“Lord, I desire only what you desire and as you desire it…”
Let us imagine ourselves in Amiens, France, on 21 October 1621. There, a baby boy has just been born to Antoinette and Louis Barré. He will be the eldest and only boy of five children. His parents, no doubt, already look forward to the day when Nicolas will take over and expand the family business. The Barré family had been in haberdashery for several generations. They sold all kind of things: fish, candles, thread, wool, fabric, dyes, seeds and soap. Amiens itself was, in times of peace, a prosperous town handling the cloth trade from England, crops from the North and wine from Bordeaux and Champagne. Being only 110 kilometres from Paris it was a busy crossroads, a centre of communication.
Nicolas grew up in this Christian family and environment under the shadow of the great Amiens Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic art, depicting the bible in stone, wood and glass. From the age of about ten, Nicolas was educated by the Jesuits. He showed a great desire to learn and to understand. We are told that he was gifted in the humanities as well as having a lively interest in science and the technology of his time.
These years with the Jesuits were to prepare Nicolas for his later work of training the first ‘charitable teachers’. Here he was formed not only intellectually but also in a solid Christian way of life guided by excellent religious teachers. He saw, being lived out, the ideals of this group of apostolic religious that had finally managed to break with both the monastic and conventual models of religious life. Here he witnessed a deeply contemplative life integrated with action in the world, a Christian life inextricably linked with the social problems of his day. He experienced the fatherly attitude of the teachers who wanted the all-round education of their pupils and saw how the college provided free board for pupils who could not afford to pay. He would have absorbed the missionary urgency that was then sending Jesuits to the ends of the earth to share the Good News of the Gospel with others.
As Nicolas grew up, however, he felt drawn neither to his family business nor to any career in law or science that would have been open to such a brilliant student. Instead he felt called by God to be a priest. He felt drawn to the monastic life. There were several monasteries to choose from in his native town.
Even though educated by the Jesuits, Nicolas chose to join the Minims of St Francis of Paola. He was familiar with their monastery that was situated in a poorer area of the town. Perhaps this choice already showed his awareness of the plight of those who suffered from extreme poverty and its consequences. Most Minim houses were built on the outskirts of towns with a view not only to silence and seclusion but also to being with people who lived on the edge, the unemployed, the factory workers and the peasants. In this way, the Minims came to experience first hand the epidemics, fire and war of mid 17th century France and came to know personally the victims of poverty. The friars rallied both bodily and spiritual energies to come to their assistance. They themselves lived a life of extreme austerity, having a fourth vow of perpetual abstinence from meat and animal products. As well as this penitential lifestyle and struggling against the decadence and permissiveness of their society, the friars rose at midnight to begin their day of work and prayer. The spirit of the Minims, with its emphasis on humility, simplicity, prayer, and especially their motto “Caritas”, was to influence the spirituality that Nicolas Barré later offered the “Charitable Teachers”, the first Infant Jesus Sisters.
Nicolas joined the Minims in Amiens, when he was 19 years old and made final profession in 1642. He was sent to Paris in 1643. While still a deacon he was asked to teach philosophy and after his ordination he became a theology teacher while continuing his work as a preacher and confessor. He was also appointed director of a famous library at the Minim house in Place Royale, Paris, and where he was to come in contact with many learned and famous people of his time.
After some years living this demanding religious and pastoral life, during which Nicolas witnessed the appalling misery of the people of Paris, he himself fell ill and was sent by the friars, first to Amiens, and then to Rouen where he carried out his apostolate mainly with the Third Order of Minims. It was here that he arranged to meet Marguerite Lestocq and the other young women who were to join him later as the first teachers in the “Little Charitable Schools”.
What then brought about this new development in Nicolas Barré’s ministry that was to bear such long lasting and wonderful fruit on the five continents?