26 April 2024

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Jeanne Bigard was born in Normandy into a wealthy family on December 8, 1859. Her mother Stéphanie was a woman of character and affectionate love. Between mother and daughter such a symbiosis of feelings and ideals developed that the two became almost inseparable from each other. Jeanne will develop a deep interest in the workers of the Gospel. She began to work for the missions, with her mother. They were brought there by the Apostolic Society, founded in 1835 by Marie Du Chesne, and which had as its essential purpose the packaging of objects of worship and personal equipment for missionaries. Collaborating to the mission in union with this Society, the Bigards had the opportunity to correspond directly with the missionaries and to send the works of their hands and their offerings. More and more, the needs of priests, missionaries and indigenous clergy will touch her heart and she will devote herself to preparing what is needed for the priestly ministry, especially for worship.

They wrote to the missionaries and received letters from them informing them of their activities, needs and plans. They realized how the missions were unknown to the general public and how exciting the work carried out was. The Bigards opened their eyes and their souls regarding the urgency and necessity for the mission Churches to have their own clergy.

The missionaries with whom the Bigards had more frequent relations were the Fathers of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), on missions in Manchuria, Korea and Japan. These missionaries, always desperately short of financial means, turned their gaze to these ladies who were already helping them through offerings for masses and religious objects. The first protege of the Bigards was a missionary in Kyoto in Japan, Father Aimé Villion, through whom they contributed to the construction of the church of St. Francis Xavier in Kyoto.

When Msgr. Jules-Alphonse Cousin’s request reaches Jeanne Bigard, it was the ray of light for her that illuminated her path: she had the precise conviction that it was the voice of God that traced her a spiritual and active commitment to fulfill. With exaltation and extraordinary zeal she dragged her mother with her enthusiasm to organize the collection of the necessary funds. They take the resolution to reduce their personal expenses, to live in two small rooms, avoiding large expenses, comforts and goods of all kinds, in order to better help Msgr. Cousin's Missions, sending more money for his seminarians and more clothing to the priests.

Committed in the adoption of Japanese seminarians, the Bigards wanted to reach out to the other missionaries, extending their generous interest to other missions. However, having a more fixed attention to the indigenous clergy, they gathered information from the bishops and apostolic vicars of the Foreign Missions of Paris. From the missionaries of all parts both in India, Cochinchina, Manchuria, Africa, they receive the same news that the future of the missions depends on the formation of the local clergy, but that the lack of means does not allow them to welcome the numerous vocations that arise.

Jeanne, who good-naturedly nicknamed herself "iron head" for tenacity and obstinacy, soon understood that this commitment - for her long-term perspective - requires an organized movement to take on the responsibility: between 1889 and 1896, this association will take shape and will be the Society of St. Peter the Apostle which would have had these purposes:

·         Raise money to fund scholarships in mission seminaries or at least pay annual dues for the seminarians up to the priesthood.

·         Making, for pure love of God and without any remuneration, the sacred vestments and linens for the ordinands, without forgetting to unite the sacred vessels necessary for the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments.

All associates were invited to pray for indigenous priests and religious a great zeal for the conversion of their compatriots and a faithful attachment to the Holy See.

Jeanne Bigard discovered her true vocation in all this. Making the Society known was her passionate desire. She spoke to everyone about her plan, decisive to devote time, strength and personal goods to it. Despite her shyness and poor health, she will work hard for what will become the purpose of her life: she will travel through all the dioceses of France, go abroad, go to Rome several times.

With the Encyclical Ad extremas Orientis published on 24 June 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, the Society felt strongly encouraged. For the Bigard ladies, this document sounded like a divine approval of their action plans, launching an invitation to the Christian world and all Catholics in Europe to show themselves generous and charitable towards the seminary of the Indies. The Holy Father's concerns for the indigenous clergy are echoed by those of the Bigards, who think about the seminaries of the missionary world. This coincidence inspired them to place their Society under the protection of St. Peter.

The first scheme of the Society was printed in October 1894. On July 12, 1895, the Holy Father Leo XIII granted the apostolic blessing to the Society of St. Peter and to its foundresses and members. In July 1896, Jeanne prepared and published a 78-page booklet on the Society of St. Peter the Apostle for the indigenous clergy of the missions, bearing the imprimatur of the bishops of Séez and Vannes.

The Society is now a living reality of the Church and in 1922 it will become a Pontifical Society. Jeanne Bigard also takes care to obtain civil recognition and, as the secular state threatens to appropriate all the ecclesiastical assets, she moves the Society's headquarters to Friborg, Switzerland.

The death of her mother on January 5, 1903, will transform Jeanne's life into a distressing ordeal. Realizing the seriousness of the disease that is about to fall upon her, Jeanne will entrust the Society to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary of Friborg. Her intelligence, fatigued by the hardships and no longer supported by the strong personality of her mother, is overwhelmed by a strong discouragement that takes away her clarity and only at times allows her full consciousness. First admitted to a religious institute and then to a Parisian clinic (1905), she lived from within the anguish of Gethsemane and the cross but always putting herself in the hands of God; soon, however, the deterioration of her health condition (1906) advised to take her to Alençon at the Sisters of St. Joseph where she died on April 28, 1934.