3. Broadening the horizons

A turning point.

The Community of the Little Sisters of Jesus had been founded exclusively as a presence to the Muslim world and this was very dear to little sister Magdeleine. But on July 26, 1946 she was suddenly seized by a new idea:

"Suddenly I was completely certain about it... It was as though a bright light went on inside of me... the community must reach out to the whole world and become 'universal.'"

She immediately wrote to Bishop de Provencheres and Fr. Voillaume and waited to hear from them before speaking to the little sisters. On September 8, 1946 she wrote to them:

"Rejoice over all the little sisters who will come from every corner of the world, from one pole to the other, from the North Pole to the South Pole... Open you hearts wide in love..."

And this without forgetting
"that Islam remains our primary orientation."

Very quickly new communities sprung up in very different contexts:

1946-1947  First Worker Little Sisters Aix en Provence1946-1947 First Worker Little Sisters Aix en Provence

The first worker community began in Aix en Provence. Two little sisters were hired in a light bulb factory, sharing the working conditions of their co-workers, living off of the same wages. After the initial shock (it was the first time that religious women in habit went to work in factories) the ice was broken and the bonds of friendship began to weave themselves. After several months little sister Magdeleine sent a report about their experience to Bishop Montini for him to give to Pius XII.

1951 La Borgata Rome1951 La Borgata Rome

Soon she was dreaming of starting a similar community in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Rome. She struggled for several years to receive permission but on April 27, 1951 she wrote:

"We have come to the centre of Rome to live out one of our most daring ideas... It is an expression of our humble faithfulness to the Church.

We have too many opportunities to break down barriers and stretch the rules. If we stretch them we must do it in plain sight of the Church from whom nothing must be hidden."

1970 With Travellers community1970 With Travellers community

In 1949 a community began among the Gypsies. There too, the little sisters lived among them as one of them, learning how to cane chairs to earn their living. They fixed up a trailer in which they were able to have a small chapel with the Blessed Sacrament and were welcomed in a Gypsy camp where they settled. Soon they were being called "Gypsy little sisters."

Little sister Magdeleine had been attracted by the Middle Eastern for a long time: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt... She knew that there were Arab Christians there who prayed in their language, the same language as the Muslims of North Africa. As she arrived there in 1948 it was only natural for her to imagine starting communities that would belong to the Oriental Churches, placing themselves under their jurisdiction and adopting their rites as their own. She wrote to Bishop Hakim who was the Archbishop of Galilee:

"We come with the heartfelt desire to belong to your people with all that that means as far as adapting both interiorly and exteriorly, and we do so especially with great love."

During this first trip to the Middle East little sister Magdeleine went to the Holy Land to pray in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was that much more moving because the Israelis and Palestinians were locked in a war that was tearing the land apart. The frontlines ran right through the heart of Jerusalem. Her idea was to establish communities on both sides of that border, one among Palestinians and one among the Jews

"to work for friendship and love among all of the children of the same God by loving both. "

It is his work...

September 8, 1949 marked the tenth anniversary of the foundation. There were nearly one hundred little sisters in fifteen communities and little sister Magdeleine was grateful to the One who had "taken me by the hand" and who she had followed in faith. She wrote to the little sisters:

"The Lord took me with all of my failings and shortcomings. He made me into his instrument and I gave myself completely to him. He left me with all of my weaknesses, plain for all to see, in order to show that it was totally his doing...

...It is his work... Ever since the first day all I did was to follow him, with eyes closed, in that long and painful tunnel. He gave me a gift of faith that seemed to others to be foolishness. I was always sure that at the end of the tunnel I would find the fullness of light."

June 13, 1947 the community received diocesan status under Bishop de Provencheres, the Archbishop of Aix en Provence. On June 23, 1949 it entered the jurisdiction of the Congregation for Oriental Churches whose secretary was Cardinal Tisserant.

Several times throughout 1949 little sister Magdeleine had expressed her desire to leave the responsibility as Prioress to another in order to be freer to help with the foundations in far away or dangerous countries. She thought especially of the U.S.S.R. because of the fact that it was closed to the outside world and that the Christians there suffered persecution. She also wanted to see the community sufficiently structured so as to be able to spread its wings and fly without her in case she should suddenly disappear.

1949 Bethlehem Hand over1949 Bethlehem Hand over

She thought that little sister Jeanne who was only thirty years old could take her place. Bishop de Provencheres as the founding Bishop confirmed this choice and Cardinal Tisserant gave his permission after consulting with the various Bishops in whose dioceses the little sisters lived. Everything was readied for the transfer to take place at Christmas.

Christmas night little sister Magdeleine and little sister Jeanne were in Bethlehem. As providence would have it Bishop de Provencheres had just arrived there to assist with the Palestinian refugees. December 25, 1949 little sister Magdeleine wrote to the little sisters:

"Last night at the grotto I offered myself and all of you to God.This prayer of offering expressed my desire that you and I would be more and more stripped of everything, be poor and little... that this littleness and poverty take its meaning from the grotto of Bethlehem, from the tiny one who owned nothing and seemed to be nothing...

With my hand in that of little sister Jeanne I gave everything over to the infant of the Crib at the offertory of the mass celebrated by Bishop de Provencheres and served by Fr. Voillaume. Or rather I handed back to the Lord all that had been entrusted to me ten years ago so that he would place it all into the hands of little sister Jeanne of Jesus who, at that moment, represented the Lord for me and for you.

It was all so simple. We were lost in that huge crowd of people, hemmed in on every side. At the same time it was so momentous... "

The call to the whole world: the trip around the world

1951 Camerouns at Mora1951 Camerouns at Mora

1951 saw the first foundations in West Africa and little sister Magdeleine arrived in the Cameroon, at the time a French colony. She was overwhelmed by the reality of racism that she encountered. She wrote to the little sisters:

"In my first letter you could already sense how painful these first two months in Africa have been for me. There is so much suffering caused by the prejudice that exists between black and white and which is further aggravated by the divisions between those who live in the village and the Pygmies.

Must there be groups of people who scorn other peoples until the end of time? I think that this scorn is worse than hatred and eventually leads to it. And it breaks the unity that should flow from love...

...We must not be content to only speak about love. We must speak of the unity that flows from loving. More and more I see that this is the very heart of the spirit of the Gospel, the heart of Christ's own spirit."

She asked the little sisters to live in an African neighbourhood, in houses just like the people, sharing their living conditions and refusing all of the privileges that the Europeans enjoyed.

The vocations multiplied and the rhythm of new foundations doubled. Little sister Magdeleine led a harried life in the midst of never ending travels. She wrote to Fr. Voillaume on April 23,1951:

"/ think that the Lord is calling me to something bigger and bigger and I fear that I will be torn apart by the pressure... I am afraid of the future because of my own physical limitations... I am afraid of this thing that has taken hold of me... of this power to conceive of a thing, to organize and work. I feel like I will fall apart any minute. I am worn down to the nub...

The whole world calls to me. The Lord pushes me to go ahead and make foundations... to struggle against the evil that I see... not to be afraid to speak the truth to the great and powerful ones of our world who would like to see me condemned. The Lord makes me step out from the shadows where I would rather stay. "

1953 Brazil Amazon Araguaya1953 Brazil Amazon Araguaya

After Africa it was on to Latin America in 1952, together with little sister Jeanne, with whom she always travelled. They went to the Brazilian interior and travelled for several days along the Araguaya River to reach a small Indian tribe that was threatened with extinction. She left a group of little sisters among them. In North America she felt that Alaska should be the priority and decided on a foundation in an Eskimo village.

In December 1952 she discovered Asia, arriving in India where she founded a community in Varanasi, along the banks of the sacred Ganges River. It was a community dedicated to adoration among all of the Hindu temples.

1954 Vietnam1954 Vietnam

She went to Vietnam, at that time, in the midst of their war for independence. The fact that they were only able to travel by military convoy did not prevent her from planning several foundations. She wrote about her time there:

"/ am heartbroken to have not been able to visit certain neighbourhoods and towns simply because we are French. I wish I could have torn away everything that identified my nationality and race and been able to show only the deep universal love that I bear in my heart for each person in the world. This suffering, too, is part of our vocation."

In August of 1953, along with little sister Jeanne, she began her "trip around the world". Within the course of a year they crossed the five continents. They went from Niger to the Cameroon, to East Africa and then to South Africa where apartheid had recently been instituted. Little sister Magdeleine wrote in her diary:

"It is a living contradiction and a challenge to live out our vocation which aims to break down every obstacle that hinders equality and a coming together of the races. "

1953  Alaska Nome1953 Alaska Nome

From West Africa they left for South America and Mexico and on through Martinique, Cuba, Haiti to North America. After travelling all the way to Alaska they went on to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. At this point Fr. Voillaume, who had been travelling with them, returned to Europe, while little sister Magdeleine and little sister Jeanne went on to Australia and Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Pakistan and even into Afghanistan where foreign religious were forbidden. They completed their journeys by way of Iran and Turkey, arriving back at the Tubet on August 30, 1954.

In each country that she had visited, little sister Magdeleine sought out those forgotten-about minorities and those insignificant groups of people that were of little interest to anyone else and whose very survival was sometimes threatened.

She wrote in 1951:

"I will not be happy until I have found the most misunderstood, most ill-considered tribe on the face of the earth, the very poorest person in order to tell them, 'The Lord Jesus is your brother and draws you to himself... and I have come that we might become friends and brothers and sisters.'"

In 1952 she told the little sisters:

"Look at the map of the world. See if there is not a remote little corner where there is just a handful of people who attract no one precisely because they are so few scattered over such a wide area and inaccessible to other forms of apostolate. You should choose to go there because if you don't maybe no one will ever go to them and tell them that Jesus loves then and died for them. "

In order to establish these foundations many young little sisters were sent abroad. They had little preparation for the totally new cultural contexts into which they entered. Little sister Magdeleine warned them about the risk of making rash judgments out of an "unconscious superiority complex". She told them:

"It is because peoples have lacked love and indulgence towards one another that nations and races have wounded and insulted each other until it lead to murder, massacres and wars.

I want you to be a leaven of gentleness and love in every corner where you have been planted."

During an interview in 1983 she was asked why she made such a trip around the world that flew in the face of prudence. She answered:

"I made this trip in order to spread the message of Brother Charles of Jesus. I wanted to establish communities that would give witness to the love of God for each human person and which would be a small ray of hope among the poorest and most forgotten people. I also did it so that the Community would quickly become international and, contrary to conventional wisdom, show that it is possible to be happy living together from different races and nationalities, collaborating together in a common mission."

The communities quickly took root around the world and young women from many different nations were attracted to this way of life and joined. Soon the complexion of the Little Sisters of Jesus reflected that internationality. In 1962 little sister Magdeleine wrote:

"The multiplicity of nationalities must be a unity-building element for us... How wonderful it is not to remain closed into a small circle of people where everyone has the same mentality, defects, and way of looking at problems. "