Since medieval times large numbers of women have served alongside men in the Catholic Church, particularly in humanitarian ministries. Barred from the priesthood and the church hierarchy, they volunteered in droves to serve among those on the margins of society. Although many girls were sent to the convent by their parents, others felt called by God when they were very young. Anne-Marie Javouhey (1779 - 1851), the fifth of ten children born in the French countryside to prosperous pious farmers, grew up in an era of ferment which would erupt violently as the French Revolution, an uprising against both the state and the church.
Ten-year-old Anne Marie, like her family, was loyal to the church. As the Revolution ignited she feard that the church—her very Mother—might be destroyed by the waves of violence. Nuns and priests were persecuted. What could a child do? She found her niche in keeping watch as priests surreptitiously perform the Mass.
At nineteen she takes vows to become a nun, hoping to help undo some of the ravages of the Revolution. But she is restless until a vision awakens her one night. Before her is a nun with children from around the world pressing in from all sides. The nun calls to her: "These are the children God has given you. He wishes you to form a new congregation to take care of them. I am Teresa [of Avila]. I will be your protectress."
In the following years, she founds the Congregation of St. Joseph. Then in the 1820s, learning of an epidemic in Gambia, she journeys there with several nuns to serve the sick and dying. She establishes hospitals, schools, and agricultural colonies; within a few decades her blue-robed sisters are spread out over the world. She supervises the work and is referred to by a sea captain as "my most seasoned sailor." Her mission outreach corresponds to the beginnings of the nineteenth-century Protestant modern missionary movement, predating the Women's Missionary Movement that began in the 1860s.
Like many of her male counterparts, she is an authoritarian leader who does not tolerate dissent. Her decisions are final: "God has made known to me what he wants me to do." Her superior, Bishop d'Hericourt, is not convinced, however. Her motherhouse is in his diocese, making him in his own mind the superior general. Before becoming a cleric, he had been in the military, and he is not about to be bested by a woman. For nearly two decades a fierce tug-of-war would consume precious ministry time on both sides. Accused of demanding obedience from her nuns while disregarding obedience to him, she insists that the bishop is her superior only in personal matters—that he is not the superior over her religious order.
Despite her remarkable success—or because of it—the bishop's stance hardens as the years pass to the point of his excommunicating her, and she observes her nuns taking communion while she is forbidden to participate. Her aim, he charges, is to "extricate herself from Episcopal authority." Among her violations: she is appointing nuns without approval, and her business affairs are in "total disorder." She is carrying on like a bishop and a doctor of the church. He appeals to the archbishop, but she fights back: "I am not only the Superior General of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Cluny; I did not merely cooperate in the foundation of that Order; I am its sole and solitary foundress. I am its Mother General as God is its Father, since it is I who created and have developed it."
In the end, the archbishop comes down on her side. But it is a Pyrrhic victory. She is worn out by the long ordeal. Indeed, within a year both she and the bishop are dead, he before her. When she learns of his death, she writes to one of her nuns: "We almost met, he and I, on that very day, before the judgment seat of God. So he's gone in ahead of me, that good Bishop. Well, that is correct; that is how it ought to be."