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St. Madeline Sophie Barat: A preemie who grew up to change the world

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Educated by her priest-brother, she became a tireless promoter of the Sacred Heart.

It was December 12, 1779, and Madame Fouffe Barat was seven months pregnant with her third child. She had been sleeping comfortably when screams and the smell of smoke awoke her. She sat up and saw the flames outside her window. They were coming from her neighbor’s house.  The sudden trauma of what was happening caused the frightened woman to begin early labor. Consequently, her daughter, Madeline Sophie Barat, was born two months premature. The fire did not touch the Barat home.

Baby Madeline was so tiny and frail that her parents were sure she would die so they had her baptized as soon as the church opened that morning. They asked a woman on her way to Mass, Louise-Sophie Cedor, and Madeline’s older brother, Louis, age 11, to stand in as godparents. But baby Madeline did not die that morning. Rather, she began a life that would ultimately bring thousands upon thousands to Jesus Christ.

Madeline’s family had been in the Burgundy area for generations. Her dad was a wine-cooper (someone who made wooden barrels for wine) and the family was well provided for. He was a respected craftsman practicing a trade that was highly regarded with much history behind it.

Madeline’s brother, Louis, had a brilliant mind and by the age of nine had decided to become a priest. His parents believed in their boy and hired a tutor to help him study at home. When he was 16 he was able to begin his studies for the priesthood. However, he was too young to be ordained so he returned home to bide his time until he was 21 and could return to the seminary.

Madeline was still a young child and Louis decided to educate her. His lessons for his little sister included Latin, Greek, history, science and math. Madeline was receiving an education that most young girls of that time could only have dreamed about. However, the onset of the French Revolution in 1789 changed everything. When the pope condemned the new French Constitution, Louis refused to profess loyalty to the state. He was arrested and spent three years in prison. Only through the intervention of a close friend was he able to get out of jail and evade the guillotine.

Once ordained a priest, Louis moved to Paris and took Madeline with him. By the time Madeline was 18 years old she had received an education from her brilliant brother that far surpassed anything she might have obtained anywhere else. Since she and Louis had to live in a “safe house,” she also learned to work with her hands. She became an excellent embroiderer and seamstress to help support them. But God’s ever watchful eye had been on Madeline since her birth. Bigger things would need her attention.

Madeline had originally planned to join the Carmelites. But the trauma of the French Revolution led her in a different direction. She decided she wanted to make known the “love of God as made known in the Heart of Christ.” She also wanted to direct her attention to all young women, rich and poor alike. 

Highly educated, determined yet filled with a great humility, Madeline Sophie Barat founded the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The women joining her new order would be trained to teach young women the faith as taught by Holy Mother Church. The year was 1800 and Madeline was only 20 years old. She became Mother Madeline and by the age of 23 was elevated to the position of Superior General of the order, a position she would hold for the next 65 years.

Mother Madeline’s natural leadership skills and her affinity for all people would be the catalyst for the rapid growth of the order and success of the schools. Mother Madeline and her fledgling order of nuns began growing and spreading rapidly. Madeline’s quest was for the restoration of Christian life in France and she believed it could be accomplished through the education of young women. 

The Society of the Sacred Heart had opened their first school in Amiens in northern France in 1801. There followed a school for the poor of the town and further growth happened much quicker than ever expected. Before long the order was doing work all over Europe. As the order and the schools it ran expanded, Mother Madeline grew also. She was transformed by all the different women joining her Society and her natural way with folks became pronounced. She even inspired those having only brief encounters with her.

In 1826 Mother Madeline received papal approval of her order. The order grew to 105 houses in many countries. St. Rose Pillippine Duchesne (who had joined the order in 1804) and four of her followers brought the Society to the United States in 1818. Today there are several thousand members spread across 41 countries around the world. Their mission remains the same: “to reveal the love of God to the world through the Sacred Heart of His Son.”

Mother Madeline Sophie Barat died in Paris, France, on May 25, 1865. She was 85 years old. St. Madeline was quoted as saying, “Be humble, be simple, bring joy to others.” St. Madeline practiced what she preached.

Madeline Sophie Barat was beatified by Pope St. Pius X in 1908 and canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1925. 

St. Madeline Barat, please pray for us.

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