Commemorating the Declaration of Marie Madeleine
as a Women of Heroic Virtue
Richmond, Melbourne, Australia — 8th October 2011
It was about 11am on the 8th October 2011 and a fine Saturday morning in spring - breakfast time for many of the local demographic in Melbourne’s Richmond. The iconic sights and sounds of pedestrians, traffic and street-side cafe patrons filled the air with weekend buzz.
As I stepped off the tram and into St Ignatius Church, I was conscious that I was making a deliberate though familiar crossing from the secular world into a sacred space.
Little did I realise that I was also walking into something more; it was a moment in the history of the Society, Faithful Companions of Jesus, commemorating 40 years since their founder, Marie Madeleine d’Houet, was officially declared as a woman of heroic virtues by Pope Paul VI.
So the story of Marie Madeleine Victoire de Bengy begins in 1781, during a tumultuous time in France for both the Church and the State. The French Revolution had profound effects on her upbringing, but Marie Madeleine was nonetheless a happy and vivacious daughter, a devoted and caring sister to her siblings, often taking great pride and seriousness in helping her mother look after them. She was amicable, enjoyed a thriving social life and in 1804, married Antoine Joseph, son of the Viscount François de Bonnault d’Houët. Tragically, Joseph died within a year of their marriage, leaving Marie Madeleine pregnant, and soon to be a single mother at the age of 24. Despite the turmoil of her early life, Marie Madeleine managed to raise her son, ensuring he was well educated under the tutorage of the Jesuits.
It was her encounters with the Society of Jesus that would inspire her later vocation. After much tribulation, the call to religious life was confirmed, and in 1820 she founded the Society of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, opening the first house in Amiens.
The next three decades saw the Society spread over Europe, crossing many boundaries, always in the footsteps of Christ, the first Jesuit and her Companion. By the time Marie Madeleine died in 1858, the Society had grown even more, eventually arriving in Australia in 1882.
“It is only right, that we celebrate this Mass here in Richmond,” said Fr Stan Lim SJ in his address to the congregation. Richmond was the home of the first FCJ Sisters who came at the request of the local parish priest. From humble beginnings, the Australian FCJ community has developed and diversified, visible across the generations of those gathered at St Ignatius Church. Staff and students from the former Vaucluse College Richmond and Stella Maris Frankston; Genazzano FCJ College Kew and FCJ College Benalla also helped to celebrate the life and legacy of Marie Madeleine, together with the Sisters, their Companions in Mission and family and friends. The luncheon after the liturgy was just as joyous, resembling that of a warm family reunion.
To many on the other side of the church walls, celebrating the heroicity of a person is closer to Wonder Woman than to the journey of sainthood. Yet it is precisely because of the way Marie Madeleine lived in the world as a woman of her time and in the service of others as their companion, that she is now known as Venerable. It may not be in this present generation that Marie Madeleine is beatified, but that should not take us away from stopping once in awhile, to enter into the sacred space of our hearts to give thanks to God for the graces she and all in the Communion of Saints exemplified, indeed graces we, the faithful, are all called to by virtue of our union in Christ.
Written by Geralyn Tan (Mission and Identity Promoter for FCJ Sisters, Australia)