In the middle of France is a religious order that is first in the world to welcome people with Down syndrome. The Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb started out in the 1980s with a unique friendship. The now-Mother Line, who is the Superior of the order, felt her vocation was to work with children, and Véronique, who has Down syndrome, had a desire to enter religious life. In the pair’s journey to find their spiritual path, they joined together in prayer and now, several decades on, the Petites Soeurs Disciples de l’Agneau is flourishing.
However, the founding of the order, which has a particular devotion to St. Thérèse de Lisieux and St. Benedict, wasn’t easy. “I visited several communities that welcomed people with disabilities, but I saw they could not find their place in these communities because they were not suitable for them,” shares Mother Line with Vatican News.
Yet, in her desire to help Véronique fulfill her calling, Mother Line pushed on. As Canon Law and monastic rules at the time made no provision for sisters with developmental disabilities, they had their work cut out for them.
The founding of the order
At first their mini-community of two started out in a small apartment, with just the two ladies. By 1990, they welcomed another woman who, too, had Down syndrome. Thanks to the support of the Archbishop of Tours, Jean Honoré — who later went on to become a cardinal — they were recognized as a public association of lay faithful.
News spread of the community and the women were forced to leave the small social housing apartment and move to Le Blanc, a mid-size town in the middle of France. There they were warmly welcomed by the archbishop of the diocese, Pierre Plateau. With his help in Rome, the community were finally recognized as a contemplative institute in 1999.
From there the order grew, with the construction of a chapel and a priory. Archbishop Armand Maillard offered further support to the community and was instrumental in helping the sisters finally get the definitive recognition of their statutes in 2011.
The beauty of Down syndrome in a contemplative life
At the moment there are 10 sisters in this community and 8 have Down syndrome. The women are thriving, as contemplative life happens to be beneficial to the sisters and they have a lot of independence. “Contemplative life allows them to live at their own pace. For people with Down syndrome, changes are difficult, but when life is very regular they manage well,” explains Mother Line.
Life is at a slow pace for the women. With pottery workshops, weaving, the creation of a medicinal garden and weekly Mass, the contemplative life of the sisters focuses on the ordinary humbleness of the everyday. Yet, within the walls of the community are some extraordinary women, as expressed by Sr. Véronique:
34 years have passed since I heard the call of Jesus. I have tried to know Jesus by reading the Bible and the Gospel. I was born with a disability called Down syndrome. I am happy. I love Life. I pray, but I am sad for the children with Down syndrome who will not feel this same joy of living. For those who felt called to live, like Saint Teresa, the vocation to love, the journey was long but her patience and her faith gave their fruits. Jesus made me grow in His love.
In 2009, years after her initial calling, Sr. Véronique had the joy of making her perpetual vows to become a bride of Christ.
Mother Line points out that other women with Down syndrome who have felt the call to join religious life go through the same period of discernment as with any other order. Like other religious she states that these women still appreciate if their calling is authentic or not during this period.
A special relationship with Christ
Mother Line believes that it’s not just a question of these women having Down syndrome that makes them different: They have a particularly close relationship with Christ. “They know the Bible, the lives of the saints, and they have a fabulous memory. They are souls of prayer, they are very spiritual, very close to Jesus,” she shares. She goes on to share the beauty their disability brings:
“Their souls are not disabled! On the contrary, they are closer to the Lord, they communicate with Him more easily. The other sisters of the community admire their ability to forgive, to encourage their sisters by finding the right phrase from the Bible that helps give meaning to the day.”
For Mother Line, the fruits of her labor are paying off. Having founded the order she can also see the positive influence of these Little Sisters: “They bring joy to society and, above all, they bring love to the world. A world that needs it so much.”
If you’d like to learn more about the sisters, click on the original article by Cyprien Viet for Vatican News here.
9 People with Down syndrome who are changing the world