by Andrea Graus
According to feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, mysticism was the sole domain in Western culture in which women were able to fully develop their own subjectivity. It is indeed true that mysticism has historically bestowed on women some sort of spiritual autonomy and leadership. Mystic women (religious and lay) have inspired new devotions and started their own foundations. In this post we are introducing a forgotten mystic, stigmatic (invisible wounds) and founder who, with her initiatives, was able to be ahead of her time: Thérèse Durnerin (1848-1905).
Durnerin, lived through famine and the bombardment of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and witnessed the killing of clergymen during the Paris Commune. Due to such traumatic experiences, she became an expiatory ‘victim soul’ for the sins of France. On one night in 1888, while in an ecstatic state, she wrote the booklet L’Hostie et le Prêtre (The Host and the Priest), aimed at promoting devotion to the Eucharist Heart of Jesus. The booklet was printed in five editions and around 200,000 copies were distributed around the world. In 1894, she received the stigmata. However, the wounds were invisible, and her stigmatization remained unknown to almost everyone.
She joined the Third Order of Saint Francis and started developing an interest in popular stigmatized women in France. She witnessed the ‘Friday agonies’ of Marie-Julie Jahenny (1850-1941) from La Fraudais and, after some insistence, she met Marie-Louise Nerbollier (1859-1908) in Diémoz. She was especially impressed by this stigmatic, a seamstress living under the shelter of the château of a pious aristocratic woman, Mme Piellat, whose son was spending his fortune on the Catholic missions in Jerusalem. According to Republican and Freemason newspapers the parish priest of Diémoz exploited the stigmatic. He was the uncle of a carriage contractor and on Fridays, the day of the ecstasies (as well as market day) his carriages would be full with people heading to the château to witness the stigmatic’s reliving of the Passion.
Marie-Louise Nerbollier, c. 1895
After her visit to Nerbollier, Durnerin was very moved and wrote the following:
I confess that the day in Diémoz exceeds all the others of the journey to this day, for Jesus freely manifested himself under his beloved victim. What are Jesus’ plans in all these precious meetings that he multiplies under our feet? I believe that God’s hour is near and that we should prepare ourselves for the big fight.[i]
Durnerin’s way of battling this “big fight” was founding a lay apostolic association named the Société des amis des pauvres (Society of Friends of the Poor). In 1891, Durnerin described her association in a letter to her spiritual father:
It is supernatural work, with a particular form chosen by the Lord, with new means not yet practised […] The small Société des Amis des pauvres consists of men and women who catechize the poor, the ignorant, and especially those who are lost […] Our goal is to insinuate ourselves among the people and to conceal, under our secular garments, an apostle’s soul that can enlighten the corrupted multitude.[ii]
Although she admitted to having drawn inspiration from the Société de Saint-Vincent de Paul, Durnerin insisted her foundation was a work of God. The approach of the Society to the catechism of the poor was clearly innovative as it was gender-mixed and based on horizontal leadership. The men and women met every two weeks to discuss apostolic activities in a group. They devoted themselves to the Society’s mission according to the time they could afford and their disposition. For example, those who had full-time jobs could only teach the catechism on Sundays, when working-class families were more likely to be available. Within three years, the Society confirmed it had baptized 674 people (including 34 Protestants and 2 Muslims), fostered dozens of first communions, confirmations and extreme unctions, and redressed 1,000 ‘illegitimate unions’ through Catholic marriage.
The members did not take vows. However, it was understood that in order to sanctify themselves they would pursue as much as possible the virtues linked to Christian vows. In 1895, Durnerin attempted to organize a retreat with the first 14 adherents, for the symbolic consecration of the members, but the majority were unable to leave their jobs and family duties. As a consequence, Durnerin only asked them to devote an hour a day to the adoration of the Sacred Sacrament, and to seclude themselves more than usual for one week. Durnerin thus demonstrated that she understood the challenges the laity faced in their quest for holiness in their daily life—an issue that has gained importance in the Catholic Church after Vatican II.
Brochure about the Société des Amis des Pauvres (1932) and Durnerin’s biography, written by Henri-Marie Hamez (1910)
After Durnerin’s death in 1905, clergymen such as Henri-Marie Hamez, an admirer, promoted the expansion of the Société des amis des pauvres to other French towns, as well as into Belgium. However, once the clergy had taken control of the Society it was dispossessed of its original horizontal and lay leadership. The clergy’s approach was more hierarchical and drew inspiration from the then booming Catholic Action movement. Perhaps because it lost part of its roots, there is now no trace of the Société des amis des pauvres. That does not mean that her work was without importance. With her association, Durnerin anticipated the debates and outcomes of the future of the Catholic Church, where an autonomous lay apostolate and a universal call to holiness became fundamental issues. Given the fact that she was ‘just’ a laywoman, it is probable that she could not have founded her association had it not been the alleged work of God. In the end however, the supernatural aspect proved to be a facilitator, as it allowed Durnerin to advance her innovative ideas (e.g. the gender-mixed groups and the horizontal leadership) while following an alleged divine mandate.