Jules Chevalier A man of his time…
Jules Chevalier was a man of his time. His life spanned most of the nineteenth century, 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 small parish of Issoudun, about 200 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.
Jean Jules Chevalier was born in 1824 in the small town of Richelieu, 200 kilometres or so south west of Paris. 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 with 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 “caretaker of forests” by a wealthy landowner near Vatan. Hearing that Jules was interested in becoming a priest, this man undertook to pay Jules’ fees at the seminary. It was during his seminary days, that Jules Chevalier first dreamed of a group of people dedicated to the Heart of Jesus who would bring a message of love and hope to a world in which there was a complete indifference to God and an antagonism to any form of religion and a general feeling of hopelessness and despair.
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. The other curate in the parish was Fr. Emile Maugenest, one of a small group of his companions in the seminary who had shared Chevalier’s vision.
A man of vision with a real sense of mission….
At Issoudun the two priests became determined to found an Order of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. However, aware that they could be deluding themselves they wanted a clear sign that this was what God wanted. Over a period of nine days, they prayed asking Our Lady to intercede for them in having God provide this sign. The following morning one of the parishioners called at the presbytery with a letter announcing a gift of F20,000 from an anonymous donor. The donor’s preference was for a house of missionaries to be established 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 F1,000 which was enough for both of them to live on. They now had the sign and the means to begin the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
With the original F20,000 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. This was in 1855. From these simple beginnings has come a whole family of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart – priests, brothers, sisters and lay associates. Along with Mother Marie Louise Hartzer, Jules Chevalier also founded the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart as the sister congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. 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.
After some difficult years of persecution in France and being forced to move to other parts of Europe, the new congregations began to grow and, at a very early stage, accepted responsibility for the Missions of Oceania (Micronesia and Melanesia). Within twenty-five years from their humble beginnings, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart had spread 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.
And a man with a special spirit
Jules Chevalier was convinced that the Jesus he found in the Gospels was a person of deep compassion 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 in suffering. Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, like their Founder Jules Chevalier, are committed to touching the hearts of people with the love of God that they themselves have experienced.
Text courtesy of the Philippines Province