The History of the St. Francis de Sales Association

On October 15, 1872, three of Fr. Chaumont's "directrees" including Madame Carré de Malberg, gathered for the first meeting on rue Cassette in Paris. They had traveled to Annecy in September of the same year and met in the house of "The Gallery" (where St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal had created the Visitation). They had intensely prayed with Fr. Chaumont to discern their vocation. That is why this October date is celebrated as the date of the founding of the association. We find our roots in the teachings of Fr. Chaumont, without a doubt, but more deeply in the thought of St. Francis de Sales. What should we look for in them? To what needs, inspired by the Spirit, should they respond? A survey of the respective historical periods in which they lived will allow us to understand more precisely the "how" and "why" of their reactions to the realities of their times.

This following brief history of St. Francis de Sales, Henri Chaumont and Caroline Carré de Malberg comes from Clary Galer, Belgian Salesian and former General Probatrice.

St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales was born in Thorens (in the Savoy area of France), in the chateau of Sales in 1567, and died in Lyon in 1622. After his early childhood, he was instructed at Chappius College (school) in Annecy, in preparation for the College of Clermont in Paris and then went to Padua, Italy. In Paris, together with his studies, he took a course on the "Canticle of Canticles," to which he often referred later in his writings.

Some of the social and political situations of his time:
France was undergoing many changes. The always latent wars had stopped or were occurring in different parts of the country. Catherine de Medici, Henry II, and later, Henry IV, reigned successively and the 30 Year War began in 1618. The state of Savoy, which included the Piedmont and Sardinia, also suffered internal conflicts. Violence reigned in the streets of Paris and of Padua. Francis had to defend himself; attacks and duels were frequent, by the sword, dagger or pistol.

Culture at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century:
Spirits were uneasy, and ambitions had been raised by recent geographic and scientific discoveries. The discoveries of Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Galileo, and Gutenberg upset numerous traditional ideas. The calendar was changed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to the one we use today. Knowledge expanded. People became aware of the existence of the "new world."

Writers influenced the public:
Montaigne published his "Essays" in 1588; Erasmus and Rabelais were recently deceased in 1536 and 1533. Shakespeare published "Henry VI," and "Midsummer Night's Dream." Italian painters produced some great Renaissance masterpieces: Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens. The Baroque period was beginning to replace the Renaissance.

What was the situation of the Church in this period?
The Church was torn apart by the Protestant schism. It looked to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) for recovery and to put its house in order. Publications and decrees revised the formation of priests, devotion to saints and the real presence in the Eucharist. The Church issued a catechism destined to specify the points of doctrine confronted by the teachings of Calvin and Luther. This was also the beginning time of the Roman Missal and the Breviary.

The Church engaged in a Counter-reformation and invited its members to more fervor and truth in their lives. Great religious orders were born and grew in numbers from this: Ursulines, Carmelites (with the reform of Teresa of Avila), the Jesuits, Oratorians, Barnabites.

There was open conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and several dioceses, among them the Chablais, no longer belonged to the Roman Church. Henry IV published the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It resulted in a resurgence of Catholicism, but would be revoked by Louis XIV in 1685.

Where was Francis de Sales in these situations and among the current thoughts that were developing after the Council?

  • Protestantism: When he returned from Padua he stated his wish to be a priest, he left willingly for the Chablais where he paid a personal price. The heart of the priest was broken by the division of the Christians. His initiatives, calm goodness, patience, tact respect of persons, all based on a deep love of God and great confidence in the Lord, helped him return that province to the Church.
  • In his diocese: As bishop, he organized more judicious choice of priests and better preparation for their vocation. He reformed the seminaries, paid attention to doctrinal knowledge in assigning priests to parishes, aided their often depraved life situations, visited parishes despite the dangers and difficulties of the mountains and the climate, and called diocesan councils.
  • He also watched over religious instruction in schools at all levels and sometimes taught the catechism himself to the children of the Cathedral.
  • He looked for ways to establish complementary liturgical celebrations such as processions with French hymns, often composed by him. He founded confraternities, composed of lay people, for charitable purposes.
  • He reformed the rules of life of several monasteries, included the hermitage of Talloire.
  • He was confronted by the general evolution of ideas and the culture: Francis de Sales was at the beginnings of the foundation of the Academie Florimontane. He fostered the opening of some small colleges (Ursuline, Jesuit and Barnabite) that were aligned with the newly founded university of Louvain.
  • He was open to new ideas and did not fear to support them in his writings. He defended a Barnabite who published a paper in support of Mercator and later Galileo. During a serious illness, he offered his body to science if he were to die.

In regard to the human condition: Francis de Sales was deeply human. He looked for employment for the converted exiles from Geneva in the homes of his friends, or other jobs available at the time, weaving, for example. In deference to the poor, he lived very simply.

In regard to the spiritual life: He had a special vision of holiness, "devotion" based on total love for God. A new bishop wrote him: "If you want to restore the Church there is not need for new laws; there are enough . It is necessary to make the living read books where the laws are written."

Help the living! It was realism that Francis de Sales would apply to Mme de Charmoisy: the concrete, the reality of a life lived in the here and now and shared by all Christians in the world. It is the concept that would be basic to the "Introduction to the Devout Life," the book by which Francis would be one of the first to "write of spirituality in everyday language, in simple French, a sometimes rustic vocabulary, was full of life, faith, and enthusiasm under forms which instruct and charm." (Fr. André Ravier)

Francis de Sales had the audacity to show the way to holiness for a lay person; whatever his or her condition, surroundings or culture. This was not done without denigration and protest, because not everyone agreed that simple lay people should have access to the words, writings and sacred means reserved to the clerics.

Francis tried with certain success, but also with some setbacks and rebuffs:

  • The Visitation would not take the form planned.
  • The "Introduction to the Devout Life" would be vilified from the pulpit by some preachers.
  • Some monastery reforms were not welcome.
  • Some school subsidies were refused.
  • There were personal attacks in his relationship with the Maison de la Galerie.

In spite of all this, he was serene because of his confidence in and abandonment to God. Francis accepted criticism when it was addressed to him, all the while remaining firm when it was a question of justice or when it touched upon his responsibility as a bishop, representing the Church.

Francis de Sales responded to the needs of his time, in his surroundings, often by simple means, but in new ways, motivated by a deep love for God and men. For him:

"All is to Love, in Love
For Love and from Love
In the Holy church."

Fr. Henri Chaumont

The life and the work of Henri Chaumont can only be explained and understood from the perspective of the conditions in France and the world in that second part of the XIXth century.

Political and social situation:
When Fr. Chaumont was ordained in 1864, society saw the development of ideas of freedom and rationalism, growth of atheism, and the expansion of industrialization. The future looked bleak. Anticipating upheavals to come soon, Fr. Chaumont wrote:

"Hold firm to the faith. Yes, some sullied leaves are going perhaps to fall in the hurricane which is blowing through the Church. The wind will carry the useless straw and the pure wheat will remain."

War broke out in 1870 in France; the country fought and suffered greatly. In 1871 the Commune caused the people to revolt and the country was occupied.

On the borders of France, there was also unrest: Italian unity was in progress. Rome became the capital of the new country while eliminating the temporal power of the popes. The Pope was confined in the Castillo Saint Angelo like a prisoner. The outcome was the end of the Lateran Accords and creation of the Vatican State which we know today.

The situation in the Church:
The First Vatican Council, which defined the infallibility of the Pope, began in 1869. It was interrupted during the war. The number of priests diminished; religious orders were laicized or in exile.

There were numerous common elements between this time and that of St. Francis de Sales:

  • time of war and insecurity
  • time following a council
  • time of questioning for the Church
  • time of diminution of faith and increase in atheism
  • time of expansionism and colonization

Highlighting these events helps us understand the cares of Fr. Chaumont. He was full of zeal for the love of God; he wanted to mitigate the deficiencies and respond to them to the best of his ability, with the means that he discovered. How could he inspire the desire for true perfection in the laity; how could he form them in apostolic methods appropriate to the world in which they were living? The life of Fr. Chaumont gives some answers to these questions.

He was born in Paris on December 16, 1838. He was the second child in a deeply Christian family which would add six more children. His father was a cabinetmaker.

At his first Communion, he met Msgr. de Ségur (son of a famous countess), who by his holiness and formation would have considerable influence on the young man who would later become a priest. Fr. Chaumont later wrote, "This was the first call to the special vocation of directing souls." Perhaps it was also the first audible call to the priesthood.

But, the test came later. Traumatized by a terrifying sermon, tortured with agony and scruples, this child saw his devotion decline to the point that his father decided to interrupt his clerical studies and make him learn a trade: to be a clockmaker. The manual labor benefited the adolescent and did not at all prevent his vocation from maturing. He was made aware of the role of women in society in reading the "Annals of the Propagation of Faith" while delivering a clock to a client. He realized that through women one could reach the family, through them one could open the way to Christianity among people who were called pagans at that time. His insight would give birth to the work of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (SMMI).

The crisis of faith was overcome, and in 1855 Henri Chaumont entered a small seminary in Versailles. After that, he studied philosophy in the seminary of Montmorillon where Msgr. de Ségur, who came there to preach retreats, was able to follow the evolution of his spiritual son. Fr. Chaumont was admitted to the seminary d'Issy, in the outskirts of Paris, where he completed his priestly formation.

During reading at meals, the young seminarian came to know St. Francis de Sales and learn what richness might be there for those who lead a life "like everyone." This evangelical focus on daily things, this spirituality completely centered on the love of God, is capable of leading the laity to authentic holiness, aligned with their vocation.

During this time also, Fr. Chaumont was struck, in reading the Acts of the Apostles, by the help that the more fervent Christians brought to the apostolic efforts. He also found in the Acts the necessity to give Christians a formation which conforms to the apostolic tradition. "The Apostles were formed in the virtues of the faithful living in the world and these people became auxiliaries" in an Apostolic sense.

His recent discovery of Salesian spirituality clarified the possibility to adapt the initiatives of the apostolic age to the world in which he lived.

He was ordained in 1864 by Msgr. Darboy (who would be killed under the Commune) and was named vicar to a newly created parish in a poor suburb (many lived in a "shantytown") of Paris. Persuaded that religious ignorance was one of the causes of the waning of Christianity, the young priest decided to organize a cycle of talks on social and religious subjects. Also, new for the time, some of these talks would be given by a lay person, often his own father. Added to this apostolic work, he was concerned for the material miseries of his parishioners. This work had only started when he developed rheumatoid arthritis, endangering his life.

During his illness, at the insistence of Msgr. de Ségur, he promised to go to Annecy to give thanks, if by the intercession of St. Francis de Sales, God would heal him. He went there in June 1868, carrying with him to show to some competent persons, a "rule of life" for laity desiring evangelical perfection; rule in which he had condensed the spiritual teachings of the "Introduction to the Devout Life." He also took an idea to Annecy which he had harbored for a long time, to call together in the world persons of all states of life to lead them toward a truly evangelical Christian life.

In December of 1868 he was named vicar at St. Clotilde, a more affluent, even aristocratic, parish. There the young priest, solicitous "to do all for all to bring them to Jesus Christ," committed especially to the ministry of the confessional. In everyone he tried to see not only a penitent to absolve, but a brother to help in the spiritual life.

It was here in June 1869 that a young grieving woman came to his confessional, visibly upset, looking for help in her distress. It was Madame Carré de Malberg who, for the third time, had lost a young child.

The meeting of these two souls who shared the same care for evangelical perfection and the same desire to love God and neighbor is the origin of the Society of the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales. At the beginning, they were called "Daughters of the Spirit of Jesus."

This society of lay people which Fr. Chaumont presented to Cardinal Richard, Archbishop of Paris in 1889, had two goals:

The first is personal sanctification of its members: to help them practice the teachings of God and of the church and the evangelical counsels in accord with their respective situations; to initiate them in the school of St. Francis de Sales, and under the direction of a priest, filled with the love of God, by the union of their will with that of our Lord.

The second is to be an apostle in the great work of the Church and in diocesan and parish work. To attain this goal it will be necessary to follow an established formation. It will include:

  • Instructions given by Fr. Chaumont at the Center of the Society, addressed to all the members. Topics will include love of the Church and the devotion to service to one's neighbor.
  • The Probations: little installments spread out every three months treating a point of spirituality, especially the principal virtues of which Christ has given the example. Designed to form the intelligence and the heart, but especially to change behavior, they were the most important element of the formation.
  • A "spiritual friend" (Probatrice), source of unity in the Society and an aid in the journey "on steep and difficult roads."

The zeal of Fr. Chaumont did not stop with this good beginning. He was still attentive to the needs of his time. If the Society of St. Francis de Sales had the goal of the perfection of its members and the apostolate in their states of life, it would also be the catalyst for good works whose usefulness led to more than 50 projects which we will briefly describe. Each one was a response to a need of the time, both social and religious.

Giving in to the pleas of Mme Carré, Fr. Chaumont founded a Society of Priests with a particular goal: "To be fully penetrated with the Spirit of Our Lord in order to communicate it fully to souls in spiritual direction."

A third Society, the Sons of St. Francis de Sales completed the triptych in 1876.

In addition to his activities as minister of a parish, Fr. Chaumont, took on those of military chaplain when war began. In 1871 he had to flee Paris under disguise to escape a decree of mobilization from the Commune.

We can only assume that his varied ministry expanded in to other areas. His health, always precarious, therefore declined. On May 15, 1896, after having presided at a meeting of the Council of the Society of the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales, he breathed his last. He was 58, slightly older that his spiritual master.

Francis de Sales and Henri Chaumont were two priests who lived in times past that were, however, similar and comparable to our times. Both wanted to bring faith and confidence in God, the Merciful Father. Both understood the importance of the role of the laity in the Church, of individual and group witness in respect to liberty and to the personality of each one. Finally, both valued the Church, respecting and applying its directives and orientations, to the point that M. Chaumont said, "pray that the Society will die the day before it is no longer faithful to the Church."

The following is a quote Fr. Chaumont to explain his desire for evangelization:

"The goal of our little association is to expand around it the Spirit of Jesus, the Gospel. Our constant thought is to make the Spirit of Jesus penetrate the world, using several means to do that work."

Here are some of the "works" (groups) that Fr. Chaumont help started to help people to live a more Christian life. Each group was directed by a Salesian and most of them received a small "rule" inspired by that of the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales:

  • the purpose of "Christian women" was to bring the Christian spirit to some social classes, especially the bourgeois.
  • Christian teachers served in schools or as governesses in homes.
  • Christian widows
  • Young Christian women

In addition to these rather traditional groups, are some original creations:

  • Coptics. They had asked Fr. Chaumont to receive some young Coptic (Christian) women and to form them according to the principles of the Christian teachers. They would later return to their countries where they would serve the women.
  • Acrobats: A daughter of St. Francis de Sales of gypsy origins was charged with evangelizing traveling entertainers.
  • Muslim widows, which had little success.
  • An American priest and some American Salesians tried to reach the black population.
  • A Daughter of St. Francis de Sales and some priests of St. Francis de Sales as well as Fr. Chaumont, founded a "committee of authors," a Society of Christian novelists. Some writers were invited to give opinions of books, published in serial form in the papers of the day, on whether they were good and worthy of reading.

In addition one might note:

  • Work with the Jewish people
  • Work with some Protestants of England
  • Ladies of St. Veronica visited and cared for sick in the home.
  • Servants of priests
  • Young workers
  • Young "preserves"- children of the streets whose parents were in prison
  • A group to pray for the laity of France and its students and immigrants

From this list, one can extract approximately 56 foundations which can be attributed to Fr. Chaumont. They were always made in communion with the Church and put the accent on love of the "near neighbor." They tried to make the Christian spirit radiate in society to the extent possible. Each group lasted as long as it responded to a need, when that disappeared so did the corresponding group.

Caroline Carré de Malberg

Who is Carré de Malberg? She is the one who founded the Society of the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales with Fr. Henri Chaumont and who was its first "Mother." We would be more embarrassed to say who she is for us personally. We refer more readily to St. Francis de Sales, forgetting her a little. She would likely approve of our attitude because, with great humility, she signed her letters to her Daughters, "Pitiful Mother." What a pity! Today she is still an example of a lay person who lived the Gospels to the point of holiness.

Caroline was born in Metz in 1829. She was the second daughter of Victor Colchen, in a middle-class and deeply Christian family. Her parents formed her in piety and love of the poor by their example.

She came to know Salesian spirituality at the Visitation of Metz. She believed she had a vocation to Carmel, like many young women of that time for whom religious life was a higher state of perfection. But the Lord had decided otherwise. Her holiness was tested by a serious case of typhoid, which left her changed for always. In 1849 a handsome officer, newly returned from Saint-Cyr and her first cousin, asked for her hand in marriage. The engagement was arranged. According to the custom, the young man wrote to his future mother-in-law, his aunt in this case, and saw his fiancée only in her presence. The marriage was celebrated on May 2, 1849. In fact here were two strangers united for life.

The groom, Paul Carré, had lost his mother at an early age. His father, a military officer, put him in military schools from the age of six, first at la Flèche, then Saint-Cyr. In the army he did not learn the subtleties of the feminine heart! He was a simple man, direct, faithful to his word, lover of music, but authoritarian and in the habit of being obeyed. At the time of his marriage, he had abandoned religious practice.

Caroline Colchen had an equally strong personality. She was intelligent, willful, sensitive and very pious. From the first days of marriage, she decided to bring her husband back to practice his religious practice by supporting valiantly his bad character and submitting voluntarily to all his desires. She made him promise to renew his faith at the birth of their first child. Paul Carré held to his word despite the death of little Eugénie, a few days after birth.

Three other children died: Paul, Léon and Marie-Thérèse. The last two died at about age 4, a trial that the parents accepted in a spirit of faith. In 1869, shortly after the death of Marie-Thérèse, Madame Carré met Fr. Chaumont who had recently been named Vicar of St. Clotilde. This began a new phase in her life.

There were diverse difficulties that affected her life. Some people were tied to the political events in France and Italy during the time. She was concerned about her husband and Fr. Chaumont, both of whom stayed in Paris under the Commune (a Socialist government which controlled France from March 18 to March 27, 1871). The anticlericalism of the French Republic in its early days was especially painful for the traditional Carré family. The character of Mr. Carré was scarcely improved, especially since his promotions were compromised by his political opinions.

Fr. Chaumont counseled Mme Carré to find a friend with whom she could speak of the Christian life and how to live, in their daily lives, the advice given by St. Francis de Sales in the "Introduction to the Devout Life." This was the rough model of the little "Society" he dreamed of and for which he previewed the possibility and need in reading St. Francis de Sales' book.

At the outbreak of war in 1870, she learned about the exile of Fr. Chaumont, and she also attended to her very ill brother in Luchon. After that, in September of 1872, Madame Carré and two married friends met Fr. Chaumont in Annecy to ask the help of St. Francis de Sales for the foundation they envisioned.

The first meeting was held October 15, 1872, at rue de Cassette in Paris with Mme Carré and her two married friends. After praying, Fr. Chaumont read them several pages entitled "Rule of Daughters of St. Francis de Sales." It was a little map of life according to the Gospels in the world, under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal.

The goal of the budding association was "to enliven the earth, one fills his life every day and spreads on it the Christian spirit." It is then not an effort to create new activities, but to be "auxiliaries" of the clergy where one is able to go. To accomplish this it was considered necessary to first strive for personal sanctification. Caroline asked Fr. Chaumont to help show her the way to perfection: "Father, make a saint of me!" It is the arduous way, the Way of the Cross. For her it would be the dryness of the "dark night of the soul."

Despite her poor health, Mme Carré de Malberg led a normal life. She was a model wife of a staff officer, receiving callers, going out elegant and dignified. She tended above all to her duty of state and submission to her husband who was for her the manifest will of God.

The Salesian Society grew, and Mme Carré no doubt had a role to play in this; her son was often difficult for her. But Fr. Chaumont, in the end, kept him informed and became a friend of the wife and confessor of her son. The latter chose a military career which his mother accepted graciously, although she would have preferred to see him become a priest. Alas! The Lord had other plans. On June 5, 1885, he died following an accidental fall from a horse and died like a saint. This difficult blow was accepted magnificently, but with tremendous sadness by his parents. That same year, Caroline's mother, Mme Colchen, died.

This year marked a change for Caroline. She no longer said "I want." She did not look for other mortification except to say "yes" to the will of the Lord. She wanted now only to love Him. With her eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ, she discovered her misery and nothingness. We, who are so far from this summit, let us now look at this true humility which so often repulses us.

When she died in 1891, her associates recognized her holiness. Her husband would witness to it during the canonical process in Metz, "My mother-in-law was a holy woman," he would say, "but my wife was a saint."

Madame Carré has not left us any teaching. She proposed St. Francis de Sales to us as a spiritual master. She led her "Daughters" to realize their specific vocations without imposing hers as a model. But she helped them by her prayer, by accepting her suffering and her friendship. This was an admirable "companionship." She wanted to found a "Society" of friends of mutual support in their road to the Lord. This is exactly what is proposed to us to live today: our own vocation in a spiritual family.

Now the Association has about 2700 members scattered over the five continents: Europe, North America, South America, India and Bangladesh, the Indian Ocean, Africa and Madagascar. We are becoming more and more diverse culturally. Moreover, several members of different countries have been elected to the General Council.