instructs from cover to cover a memorable
book. It is the graphic exhibit of an interior life of a
spirit belonging to the higher, nobler quality of our
humanity; and at the same time it is the chronicle of a
life of unwearied activity, always squared to the princi-
ples of religion and the rules of enlightened reason. It
is the autobiography of an heroic soul, made up of letters
written with exquisite spirit and sentiment, as well as
uttered with most artless candor, every letter that of soul
speaking to soul through the transparent medium of
closest love; a history that has the charm of interior
revelation amid an outward environment of men and
events which are now, and which must ever remain, of
prime interest to Catholic Americans. Whatever good
we at present have in the Church in the United States,
we owe principally to the Catholic men and women of a
past generation. Of them this great-souled Sister was a
type. And whatsoever we hope to achieve for God at
a future day, shall be ours only in proportion to our
fidelity to that type. And this is especially true in the
supremely important matter of education.




Dear Sister:

Many thanks for the "Life and Letters of Sister
Saint Francis Xavier," which I received on Saturday.
I have read it with very deep interest, and I hope, not
without profit. One thing is certain, it has made me
feel very cheap and mean in my own eyes. I never read
such letters as Irma's, so natural, so exquisite in style,
so full of the spirit of God. What a perfect soul they
reveal! perfect in natural gifts, but especially so in the
gifts of divine grace. God did not bestow on her the
gift of miracles, he did not invite her to the practice of
extraordinary austerities, but he developed in her all the
sweet and gentle virtues that go to make a saint. Yet,
in reading her life, one is made to feel that behind that
extraordinary perfection in her daily actions, there was
a reserved force that would have enabled her to remove
mountains, had it been necessary to do so. God would
have refused nothing to one of her faith and holiness of

Blessed, indeed, is the place that holds the relics of
such a servant of God, but still more blessed in having
been consecrated by her labors and her prayers! The
fragrance of her virtues, and the influence of her ex-
ample will long be felt at Saint Mary's, and her prayers
will send down many a grace on its inmates. When I
visited you, two years ago, I was sensibly impressed by



the religious atmosphere of the place. I thought I saw
in many of your members evidences of a higher order of
piety. I was at a loss to account for this, at the time,
not knowing how they could have enjoyed any excep-
tional advantages of training or directors. But, now, it
is all plain to me. "What a man sows, that shall he
reap." I saw the harvest, but till I read of Mother
Theodore, and Sister Xavier, and their companions, I
did not know the sort of seed that had been cast into the
furrow. May God bless you all, and keep you long in
the spirit that animated those pure and generous souls!

Truly yours in Dno,


June 12, 1882.






The life story of a daughter of Brittany, who was also
a religious of your diocese, is told in these pages. Like
a gentle flower she was transplanted from the lovely
borders of the Ranee to the forests of the New World,
there to exhale her perfume, to fructify, and to pass
away, leaving behind her the remembrance of her

I trust that inexperienced hands have not robbed the
writings of Sister Saint Francis Xavier of any of their
original freshness, and that the sentiments of love and
confidence in Divine Providence with which her soul
overflowed have been preserved in all their vigor, and
will find an echo in the soul of the reader. May the ap-
probation I hope for from the Prelate who illustrates by
his virtues and his talents the see of Brute and Hailan-
diere, of Bazin and Saint Palais, draw down upon this
humble work the success which I desire only for the
greater glory of God.

Prostrate at your feet, the author, as the humblest of
the servants of the Church and its Princes, begs your
benediction upon her labors.


1 The See of Vincennes was transferred to Indianapolis in the year 1898.







Please to accept my thanks for the dedication of your
book, entitled "The Life of Sister Saint Francis
Xavier," with which you have honored me.

This act on your part is all the more pleasing to me,
because I have often heard of the exemplary virtues of
this religious, and of the good she accomplished in my

I am convinced that the perusal of her life and deeds
will not fail to produce a good effect, and to enkindle
the fire of divine love in the souls of those whom God
may call to follow her ; and it will also serve to edify the
faithful in general.

Believe me, Madame, with the greatest respect,
Your faithful servant in Christ,

Bishop of Vincennes.


It is an honor for me to write some lines of introduc-
tion to this book, not one page of which was written with
a view to publicity, and in accepting the honor I perform
an act of gratitude.

It is now nearly forty years since I first heard the
name of Sister Saint Francis Xavier. It was at Tours.
A lady of great intelligence and of rare virtues, the
Baroness de la Valette who, when I was far from my
family, had received me with real kindness and Christian
and maternal cordiality asked me one day to call on
her, as she expected an American religious whose history,
she thought, would interest me. I gladly accepted her
kind invitation, and there found Mother Theodore
Guerin, who was then in France soliciting aid for her
convent at Saint Mary-of-the- Woods, which had been
founded in the diocese of Vincennes only a few years
before, and which had recently sustained a heavy loss by

Without giving details of this meeting, I shall only
say that the first pious book I published was a little
sketch of Saint Mary-of-the- Woods, written under the
inspiration of Mother Theodore's recital and almost in
her own words. The marked and, I may add, the per-
manent success of my first modest publication, the fruit
which it has borne, and the warm affection which the
Sisters of Saint Mary-of-the- Woods have always mani-
fested for me, besides the help and support which their
prayers have afforded me in all circumstances, have en-


couraged me to dedicate my pen to record the contests
and victories of some great souls who loved God and
served the Church.

Irma le Fer de la Motte was one of these heroines.
She was a young lady of rare attractions, the grand-
niece or, according to the custom of Brittany, great-
grandniece of Madame la Baronne de la Valette. The
domestic life which she describes in her writings is most
interesting. It is the life of a Christian household of
true nobility, a household governed and sustained by a
wise rule of life, and above all by the union and virtues
of the members of the family. Irma makes them all
known to us with their little faults and their amiable

Monsieur and Madame Charles le Fer de la Motte,
Irma's parents, persons of merit and highly respected,
lived at Saint Servan, at a place called Fours-a-Chaux.
The little town of Saint Servan spreads out into the sur-
rounding country, the houses being situated in the midst
of gardens and fields. The property of Monsieur
Charles le Fer de la Motte reaches nearly to the Ranee,
which it overlooks. Here the river forms a small bay,

Online LibraryClémentine (Le Fer de la Motte) de La CorbinièreThe life and letters of Sister St. Francis Xavier (Irma Le Fer de la Motte) of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana → online text (page 1 of 33)