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1. God took me by the hand
Magdeleine Hutin was born in Paris on April 26, 1898 and baptized Elisabeth Marie Magdeleine. Her family came from eastern France and she always spoke of her "native Lorraine" with fondness.
Tensions were growing along the border of this province as France and Germany prepared for another war. Magdeleine, who often visited her paternal grandmother in the town of Seuzey forty kilometers from the border, suffered from this tension even as a child. The presence of borders that separate people from one another haunted her throughout her life.
She was the youngest of six children, two of whom died as infants. Her parents were deeply religious and Magdeleine felt a call to give her life to God at an early age. She was very sensitive to the suffering of the poor, especially those who were rejected and ill-treated, such as the Gypsies.
While still a small child she felt an attraction for North Africa because of something that had happened to her father and which subsequently impacted the entire family.
He had been sent to Tunisia at the beginning of his carrier as a military doctor. While he was recovering from a broken his leg he received while falling from a horse they brought him a child who was dying of diphtheria. The life-saving serum was to be found at a pharmacy fifty kilometers away but no one wanted to make the trip to procure it. Seeing that the child would die without treatment in a matter of hours, Dr. Hutin, aware of the risk to his own health, galloped off to find the serum. The little boy lived but the young doctor's leg was irreparably damaged. He remained handicapped and had to retired from the army at the age of 30. Consequently, he had difficulty finding work and the family was reduced to poverty.
The story was indelibly etched in little Magdeleine's heart and she always said that the thought of it gave impetus to her whole life.
She studied at a boarding school ran by the religious of the Sacred Heart and as her family was in financial difficulty the sisters took her in for free.
Church-State relations were very strained at this period. In 1907 the government closed all religious schools and the Sacred Heart Sisters transferred their students outside of France. At the threshold of her adolescence Magdeleine wound up in a boarding school in San Sebastian, Spain and later in San Remo, Italy. These were difficult years for her. She said later that,
"They called me the 'mummy' at school. I never played with the others but would sit in a corner dredging up sad thoughts."
The sorrows of war
In 1914 the Hutin family took refuge in Aix en Provence as World War I exploded. Lorraine was quickly overran by the German army and the front-line town of Seuzey was completely destroyed. Magdeleine's grandmother refused to leave her home and was killed on October 4, 1914.
Magdeleine's two brothers, Jules, a Jesuit novice, and Andre who had just turned twenty were both drafted into the army. Both died on the battlefield within a few months of each other in 1916. Her older sister, Marie, was a novice with the Sacred Heart Sisters in San Remo when she succumbed to the "Spanish Flu" epidemic. She was 26 years old when she died in 1918.
Magdeleine was twenty years old at the end of the war, when she contracted pleurisy, complicated by tuberculosis. She found herself alone with her parents whose spirits were broken by so many successive losses. As much as she still ardently desired to give her life to God, it simply seemed impossible. For ten years she needed medical treatment and, after her father's death in 1925, there was no question of abandoning her mother who had no other means of support.
At the moment of her sister's death Magdeleine had the keen feeling that something happened to her and deeply transformed her. She wrote to Fr. Voillaume about it in 1949:
From that time on it seemed as though she had new strength, despite her fragile health, that pushed her to reach out to others and which gave her an extraordinary vitality.
The first biography of Charles de Foucauld1 by Rene Bazin was published in France in 1921. In reading it Magdeleine felt as though she had discovered a way for herself. She wrote:
In 1928, feeling a great debt of gratitude towards the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, she accepted to become the director of one of their schools in Nantes.
She gave herself fully to this work yet each evening one of the sisters would open a hidden door for her that led to the chapel. There she pleaded with the Lord to let her leave for the Sahara and to die there. To all the objections she invariably answered:
The Sahara on medical advice
Magdeleine's fragile health reacted poorly to the damp climate of Nantes and in early 1935 she experienced severe pain in her left shoulder that quickly began to be deformed. The following year her condition worsened and the doctors confirmed the diagnosis of severe deforming arthritis with decalcification and atrophy of the shoulder muscles... Little by little the other joints would follow and the prognosis was bleak unless, according to the last specialist, she went "to live in a country where not a drop of rainfalls..."
On the spot she asked the doctor to put his advice in writing and she preciously took this medical certificate to the priest who was her spiritual director and who had always vehemently opposed the realization of this dream. The effect was immediate. Little sister Magdeleine spoke of it later:
What he said etched itself in her heart. Little sister Magdeleine wrote:
Before the foundation
Everything went quickly after that. Magdeleine consecrated all of her free time to studying Arabic and, on the advice of her spiritual director, she accepted to take a young woman along with her who wanted to go with her despite her own fragile health. Not feeling that she could leave her mother behind, Magdeleine decided to take her along also and so the trio set sail for Algeria on October 6, 1936. A friend who met them at the dock in Marseilles predicted that they would bring all three of them back on stretchers within a few days...
Magdeleine was very moved to set foot on African soil for the first time. It did not take long to realize that racism created a painful barrier between the European community and the local Arab population that she was discovering with joy. Shortly after her arrival she met a French priest who lived alone among the Arabs of Boghari, a small town on the high plateau. Without hesitation Fr. Declercq, known for his audacity and frankness, took the three of them and set them up in an entirely Arab neighborhood... Magdeleine was ecstatic!!
She arrived without any concrete plans other than making friends with the people and trying to respond to the needs of the poorest among them... And there were many. The house was quickly filled by people coming for medical treatment and a hot meal, not to mention their visits to the nomads who lived in tents in the area. The people were very touched to see these women who had come to live among them saying, "You love us and are like us."
Little sister Magdeleine wrote,
The light of Bethlehem
But the task was overwhelming and Magdeleine became exhausted. She passed through times of sadness and painful temptation. One evening when she was feeling particularly burdened by her own weakness she had what she simply called a "very beautiful dream" that comforted and deeply transformed her life. Afterwards she wondered if it had only been a dream, rather than a vision, as it had given her such insight. Throughout her life she never told anyone what had happened. It was only after her death that Fr. Voillaume shared with the little sisters the letters in which she had told him what had happened to her.
This is what she wrote to him on January 24, 1939:
From that moment "the presence of the tiny infant of Bethlehem" was a light on little sister Magdeleine's path and became one of the primary sources of the spirituality of the little sisters of Jesus. Later she defined their vocation in these words:
A contemplative life in the midst of the Muslim world
In Boghari the work expanded and the "Fr. de Foucauld House" flourished. But at the end of two years Magdeleine began to feel as though something were missing in this very busy life. She felt that
"God was calling her, if not to a cloistered life-style, to a contemplative life among the Muslim people in order to make the Lord present among them in the same way our Lady made him present at the Visitation; to bring the certainty of his love more than only the material help."
This is what had struck her about the vocation of Brother Charles
"who, in the midst of intense activity, remained one of the great contemplatives of his century."It pained her not to find this at Boghari and because of this she and her companion, Anne, made the 400 km. trip to El Golea to pray at the tomb of Brother Charles and to ask for inspiration.
The pilgrimage was marked by a providential meeting with Fr. Voillaume who had founded the little brothers of Jesus five years earlier in the Algerian desert of El Abiodh. Very quickly they understood their common interest despite their very different personalities and it was the beginning of a long collaboration and deep friendship.
As soon as they returned to Boghari things went very quickly. Even before she could tell Fr. Declercq about her reservations he announced to her that a religious order had offered to take over the work that she had begun. Magdeleine set out once again towards the unknown feeling that
"God was taking her by the hand and she had only to follow blindly."
In El Golea she had also met Bishop Nouet, the Apostolic Prefect of the Sahara, who invited her to come and work in his diocese. In agreement with him she asked to first take a few months of prayer in a novitiate and so he sent he to the White Sisters at Birmandreis, near Algiers. At the end of six months he asked her to complete a full year of novitiate, pronounce religious vows and found a congregation. Little sister Magdeleine simply said of it:
After two such busy years it was difficult for Magdeleine to adapt to the rhythm of the novitiate and a community of sixty sisters. She admitted that after a few months she sometimes felt as if she would explode. She was buoyed by the trust of her novice mistress with whom she kept a deep friendship for the rest of her life. During this period she lived a deeply intimate relationship with the infant Jesus who showed her great tenderness.
During the final months of the novitiate she began work on the Constitutions of this new religious family that the Apostolic Prefect had asked her to found. She defined it as
"very contemplative and very apostolic."It would be a life
"in small groups: a very open, accessible and human community that mingles with others according to the ideal expressed in the Gospel parable of the leaven in the dough."September 1, 1939 Magdeleine and Anne began their retreat in preparation for their first vows. Anguish hung in the air and on September 5th they learned of the declaration of World War II. Bishop Nouet was worried and asked them if they still wanted to found their community in the Sahara Desert. Magdeleine answered, "More than ever."
On September 8th, taking the name of "Jesus" as their new family name, they pronounced their vows into the hands of the Bishop's representative. This date was then counted as the foundation date for the Little Sisters of Jesus.