Leonie Aviat was born on the 16th
of September 1844, at Sezanne, in France. She was baptized on the
following day. Her parents, Theodore Aviat and Emilie Caillot, were
At the age of 11, Leonie went as a
boarder to the Convent School of the Visitation at Troyes. Already
God was preparing her for the work He had in store for her. At that
time, Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis was the Superior of the
Monastery and Father Brisson, its Chaplain. Instructed and inspired
by these two great servants of God, Leonie made her First Holy
Communion and received Confirmation on the 2nd of July, 1856, at the
hands of Bishop Coeur of Troyes.
During her five years at the
Visitation, she developed her human and intellectual qualities; under
the guidance of Mother Chappuis, she opened her heart to the splender
of God's grace.
Mother Chappuis was remarkable in
that she foresaw the social problems of the time. Among the friends
of the Convent, she found benefactors for Fr. Brisson's undertaking
in favor of working girls. Father Brisson was a very active priest,
ready to welcome everybody, thanks to his understanding and charity.
Yet in all of his different activities, he was a great contemplative:
"I need God. It's a hunger that devours me..." he wrote in his
In this school, where a living
faith and the love of God reigned, Leonie was brought up to become,
with Father Brisson, the Foundress of the Congregation of the
OblateSisters of St.Francis de Sales, assisting him in his venture on
behalf of young working girls.
Before leaving school at 16, she
realized that she had a religious vocation. She consulted with Mother
Chappuis who said to her: "What God is preparing for you is not yet
ready; let Him work in you... and always do His Holy Will."
On returning to Sezanne, she found
that her parents wished her to complete her preparation for life,
with marriage in view. She was introduced to a wealthy young man whom
her family found very suitable. For the first time in her life,
however, Leonie was not of the same mind as her father, she wanted to
become a religious. Her father's opposition was strong:
"Leonie would have to wait until
she was 21. In the course of those waiting years, her specific
vocation was decided by an insignificant incident. One day she
entered the workshop of young working girls at the optical factory at
Sezanne. This contact immediately awoke in her an ardent desire to
give herself entirely to the apostolate and betterment of young
working girls. God put this eager attraction in her heart as the
spark that was to make her the Foundress of the Oblate Sisters of St.
Francis de Sales."
Towards the middle of the 19th
century, there was a rapid expansion of the textile industry in
Troyes and therefore a need for female workers. Droves of young
country girls came to the town in search of adventure. They had no
money, nowhere to live and were thus exposed to serious dangers of
immorality. With a remarkable intuition for overcoming obstacles,
Father Brisson took those girls in his care. He acquired a building,
offering board and lodging and evn work onthe premises, to a number
of young workers. He trained a group of volunteers, but no matter how
devoted they were, the undertaking lacked stability. It was not only
necessary to feed the girls, but also to educate them in their faith
and guard the in their faith and guard the against moral danger. God
had foreseen that need and He sent someone with the same charisma:
Leonie Aviat. She was gifted with a creative intelligence and a
spirit of initiative.
When Leonie was 22 years old, she
made a spiritual retreat at the Visitation, in order to reach a
definite decision. Conversant with her interior life, her generosity,
her gift for organization and her ability to understand souls and
situations, Father Brisson sought her collaboration.
In agreement with her two spiritual
Directors, she did not return home, but took over as her
responsibility the foundation for working girls- from then on, known
as "Oeuvre, Ouvriere." This was on the 18th April 1866.
On the 30th October 1868, with one
of her former boarding school companions, she received the habit of
the new congregation, from the hands of Bishop Mermillod of Geneva.
He also gave her a new name: Sister Frances de Sales. By accepting
her new name, she undertook a way of life that she was to fulfill
perfectly. Father Brisson said to her, "We have a great
responsibility in this work, and on you is going to depend the
fulfillment of the hopes based on it.
On the 11th October 1871, she made
her religious profession in the presence of 'Bishop de Segur'. Her
resolution was "Forget myself entirely." She was to confirm this
resolution later on by these words: "May my dedication be so complete
and entire, O my God, that my happiness may to sacrifice everything
The "Oeuvre, Ouvriere" spread out,
opening numerous youth clubs and flourishing family homes. There the
girls can be educated in their faith while receiving a practical
training. The atmosphere of work and joyful sacrifice prepared them
for their adult life.
The burning enthusiasm of Sister
Frances de Sales was sustained by her deep faith and the urge to give
herself completely to others.
"O, yes," she used to say, "let us
work for the happiness of others."
"It's out of love for God that I am
a religious and, being a religious, I am the smallest servant of God;
in serving others and in bearing with them, I do the work my Lord and
Master entrusted to me."
Mother Aviat became a worker with
the workers. She communicated with them the desire to do their work
well, even for a minimum pay. In any case, at the end of the week,
after sorting out their meager pay, each girl managed to put a few
pence in the savings bank created for them by Mother Aviat.
It was marvelous to see those
girls- some less than 12 years old- become aware of the dignity of
work and receive it as coming from the fatherly hand of God and an
instrument of love.
How easy to give the girls a
Christian education and culture in such an atmosphere of friendly
loyalty! The choices of hobbies and pursuits for the times of leisure
were far ahead of their time and comparable to the sociological
methods of nowadays. Those girls were conscious that their human
potential was to be envied and that it called for exacting standards
on their part.
If a girl was ill, her work was
distributed among the others and her complete pay was given to
One day a girl arrived in rages;
the same evening she found on her bed a small trouseau, a gift from
one of the girls who had prepared it for herself.
In another instance, a poor woman
in the neighborhood had not opened her door for several days. A smell
of death drew the attention of a passer-by, but nobody would go into
the house. One of the young workers courageously asked a man to force
the door open. She entered the house. Upon finding the woman dead,
she arranged the body and put in order the hovel in which it was
lying. She was asked "But tell us, where did you find the courage to
do that?" With great simplicity, she answered, "I am a girl from
Fr.Brisson's Home. I must live up to his expectations."