Paris : A formation house
In 1675, Nicolas Barré himself had to be ready to leave behind even this newly planted young shoot when he was called back to Place Royale, Paris by the Minims. He was often heard to say that, like the Church itself, what threatened to destroy the Institute in fact made it stronger. So it was with the beginning of the Institute. Nicolas returned to Paris only to discover that the reputation of the movement had gone before him.
A powerful and illustrious lady, Marie de Lorraine, invited him to open charitable schools at her expense. Ten parishes opened charitable schools and later, at her request, charitable mistresses were sent to her lands far from Paris, to Guise and Liesse.
As the number of schools grew so did the need for teachers and catechists. Nicolas Barré called Marie Hayer to Paris to be in charge of the community in a rented house in rue Saint Maur, now known as rue de l’Abbé Grégoire. Marie had joined the Institute in 1676 and had already given proof of her ability and goodness. She is remembered now as the first ‘superior general’ of the Institute. Because they lived in this house in rue Saint Maur, and were not religious, they became known as the Ladies of Saint Maur. This house became a centre for their formation and spiritual and professional training.
A map of Paris dated 1696 shows this building in rue Saint Maur with many little schools dotted around the city. Trade schools had been added in which the older girls could learn a trade and be prepared to earn their own living.
Though teachers of poor children were not appreciated or respected in France at that time, the work of these schools was being noticed and supported by some influential people. Through her connections with Marie de Lorraine, Mme de Maintenon brought ‘the little schools’ to the attention of King Louis XIV. Having experienced poverty in her own childhood, Mme de Maintenon had founded a school for the children of the nobility who had fallen on hard times and for the many children orphaned by the wars of Louis XIV. She requested eight to fifteen teachers from the Institute to help train her own teachers, les Dames de Saint Louis, in the academy of Saint Cyr. This request was granted. The Sisters went to Saint Cyr in August 1686 and stayed there until 1694. Then, all of Nicolas Barré’s teachers, except one, returned to their own simple, apostolic lifestyle and the teaching of poorer children. This was a remarkable choice and showed that these women had indeed made their own the spirit of the young Institute.
In the meantime, for historical reasons, some of them were sent to the South of France to teach the Catholic faith to new converts from Protestantism. Certain characteristics of the young teachers were now well known and admired: their excellent educational methods, their love of people living in poverty, their ability to adapt, their flexibility in accommodating girls at the times most convenient for them. They were ready to travel long distances and work wherever they were called, often living away from the community for a long time. They were equally willing to leave a particular region or school when called elsewhere or no longer needed. They were not preoccupied about money or property, trusting in Divine Providence for all their needs. The flexibility of the Institute made it a wonder among women’s congregations. A letter written at the time by the Superior of the Seminary in Bourges called the Institute ‘a final work of grace in our time’.