St. Jane & St. Francis Found the Visitation Order
Foundress of a New Order: Once Jane’s children were more settled, Francis outlined his vision for a new type of religious community. Requiring only a simple vow of celibacy, it would accommodate women who wanted to join together in loving God and neighbor, but who couldn’t meet the demanding requirements of existing religious orders. The sisters would offer short-term hospitality to other women. They would share a common life centered on prayer but also go out to care for the poor and sick—a combination of “active” and “contemplative” that was unheard of at the time.
Francis and Jane debated whether to name the community after Martha or after Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). Finally, they chose the Congregation of the Visitation, after the gospel account in which Mary combined “charity toward her neighbor by . . . serving Elizabeth” with prayerfulness in composing “the Magnificat, the most spiritual and contemplative canticle ever written” (Luke 1:39-56).
On June 6, 1610, the first three sisters moved into a house in Annecy. By the time they renewed their vows a year later, they were more than a dozen.
Soon cities all over France were requesting Visitation convents, and Jane’s experience as a mother and teacher proved invaluable. She carefully chose for each Annecy sister the proper balance between work and prayer. “One must expect from each personality only what can be obtained with gentleness,” she explained. “In this way we can keep our sisters in that holy and desirable liberty of spirit which is necessary for their growth.”
To one superior she wrote, “Our chief responsibility is to guide those the Son of God has redeemed by his precious blood, not like a mistress of a household or a governess but like a mother.” She sagely counseled another to “grow in . . . the incomparable virtue of putting up with people you find offensive and tiresome.”
It is ironic that these years of intense activity and growth were also years of spiritual darkness for Jane. “God’s presence, which used to give me unspeakable content, now makes me tremble and shudder with fear,” she once admitted. She found it difficult to counsel others. “I am attacked by each and every one of the temptations my spiritual daughters tell me about; God tells me what to say to them to console them, and then there I am, stuck with all those temptations and unable to help myself.”
Yet Jane’s determination held firm. “I’ve had these temptations for forty-one years now. Do you think I’m going to give up after all this time? Absolutely not!”