Mother Frances de Sales
Congregation of Oblate Sisters
Saint Francis de Sales
Leonie Aviat was born on the 16th of September 1844, at Sezanne, in France. She was baptized on the following day. Her parents, Theodore Aviat and Emilie Caillot, were honest shopkeepers.
At the age of 11, Leonie went as a boarder to the Convent School of the Visitation at Troyes. Already God was preparing her for the work He had in store for her. At that time, Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis was the Superior of the Monastery and Father Brisson, its Chaplain. Instructed and inspired by these two great servants of God, Leonie made her First Holy Communion and received Confirmation on the 2nd of July, 1856, at the hands of Bishop Coeur of Troyes.
During her five years at the Visitation, she developed her human and intellectual qualities; under the guidance of Mother Chappuis, she opened her heart to the splender of God's grace.
Mother Chappuis was remarkable in that she foresaw the social problems of the time. Among the friends of the Convent, she found benefactors for Fr. Brisson's undertaking in favor of working girls. Father Brisson was a very active priest, ready to welcome everybody, thanks to his understanding and charity. Yet in all of his different activities, he was a great contemplative: "I need God. It's a hunger that devours me..." he wrote in his notebook.
In this school, where a living faith and the love of God reigned, Leonie was brought up to become, with Father Brisson, the Foundress of the Congregation of the OblateSisters of St.Francis de Sales, assisting him in his venture on behalf of young working girls.
Before leaving school at 16, she realized that she had a religious vocation. She consulted with Mother Chappuis who said to her: "What God is preparing for you is not yet ready; let Him work in you... and always do His Holy Will."
On returning to Sezanne, she found that her parents wished her to complete her preparation for life, with marriage in view. She was introduced to a wealthy young man whom her family found very suitable. For the first time in her life, however, Leonie was not of the same mind as her father, she wanted to become a religious. Her father's opposition was strong:
"Leonie would have to wait until she was 21. In the course of those waiting years, her specific vocation was decided by an insignificant incident. One day she entered the workshop of young working girls at the optical factory at Sezanne. This contact immediately awoke in her an ardent desire to give herself entirely to the apostolate and betterment of young working girls. God put this eager attraction in her heart as the spark that was to make her the Foundress of the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales."
Towards the middle of the 19th century, there was a rapid expansion of the textile industry in Troyes and therefore a need for female workers. Droves of young country girls came to the town in search of adventure. They had no money, nowhere to live and were thus exposed to serious dangers of immorality. With a remarkable intuition for overcoming obstacles, Father Brisson took those girls in his care. He acquired a building, offering board and lodging and evn work onthe premises, to a number of young workers. He trained a group of volunteers, but no matter how devoted they were, the undertaking lacked stability. It was not only necessary to feed the girls, but also to educate them in their faith and guard the in their faith and guard the against moral danger. God had foreseen that need and He sent someone with the same charisma: Leonie Aviat. She was gifted with a creative intelligence and a spirit of initiative.
When Leonie was 22 years old, she made a spiritual retreat at the Visitation, in order to reach a definite decision. Conversant with her interior life, her generosity, her gift for organization and her ability to understand souls and situations, Father Brisson sought her collaboration.
In agreement with her two spiritual Directors, she did not return home, but took over as her responsibility the foundation for working girls- from then on, known as "Oeuvre, Ouvriere." This was on the 18th April 1866.
On the 30th October 1868, with one of her former boarding school companions, she received the habit of the new congregation, from the hands of Bishop Mermillod of Geneva. He also gave her a new name: Sister Frances de Sales. By accepting her new name, she undertook a way of life that she was to fulfill perfectly. Father Brisson said to her, "We have a great responsibility in this work, and on you is going to depend the fulfillment of the hopes based on it.
On the 11th October 1871, she made her religious profession in the presence of 'Bishop de Segur'. Her resolution was "Forget myself entirely." She was to confirm this resolution later on by these words: "May my dedication be so complete and entire, O my God, that my happiness may to sacrifice everything for You..."
The "Oeuvre, Ouvriere" spread out, opening numerous youth clubs and flourishing family homes. There the girls can be educated in their faith while receiving a practical training. The atmosphere of work and joyful sacrifice prepared them for their adult life.
The burning enthusiasm of Sister Frances de Sales was sustained by her deep faith and the urge to give herself completely to others.
"O, yes," she used to say, "let us work for the happiness of others."
"It's out of love for God that I am a religious and, being a religious, I am the smallest servant of God; in serving others and in bearing with them, I do the work my Lord and Master entrusted to me."
Mother Aviat became a worker with the workers. She communicated with them the desire to do their work well, even for a minimum pay. In any case, at the end of the week, after sorting out their meager pay, each girl managed to put a few pence in the savings bank created for them by Mother Aviat.
It was marvelous to see those girls- some less than 12 years old- become aware of the dignity of work and receive it as coming from the fatherly hand of God and an instrument of love.
How easy to give the girls a Christian education and culture in such an atmosphere of friendly loyalty! The choices of hobbies and pursuits for the times of leisure were far ahead of their time and comparable to the sociological methods of nowadays. Those girls were conscious that their human potential was to be envied and that it called for exacting standards on their part.
If a girl was ill, her work was distributed among the others and her complete pay was given to her.
One day a girl arrived in rages; the same evening she found on her bed a small trouseau, a gift from one of the girls who had prepared it for herself.
In another instance, a poor woman in the neighborhood had not opened her door for several days. A smell of death drew the attention of a passer-by, but nobody would go into the house. One of the young workers courageously asked a man to force the door open. She entered the house. Upon finding the woman dead, she arranged the body and put in order the hovel in which it was lying. She was asked "But tell us, where did you find the courage to do that?" With great simplicity, she answered, "I am a girl from Fr.Brisson's Home. I must live up to his expectations."
A Golden Legend in the pure spirit of the Gospel could be written from many other acts of this kind springing from the hearts of the poorest. Thence grew the Factory Apostolate, i.e., the apostolate from girl to girl. Father Brisson's annual spiritual retreat gathered between 400 to 500 girls.
Father Brisson has been right: Leonie Aviat, under the name of Mother Frances de Sales, was the priceless auxiliary he had been hoping for.
As he had a gift to awaken in the wealthy a burst of generous charity- equaling sometimes those of apostolic times- he took the ungrateful role of provider, always finding the money to pay the debts, accepting weariness, humiliations and spiteful opposition to accomplish his mission.
With one accord, the Founders added to their apostolate elementary schools, the boarding schools for the daughters of the middle and upper classes.
Having well established the houses in Troyes, Mother Aviat went to Paris to reorganize one of the boarding schools. Father Brisson wished all classes of society to benefit from the spirit of St. Francis de Sales, by the practice of his Spiritual Directory. Indeed it can be used by lay people, as well as by those in religious life.
Mother Aviat was to stay eight years in Paris; it was a great sacrifice for her to leave the "Oeuvre Ouvriere", the principal aim of her vocation. It was a break in her life... How delicate were her feelings, however, in her compliance to the Will of God!
"Let us be God's little tools and allow Him to use us according to his wishes."
"Yes, my God, yes! Always yes to your Divine Will."
The acceptance of the Will of God goes hand in hand with her faithfulness to live in the 'present moment.'
"Let us live in the present moment to receive all the graces which it brings."
"You must not wish to live outside the 'actual moment.' It contains the light that you must follow and the help necessary for each circumstance."
In Paris, she was as successful with the high society school girls as she had been with the young workers. When, after her time there, she came back to Troyes, Father Brisson was going through a difficult time with the Ecclesiastical Aurthorities. This is the fate of all Founders. During the four years, Mother Aviat herself had to suffer misunderstandings from her community. She then put into practice what she taught:
"The difficult moments, so painful to our nature, take us nearer to our Saviour."
"Treat all obstacles as having been permitted by God. Let us establish charity and trust in our heart, so that we, Sisters, may practice what delights the Heart of God and obtains everything."
"The spirit of charity is acquired by practicing humility."
"Mother Frances de Sales is above all an eminent model of perfect charity. Her love is a wonder of strength and simplicity. How and why was she able to have so much simplicity and nevertheless be so strong? For her, strength and simplicity were the way of love. 'It is charity' Saint Paul says, 'that we become tied to perfection.' We have to look at the love alone before considering in turn these two virtues, so apparent and eminent in her, and so paradoxically interwoven." Card. Garrone
In 1893, Mother Aviat was re-elected Superior General, which she was to remain until her death.
"At her time when she took charge of her Congregation -once and for all-it seemed to her she heard these words: 'You will be Superior because I want to govern everything.' It was God speaking. It is not possible to say in a more exact way where she found the source of her simplicity. She depended entirely on God in whom she found the source of her strength. God used her as an instrument without resistance." Card. Garrone
She gave a solid base to the foundations in existence or those being developed. There were already Missions established in South Africa and others starting in Ecuador, (South America). In Europe, her daughters were welcomed in Switzerland, Austria, England, and Italy.
This was God's permission in view of the terrible storm that was to hit France when Religious Congregations would be scattered by the spoilation of their possessions. These laws came into force in 1903, In France, twenty-one well established houses, four in the process of being organized, and six where the Sisters worked in conjunction with the Oblate Fathers were closed on the same day, to be handed over to the liquidator. For the girls and for their families as well, it was more than grief, it was a deep affliction. Father Brisson, aged 87, could not go to live abroad; so he returned to his family home at Plancy, whereas Mother Aviat had to deal with the distressing situation. Thanks to the example of her generosity, all her daughters trusted her entirely. To save what they could from among the houses and schools in France, she asked some of the Sisters the sacrifice of wearing lay dress to continue their teaching and thus avoid for the families the sorrow of being cruelly forsaken. Others accepted to go to foreign countries. She herself went into exile with her assistants. The Mother House was transferred to Perugia. From now on, Italy was to become her second homeland. From there she perfected the new organization of her Institute, supporting the Sisters' courage by her visits and her letters.
Her last and greatest trial was the death of Father Brisson. On the 2nd of February 1908, he died as the 'Nunc dimittis' was being sung in his church at Plancy. By a moving coincidence, on the same day the liquidator was putting up for the auction the very bed on which was dying the kind priest who had harboured so many unfortunate people.
A fortnight before, as she was in her room at Perugia, Mother Aviat had a supernatural foreboding that the Servant of God was near his end, she wept. At that moment two of her assistants entered the room. When she told them what she felt, they tried to reassure her. "No" she insisted, "something is happening to Father Brisson." At that very hour he was receiving Extreme Unction. A short while later, a telegram confirmed her painful premonition. Mother Frances de Sales went immediately to receive his supreme blessing and his last sigh. At his funeral, she had the sorrow of being lost among the crowd without her religious habit, so as not to draw attention to the apostolate she was trying to save.
In this trial she remained, the comforter for others: "Say 'yes' to the divine Will, following Father Brisson's example."
"The cross unites us to our Saviour; let us summon up all our courage to bear it with confidence and trusting willingness."
She still had six years of life in which to complete the Constitutions of her Institute, with a view to their definite approbation. His Holiness Pope Leo XIII had granted his approval for ten years in 1890. It had been extended because of the events in France. In her exile, Mother Aviat valued being near to Rome and getting direct advice from the Sacred Congregation for Religious. Father Brisson had communicated to her filial love for the Pope; she complied with Holy Church's teachings, for herself and for her Institute. In 1911, His Holiness Pope Pius X gave their Constitutions the final approbation.
The task of the Foundress was fulfilled, God was going to call her, "to reward her with the abundance of His love", as Saint Francis de Sales promised in his Spiritual Directory, "to the souls who have done all their actions in the name of God and for His sole Pleasure."
After a short illness (bronchial pneumonia), she died, comforted by the blessing of Saint Pius X, on Saturday, 10th of January 1914. An Oblate Father was there to administer Extreme Unction and give her the last blessing. With fervor and peaceful serenity, she said: "He is going to give me the last Sacraments; I deeply desire to receive Holy Communion, and I want to receive it now." After the anointing she again expressed this burning wish.
Once she received Our Lord, she began a long thanksgiving, probably doing what she had often recommended to her daughters, "Abandon yourself in total confidence to the divine Will." Serene and peaceful was her agony. The priest suggested that she unite her heart to the litany of the Blessed Virgin he was going to recite. She then gave a beautiful smile, her last... It was for Mary whom she had loved so much.
Very soon the news of her death spread through the town of Perugia. People flocked to the Mother House wishing to gaze for the last time on her whom they called 'the Saint...'
Testimony was given by the two Reverend Mothers who assisted Mother Aviat during her long years at the head of the Congregation.
Mother Pupey-Girard: "She was heroic, but with simplicity."
Mother de Cissey: "Her love for our Lord was so ardent and her thirst for perfection so great, that she was urged to spread it and communicate it to those around her."