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Leonie Aviat

Mother Frances de Sales

The Foundress

of the

Congregation of Oblate Sisters

of

Saint Francis de Sales

(Part One)

 

     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 honest shopkeepers.

     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 notebook.

     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 for You..."

     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 her.

     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."

 This is the end of Part One.

GO ON TO PART TWO

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