Sophie Barat (1779-1865) may not have been, in sober fact, the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart; she was, however, in every sense its creator.
The order ran boarding schools for girls and used the profits to set up day schools for the poor. Sophie Barat was one of the first teachers and subsequently ran the Society for 62 years.
By her death the Society numbered some 3,500 religious in 86 houses and 12 countries. Sophie Barat would doubtless have recoiled at the notion of feminism; few men, however, have matched her as an administrator.
Madeleine Louise-Sophie Barat – always Sophie in her family – was born at Joigny, in Burgundy, the daughter of a cooper. The area was under Jansenist influence and Sophie’s biographer Philip Kilroy has presented her life as an endeavour “to transform her image of a severe, harsh, Jansenist God, into one of warmth and love and vulnerability”.
She had, in fact, been a charming, lively child before being taken in hand by her brother Louis, who considered it his duty “to destroy her nature and replace it with grace”.
The programme he inflicted upon her entailed a life of silence, prayer, fasting, sleeplessness and relentless study – in theology, mathematics and Latin. Above all, Louis insisted, she should abandon all hope of happiness in this world. When Sophie confessed her delight in having met a friend, he slapped her face. When she gave him a present, he threw it in the fire.
Sophie’s intention of becoming a Carmelite was overborne by one of Louis’s friends, Fr Joseph Varin d’Ainville, who aimed to found a society of women which would restore Catholic education after the depredations of the Revolution.
Sophie joined the fledgling community in Paris in 1800 and next year began teaching at a boarding school in Amiens. In 1802, still only 23, she was appointed superior-general. Two years later the Society took over the former Visitation convent at Grenoble, where Sophie encountered Philippine Duchesne, who in 1818 would take the ideal of the Sacred Heart to Louisiana.
In 1806 another foundation was established at Poitiers. After 1815 the movement grew rapidly, imposing a colossal burden on Sophie Barat. She travelled ceaselessly, took command of finances, and through her vast correspondence kept tabs on every development within the Society. In 1844 she briefly visited England.
Only 4ft 11 ins tall, alternatively delightful and brusque, understanding and impatient, Sophie Barat dominated through sheer energy. While those who contested her will were invariably worsted, she fought not to satisfy her ego but to fulfil her vision. Behind her power lay genuine modesty and humility. In short, she turned out a great deal better than her brother Louis deserved.