Our story begins November 6,1596 in Roanne, France, with the birth of Jeanne Chézard de Matel. Being the daughter of loving and faith-filled parents, she yearned to give her life to God. From her early teen years until she left home in 1625, she devoted herself to prayer, writing and spiritual direction.
When Jeanne was 29, she understood that God was calling her to institute an Order of consecrated women who would honor and serve the Incarnate Word, God-become-flesh. She left home with two women companions to establish the first community in her hometown of Roanne. Two years later they moved to the larger city of Lyons. After 14 years the Order was officially established in Avignon, and four years later the monasteries of Grenoble and Paris were approved. Not until 1655 did the monastery in Lyons receive canonical recognition.
From these five original foundations, other houses were established. The Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament flourished until all religious houses were suppressed during the French Revolution in 1790. Amazingly, the Order was restored early in the next century.
While the Sisters cherished their contemplative life, they supported themselves by educating young girls and accepting them as boarders. They understood that their spirituality called them to adore Christ, the Word Incarnate, and to be Jesus' presence for others.
In 1852, more than 200 years after the founding of the Order, four Incarnate Word Sisters set out for the mission fields of Texas. Within the next fifty years, seven foundations were established. Also, the first Sisters were followed by three hospital sisters, nurses who responded to the Bishop's request for health care for victims of an epidemic. These women, the first Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, were trained in religious life by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and so have maintained a close relationship with us.
As we begin the third millennium, the Sisters continue to dedicate themselves to the mission they received from Jeanne de Matel by proclaiming the Gospel of Love in France, Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Spain, Kenya, Tanzania, the Vatican, Ireland, and the United States. Today the nine Incarnate Word foundations have their central houses in the United States: Cleveland, Ohio
, Corpus Christi, Texas
, Houston, Texas
, Victoria, Texas
and in Mexico: Gomez Palacio
, Mexico City
Growth of the Order
After Jeanne's death the Order continued to grow and other monasteries were founded. In 1683 the Grenoble community moved to Sarrian and then to Orange. Ten years later it moved to Roquemaure.
The Lyons community made a foundation in Andueze.
The monastery in Avignon continued to be one of the most flourishing convents in that city.
In 1790, the four Incarnate Word monasteries-Lyons, Avignon, Roquemaure and Anduze-were all carrying on the work begun by Jeanne.
French Revolution and Suppression of the Incarnate Word Houses
When Louis XVI came to the throne, he refused to listen to the advice of his ministers and make some sorely needed reforms. By 1787 France suffered from depression, decline in production, unemployment and famine. The burden of taxes fell mainly on the peasants. In 1789 the peasants brought down the French monarchy.
In July, 1790, the Assembly declared that all clergy were to be elected by representatives of the laity and all religious houses in France were to be suppressed.
Some of the Sisters waited in exile or in the homes of relatives. Some were dragged to prison and everything in their convents was confiscated. There is evidence that some gave their lives for their faith. A few lived to see the Order restored after the Revolution.
Restoration of the Order
Sister Marie Anne Chinard went into exile in Ravenna, Italy. While she was there, Abbe Stephen Denis, also in exile, became her confessor. Through her, Father Denis became familiar with the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blesssed Sacrament.
On October 9, 1801, Sister Marie Anne returned to Lyons with Father Denis and other companions. Father Denis was assigned to Azerables in France. There three women asked him to permit them to share in his apostolic work. Fr. Denis formed them into a religious community. Some time later, during the Mass of Investiture for the Sisters, he understood that God was asking him to begin again in this women, the Order of the Incarnate Word.
Nine years later Father Denis wrote to Sister Marie Anne Chinard inviting her to Azerables. She was overjoyed. After much difficulty, she arrived in Azerables on October 28, 1816, bringing with her the habit, Rules, Constitutions, and other writings of the Order. She introduced the Azerables community to the spirit of the Order founded by Jeanne de Matel and directed them as their superioress for three years prior to her death.
In 1818, another former Incarnate Word Sister, Sister Mary Victoria Angelique de Quinquerant joined the Azerables community, just five months before her death. She brought with her the remains of Jeanne de Matel which her family had taken care of during the years of the dispersion of the Order. She also brought writings of Jeanne and a great number of old documents referring to the history of the Order.
Sister Agnes de St. Paul Duchamp, a former member of the Lyons monastery, arrived in Azerables in 1818 after 18 years of living in solitude in the country. She died in 1825.
The Azerables foundation was in existence until 1950 when the last four Sisters joined the Sisters in Lyons.
A new monastery of Lyons was founded in 1832 when Sister Mary Angelique Hiver returned to Lyons with two other Sisters. They opened the new monastery on the hill of Fourviere on May 27, 1833. Soon two former members of the Lyons convent heard of the restoration and joined the community. They brought the preserved heart of Jeanne de Matel and many of her writings. Today the Lyons monastery is the only Incarnate Word house in France.
Nine years later a daughter monastery was established in Belmont. It was in the Belmont monastery that Mother St. Claire Valentine, the foundress of the Order in America, made her religious profession. From there she established the first foundation in the New World in 1871 in Brownsville, Texas.
Other houses founded from Azerables include: St. Benoit Du Sault (1821-1904), Evaux (1827-1945), Chatelus Malvaleix (1827-1904), St. Junien (1837-1904), St. Yrieux (1836-1904), Limoges (1872-1904), and Sancerre (1874-1904).
In 1642, while at prayer Jeanne understood, "...You shall carry My Name throughout the earth. I am not yet declaring to you how this will occur, for the hour has not yet come..." In 1852, more than two hundred years later, and 35 years after the restoration of the Order, this part of Jeanne's mission began to unfold.
Extending the Incarnation into the Third Millennium
In 1980 the autonomous groups of Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament met to draw up a Charter of Communion and to collaborate on the Cause of the canonization of Jeanne Chézard de Matel. The Charter is a statement of those ideals which are essential to the Order. From the first international meeting, there arose annual international and national reunions of representatives of all the autonomous communities of the Order to share on matters of common interest and to deepen their understanding of the spirituality and mission of the Order.
The Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, numbering over 1,000 members worldwide, has spread from France to the United States and beyond. Besides France, Sisters of the Order minister in Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Spain, Kenya, Tanzania, the Vatican, and Ireland.