Madeleine Sophie Barat
Madeleine Sophie was born on the night of December 12, 1779, in Joigny, France, next door to a house fire at a neighbors. The stress and terror of the fire caused Sophie’s mother, Madame Madeleine Fouffé Barat (1740–1822), then pregnant with her third child, to go into labour. Born two months premature, Madeleine Sophie was considered so fragile that she was baptized early the next morning in St. Thibault Church, just a few yards from the Barat family home. Although her parents had arranged godparents in advance, there was no time to call them to the church and so, at five o’clock on the morning of 13 December 1779, Louise-Sophie Cédor, a local woman on her way to early Mass, and Sophie’s older brother, Louis, stood in as her godparents.
Madeleine Sophie came into a financially comfortable family whose ancestors had lived in Joigny for generations and were proud of their roots in Burgundy. Her father, Jacques Barat (1742–1809), was a cooper and vine-grower. Both professions were respected trades, with centuries of French culture and spirituality behind them. The Barats were Jansenist Catholics, and Jansenism is often said to have shaped Sophie’s spirituality profoundly.
The founding of the Society of the Sacred Heart
When Madeleine returned to Paris, she was introduced to Joseph Varin. Varin wanted to create a women’s order devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and involved in the education of young women that would complement the work of the Fathers of the Faith. On 21 November 1800, at the age of 21, Madeleine abandoned her dream of becoming a Carmelite and, along with three other women living in the Paris safe-house, took her vows as one of the first members of this new religious congregation, marking the foundation of the Society of the Sacred Heart. However, because the French authorities had prohibited devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the society was initially known as Dames de la Foi (“Women of Faith”) or de l’Instruction chrétienne (“Christian instructors”).
The first school was opened in Amiens in northern France in September 1801 and Sophie travelled to this important provincial city in order to teach. Madeleine made her vows, 7 June, 1802.The new community and school grew quickly. A school giving classes to the poor of the town was opened. In December 1802, at the age of twenty-three, Sophie became Superior of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
During her 65-year leadership, the Society of the Sacred Heart grew to include more than 3,500 members educating women in Europe, North Africa, North and South America. Madeleine Sophie Barat died at the general motherhouse in Paris on Ascension Day, May 25, 1865. In 1879, she was declared venerable and was beatified on May 24, 1908. On May 24, 1925, she was canonized by Pope Pius XI.
Her mortal remains are located in an ornate reliquary in the church of St Francis Xavier in Paris.
Madeleine was known to refuse to have either her photograph or her portrait taken, and it has been believed that no portrait of her existed from her lifetime. In 1992, a portrait was discovered during a restoration at the convent of Sante Rufina e Seconda in Rome by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea. It is believed to have been painted prior to her beatification and sent from Italy to the Mother House in Paris in 1879. It currently hangs in the General Archives of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
One of her earliest biographers was Louis Baunard, who wrote Histoire de la vénérable Mère Madeleine-Sophie Barat, fondatrice de la Société du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus, (Librairie Poussièlgue Frères, 1ère édition en 1877, 4e édition en 1879).
Madeleine is remembered by her quotes:
“We don’t live with angels; we have to put up with human nature and forgive it.”
“Before making any change take counsel…. Prudence and a wise slowness are necessary in the beginning.”
“More is gained by indulgence than by severity.”
“Be humble, be simple, bring joy to others.”
“Your example, even more than your words, will be an eloquent lesson to the world.”
“Give only good example to the children; never correct them when out of humor or impatient. We must win them by an appeal to their piety and to their hearts. Soften your reprimands with kind words; encourage and reward them. That is, in short, our way of educating.”
“Let us leave acts, not words. Nobody will have time to read us.”
Choice Singapore has adopted her as our patron saint as she embodies how we ought to live our lives to know, to love and to serve the family and community that we are called to be in. In doing so, we need to be true to ourselves, living out authentic lives, recognizing our imperfections and making the best of it.
Her feast day is celebrated on May 25.