Venerable Jeanne Chezard de Matel, above, foundress of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, experienced many difficulties in founding her order, and would not have been surprised at the obstacles encountered by her “daughters” as they continued to live the charism over the years.
It has been 17 years since Sister Carmelita Casso, a Sister of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of the Victoria Congregation, sent word to San Antonio that the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints requested, and Pope John Paul II ordered, that a decree of venerability of Mother Jeanne Chezard de Matel be issued on March 7, 1992.
Since then, Sister Carmelita and Sister Carmen Maria of the Mexico City Incarnate Word Congregation continue to criss-cross the continents shepherding the process toward beatification and canonization.
The life of Venerable Mother Jeanne Chezard de Matel, foundress of the Order of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, is the story of a simple but strong woman, a heroic servant of God, a great contemplative.
Jeanne was born on Nov. 6, 1596, in Roanne, in the Diocese of Lyons, France, and was baptized the same day. Jeanne was devoted to, and inspired by, the lives of the saints, following with interest the church’s calendar of the liturgical year. As she grew in her spirituality, she was drawn especially to Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word, to St. Joseph and to Michael the Archangel.
In 1608, at the age of 12, Jeanne was permitted to make her first Communion. At the age of 14, she was allowed to receive Communion every week, which was not the usual practice at that time.
In 1616, her father wanted her to marry. She refused, insisting that God was her primary relationship. Jeanne was endowed with the gift of infused contemplation and had vivid experiences of God’s presence.
It was during prayer that her vocation as foundress was revealed to her. On Easter Sunday, March 26, 1617, she saw herself carrying the cross, followed by a group of women. She sensed that it was God’s will for her to establish a community for the glory of the Incarnate Word. In another vision she saw a crown of thorns. Within it was the name of Jesus with a crown above it reading “AMOR MEUS.” This became the emblem of the order. In 1618, she experienced an ecstasy in which the Holy Spirit communicated his gifts to her.
On July 2, 1625, in the greatest poverty, and accompanied by two companions, she established the first Incarnate Word Community in Roanne, France, in a house which had previously been occupied by the Ursulines. She experienced many trials. Due to the necessity of writing a constitution for her order, living in community and caring for daily needs she had less time for prayer and solitude. In addition, her beloved mother died, her father opposed her work and she felt abandoned by God.
In July 1670, Jeanne fell ill. She asked permission to be invested with the habit and to make public profession of vows. This request was not granted until the final moments of her life. She fell asleep in the Lord on Sept. 11, 1670.
Having experienced so many difficulties in founding her order, Jeanne would not have been surprised at the obstacles encountered by her “daughters” as they continued to live the charism over the years. For example, during the French Revolution of 1789-1793, convents of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, as well as those of other communities, were closed, and the sisters, in fear for their lives, fled to neighboring countries. They took with them whatever they could of the precious relics of their foundress, as well as important congregational documents.
After the ravages of the revolution had somewhat abated, a zealous French priest, Father Etienne Denis, was inspired by God to return to France and begin a religious community of sisters, who would assist in healing the terrible damage done to the church there. With this purpose in mind, he gathered together a few pious young women in Azerables, France, who wished to become sisters. However, not knowing exactly how to proceed, he asked the advice of an acquaintance, Sister Ann Chinard, who had recently returned from exile. As providence would have it, she had in her possession a copy of the Rules and Constitutions of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. Sister Ann was forthrightly appointed novice mistress and trained this group in the Orders Rule. Thus, in a seemingly miraculous way, was reborn the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament.
In 1852, Pope Pius IX made known the great need for missionaries in the United States. In response, Sister Angelique Hiver, superioress of the Lyons convent, sent a group of sisters to the province of Texas. Setting sail aboard a military ship, a hurricane blew them off course toward the shores of Mexico. There, a number of the sisters contracted malaria and died. Of those remaining, 23-year-old Sister Clare Valentine and three companions made it to Texas, establishing the first community of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Brownsville in l853. Subsequent foundations were built:
Dec. 21, 1866, Victoria
March 2, l871, Corpus Christi
April 24, 1873, Houston
Jan. 5, l882, Hallettsville
1894 — Brownsville established foundations in Mexico
Sept. 18, 1897, Shiner
Oct. 12, 1926 — Hallettsville’s foundation was transferred to San Antonio (now known as Blessed Sacrament Academy)
May 4, 1927 — the Cleveland, Ohio community was established from the Gomez Palacio foundation in Mexico
Jan. 5, 1932 — the Brownsville community united with the Corpus Christi community
Dec. 28, 1939 — the Victoria, San Antonio and Shiner communities joined together and formed one congregation with headquarters in Victoria.
Challenges have not been in short supply. However, the order continues in the footsteps of its beloved foundress, Mother Jeanne Chezard de Matel, fulfilling needs and bringing hope and inspiration to untold numbers of people. The great love for all humankind often expressed by Jesus, the Incarnate Word, to Mother de Matel, is as relevant for us in today’s world as it was centuries ago.
To this day, their mission is to live the mystery of the Incarnation — to make Jesus known through the lives they lead. They carry out their apostolates in different countries, mainly in the fields of health care and education. Today they have houses in Africa, Argentina, Spain, the United States, France, Guatemala, Italy, El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay. Presently refounding and reconfiguration efforts are wending their way through the nine congregations on the American Continent.
Jeanne was always highly esteemed and renowned for her holiness by those who knew her. Her spiritual daughters wonder why she was not sainted long ago. It was only in 1966, in collaboration with other Incarnate Word communities, that the process for the cause of canonization of Mother de Matel became a reality.
Some idea of the graces she received and the sufferings she endured can be gleaned from her story as recounted in resource, available at the various Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament convents: Autographic Life of Jeanne Chezard de Matel, Jeanne Chezard de Matel, A Journal, several volumes of Collective Letters of Jeanne Chezard de Matel and Treasured Heritage, Ever Ancient, Ever New, by Sister Kathleen McDonough, IWBS, a member of the Corpus Christi congregation.
We invite those who receive favors granted through the intercession of Venerable Jeanne Chezard de Matel to send them to Sister Carmelita Casso at email@example.com
For further information concerning the servant of God Jeanne de Matel, and for medals of Venerable Jeanne Chezard de Matel, visit www.netnuns.com.
Submitted by Sisters Donna Bonorden, Agnesine Heinsch, Odilia Korenek, Stephanie Marie Martinez of Blessed Sacrament Academy in San Antonio.