Jules Chevalier was a man of his time. His life spanned most of the nineteenth century. It was a century that saw radical changes in Western society often torn apart by war and revolution, especially in France. It was a world of empire and colonial powers.
Jules Chevalier was a priest who lived all of his life in central France, over fifty years of it in the one small parish of Issoudun, about 250 kilometres to the south of Paris, where he died on October 21, 1907.
Towards the end of his life, he was described by a close friend as someone who "inspired confidence, a confidence that commanded respect. He was of medium height, well built, with an upright stance and plenty of hair, even in his old age. He had a pleasant appearance, a warm voice, and spoke rather slowly." In most respects, he was an ordinary man. But he was also a man of inner depth and vision.
His father was an educated man, but not very successful in either trade or business, and not a religious man at all. Jules' mother could neither read nor write, had never been to school, but was deeply religious. In this ambiguous atmosphere Jules grew up having acquired a competence in reading and writing from his father, and an awareness of God in his life from his mother. When he first let it be known that he wanted to be a priest, he was told immediately that this was quite impossible given the family's poor circumstances.
He was needed to help support the family and was apprenticed to a shoemaker. When Jules was seventeen years old, his father was given a job as a forester by a wealthy landowner near the town of Vatan. Hearing that Jules was interested in becoming a priest, this man undertook to pay Jules' fees at the seminary.
During his years in Seminary many in France were speaking of trying to restore the old pre-Revolution values. Others were intent on ruthlessly pursuing the new values and structures of post-revolution France. Chevalier too dreamt of a new world, but one instead that was built on the experience of God’s love in our lives. He had come to understand that God deeply loves the world and its people – and when that becomes a living faith in us, we too might start believing in the force of love, a force strong enough to overcome any division we make between poor and rich, powerful and oppressed, privileged and marginalized. In Jesus of Nazareth – God-Incarnate, God living as one of us – Jules Chevalier recognized God’s love for humankind most definitely expressed: Jesus reaching out to those who were oppressed and without direction, those sick in mind or body, those not recognized, respected or valued by established society.It was during these seminary days, that Jules Chevalier first dreamed of a group of people, missionaries, who would be dedicated to the Heart of Jesus and who would bring this message of love and hope to a world in which there was a complete indifference to God, an antagonism to any form of religion and a general feeling of hopelessness and despair.
Bringing God's love to an indifferent people
As a priest, Jules first served as curate in three different parishes in quick succession. Then at the age of thirty he was sent to Issoudun, which was regarded as the most de-Christianised town in the whole region. By chance or by providence, the other curate in the parish was Fr. Emile Maugenest who had been one of a small group of his closest companions in the seminary and who had shared his own vision. In Issoudun he looked for ways and means to bring to reality that idea which had been germinating in his heart since seminary days. His personal experience and conviction about God’s love now convinced him all the more of the need to found a missionary Society that would have as its purpose to bring that compassionate and merciful love of God to all people as the one remedy for the evils that were afflicting society. He shared his idea with Fr Emile Maugenest, who was immediately enthusiastic. But other priests of the diocese, including the Bishop’s Council were less so and completely opposed his plan. In spite of this opposition, a succession of events, which the bishop considered to be “miraculous”, ensured that his vision would be realized. At Issoudun the two priests were now determined to found an Order of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. However, aware that they could be deluding themselves they wanted a clear sign that this was what God truly wanted.
Over a period of nine days leading up to the 8th December 1854, the day that the Pope was about to pronounce the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, they prayed asking the Blessed Virgin to intercede for them in having God provide this sign. The morning after they had completed the novena one of the parishioners called at the presbytery with a letter announcing a gift of 20,000 French Francs from an anonymous donor. The donor wanted the money to be used to establish a house of missionaries in the area with the approval of the Archbishop. The Archbishop agreed as long as they had some means of financial independence and support. Another period of prayer resulted in another anonymous benefactor promising to give an annual gift of 1,000 Francs which was enough for both of them to live on. They now had both the sign and the means to begin the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
With the original 20,000 Francs the two priests purchased a rundown vineyard with a sound house and tumbled-down barn in Issoudun. The house became their first community house and the barn was renovated as the first chapel, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Before they had commenced the Novena Father Chevalier had promised the Blessed Virgin Mary that, if she helped him, he would venerate her in a special way. The impact of these events on Chevalier were indelible, and in fulfilment of his promise he immediately began to honour Mary under the title “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart”. From that moment on the 8th December 1854, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, has been considered the foundation day of the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
The mission continues...
From these simple beginnings has come a whole family of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart - priests, brothers, sisters and lay associates. In collaboration with Mother Marie Louise Hartzer, Jules Chevalier also founded the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart as the sister congregation of the MSC. Later, because of national tensions in colonial areas where missionaries worked, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were founded in Germany by Fr. Hubert Linckens MSC with the approval of Jules Chevalier.
Some difficult years of persecution followed in France and Religious Congregations throughout the country were being forced to move to other parts of Europe. These painful years became the occasion for the newly-established fledgling Congregation to grow, to expand throughout Europe and take on its first missions in the developing world. In 1881, still with very few men and meagre resources, Chevalier accepted responsibility for the Missions of Oceania (the Pacific Islands of Micronesia and Melanesia). Within twenty-five years of their humble beginnings, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart had spread throughout many countries in Europe and to North America. Before his death, Fr. Jules Chevalier was to see his family working in Central and South America, Indonesia, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Following his death in 1907, the Congregation continued its exponential growth. Today, the extended family of Fr Chevalier (the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart) is present in 55 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and America. We, the MSC, are present in 54 of these countries.
A man with a special spirit
Jules Chevalier was convinced that the Jesus he found in the Gospels was a person of deep compassion, love and understanding. This open-hearted Jesus is the one who wants to bring hope and healing to all human beings wherever and however they are suffering. Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, like their Founder Jules Chevalier, are committed to touching the hearts of people with the same love of God that they themselves have experienced. In a mission without frontiers, without limits, MSCs today seek to share the same intuition that Fr Chevalier had: that all should come to know and experience the love of God revealed in the heart of Christ.