Rouen: A turning point
While Nicolas pondered and prayed, God was also working in the lives and hearts of other people and was preparing the ground to receive the small seed that was one day to become a mighty tree. It happened like this.
A mission, planned to last for an extended period of time, was held at Sotteville, a town about four kilometres from Rouen. A mission at the time meant that visiting priests would give a series of sermons, visit the families and hear confessions. It coincided with a time of great social problems. A failed harvest had brought hunger and disease and many children had died.
As Nicolas went from house to house to invite the families to the mission he could see how the people were suffering. To enable the parents to attend, he decided to invite two young women from other nearby neighbourhoods to come and help with the children. He had already seen how dedicated and skilled they were at this task. One was Françoise Duval, aged 18 years, the other was Marguerite Lestocq, then aged twenty, who was from Amiens and had family links with Nicolas Barré. The year was 1662. For most of the year, they held classes for younger girls in a little room lent to them for that purpose. The classes were held morning and afternoon according to the family circumstances. Several times a week Nicolas Barré would visit them at their work and help them with teaching methods. He taught them how to deal with the children and their mothers. Françoise and Marguerite loved their work and began to feel that they were becoming apostles helping to bring the children to God. The mission was bearing fruit and many adults had conversion experiences.
The town was changing. Influential people like Mme de Grainville began to get involved, offering a room in her large house for the classes. Soon even that was insufficient and another venue was opened in rue des Carmélites. Other women soon joined Françoise and Marguerite. The main purpose of “the little schools” was to teach the children their prayers, to instruct them in their faith and to make known to them the Love of God revealed in Jesus. They were also taught how to read, write and do simple mathematics.
Nicolas Barré spoke of the value of “instruction and education” and from the beginning he trained the young teachers to respect the uniqueness of each child and to develop each one’s potential. The teachers were to speak in a humble, gentle and simple manner so that even the youngest could understand, and they were to teach only what they themselves had adequately grasped. Gradually the work of these five young women extended beyond the classrooms to the homes of the children where they offered guidance to the parents. They went to seek out, in their own surroundings, older girls at risk or already in trouble.
They taught women and young adults to pray from the heart, reflect on the mysteries of faith and live in the presence of God. Nicolas Barré was very aware of the large number of people who seemed to have lost direction in life and had no knowledge of God. He became convinced that the root of the problem lay in the lack of human and religious education available to young people, especially girls.