St Jane Frances de Chantal was the founder of a religious order in 17th-century France, and is perhaps best remembered for literally stepping over her child in order to enter the religious life, despite his tears. She was also close friends and a spiritual pupil of St Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul.
Born in Dijon in 1572 during France’s traumatic religious wars, she was from an aristocratic family, her father being the president of the Burgundy parlement and her brother the Archbishop of Bourges.
Married at 20, St Jane lived at a castle in nearby Bourbilly before her husband, the Baron de Chantal, was killed in a hunting accident.
It was a love match by all accounts and the heartbroken 28-year-old widow and mother of four took a vow of chastity. (Not only her husband but her mother, sister and eldest two children
had also died.)
An efficient manager of her husband’s estates, she also cared for her father-in-law (who had a reputation as a difficult man) and provided help to neighbours.
Then during Lent of 1604 she met St Francis de Sales, then Bishop of Geneva, and they became friends. With his support, and that of her brother, she left for Annecy, 22 miles south of Geneva, to start the Congregation of the Visitation.
She took her two remaining daughters with her, the elder having recently married the Baron of Thorens, a brother of St Francis de Sales. But her 14-year-old son Celse-Benigne, tried to block his mother’s way by lying across the threshold. She stopped momentarily: “Can the tears of a child shake her resolution?” said Celse-Benigne’s tutor, a wise old priest. “Oh! no”, she replied, “but after all I am a mother!” And, taking Jesus’s message to leave one’s family to a rather extreme degree, she stepped over his body.
The order accepted women who had been rejected by other groups because of age or health, but was active in leaving its cloisters and meeting the faithful. Criticised for not abiding by strict practise, she replied: “What do you want me to do? I like sick people myself; I’m on their side.”
Her reputation for good management and holiness meant that the house soon attracted donations from rich woman, and the order had grown to 13 houses when St Francis de Sales died, after which St Vincent de Paul served as her spiritual director. When she died, aged 69, the order had grown to 86 houses. Tragically she had outlived her son, who had died fighting Huguenots and their English allies during the latter stages of the country’s religious conflict. By 1767, the year she was canonised by Clement XIII. The order then had 164 houses.
St Jane Frances de Chantal also wrote many letters on spiritual direction. Her granddaughter was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the famous letter writer considered one of the great figures of French literature, and an inspiration to novelist Marcel Proust.