Henriette Aymer de la Chevalerie was born on August 11, 1767 in the Chateau de la Chevalerie in St. Georges de Noisne near the city of Poitiers. She lived a happy childhood and was an only girl among two brothers in a united and warm familial environment.
Her father died in 1777 when she was only eleven years old. Henriette then became much more of a support to her mother. Her mother wanted to give her daughter the best formation possible, so for several years she put her in the Benedictine’s Holy Cross boarding school in Poiters. Henriette had a nice figure, a lively face and a penetrating gaze, together with a conversational style peppered with witticism and sophistication. For this reason she became the center of attention in the social gatherings of the nobility in Poitiers. Her great strength was always her personal charm.
But when the Revolution arrived many things changed. In the years 1792 and 1793 she and her mother did not hesitate to welcome the priests who refused to take the constitutional oath into their home. An employee in the neighborhood reported them and mother and daughter were imprisoned in the Hospitalliers Prison in Poitiers on October 22, 1793.
Thus began a time of anguish and justified fears: being taken to the guillotine was always a possibility during those tragic times of Terror. The prison stay lasted nearly a year and for Henriette it was a very intense experience. The convents of the past, transformed into crowded prisons, did not provide the minimum hygienic conditions or the most basic amenities. The people imprisoned in the Hospitalliers belonged to the nobility, who managed to live as if their social life was ongoing. During these months, something that was dormant in Henriette would surface, her great capacity for internalization and depth. She especially looked after the prisoner’s daughter and a woman who was scorned by the others because her ideas were almost revolutionary.
Some refractory priests jumped over the prison walls to hear the prisoners’ confessions. Henriette took this opportunity to make a general confession. It was an important step in her journey to God. On September 11, 1794 the doors of the prison were opened for Henriette and her mother and they could return to their home on Rue de Haute Treilles, in higher part of the city.
Henriette was a different person. She was 28 years old and asked that God reveal the person destined to guide her. In November 1794 among a list of priests she received as possible directors was the name of Pierre Coudrin, who at the time was 27 years old. When she heard him preach at Mass she, who was preoccupied about her method of prayer, found peace: “I am not mistaken,” she told herself, “he preaches as I pray.” From then on she began to confess to Fr. Coudrin.
In the first months of 1795 she asked to be admitted in the Society of the Sacred Heart. In the beginning, Henreitte’s request was rejected because of her prior reputation as a socialite. In March of 1795, she was accepted as an extern. The Good Father assigned her an hour in the adoration rotation, which according to her “fixed my destiny”. She finished her first conversion there.
Her silence, in particular, attracted attention. She was always there before the tabernacle concealed in the wall, with needlework in her hand, as if her spirit were absent and without speaking to anyone. Without even trying, in the Association she was causing a polarization around herself. A group of young people wanted to live a life like hers and wanted her to lead them. Guided by Pierre Coudrin she made her own the “zeal for the work of God” that radiated in his life. In obedience to this zeal, at the end of 1796 she accepted to be the superior of this group that the others called the “Solitaires”.
They decided to buy a house that was independent of the Society of the Sacred Heart, but they had no money for this. Henriette then decided to sell all of the patrimony she inherited from her father in order to buy one. Finally they found a house that all of them liked because it was a tranquil location, on Haute Treilles Street, right in front of the house of Mrs. Aymer.
On August 25th the “Solitaires”, dressed in a grey habit under their secular clothing, and pronounced their first resolutions. On September 29th the “Solitaires” occupied their new house. A little later the rest of the Society followed them, but now the situation had changed: the “Solitaires” were the owners of the house. They gave this new residence the name, “Grand’Maison”, as it is still known.
The diocesan authorities gave the group a secret approbation in writing. On October 20, 1800, the first women religious, together with the foundress, made their first public vows in the oratory. They chose the day because it was the anniversary of Pierre Coudrin’s departure from the Motte d’Usseau and his surrender to God at the foot of the oak tree eight years before, in 1792.
Pierre Coudrin and Mother Henriette made their vows “as zealots of the love of the Sacred Hearts” on Christmas Eve 1800. This date is considered to be the birth of the Congregation.
The Good Mother opened 17 houses in France, in the midst of the greatest economic hardship. She was both administrator and the "mother" of the two branches (brothers and sisters). Many hundreds of girls, especially the poor were educated by their communities and many families were helped. And everyone felt the support and safety of this small, warm, cheerful, imaginative woman, who knew how to create an atmosphere of cordiality around her, and was the center of union that bonded the great family. She got to receive some 900 sisters, she saw more than 200 of them die, among them her friend and confidante Gabriel de la Barre.
She lived a life of penance and austerity that was truly out of the ordinary, while she stood out and was appreciated because of her understanding, flexibility and the minute details of her dealings with others. This is also the foundation of her pedagogy: that girls feel loved, encouraged, in short "that they feel happy among us."
It was within this zeal to transmit love to the inhabitants of those “distant islands” that the Good Father had perceived the "Work" in the granary of the Motte d'Usseau. With this hope she assisted in the preparation of the journey of the first missionaries: she could not see the parade of sisters who, in the future, would also cross the sea carrying the message ... or give up their lives on the way like the group aboard the "Marie-Joseph" that perished in the route.
The exhaustion of a hard life like hers, the average life expectancy at the time, made Henriette suddenly collapse from a thrombosis in December of 1829 at the age 61. Even though she somewhat recovered, the paralysis of the right side of her body did not allow her to return to a fully active life, but from her room she continued to be the soul of the "Work".
During the five years of her sickness, her personal attitude was the realization of the personal plan that she expressed on the day of her consecration to the Sacred Hearts "... in whose service I wish to be consumed as this candle." On November 23, 1834, the "Petite Paix" ("Little Peace" as the Founder was in the habit of calling her), fully entered in the Great Peace after completing the journey of a full life, leaving her "Work" underway. The "Work" she founded and maintained; with the conviction that it was "a need for the Heart of God."
DATES IN THE LIFE OF THE GOOD MOTHER
On August 11, 1767, she was born in St. Georges-de-Noisne, a town located southwest of Poitiers.
Between 1785 and 1793 she lived her childhood in a “mundane enviroment” that corresponded to her being a woman of the noble class.
From October 22, 1793 to September 11, 1794 she was imprisoned in the Hospitaliers prison in Poitiers for having hidden the priests who refused to take the oath to the Civil consitution for Clergy. Here she experienced the conversion that changed the path of her life.
In March of 1795 she was accepted as an “extern” in the Asociation of the Sacred Heart, a group that the Good Father accompanied.
On October 20, 1800 she and four companions make their first vows.
On December 24, 1800 she made perpetual vows.
On November 23, 1834 she died at Picpus in Paris.
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Tomb of the founders at Picpus Cemetery in Paris