On Pentecost Sunday 1607, St Francis de Sales met St Jane Frances de Chantal
at Annecy and told her of his plan to found with her, under the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit, a new institute of religious life, the Visitation of
Holy Mary, “to give God daughters of prayer, so interior that they will be found worthy to worship in spirit and truth.”
The Order of the Visitation was founded in Annecy, France, in 1610 and
eventually came to England in 1804. At the French Revolution in 1789 when
all the religious houses were suppressed many of our French Sisters often
took refuge in other Catholic countries. Our Sisters in Rouen, northern
France, fled to our Portuguese monasteries, having only escaped the
guillotine by the death of Robespierre in 1794.
There had been a desire to bring the Visitation
to England since the time of James 11 and his wife, Mary of Modena
c1675) who had earlier been a novice in one of our Italian
monasteries. In addition St Francis de Sales who had met some of
the English priests being trained in Italy and was, himself, at
one time a missionary in hostile territory, always had the cause
of England deeply at heart. In one of his letters he says: ‘I have a special fondness for this great Island and its king, and I never cease to pray for its conversion, confident that my prayers will be heard.’ However, none of these desires for a foundation were realised; it was not God’s ‘moment’.
At the beginning of the 19thC it fell to a devout benefactress, Mrs Tunstall, to ask our Rouen Sisters, exiled in Portugal, if they would be willing to establish a monastery in England. Mindful of St Francis de Sales’ love of England to which St Chantal had further testified after his death: ‘Francis de Sales had a great longing to go to England. The English were close to his heart and he prayed for them lovingly everyday’, the Sisters willingly agreed.
Meanwhile in 1803 England was at war with France. Six Sisters left Lisbon in an English packet ship and while at sea they were attacked by French pirates. They were spared because of their nationality (they were French not English!) and were returned safely to a the Spanish seaport of Vigo. After a brief sejour in Spain three of the Sisters made a second attempt to cross from Porto and without further encounters with pirates arrived in Falmouth on 29th January, 1804, the former feast of St Francis de Sales. They later journeyed to Acton and founded the first monastery of the Visitation on English soil on the feast of St Joseph, March 19th, 1804
‘St Francis de Sales had a great longing to go to
England. The English were close to his heart,
and he prayed for them most lovingly every day.’
Jeanne de Chantal
click on picture to enlarge