Print

Biography of Sr Febronie

 

1819-1892

febronie sign

Contemporary of St Thérèse

Monday, January 5th, 1892, Céline Martin wrote to her cousin Jeanne Guérin (Mme La Néele): “The poor Carmel is presently the victim of influenza, the scourge strikes there with all its strength. This morning we were at the burial of a religious who died Saturday. Friday we will return for another burial, that of the mother sub-prioress who died last night. There are still two very ill there and they despair of saving them, among others Sister Madeleine, aunt of Madame Saint-Benoît de l’Abbaye.” The “mother sub-prioress” bore the name of old fashioned charm, Fébronie of the Holy Childhood. It’s with her that we make acquaintance today.

Discernment

Around 1838-1840, Fr. Sauvage, vicar at Saint Jacques in Lisieux sometimes met two young girls and their mother in the neighborhood of the Nouveau Monde(next to the Buissonets) coming back from church. Dreaming of the little convent he just founded, rue de Livarot, a thought came to mind: would one of the young ladies be a future Carmelite? But, he wrote, “it was a thought like any other that one doesn’t give much importance to.” One day they found themselves near his confessional. The youngest one confessed. The other one he knew had her own confessor but he was absent at that time. He then said to his penitent,”Tell your sister to come next to this confessional.” The elder didn’t need to be told twice, satisfied to find a rather singular occasion to follow her first opinion. Subsequently the elder girl learned that Fr Sauvage was superior of the Carmelites and soon her first thoughts about becoming a religious were awakened again. He tried for some time to dissuade her from the rule that was perhaps too austere for her. She persevered, insisted. He finally permitted her to present herself to Carmel. She was received in Carmel at the end of 1841 by the founder Mother Elisabeth who was almost dead. She made herself known.

Childhood and youth (1819-1842)

Her name was Marie-Julie Malville, was born in Paris at 14, rue Saint-Martin in the Sainte-Avoie district on October 31st, 1819. Her father was a tailor. A little sister followed her sixteen months later, Pauline. But the mother born Marie-Jeanne Paris died at age twenty-four when Julie was barely five years old. Their father entrusted them to a friend of their mother’s then remarried and they moved to Rouen. There Julie and Pauline were put in boarding school run by religious. She really loved studies to the point of preferring her books to play. Reading even became a passion for her. These later years M. Malville decided to move to Lisieux. The family members were a good Christians, especially the mother-in-law. That is how they knew Fr. Sauvage. Several more personal questions and the prioress of Carmel recognized a real call of God. She blessed the aspirant but did not see her again; the founder of died January 3rd, 1842 from tuberculosis at age 65.

Carmelite before Thérèse (1842-1888)

The novice mistress from Poitiers, Sister Geneviève of St Teresa, was elected prioress on January 15th, 1842. That same day she received Julie Malville in the cloister. This was the eighth postulant since the beginning, March 15th, 1938. From the beginning, Sr. Fébronie of the Holy Childhood showed herself to be a “model of regularity, of piety, a truly interior soul, loving life that is solitary and hidden in God”; in short, filled with qualities that are the joy and hope of a community.” She received the habit on May 24th, 1842 and pronounced her vows on July 15th, 1843, a lapse in her health having caused a short delay. Taking the veil was adjourned until October 27th so that the bishop, Msgr. Robin could preside. After a Mass of the Holy Spirit he gave a very touching address then burst into the Te Deum that Fr. Sauvage prepared to continue when the prelate honestly silenced him; it seemed that the recto tono of the Carmelites had the gift of charming him. After laying the veil on the novice he heard a “little noise” and saw a man kneeling next to the grille. It was M. Malville who whispered, “My daughter, I forgive the wrongs you did to me and I ask your forgiveness for the sins that I accuse myself regarding you. I give you my blessing. Give me yours.” Bishop Robin, who hadn’t mentioned the parents in his sermon, excused himself: “Sir, I didn’t see you. If I had known you were present I would not have forgotten you in my speech. He also complimented the mother-in-law. Then in cloister, in private, he confirmed Sister Fébronie on the condition that she hadn’t been present at the laying on of hands and that they doubted she had truly received the sacrament. In the afternoon, Bishop Robin saw the community again in the recreation room. They sang for him happy verses by Sister Miséricorde and they offered artificial flowers to him. “Now, my mother,” he said to Mother Geneviève, ”this spirit in your community pleases me a lot. And affectionately shaking the hand of Fr. Sauvage, “This day, my dear Father, is a day of happiness for me.” “It was really a family celebration” as Saint Teresa of Avila liked.

Work

Sr. Fébronie “successively filled the positions of nurse, laundress and dress maker with great charity, remarkable skill and devotion without limit.” In January 1860 she was elected sub-prioress. Re-elected in 1863 she stepped down after a year. We find her again in this position in 1877, then until 1886 until her death for a total of 14 years during which she was the happiness and joy of her Mother Prioresses always remaining united with their same views and sentiments.

One can hardly imagine the destitution of the Carmel of Lisieux during its beginning. The gifts of wealthier families were welcome. In 1860 M. Malville offered: “a wardrobe for the infirmary, a clock, a chest of drawers, a chest of drawers for the sacristy, several tables, a sideboard, chairs, linens, several silk dresses that were used for altar linens and some shawls that would be used as prizes for a lottery.”

It was perhaps at this moment that the Malvilles settled in Rennes. The Prussian invasion in 1870 set off a panic in Normandy. Some families want to take their girls back to keep them safe. Three religious left at the end of September 1870 (including Fébronie), four others in January 1871. Declining her father’s office, Sr. Fébronie preferred to ask for shelter in the Carmel of Rennes which had already taken in the Carmel of Compiègne. At the end of January 1871 the Prussians were at the gates of Lisieux, at Firfol, ready to bomb the city when the armistice occurred. March 19th the community is all present.

With Thérèse (1888-1892)

Her 68th birthday gone by, Mother Fébronie, was considered an elder at the time of Thérèse’s entrance. The sub-prioress soon saw clearly and deeply into the postulant’s soul. A witness to this dialogue reported by Thérèse herself. She had difficulty opening up to Sr. Marie of the Angels, her novice mistress.

“A good old mother understood one day what I was feeling. She said to me laughingly at recreation: “My little girl, it seems to me that you must not have much to say to your superiors.”

“Why, Mother, do you say that?”

“Because your soul is extremely simple, but when you are perfect, you will be even simpler. The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.” (Ms. A, 70v°). “The good mother was right,” concluded Thérèse. Let us add that Mother Fébronie’s answer deserved to be among the apothegms of the Elders.

Another conversation was told to us by Sr. Marie of the Angels who could date it at the end of 1891 (after the retreat of Fr. Alexis, so liberating for Thérèse):

“One day our Angel and Sister F. had a spiritual conversation together where this honorable sister, a little sister, defended in excess the rights of divine justice and our Angel that of infinite mercy. But this latter seeing that she wasn’t winning and keeping always her view, finished by telling her seriously and we might say almost divinely: “My sister, if you want God’s justice, you will have God’s justice.” “The soul receives exactly what it expects from God.”

Then there was the terrible influenza of the winter of 1891-1892. Twelve sisters were already stricken including the prioress, Mother Marie de Gonzague. Sister Fébronie had just accompanied Dr. de Cornière to the enclosure door on December 31st when she felt herself stricken. Sister Saint Joseph died January 2nd. The sub-prioress received the last sacraments. During her death throes she asked for the prioress in vain: ”Yet another sacrifice! O my Jesus, I offer it to you…” At the final moment on January 4th at 8 PM is alone with her, with the nurse (Ms. A, 79 v°). She noticed, as with the previous person who had died “the expression of joy and peace” in her features.

However on the following May 22nd feast of Saint Julie (patron saint for the sub-prioress’s baptism), Thérèse had a dream. She saw a procession of Carmelites, among which figured Sr. Fébronie. Without a word, she turned her head painfully towards her with a supplicating manner and stared at her with a long and sad expression. Thérèse woke up quite upset and revealed to Mother Marie de Gonzague:

“Oh Mother, my Sister Fébronie came last night to ask that we pray for her. She is in purgatory no doubt for not having counted enough on God’s mercy. By her begging manner and serious expression, she seemed to say to me: “You were right. Justice has been served on me but it’s my fault. If I had believed I would have gone straight to heaven!” Thérèse did not speak of this dream in Story of a Soul, no doubt because approaching closer to God, she became even simpler, attaching more importance on faith than her dreams (cf. Ms. A, 79r°). But perhaps she was thinking of Sr. Fébronie when she spoke of “holy souls who alone have access” to purgatory. For me, she wrote, “I know that the fire of Love is more sanctifying than that of purgatory. I know that Jesus cannot desire useless suffering for us” (Ms. A, 84v°).

Back to the page of Sr Febronie