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July 15 - Nanette, the velvet brick and mother of slaves

We remember an extraordinary French woman Anne-Marie Javouhey, often known as Nanette. who died today at the age of 72. One of her last missions was in French Guyana, where at the government’s request, she was asked to prepare six hundred slaves for emancipation. As each family was ready to be freed, she would arrange for them to have money, some land, and a cottage.


Born in the east of France in the commune of Chamblanc, 10 years before the start of the French Revolution. Through her teen years, she helped to hide and care for a number of priests persecuted by the French Revolution, including keeping watch for them as they said Mass. She also taught Catechism because the nuns were either in exile or in hiding. On one occasion her father, disapproving of his daughter’s daring enterprise, sneaked up on the unsuspecting class to demonstrate how easily she might be caught. She outwitted him and switched to Arithmetic, proving to her father that she had devised a system of vigilance to protect her whilst teaching catechism. Angry at being outwitted, he forbade her to carry on this practice in the barn and she realised that this was because he loved her and wanted to protect her during the dangerous anti-religious climate that the revolution had created. She obeyed but demonstrated her resourcefulness by using the orchard, the garden, the fields and the road as her classroom, and her prayers became more devout.

The fury and terror of the Revolution grew, and Father Ballanche, a hunted priest, found refuge in the family home. Seventeen-year-old Nanette passed those anxious days of vicious persecution accompanying her father, who talked business while she quietly arranged rendezvous in old barns, where the faithful might hear night-time sermons, confess their sins, and attend a dawn Mass. Proving to be a gifted organiser, she would send her brother, Etienne, and Jean Petitjean, the young man who hoped to marry her, on mysterious trips in the family cart. Under piles of potatoes and hay, Father Ballanche used to lie, while the brave faithful awaited him in some lonely place. For more about how the church survived the revolution (pod of May 8)

After Napoleon had supressed the terror of the Revolution, brought order and re-established the Church in France through a Concordat, things settled down and Nanette joined the Daughters of Charity at Besançon. There, she is reported to have had a vision of Teresa of Avila entrusting children of different races to her. Returning home , she started a school for poor children near Chamblanc, before briefly entering a Trappistine Convent. Leaving after the novitiate it became clear that she was called to start her own congregation and so she was joined by three of her sisters, and together they opened a school and an orphanage. She founded the Sisters of St. Joseph to educate children and to help reduce the miseries which arose out of the French Revolution but soon they were in demand elsewhere. Their success led them to be invited to open a schools and orphanages in Senegal, Guyana and Guadeloupe. At the request of the British government, she left for St. Mary's in Gambia, a holding place for about 400 slaves taken from Moorish vessels confiscated in a crackdown on the Arab Slave trade. It was effectively a dumping ground, she was able to gain trust, establish order and she left one Sister at Gambia in charge of these improvements, while at the insistence of the British Governor who was impressed with her achievements, she moved on to Sierra Leone.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had been passed by the British Parliament in 1807 whilst the French Revolution was in its last dark days. However in the idealistic early days of the French Republic slavery had been abolished in 1794, but the chaos that ensued as the revolutionaries became more extreme and then turned on themselves meant that Napoleon had revoked that decree in 1802. The French Republic abolished the slave trade again in 1815 but the decree did not come into effect until 1826. Immediate liberation was impossible, and the transition had to be carefully managed, to reduce the acts of vengeance, but also as this would place a financial strain on the various of the French Colonies’ budgets, especially in the Caribbean area. A seven-year probation period was decided upon, and in French Guiana, 500 slaves walked off the plantations and headed to Cayenne, the capital, where they were put on the Government pay-roll and sub-leased back to their old plantations. Nanette’s assistance was requested, as King Louis Philippe exclaimed with a certain irony: “Madame Javouhey is a great man.”

Very soon it was agreed that a colony should be set up, not on the New Angouleme site as was first proposed, but on the Mana plateau, which was cooler, less muggy, and Anne-Marie Javouhey had complete charge. On the 21st May, after Mass, 185 slaves were emancipated and in the records one of them is recorded to have said to Mother Nanette: “We are free now, but we will never be free from the debt we owe you. We can only repay you with this promise: you will never be ashamed of us.” When they received their charters of freedom, some immediately handed them to Nanette, the one person they could trust. Soon Mana was truly prospering and 400 slaves had been emancipated and this lead to a prosperity which attracted the jealousy of local colonists and a plot was hatched to kill her. The boatman who was to tip her into the crocodile-infested water could not bring himself to kill her. However ecclesial jealousy was more difficult to overcome, the local Bishop Guillier, threatened by a woman he couldn’t control, wanted to excommunicate the “white Queen” if she didn’t put aside her religious habit. For two years she refused to submit to the ecclesial bullying and remained in disgrace, a scandal to all. When she returned to France, another bishop, appalled at her excommunication, lifted it and her Congregation grew and spread. Still Bishop Guillier persuaded the Bishop of Autun (France) to try to destroy her congregation. One of his priests warned the 80 postulants and novices at Cluny that it was sinful to obey the orders of any of the Superiors – namely those who were loyal to Anne-Marie. All but seven of these young nuns stood by their Foundress. Next, the Bishop of Autun secretly scattered reports to all the bishops in whose dioceses the Congregation had houses to defame her. However, another revolution in 1848 meant that she was able to organise the sisters into a kind of ambulance-brigade which cared for the wounded. Finally, on 15th July, 1851, the Mother General and Foundress of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny, died. She was 71 years old. She had forgiven the bishop, who for 18 years had tried to destroy her life’s work. He had died a month before and half-an-hour before her death, she said to Sister Rosalie: “We ought to think of His Lordship as one of our benefactors. God made use of him to try us, when, as a rule, we were hearing round us nothing but praise.” She was beatified in 1950


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