St Marie Eugenie was a remarkable woman. From its foundation in 1839, she led the Assumption for fifty five years. Her story is that of a woman who, springing from an irreligious background, came to understand that each one of us is called by God to a unique way of service, and that hers was to inspire countless others to strive for the building of the Kingdom of God through education. Her life is marked by her three great loves – for Jesus Christ, for Mary the Mother of Jesus and our mother and for the Church.
Anne Eugenie Milleret, later to become Sr. Marie Eugenie of Jesus foundress of the Religious of the Assumption, was born in Metz in northern France in 1817. Her family was privileged, wealthy, politically involved, and irreligious. She was baptised, however, and her first communion at the age of twelve was an extraordinary spiritual experience.
As she returned from the altar rails, worried that she would not find her mother in the crowd, she heard a voice within her saying: you will lose your mother, but I shall be for you more than a mother. A day will come when you will leave everything you love in order to glorify me and serve this Church that you do not know.
And that was how it was. When she was thirteen a reversal in family fortunes saw her father’s bankruptcy, the separation of her parents and the departure of Anne Eugenie to Paris with her mother. Two years later her mother died of cholera after only a few hours of illness and at the age of fifteen Anne Eugenie was alone. She was boarded out with different families and although outwardly she was happy enough, inwardly she was miserable.
"Each one of us has a mission on earth.”
Then God intervened. It was the custom to attend special sermons during Lent and she chose to go to the cathedral of Notre Dame, where the young and already famous Lacordaire was preaching. He spoke to her heart. She realised that she must give her life to God. As she said later, my vocation dates from Notre Dame. What was she to do? She wrote to Lacordaire: Each one of us has a mission on earth. But what was hers? He advised patience, reading and prayer. It was only the next year that chance – or the hand of God – brought her into contact with Fr. Combalot. And the rest, as they say, is history.
She was helped by two great friendships. The first was with one of the very first sisters, Kate O’Neill, who as Sr. Therese Emmanuel, co-foundress of the Congregation, was her constant help and support.
The second was a priest, Emmanuel d’Alzon, just a few years older than her. Marie Eugenie had been introduced to him by Combalot before the Congregation started. So when the relationship with Combalot became very difficult, she was able to turn to him for help. To the extent of the possible – he lived 500 miles away – he agreed to help and support her and thus began a friendship and partnership that was to last until his death nearly 40 years later.
In the beginning it was he who supported her, but as time went on she would be just as likely to be giving him advice. She encouraged him to found a Congregation of men: the Augustinians of the Assumption. But above all they helped each other to become holy. As he said of her: “If I have given anything, I have also received a great deal”. And when he died in 1880 she wrote to her sisters: “What I shall see eternally in Father d’Alzon is his love for Jesus Christ, his devotion to the Church, his zeal for souls.”
“I am looking at my Lord. It is in looking at Him that we learn how to love.”
Marie Eugenie led the Assumption for fifty-five years. Her life was full. Her first priority was for her sisters: their happiness, their formation, their work. She was concerned for their health – more than two hundred sisters were to die before she did, often young and of tuberculosis.
She was constantly travelling from community to community, encouraging, consoling and challenging. As the Congregation became known, she was invited to start more and more communities. She saw her work as being always in and for the Church, and her loyalty to it was absolute.
The last few years of her life were spent in increasing retirement. Gradually her health failed. Her legs refused to carry her and her speech also slowed, so that at the end she could only occasionally say a few words. Those around her were struck by her gentleness and patience. One day she managed to say: I am looking at my Lord. It is in looking at Him that we learn how to love. She died, surrounded by her sisters, on the 10th March 1898.
Download "Marie Eugenie Milleret: Foundress of the Religious of the Assumption" by Sr. Hélène-Marie Bories, R.A.