By all accounts, Madeleine Sophie Barat was an unusually gifted child. Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about her beginnings that would have presaged her later achievements. Madeleine Sophie was born on December 12, 1779, in Joigny, Burgundy, France. She was the youngest child of Jacques Barat, a vinedresser and cooper, and his wife Madeleine. Perhaps Madeleine Sophie’s road to sainthood truly began when the family chose her elder brother Louis to be her godfather at her baptism. Louis was eleven years old at the time, but he had already shown signs of a keen intellect as well as a deep devotion to his spiritual beliefs. Several years after his littlest sister’s birth, Louis left his family and journeyed to Paris where he was accepted into the priesthood. He excelled at his studies to such a degree that while still in his twenties, Louis was sent back to Joigny to be a professor at the seminary there.
Madeleine was then in her early teens, but her keen mind thirsted for more than the simple education that young girls received in the eighteenth century. Louis recognized an intellectual soul mate in his sister and he taught her the same subjects that he taught his seminarians: Latin, Greek, history, natural sciences, Spanish and Italian. Madeleine not only kept up with her brother’s other pupils, but she often surpassed them, though the young men never realized that fact.
Madeleine came of age during France’s Reign of Terror. Even though her brother’s seminary had shut down for fear of political reprisals against clerics, Madeleine continued her studies on her own. Following the Concorde of 1801, Louis felt safe enough to go to Paris where he joined the Fathers of the Faith, a band of priests who aspired to become members of the esteemed Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuits. At this time, Louis met Father Varin, who was anxious to found a religious society of women who would be specially devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus with prayer and sacrifice, and who would instruct girls in the same rigorous subjects as the Jesuits taught to boys. Louis suggested his sister.
When Father Varin first met Madeleine Sophie Barat, she was only twenty years of age, but her strong faith and her intellectual gifts convinced Father Varin that she was indeed the perfect person to head his new religious Society. For her part, Madeleine felt very strongly that there was a great need to expand women’s education in the changing world following the upheaval of the French Revolution. The liberal, increasingly secular tendencies of thought, as well as the shifting social changes, made it clear that in this brave new world of the nineteenth century, women would assume a greater role and influence. “If you educate a woman, you educate a family; and if you educate a family, you can change the world,” she wrote. [INTERCOM/ALUMNAE NEWS, Vol. 31, No. 7, Bicentennial 2000 issue, page 2. Archives.]
Madeleine had already made her first vows of consecration on November 21, 1800, in Paris. This date is now considered to be the founding of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. At first, the Order was called “Dames de la Foi de l’Instruction” since “Society of the Sacred Heart” might sound too political to the powers that now governed France.
In September 1801, the first convent of the Sacred Heart opened in Amiens. Madeleine Sophie made her final profession on June 7, 1802. At this time, she added to her consecration “according to obedience I commit myself to the education of youth and promise to persevere therein until death.” [INTERCOM, Vol 31, No. 2, November/December 1999, page 1. Archives.]
She was elected to be the Society’s first Mother Superior. Madeleine was only twenty-two years old. Four years later in January 1806, she was elected the Society’s Mother Superior General.
Through Father Varin, who was now a Jesuit, Madeleine drafted the rules of her Order from the Institute of St, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. By 1820, she had established a uniform course of studies that would cultivate the minds of girls and that would form their characters to make them wise helpmates and mothers. The studies also set the standards for strong religious principles as well as a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Pope Leo XII gave the fledgling Society his approbation in December of 1826. Two years later, the Pope invited Mother Madeleine Sophie to found a community of her Order in Rome at the Trinita dei Monte. Sixteen years later, this Sacred Heart convent would become the home of the miraculous fresco now known the world over as Mater Admirabilis.
By the 1830s, the first generation of Sacred Heart students had graduated and these women expressed the desire to continue to help the Order as well as deepening their religious lives. In 1832, Mother Barat founded the Congregation of the Children of Mary [known as the Enfants de Marie or E de M’s] for her former pupils, as well as for other adult women who sought a deeper prayer life.
During the next forty years, Mother Madeleine Sophie Barat crisscrossed Europe visiting the many convents and schools she had founded. By 1850, there were over eighty Sacred Heart convents and schools in Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Algeria, England, Ireland, Spain, Holland, Germany, Poland, South America, and North America, through the pioneering work of St. Philippine Duchesne. Mother Barat had once written, “for the sake of one child, I would have founded the Society.” Now her children numbered in the thousands.
Mother Madeleine Sophie Barat died at the Society’s motherhouse in Paris on May 24, 1865, after an illness of four days. The religious and students in one hundred and eleven Sacred Heart convents and schools mourned her loss and petitioned the Vatican for her sainthood. In 1879, she was declared Venerable. She was canonized in 1925, two years after a convent and school had been established in Washington, DC.
St. Madeleine Sophie Barat’s Feast Day is celebrated annually around the world on May 25 with a traditional congé [in-school holiday].