"This house is back in the family," declared Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount Saint Mary's University--Los Angeles, at a June 26 blessing ceremony of Mother St. John Fontbonne's birthplace in Bas-en-Basset, France.
MSMU purchased the house shortly after last year's pilgrimage to Le Puy and several small towns of significance to the life of Mother St. John Fontbonne. McElaney-Johnson and Grace Kadner Wickersham, chairperson of the MSMU Finance Committee, noticed a for-sale sign in the house's window and made inquiries with a local realtor--with the help of tour guide Patrick Fargier, who has real estate background. The house had recently been renovated, so all it needed was some paint and furnishings.
Located in the small French town of Bas-en-Basset on the Loire River, the house will serve as a welcoming space for pilgrims, a study place for faculty and students, and a destination for members of the MSMU community seeking a different kind of French experience.
“Mother St. John Fontbonne stands as a cornerstone of the foundation of our history," said McElaney-Johnson. "Knowing her, we understand better the lives and love of the sisters who have followed her.”
Starting in fall 2019, faculty will be able to use the space for research. The University also hopes to provide study-abroad opportunities for students to visit the home and immerse themselves in experiencing the spirit of the founders, according to an article in Mount Magazine.
The CSJ Institute at MSMU plans to work with other pilgrimage groups from CSJ-sponsored institutions so the larger faith community can enter the home and reflect more deeply on Fontbonne’s life, legacy, and her courage. The Center for Global Initiaties, directed by Lia Roberts, will also be involved in planning programs in "Bas".
Mother St. John Fontbonne's portrait overlooks the dining room on the first level. Shannon Green and Mary Trunk, filmmaker and instructor, make final preparations for the house blessing.
Members of the pilgrimage were curious and excited to see the house.
University officials provided hospitality with croissants, pastries, coffee, and orange juice. Stephanie Cubba, special assistant to the president and vice president for Institutional Advancement, played a role in acquiring the house.
|Board members in the kitchen: (left to right) Sr. Annette Debs, Chairman Thomas Blumenthal, President Ann McElaney-Johnson, Sr. Mary Patricia Rosholt, and Sr. Sandra Williams|
|Thomas Blumenthal and Ann McElaney-Johnson with Lyon Congregation leaders Sr. Line Rioux and Superior General Catherine Barange.|
"Today is overwhelming," said Thomas Blumenthal, chairman of the MSMU Board. "It was just a year ago that I got a call from Ann about the possibility of buying this house. The Board's Executive Committee and Finance Committee met and immediately made a unanimous decision to make the purchase. It is so gratifying to stand here now and realize that we are a part of the history of this house."
Blessing the House
President McElaney-Johnson began the blessing with a brief summary of the life of Mother St. John Fontbonne. She pointed out that lives were saved in this house, the Catholic faith was upheld, family was prized, and numerous weddings, baptisms, and celebrations took place.
"It was here that there was laughter, prayer, encouragement, correction, love and joy," said McElaney-Johnson.
Born Jeanne Fontbonne, Mother St. John was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Bas-en-Basset and later in boarding school in nearby Le Puy. Very early on, Jeanne was recognized for her leadership skills and at age 26 became the local superior in her first community in Monistrol. During the French Revolution she and many other Sisters of St. Joseph refused to sign the Oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790—which required all religious people to swear an oath of allegiance to the state in an attempt to reorganize the Catholic Church in France. The community was forced to disperse; several of its members died for their faith. Jeanne was captured and imprisoned, but escaped execution only by Robespierre’s downfall the day before her execution.
During the Revolution, the Fontbonne home in "Bas" played an important role in providing shelter to many religious men and women, including Jeanne and her sister, Marie, also a Sister of St. Joseph with the name of Sr. Terese. After Jeanne was released from prison, she and Marie returned to this home and cared for their aging parents. However, that is not the end of her story.
In 1807, the local bishop asked Jeanne to reestablish the SSJ congregation in Saint Etienne. Later on, the congregation settled in Lyon because it had grown so large it needed more space--and there was a building available to accommodate it. In 1836 Mother St. John sent six sisters to the United States. They would come to be known as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) near St. Louis.
“Throughout her leadership she was admired and loved for her optimism in the face of difficulty, her fearlessness in the face of violence and injustice, her intelligence and resolve in the face of challenge, her compassion in the face of pain, her honesty, sensitivity, kindness and her deep, abiding faith,” says McElaney-Johnson.
The president then led the group in the reading the Consensus Statement of the Sisters of St. Joseph as a reminder of the sisters' legacy that they now bear at "The Mount".
Sister Catherine Barange, superior general of the Lyon Congregation, read the following poem.
City of Le Puy:
Family of Fontbonne:
City of Lyon:
St. Joseph Sisters and Co-Partners:
Ann McElaney-Johnson and Tom Blumenthal led all present to offer a blessing for the house:
"Bless these windows that shed light on our hearts and minds.
In conclusion, the president performed a sprinkling rite with holy water from Le Puy and a branch from a fir tree at the chateau of Marquis de Lafayette near Le Puy:
"We bring this holy water from Le Puy, the place of our foundations, where six courageous women saw the needs of their neighbors and responded in love; where a century later Jeanne and Marie Fontbonne studied with the sisters; and in the decades soon after, sisters were martyred at the guillotine; and where today, pilgrims visit to seek inspiration from the history, mission and charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Visit to City Hall
The group walked 10 minutes to the city hall to meet Mayor Gilles David. He welcomed everyone and said he was glad the University is taking up residence in the city. He talked briefly about the area, its geography, activities, and resources.
Mayor David has been most hospitable to the University, said McElaney-Johnson, by providing it with contacts for student housing, meeting rooms for class work, and the school canteen. In addition, the Mayor's Office is assisting with faculty/student research opportunities. Dr. Sylvine Deprele, associate professor of physical sciences, is the first faculty member to undertake this kind of project.
President McElaney-Johnson presented the mayor with a gift from Mount Saint Mary's University: a framed picture of The Mount with a message (below).
There have been many interesting coincidences emerging since the purchase of the house. Jean-Yves Chapelon, Ph.D., a descendent of the Fontbonne family, introduced himself at the city hall gathering and presented McElaney-Johnson with a book on Mother St. John's life. Dr. Chapelon is a physicist who created therapeutic approaches for ultrasound. He is affiliated with the Université de Lyon. During his post-doctoral work at Drexel University in 1984-85 in Philadelphia, he sent his children to a school operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia.
|a group portrait of the new "neighbors" in Bas-en-Basset|
Picnic in the Garden
After the visit to City Hall, the group indulged in a lunch of sandwiches, chips, condiments, and French cookies in the garden.
Shannon Green and Debra Martin, vice president for administration and finance (second from left), served deli meats and cheese at the picnic. Martin was also instrumental in acquiring the house.
The birthplace of Mother St. John Fontbonne has been a pilgrimage stop for years. Pilgrims, however, only saw its front door. Carpenter's tools grace the threshold and the date of 1747 when the house was built. Mother St. John Fontbonne (1757-1843) lived in this house for several years before and after the French Revolution.
The kitchen and dining room are on the first level of the house. The kitchen bears The Mount's official seal over the stove.
Refrigerator magnets are already in place.
|Back porch off the kitchen|
|Second floor living room with a fireplace and comfy chairs|
Three bedrooms are available on the second and third floors.
The garden was designed by Giles Fargier.
Established by the CSJs in 1925, Mount Saint Mary’s University welcomes students of all faiths, nurturing them in their intellectual and spiritual growth. As a Roman Catholic institution, the Mount is part of the oldest university tradition in the world. The fleur-de-lis symbols of France in the College’s academic seal represent the sisters.