The Catholic Defender: Saint Julie Billiart
What is her story? In the small village of Cuvilly, north of Paris, France, Marie-Rose Julie Billiart, born on July 12, 1751, was the seventh of nine children of Jean-François Billiart and Marie-Louise Antoinette Debraine. Most of her siblings died in infancy and adolescence.
Julie Billiart (12 July 1751 – 8 April 1816) was a French nun, saint, educator, and founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Julie Billiart's life was a miracle several times over. There was the miracle of her survival through the French Revolution, the miracle of her recovery from paralysis, the miracle of those twelve years in which, from so very little, she formed an international congregation.
Born in Cuvilly, France, into a family of well-to-do farmers, young Marie Rose Julie Billiart showed an early interest in religion and in helping the sick and poor. Though the first years of her life were relatively peaceful and uncomplicated, Julie had to take up manual work as a young teen when her family lost its money. However, she spent her spare time teaching catechism to young people and to the farm laborers.
A mysterious illness overtook her when she was about 30. Witnessing an attempt to wound or even kill her father, Julie was paralyzed and became a complete invalid. For the next two decades, she continued to teach catechism lessons from her bed, offered spiritual advice, and attracted visitors who had heard of her holiness.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, revolutionary forces became aware of her allegiance to fugitive priests. With the help of friends, she was smuggled out of Cuvilly in a haycart. She then spent several years hiding in Compiegne, being moved from house to house despite her growing physical pain. She even lost the power of speech for a time.
But this period also proved to be a fruitful spiritual time for Julie. It was at this time she had a vision in which she saw Calvary surrounded by women in religious habits and heard a voice saying, “Behold these spiritual daughters whom I give you in an institute marked by the cross.”
As time passed and Julie continued her mobile life, she made the acquaintance of an aristocratic woman, Françoise Blin de Bourdon, who shared Julie’s interest in teaching the faith. In 1803, the two women began the Institute of Notre Dame, which was dedicated to the education of the poor, young Christian girls, and the training of catechists. The following year the first Sisters of Notre Dame made their vows. That was the same year that Julie recovered from the illness: She was able to walk for the first time in 22 years.
Though Julie had always been attentive to the special needs of the poor and that always remained her priority, she also became aware that other classes in society needed Christian instruction. From the founding of the Sisters of Notre Dame until her death, Julie was on the road, opening a variety of schools in France and Belgium that served the poor and the wealthy, vocational groups, teachers. Ultimately, Julie and Françoise moved the motherhouse to Namur, Belgium. Julie died there in 1816 and was canonized in 1969.
She was beatified on May 13, 1906, by Pope Pius X and canonized in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. St. Julie is the patron saint against poverty, bodily ills, and disease.
So she moved her sisters to Belgium. She continued to serve others as she knew God was calling her to do. “Oh, how good God is” was her motto. Julie Billiart's group of sisters still carries on its mission to help people in need.
Prayer Julie Billiart of St. Bless, O St Joseph, the Church: beginning with her ministers, make her the sign and instrument of your light and your goodness. Accompany, O St Joseph, our families: with your prayerful silence, create harmony between parents and their children, in a special way with the youngest.
There are the miracles of healing through Julie’s intercession—one in Belgium, one in Brazil—upon which she was canonized fifty years ago this June.
There is the miracle in this country of how eight Sisters, nearly broke, only one of whom could speak English, debarked from a riverboat onto Cincinnati’s public landing. Within a score of years they built towering schools not only in Cincinnati but in the surrounding countryside—schools not just for the affluent but also for the poor.
People of faith pulled Julie through the French Revolution, time and time again. People of faith attended to her in all her long years of physical suffering and convalescence. People of faith provided the financial wherewithal in those first lean years of the congregation.
And years later, people of faith oceans apart prayed hour upon hour for Julie’s intervention, and for healing. The doctors had left, but they stayed.