Madeleine Sophie Barat


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virgin, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Born at Joigny in Burgundy, the daughter of Jaques Barat, who owned a small vineyard and was a cooper by trade, she was educated largely by her brother Louis, eleven years her senior and a student for the priesthood. He seems to have combined academic ability with a rigour towards his sister both strange and abnormal. In 1793 he was arrested in Paris and imprisoned for two years because he refused to accept the civil constitution of the clergy. Later, when he was released, he continued his sister's education at Paris: Scripture and theology replaced the classics. In 1800, under the direction of l'Abbé Varin, one of a group of priests specially concerned with education, Madeleine was guided away from her intention of becoming a Carmelite lay sister into a new community founded by him for educational work among rich and poor. At the age of twenty-three she was appointed superior and retained this office for the next sixty-three years of her life. This was at Amiens, from which foundations were made at Grenoble and Poitiers in houses formerly occupied by other religious orders, and elsewhere in France and Belgium.

While she was away an attempt was made by a local superior, aided by the chaplain, to undermine her influence and, to some extent, her ideals. But by 1815 this ‘palace revolution’ had failed and the Society of the Sacred Heart started a period of great expansion, including the first foundations in America under Philippine Duchesne. This was matched by a general study-plan for all their schools, drawn up at Paris, to ensure uniformity among the diversity of foundations, but the plan was flexible enough to be modifiable every six years, to take account of educational developments. The reputation of her boarding schools was so high that requests for similar ones came from all sides; she also opened day-schools for poor children whenever possible. She became a ceaseless traveller, setting up new houses and visiting old ones in France, Austria, Switzerland, and (in 1844) England.

In character she was remarkable for wisdom, insight, and a tactful prudence which knew when to wait and when to press forward. During her life the Society of the Sacred Heart was at work in eighty-six houses in twelve countries: their influence has been very great in the particular field they have chosen, not least in the English-speaking world. In 1864 Mother Barat wished to resign at the age of eighty-five; instead, a vicaress was appointed to help her. She died on 25 May, which has become her feast day. She was canonized in 1925; her largely incorrupt body rests at Jette (Belgium).

M. Monahan, Saint Madeleine Sophie (1925); other Lives by G. de Grandmaison (1909), A. Brou (1925), C. E. Maguire (1960), M. Williams (1965);B.L.S., v. 139–40.

Subjects: Christianity.

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