In the days before the reformation, Catholic nuns were bound by the rule of “cloister” or “enclosure” which prevented them from going out on missions of mercy or even teaching children within the convent walls. An important development of the Catholic Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries was the gradual establishment of new orders of women governed by freer rules that permitted the sisters to engage in teaching, nursing and other works of mercy. Among these orders were the Ursulines, founded in 1535 by St. Angela Merici; the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1609 by Sister Mary Ward of England (her English enemies described these nuns as the “galloping gurles”); the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (1633); and the Sisters of St. Joseph (1650).
Let’s consider a fifth such religious community, the Augustinian Canonesses of the Congregation of Notre Dame. Co-founder of this order was Blessed Alix LeClercq.
Alix was born in French Lorraine. As a teenaged daughter of a prosperous family, she enjoyed music and dancing. At the age of 19, however, she had the first of a series of “vision-dreams.” Our Lady appeared to her dressed in a sisters’ habit that Alix did not recognize. “Come, daughter,” said Mary, “and I will welcome you.” From that day on, Alix took a more serious view of life and aspired to God’s special service.
Soon afterwards, her family moved to the town of Mattaincourt. The pastor of Mattaincourt was St. Peter Fourier, a diocesan priest who was successfully promoting a revival of religion. Father Peter agreed with Alix’s devout father that his daughter should enter a convent. But she refused to join an order that was cloistered, saying that she would rather set up a convent whose members were free to engage in “active work.”
In 1597 Alix and three other women were allowed by Father Fourier to dedicate their lives to God. In 1598 they took up residence in a nearby dwelling, determined to educate poor girls without charge. Not until 1616, however, did the Holy See approve the modified rule of these Augustinian Canonesses of the Congregation of Notre Dame. The delay, again, had been because of the tradition that nuns should be cloistered.
Clothed in the habit that our Lady had modeled in Alix’s first “dream-vision,” her nuns began their educational work. She and her companions suffered many trials, including a campaign of slanders from outside. The co-foundress herself also underwent a long period of spiritual “dryness.” Her response to both was to develop a heroic meekness of spirit. In the end, she could say, “I value one act of humility more than a hundred ecstasies.” She was happiest when teaching children, which she did very well indeed; hence she was glad to be allowed to resign the chores of local superior in 1621. However, by that date Sister Alix was already seriously ill. She died at the age of 45 on January 9, 1622.
At her death Alix was already acclaimed as a saint, and evidence pointing to that was quickly gathered. However, many circumstances, including the French Revolution, delayed the advancement of her cause until the present century. Only in 1947 was she beatified by Pope Pius XII.
Blessed Alix had established an educational tradition that endured. Her own congregation still survives. The Canadian teaching order, the Congregation of Notre Dame, founded in 1650 by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, was also inspired by Alix LeClercq’s organization. Finally, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, founded in Germany in 1833 by Blessed Mary Theresa Gerhardinger, were intended to be a revival of the German branch of the Augustinian Canonesses.
Conducted to the United States by Blessed Mary Theresa in 1847, they brought into our midst the heritage of pioneer school sister Alix LeClercq.
--Father Robert F. McNamara