The big day had finally arrived. That day eagerly anticipated by Fr. Jules Chevalier, msc and the rest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. It was the 1st of September 1881. A boat was waiting to sail from Barcelona to the “Vicariate of Melanesia and Micronesia”. “It is impossible for me to be present at the departure of our dear and heroic Brothers that are going to take the Love of the Sacred Heart and of Our Lady to Oceania! How much do I envy them! What a sacrifice for me not being able to bless them and embrace them in such a solemn occasion!, Fr. Chevalier wrote is such a bittersweet moment for him. In those years of persecution of Religious orders he was appointed Parish Priest in Issoudun, and travelling to wish farewell to his confreres would have exposed him as a member of a Religious congregation and, thus, would have faced immediate expulsion from France.
There were never good times for Jules Chevalier, but despite the countless amount of obstacles that he was meeting along the way, he was looking for a solution to his difficulties. He was a man of determination with a passionate and impetuous temperament. He was always very clear about what he wanted and he would not give up trying to find solutions to any difficulty or challenge he may come across. Well, in actual fact, he knew that the solution would come to him from God, for he used to say: “When God wants a Work, the obstacles become means”.
Another powerful ally was Our Lady. He used to have recourse to her every time he was in trouble. Her presence was a constant in his life, from a very early age. He wrote “Shortly after being baptised, my mum took me to the Church and consecrated me to Our Most Blessed Lady and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Jules was born in the city of Richelieu, the 15th of March 1824, in a humble home. He was the youngest of three brothers. His father was a very entrepreneurial man, always busy and worried to provide for his family. His mother, a very pious woman, educated him in the Christian and human values. At the age of 12, after having received his first communion, he expressed his wishes to become a priest. There he found the first of the many difficulties he would have to face in life and the first evidence of his determination. Given the scarcity of their financial resources, his parents expressed to him the impossibility of carrying out his wishes. They did not have enough money to pay for his studies. “That´s fine, I will learn a trade, since there is no other option. But when I have saved enough I will knock at the door of a Religious House”. Thus, he became an apprentice of a shoemaker. Without losing sight of his objective, he would spend his Sundays studying Latin and he would spend most of his free time in the Parish and helping the most needy people.
This vocation of service, expressed through charity and friendliness was his distinctive feature. It would be said from him that he was always available for whoever would ask for his help. Another thing that would also catch interest is his joy. Most of all, people would comment that he used to laugh with a wonderful smile that would make his face shine, he had an “ineffable smile”. Charity and happiness were the qualities that complemented his leadership skills. He knew how to attract people, giving himself to them. From that would emerge one of the keys in his journey towards the foundation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart: Fraternal charity. He was convinced that charity was “the virtue of the Sacred Heart”.
It was at the Major Seminary in Bourges where he discovered that spirituality. He was convinced that the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, symbol of the Love of God, was the remedy needed by the French society, de-christianized and desolated by the revolution and war. It was, back then, that he saw clearly that he needed to found a community of missionaries that would spread everywhere (Ubique terrarum) this Devotion to the Sacred Heart. He speaks with his Superior, who suggests to him to start Christianising Issoudun, the most paganized and anticlerical Parish of the region. The challenge was massive. But far from getting discouraged, he proposed to his fellow seminarians to create “the Knights of the Sacred Heart”. One of the most excited about it was his friend Maugenest.
The path that God had designed for him was being formed little by little. On the 14th of June 1851 he is ordained priest and after three years in different parishes, is assigned to Issoudun, coincidentally the village suggested by his Superior in the seminary. And, also coincidentally, Fr. Maugenest, his great friend and ally is also assigned to the same Parish. Jules takes this as a divine signal and together they start with the necessary steps to found such a society of missionaries that they were speaking of in Bourges.
They need to demonstrate that they can be economically sustainable. Again the money becomes a difficulty. To get it, both friends had recourse to Our Lady by making a novena that was to conclude on the 8th of December 1854. “If our plea is answered”- they promised- “we will call ourselves Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Our mission will be to render a special cult of adoration, homage and reparation to the Heart of Jesus, throne of wisdom, of love and mercy; to extend this devotion everywhere”. When they finished the novena, they received a message. A donor, Mr. Felipe de Bengy, was offering 20.000 francs for a house of missionaries. But that still was not sufficient for Cardinal Dupont. The contributions they were to receive had to be recurrent. Without losing heart, they decided to make another novena for the Feast of the Heart of Mary. On that occasion, it was a noble French lady, the Viscount who offered them an annual rent of 1,000 francs. The Cardinal could no longer oppose. “I have promised to these two priests that if they would bring a new sign of the Will of God finding financial resources, I would approve their project”.
Everything was up and running. They bought a barn and started building what would become the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Issoudun, where Our Lady will have a preferential place, as they promised her also within the congregation for her help after the novenas: “…that Mary would be known and honoured in a special way by all means possible”. Thus, in 1861 Fr. Jules Chevalier blessed the stained glass window on which was represented the first image of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. This image was so widely spread and there was such devotion that a lot of people asked to become members of the Confraternity of OLSH. As a result, Fr. Jules decided to create it, but with not many rules. Praying to Our Lady every day would be the only obligation (See Painting). He would also create the Lay Associates. In 1866 the magazine ‘Annals of Our Lady’ is born.
The politicial situation in France starts to get unbearable. The several constitutional reforms keep diminishing the rights of the Church and to the Freedom of cult. In that social context, Chevalier goes to Rome to receive the definitive approval for the Congregation, in 1874. Probably, a worse period could not have been chosen to give momentum to a religious congregation, but we all know what Jules thought about obstacles. For years, the Bishop had been asking him to accept being Parish Priest of Issoudun to be able to save his work, foreseeing what was about to happen. Thanks to that, he was able to remain in France, since the Constitution in 1876 forced the closure of the Basilica and the MSC had to leave the country. That became the beginning of an expansion throughout Europe to Belgium, Holland, Austria, Spain…and the rest of the world.
Jules Chevalier did not stop in his drive to make that the Sacred Heart of Jesus loved everywhere and thinks about creating a congregation of religious sisters dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The process lasted for years, and, as always, not without difficulties. Finally, in 1882, he manages to convince Sister Mary Louise Hartzer to agree to lead a group of sisters in Issoudun, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (FDNSC). In 1880, the French Government had started a direct attack on all religious congregations. At the same time, the MSC from Oceania requested the presence of the sisters of the new congregation, and in 1884 they would be travelling there. From then on, both congregations share their missionary vocation.
Yet another hardship develops in Germany. The government doesn´t allow foreign religious congregations to operate in their country. This was solved by Fr. Hubert Linckens, msc, with the approval of Fr. Chevalier, creating a new congregation. As a result, in 1900 he founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart (MSC sisters). MSC as well, with the same spirituality and mission. At present, the 3 Congregations, although independent from each other, regard Chevalier as their founder and they coordinate among themselves under a ‘Trigeneralate’.
Father Jules Chevalier died in 1907. His work is now present in all five continents, in over 50 countries. “Our Lady has done everything in our Congregation” he used to say. Religious sisters, Religious brothers and lay members, we are all called to continue his mission: May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be loved everywhere.