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The canonization of a woman of courage

“It was wonderful. It was just so energizing. It was life-giving. It was spectacular. It was pure gift.”

Sister Donna Pike, a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, says that is what it was like being in St. Peter’s Square for the canonization of Blessed Marie Rivier, the congregation’s foundress.

“We’ve been praying for that for years,” she says. “We didn’t think it would happen so soon and that we would be able to be a part of it.”

Sister Donna was among 11 sisters from the congregation’s U.S. province who traveled to Rome for the canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on May 15. Along with Sister Donna, the group included two other sisters from the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center in Biddeford, Sister Alix-Marie Cabana, p.m., and Sister Diane Dube, p.m.

“It was overwhelming. It really felt that we were part of Marie Rivier’s family,” says Sister Alix-Marie.

“When they named Marie Rivier, I cried. It was just the reality of it all,” says Sister Diane. “It just affirms the gift that she passed on to us that is still needed in our world today.”

Blessed Marie Rivier was among 10 people canonized by Pope Francis during the Mass, which was attended by an estimated 45,000 people. The three sisters who traveled from Maine said members of their group got there at 4 a.m., six hours before the Mass began, allowing them to be in the first row after the section reserved for clergy.

“We went through security and just ran for the first benches,” says Sister Alix-Marie.

The sisters say the excitement over the canonization has been building since December when they received word that Pope Francis had approved a miracle attributed to Blessed Marie Rivier, a necessary step for sainthood.

“It was like the Spirit just zoomed right into our house, and it started on December 13 when we surprisingly found out that the pope had accepted the final miracle. Since that day, there has been a fire. There was a wind that just went through the whole house,” says Sister Jeanne Roberge, p.m.

“We were all excited, and we sat there in awe, speechless,” says Sister Ruth Ouellette, p.m. “It was an experience of new energy in each of us.”

Although well familiar with their foundress, the sisters say there was a renewed hunger to learn more.

“I think all of us picked up books about Marie River once we found out that she was going to be canonized. To me, it was her faith and her trust in God that just blew my mind,” says Sister Sue Bourret, p.m.

It was a faith and trust that began at an early age. Born in Montpetzat, France, on December 19, 1768, Marie was just 16 months old when she suffered a fall, severely breaking her hip and leg and leaving her unable to walk.

Marie’s mother had a deep devotion to Mary, and each morning, she carried her daughter to a chapel not far from their home, placing the girl before a pietà, a statue of the Blessed Mother holding her crucified son. Despite her young age, Marie, too, developed a devotion to Mary.

“Her mother would put a blanket down, and Marie would just sit there and pray, and she would bargain with Mary. She would say, if you heal me or if you do this or if you do that, I’ll bring you a new hat or a new dress, or I’ll bring children to you, and she did,” says Sister Claire Gagnon, p.m.

 

“I think it was from those hours of contemplating Mary and the suffering Jesus that she developed her spirituality,” says Sister Jean Roberge, p.m.

Although Marie would remain in pain the rest of her life, at age six, while attending her father’s funeral, she asked for crutches and began to walk.

Marie attended a boarding school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Pradelles and sought to enter the community. When she was turned down due to her frail health, she pledged, “If they won’t accept me, I will start my own convent,” a promise she would later fulfill.

Marie began teaching children at her local parish, providing them a basic education and bringing them closer to God.

“When I went to France where she lived, I saw a little chair under the tree where she used to gather the children. I’ve always had a deep love for evangelization so that really stirred me,” says Sister Jeanne.

“Make Jesus Christ known and loved or die. That’s a quote of hers,” says Sister Diane. “Everything was for Jesus Christ.”

Although Marie never had a lot of money, she accomplished much by placing her trust in the Lord.

“Her relationship with Jesus Christ and Mary, it was constant. It was total. It was forever. It was her life,” says Sister Gertrude Robitaille, p.m. “One thing that always impressed me about Mother Rivier was that, for her, contemplation and action were one.”

That was especially evident during the French Revolution. At a time when worship was forbidden, Marie Rivier secretly held Sunday assemblies.

“She would bring the Eucharist to the priests who were in hiding. She knew where they were, and she would take her life in her hands to go to bring the Eucharist to priests and to others,” says Sister Claire.

“She was known for her great, great zeal,” says Sister Aline Plante, p.m.

In 1796, at a time when religious congregations were being suppressed, she and four companions consecrated themselves to God and dedicated themselves to the Christian education of children. It marked the foundation of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. By the time of Marie Rivier’s death in 1838, more than 150 schools throughout France were staffed by the sisters.

The congregation now includes 750 sisters serving in 20 countries. Each sent representatives to the canonization Mass.

“Mother Rivier wanted this family spirit, and I think we felt it there. Everywhere we would go, we would meet a group of our sisters from another country,” says Sister Alix-Marie. “It was like we had the same joy.”

“The internationality of the community just really struck me,” says Sister Diane. “We are an aging province here in the United States, but the youthfulness of our congregation is very evident when we get together with everybody, so it’s so hopeful and encouraging.”

Although they weren’t in the midst of the St. Peter’s Square crowd, the sisters who watched the canonization from the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center say they were still engulfed by the hopeful spirit of the day.

“We were watching it virtually, but just the grounds, and the people, and the excitement, and even the vigil the night before, with the parade of flags, it was so moving,” says Sister Rachel Boucher, p.m.

While most of the sisters watched a 10 a.m. rebroadcast of the Mass, Sister Claire got up at 4 a.m. so she could see it live.

“When the pope started to name the 10 possible saints, and then, when he named Marie Rivier, I got chills throughout my body, and I cried,” she says. “I said, ‘This is real. This is real.’ The pope gives the names, and we the people, besides the pope, have accepted these as saints. That really did something to me. It wasn’t only the people in Rome who accepted them, I accepted them, too, thousands of miles away.”

The sisters say they believe their foundress is someone from whom people can draw courage and inspiration.

“It’s that simplicity and that humility that I think makes her someone whom people can embrace on their road to holiness,” says Sister Diane. “She had so many physical limitations and lived in a culture that was so challenging, very similar, in some ways, to our own.”

“She was such a humble woman that we all said that she will never be canonized because she was too humble, and yet, there she is,” says Sister Aline.

“Especially in a society where everyone wants power, she was afraid of power, but her power was her interior life, her life of prayer. Knowing how very weak she was, things would happen only through the power of Christ, so she became His life,” says Sister Cecile Leclerc, p.m.

The sisters say Saint Marie Rivier remains very much a presence in their lives.

“I have always said that I have three wonderful mothers – my mother, Mother Rivier, and Mary,” says Sister Joan Desmarais, p.m.

The canonization, the sisters say, has brought renewed energy to their congregation and their lives.

“I think we realize more and more that our zeal is not finished just because of our age,” says Sister Aline. “We can continue, as we get older, to still be very zealous like she was, especially at this time in our world.”