The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, an apostolic religious congregation, founded in 1869 in San Antonio, Texas by Bishop Claude M. Dubuis, a native of France and Bishop of Galveston, Texas, bear the title of INCARNATE WORD.
As the Civil War ended, the Bishop of Galveston felt overwhelmed by the sufferings of his people, resulting from the ravages of disease and illnesses of every kind, addressed himself to the Cloistered Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Lyons, France, founded by Venerable Jeanne De Matel, seeking religious Sisters to establish a healthcare ministry in his diocese.
The Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament being a cloistered community, found itself unable to respond by sending Sisters abroad, but offered to train prospective candidates for apostolic missionary work, in their community, should the Bishop wish them to do so.
Thus it happened that several nursing aspirants were introduced to the Lyons community where they received training in religious life according to the Incarnate Word charism and customs of its foundress, Venerable Jeanne de Matel. Upon completion of their training, they were given the title, “Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word” and sent to do apostolic work in the mission fields of Texas.
WHERE THE TITLE ‘INCARNATE WORD’ COMES FROM….
Jeanne Chézard de Matel was born 400 years ago in Roanne, France, on November 6, 1596. Her birth was a joyful answer to prayer for Jean Chézard, a French nobleman, and Jeanne Chaurier, whose first four children had been stillborn or had died as infants. Jeanne was baptized on the day of her birth in St. Stephen’s Church. Two small children who came begging to the door were asked to be her Godparents. When Jeanne was born no one could have known that she would one day be called by God to be a Foundress of a religious order, mystic, teacher, spiritual director and writer.
Jeanne grew up in a loving atmosphere of faith, an environment that seems to have been primarily created by her mother. Although she knew her father’s love for her, he was absent from the home much of the time, due to his work at court. In her Autobiography, we read about Jeanne’s interest in spiritual things from the time she was a very small child. She wondered what the saints did in heaven all day, and worried that the good thief God let into heaven might fool God and steal God’s Paradise away. Before she was five years old she begged her father to teach her to read and to pray, and to tell her the stories in Scripture. At an early age she learned stories of the saints, loved her Guardian Angel, and talked to Mary with complete trust.
As a young person, Jeanne was energetic, interested in learning, and always looking for new things to do. In her teens she lived an active social life, loving parties, dancing, fun and laughter. In the midst of the fun she was having with her cousins and friends she sometimes neglected attention to her relationship with God. This caused some unrest in her, because in her heart she always felt called to live for God. Jeanne’s teenage years were times of questions, growing uncertainty, struggle, learning to make choices, and trying to balance her love for social life with her search for God.
When Jeanne was about eighteen years old, she experienced God’s love for her in a way that changed her life. God taught her at this time that her way to God was a way of love. In the following years of her young adult life, Jeanne was blessed by God in many special ways. She received a special God-given understanding of scripture, comprehending Latin even though women in seventeenth-century France were not able to be educated in languages or theology. This time in Jeanne’s life was a time of solitude, retreat, and meditation, during which God quickly moved her to contemplative prayer, Scripture, Eucharist, Mary and a relationship with the Trinity, which were to become central to her spirituality and were evidenced in her spiritual life even at this time.
Her twenties were years of discerning her vocation. Jeanne felt that God was calling her to religious life, but she wasn’t clear about where. At one time, she thought she had a Carmelite vocation; at another time, she had considered joining the Ursulines. We also know from her writings that she pondered becoming a member of the Visitation and Franciscan Orders. With the help of spiritual direction and a faithful life of prayer, Jeanne’s spirituality became more and more centered in the Person of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. In 1620, at the age of twenty-four, Jeanne received special permission to receive Communion daily, an unusually rare privilege in the Church at that time.
It was after this that Jeanne became clear about God’s unique call to her. She tells us in her Autobiography that, in an extraordinary experience of prayer, she understood God to say to her: “You love recollection, but my Wisdom wants something different. I have destined you to institute an Order in My Name that will honor My Person become incarnate for the love of human beings.” By 1625, Jeanne was much clearer about God’s call, and understood that God wanted her to found a new religious congregation.
On July 3, 1625, Jeanne was joined by two other young women, Catherine Fleurin and Marie Figent, and together they lived in a small house in Roanne that had been vacated by the Ursulines.
This small beginning was the birth of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. (Although Jeanne and her Sisters would have to wait for almost fifteen years for the establishment of the first canonical house.) When they came together, God made even clearer the purpose of the new community. While preparing breakfast in the kitchen one morning, Jeanne understood God to say to her: “In this establishment, I who am the Incarnate Word will make an extension of My Incarnation.” Jeanne grew to realize that these words meant that through this Order, the Word would be born a second time in the world, that wherever the Order was present, Jesus would be present.
The fifteen years that followed were years of growth and disappointment, struggle and grace. Many women joined Jeanne with a desire to live a religious life. During these years Jeanne sought consent to found the Order in Roanne, Lyons and Paris. While waiting for church approval to establish the new group as an Order, the community established boarding schools for girls. During this time, Jeanne spent time writing about her spiritual experiences, and essays about the spiritual life to instruct her Sisters.
Finally, in 1639, Jeanne and her young community experienced one of those wonderful turn of events that can only be attributed to the God of Surprise. Jeanne was invited to make the first canonical foundation of the Order in Avignon, a foundation which brought her great joy.
After spending several months in Avignon, and seeing the first novices of the Order received there, Jeanne returned to Lyons where she continued to wait patiently for the establishment of the house there and in Paris. In 1643, Jeanne was approached by two Jesuit priests and invited to found the community in the city of Grenoble. The monastery of Paris was canonically established in January, 1644, and Jeanne lived in that monastery for ten years. The Monastery in Lyons was fully established in November, 1655, after almost thirty years of faith-filled waiting.
During these mid-years of Jeanne’s life, she focused on a life of prayer…often making the needs of the Church and civil leaders a central concern. She developed an extensive ministry of spiritual direction and companioning. Jeanne also saw vocation ministry to be a need of her time, and assisted many men and women to discern how best to live faith-filled lives. She placed emphasis on children receiving the highest quality education in the community’s boarding schools. A war in France, a breakout of smallpox, difficulties in the community…especially in the Paris monastery, and the deaths of some of her closest friends and strongest supporters, were among some of the hard things that challenged the later years of Jeanne’s life. Although these years were filled with writing, travel, extensive personal correspondence, and active ministry, she remained at heart a contemplative.
Jeanne’s extensive writings show her to be a woman deeply and passionately in love with God. In all things, she listened for God’s Will. Scripture, the rhythm of the liturgical year, and the lives of the saints provided Jeanne with continual spiritual nourishment. The Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes, most clearly characterizes Jeanne’s spirit, and that of the Order. Jeanne’s life and prayer and writings were extensively enriched by images from scripture, nature and life…images through which she always sought to express the inexpressible mystery of God’s “presence in our midst.” Jeanne has inspired men and women for four hundred years to focus their lives on the Person of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, by being evangelizers of the grace of the Gospel of Love and Goodness in the tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan Woman, and other disciples of the Lord.
Source: Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent, 6618 Pearl Road Parma Heights, Ohio 44130-3808 | Ph: 440.88
Jeanne’s life was focused on the Person of Jesus, the Word – made – flesh for love of us. She saw Jesus as the gate through which we enter to the Father and then to our neighbor. The Spirit prepares our hearts to welcome God there. Her whole life was an effort to return the love poured out on her by God.
Through the Eucharist Jeanne experienced the intimate love of the Incarnate Word. She yearned to be that presence for others by allowing God to make of her life a word and sacrament of love.
Scripture was a continual source of nourishment for Jeanne. Her writings are filled with biblical quotations which she understood was the key by which she would know God’s will.
The cycle of the liturgy was also important for Jeanne who yearned to live the mysteries of Jesus’ life in her own. She looked for inspiration from the lives of the saints’ on their particular feastdays.
For Jeanne, Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word, was also mother of the Order. Jeanne saw her call to found the Order of the Incarnate Word as a participation in the motherhood of Mary, once again giving birth to Jesus in the world. Mary was her model of total surrender.
Jeanne’s love of the Church, the People of God, enabled her to commit herself to serving the people as teacher, writer, spiritual director and friend.
The beatitudes expressed for Jeanne how she wished to be Christ in the world. She wouldn’t rest until all the world is striving to be just, compassionate, and single – hearted.
Love was the focus of Jeanne’s spirituality…
- …the love of Jesus, God – made – flesh for love of us
- …the giving of her whole life to returning the love poured out on her by the Trinity
- …her yearning to be Eucharist – Jesus’ presence – for others
- …her searching the Scriptures for God’s word to her
- …the inspiration she received by celebrating the feasts of the liturgical cycle
- …her following Mary’s example of total surrender
- …her love and dedicated service to the People of God
- …her passion for beatitude living, making her life a blessing for others
Jeanne wanted to be…
a crystal vase, clear, simple and empty, pouring out God’s love
a mirror, revealing the One she loved
a Book and Fire in which others could read the instructions she gave them
fire, setting hearts ablaze with God’s love
Pilgrim Traveler the home of love for Jesus and others
a pilgrim, seeking no permanent dwelling in this world
Jeanne Chézard de Matel (1596 – 1670), shares in her own words in her Autobiography, the experience she had in prayer, through which she understood that God was calling her to found a new Order in the Church.
In the evening at about nine o’clock, when I had withdrawn to my oratory, it pleased You to elevate my understanding in a most sublime suspension during which You said to me: “My daughter, you think that you should enjoy repose and the quiet of contemplation in your father’s house, while possessing the heavenly, divine benediction of the Eucharist. You love your recollection, but my Divine Wisdom orders otherwise. I have destined you to institute an Order in my Name that will honor my Person become Flesh for love of humankind. Just as I chose the Blessed Father Ignatius to institute a Society of men to honor my Name, I have chosen you to erect a Congregation of women for Me.
Remember that, one day during Easter-time in 1617, I wanted you to carry the Cross, followed by a number of young women dressed in white, to come to adore Me at the altar where I reposed for Forty Hours. You carried the Cross, yet I carried and sustained you delightfully while caressing you more lovingly than King Assuerus did Esther. I told you that the humiliations of my Cross would be converted into glory for you. This carrying of the Cross prefigured what I desired to bring about in you by calling you to undertake the project that I am declaring to you this evening. Courage, my daughter! Resolve to leave your father’s house and all the recollection you cherish so highly, in order to fulfill my intentions.”
With customary confidence, I addressed your Majesty saying: “What title do You want for your Institute that will incorporate all your promises to me?” My Divine Oracle, You did not delay, but elevating my spirit. You told me: “My daughter, I am Infallible Truth. I will keep all my promises, and the title of my Order is Incarnate Word. I want this name to be requested. With eminence and excellence, this title comprises all that refers to Me as Increated Word and Incarnate Word; you will have everything in this name. Whoever possesses the totality, possesses the parts, and I assure you, my daughter, that this title will be given my Order without opposition. It is I, my daughter, who invest you with this august and glorious title. From all eternity, I have been and I am the Increated Word. I will forever be the Incarnate Word.
From her earliest years Jeanne was curious and delighted in learning. Even so, according to the culture of her time, her formal education was limited. Because of this it was difficult for her to write. She did so at the urging of her spiritual directors who knew that her experience of intimacy with God could nurture God’s life in others.
Jeanne’s writings fill many volumes which have been preserved in one of the early French monasteries. Through the years they have been translated and some are privately published by the Order of the Incarnate Word.
Autobiography – Jeanne wrote the story of her life in 1642. Cardinal Armand de Richelieu, Prime Minister for Louis XIII, had heard of Jeanne’s writings that far surpassed her education. He asked his brother, Cardinal Alphonse Louis de Richelieu, to investigate. The latter unexpectedly went to the convent, took all of Jeanne’s writings, then ordered her to write her entire Autobiography including all the graces she had received from God. Within a few months Jeanne finished the task, a manuscript of 454 pages. For her, the autobiographical information was merely a framework for recounting the graces and gifts which God granted her. Cardinal Richelieu’s successor, Monseigneur de Neuville, returned the manuscript which is now preserved in the convent in Lyon. Today the autobiography is available in two volumes with the title, “Complete Works”. The translation to English was completed in 1993.
A Hundred Letters from The Correspondence of Jeanne Chézard de Matel – This volume offers selections from the correspondence of Jeanne. She wrote to her Sisters, to clergy, and to lay people. Her letters, which are preserved, include spiritual direction, business affairs, and three volumes of her letters, written from the 1620’s until her death in 1670, are preserved. Sister Kathleen McDonagh, who edited the collection of letters, wrote: “Her letters reveal [Jeanne] as pray-er, planner, foundress, friend, director, writer, diplomat, mother, sister, sufferer. Her letters are on-the-spot records of her immediate dreams, hopes, responses to call, and reactions to situations.”
The Spiritual Journal – This is a collection of Jeanne’s writings including her experiences in prayer, a rule, a vow formula, and other writings. It is a continuous diary of her life with God. This work is divided into two volumes (approximately 1500 pages) which contain the writings of Jeanne in chronological order.
Treatises – Jeanne’s treatises were written between the ages of 22 and 30 and includes writings on the Incarnation, the Church, Mary, the Song of Songs and the Beatitudes.
- Treatise on the Three Sacred Marriages – “Marriage” here refers to the intimate relationship of Jesus to 1) Mary, 2) Church and 3) Jeanne and others who are in intimate union with Jesus.
- Treatise on the Four Sacred Marriages – This transcript adds one “marriage” to the three written in the treatise above, that of humanity in the Incarnation.
- Treatise on the Interpretation of the Song of Songs – Jeanne reflects on this book of Scripture as an intimate relationship between her and God.
- Treatise on the Beatitudes – We have three writings of Jeanne by this title. She compares the spiritual life to a temple, with the eight beatitudes as the pillars: the peacemakers, the meek, the pure of heart, the merciful, those who mourn, those who hunger, and those who suffer persecution.
WRITINGS ABOUT JEANNE CHÉZARD DE MATEL AND THE ORDER OF THE INCARNATE WORD
- Biography of Mother St. Claire Valentine by Sister Alphonse Clark, IWBS, 1898.
- Diamond Jubilee: Nazareth Academy by Sister Paul Regan, 1866.
- Diamonds for the King by Sister Mary Xavier Holworthy, IWBS, Corpus Christi, 1945.
- Fire That Resurges: Father Denis by G. P. Penaud, translated 1979.
- Four Centuries of Pilgrimage: An Outline History of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament by Sister Kathleen McDonagh, 1999.
- Jeanne Chézard de Matel and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word by John M. Lozano, CMF, 1983 – Includes Jeanne’s life, spirituality, mission and institution of the Order of the Incarnate Word.
- Life of the Reverend Mother Jeanne Chézard de Matel, by Mother St. Pierre de Jesus Viffray, 1910.
- Like A Crystal Vase by Sister Kathleen McDonagh, IWBS, Corpus Christi, 1995.
- Memoirs Concerning Jeanne Chézard de Matel, by Mother Jeanne de Jesus de Bely.
- Postitio for the Cause of the Servant of God, Jeanne Chézard de Matel, Vols. 1, 2, 1989.
- Serving With Gladness by Sister M. Loyola Hegarty, CCVI, 1967.
- The Life of Mother Jeanne de Matel, Foundress of the Order of the Incarnate Word by A. Gallitzin.
- The Life of the Reverend Mother Jeanne Chézard de Matel, Foundress of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament by M. Saint-Pierre de Jesus, 1922.
- The Way of the Cross – with texts taken from Scripture and from the Writings of Jeanne Chézard de Matel – compiled by Sister Kathleen McDonagh, 1998.
- The Word From the Heart of Jeanne Chézard de Matel – quotations from the writings of Jeanne Chézard de Matel collected and edited by Sr. Mary Rose Kocab, SIW, Cleveland and Sr. Rose Miriam Gansle, IWBS, Corpus Christi, 1996.
- The Word Lives Among Us (A Spiritual Journal of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, Texas) by Sister Mary Loyola Hegarty, CCVI, 1999.
- To Texas With Love by Mother M. Patricia Gunning, IWBS, Corpus Christi, 1971.
- Treasured Heritage: Ever Ancient, Ever New by Sister Kathleen McDonagh, IWBS, Corpus Christi, 2008.
- Venerable Mother Jeanne de Matel, Her Life, Her Spirit, Her Works by G.P. Penaud, 1889.
For more information about obtaining copies of Jeanne’s writings, please contact us here.
Source: Sisters of Incarnate Word, 6618 Pearl Road Parma H. Cleveland, Ohio. Used with permission.