November 29, 2015, marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Sister Mary of St. Francis. For 46 years she was the Mother Superior (Ancilla – the Handmaid) of the convent of Sisters of Annunciade in Thiais (France).
Her life gives us a beautiful example of obedience to the will of God through faithful service to the Merciful Savior…
Vincennes! (City near Paris)
Susan, the daughter of Anna and Joseph Siraudeau, was born August 13, 1911. The young couple lived in the city’s northeastern district.
Susan was a sensitive child, who had a happy childhood in the bosom of her family (“My parents surrounded me with tender love, but they had to have a lot of patience with me, since as a baby I cried often, for no apparent reason”). Thus, she was nicknamed “Little Wellspring.”
In 1913, Susan’s brother Albert was born. Susan – until then the only child – regarded the birth of her brother as an “unwanted competition.” She thus recalled the incident: „My mother was troubled when she noticed my attitude, and she said to me: ‘Look how beautiful your baby brother is!’ But I looked at him without love and replied: „He is ugly, that’s what he is!’ My poor mother could not believe her ears; she was shocked by my words. But all this was soon forgotten for my baby brother and I shortly became close.”
In 1921, Susan’s sister Magdalene was born; the two sisters were always devoted to each other. “The whole family was closely-knit: we loved each other, and the happiness reigned.”
Susan’s grasp of the value of loving and being loved bore fruit when she became Mother Mary of St. Francis: she had a gift of sharing it with others throughout her entire life. Everyone who met her was amazed and charmed by her gaze, which was penetrating and filled with “light.” Whence did her eyes acquire this light?
World War I broke out when Susan was 3. To keep her away from danger, her mother sent her to stay with an aunt who lived in the town of Sens. It was there that Susan first encountered God and discovered the mystery of Christ.
Susan’s cousin, Roger did not want to go to school without her. Although she was not willing to accompany him, she went along nonetheless. This is what she recalled: “The school was run by very humble nuns radiating love who frequently talked about Christ. Sometimes one of the sisters would show us an illustrated book about the life of Christ. When I came to school they showed colorful pictures of the sorrowful Way of the Cross. I opened my eyes wide, because I never saw before the Suffering Jesus. From this blessed day I secretly stayed with Him and tried to console Him in the simplicity of child’s heart. “I secretly stayed with Him,” and she gave witness with great simplicity about the presence of Jesus, who lived in the depths of her heart.
After a few months spent with cousins, she returned home at the request of a suffering mother. My aunt brought her back and left her in Vincennes for some time. Her father and uncle were still fighting the war.
„I have often seen my Mom or the aunt crying, and I would always say, deeply trusting in Jesus: ‘Do not cry; I will pray the Rosary,’ and I would immediately start praying fervently. This gave them confidence, they believed in it, and I believed even more. Jesus could not help but to protect us, because I pleaded Him with great confidence.”
Susan went to school in Vincennes, but her brother Albert went to school run by the Franciscans in Fontenay-sous-Bois.
As Susan reflected on her life, she decided to enroll into a trade school, where –according to her mother’s will – she began learning to sew. But she did not like this occupation. She failed the exam and chose to learn the artistic embroidery. This was entirely in tune with her skills. Susan was a joyful student learning a trade she liked. She also was a beautiful maiden, elegantly dressed, but who always remained a devout Christian above all, active in her parish. She grew up among people of deep faith. She worked extensively in the Association “Eucharistic Crusade” and was in charge of a group of boys, two out of which have become priests in the diocese of Créteil. Sixteen-year-old Susan closely united with Christ was drawn by yet another gaze – this of Mary.
She went by train to the Lourdes Shrine; getting near the Grotto she looked out the window. Later she said: “I felt such a wonderful inner shock: the contact with grace. Mary knocked directly at the door of my heart … When I saw her, something happened: we were looking straight at each other. After returning from Lourdes I was different – Mary was still standing before my eyes. My friends were surprised and kept asking what had happened to me. This was my secret: I saw and met the Mother of God.”
Susan subsequently graduated and started looking for work. Yet, the problems of everyday life did not overshadow the Lourdes experience. In her heart, she kept the ideal of life, which remained a secret to those around her. She was asking herself: what was she going to do in life? Revisiting Christ shed in the light. She recalled: “One evening, having long searched for answers about her vocation, I was going back home with a persistent question: who could make me forever happy? My gaze fell on a picture on the wall; it was the image of the Suffering Christ. As I kept asking again and again ‘who would that be?’ it seemed as if Jesus answered: ‘It is I.’ And I immediately knew it. At once, I wanted to give Jesus all my life. With this ‘double’ gaze Mary led me to Christ.” She wanted to be a Sister of St. Claire. She talked about it with her spiritual director, who was the Provincial Superior of the Franciscans. He suggested applying for the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the Order of the Annunciade Sisters. He knew well this Order, which was spiritually united with the Franciscan Family.
In 1929, Susanna went to the Annunciade Sisters. Later she recollected: “I arrived at the monastery in a state of anxiety; I met with Mother Mary Emmanuel, who looked young, was full of life and very intelligent. For the first time I was able to talk freely about what was going on in my heart. On my way back I realized that this encounter with the Mother was a sign that I had to join the Annunciade Sisters.”
A year later, Susan decided to enter the monastery; it was on the morrow of her 19th birthday – August 14, 1930. Already then she knew that the life would not be easy, but she was convinced that she responded to God’s call to give Him everything, to offer her own self.
Her first few weeks were very difficult. Mother Mary Emmanuel fell ill and did not attend the ceremony of Susan’s entrance into the convent. Only a few days later she met with the Mother Superior [called Ancelle or the Handmaid], who told her: “This is the first time that I meet a postulant already eight days past her admission. How are you doing?” Feeling somewhat uneasy, Susan replied: I don’t like sewing or cleaning or working in the garden … I only like the Mass. “That’s already something,” replied the Mother Superior, and continuing her walk, she added: “Trust in Mary, Sister.”
Life passed in poverty and toil. Mother Mary Emmanuel wanted the Annunciade Sisters to walk the narrow path of the Gospel out of love for Christ and in the example of Mary. Sister Susan could not wait for the day of investiture… The Novice Mistress’ report stated: “Meeting a postulant so open to the spirituality of the Order is rare. Sister Susan understands this spirituality very well and strives to deep it.”
Ceremony of investiture was held on March 19, 1931 – the solemnity of St. Joseph. Susan – endowed with simplicity, discretion, diligence, and dedication – performed all the entrusted tasks. She drew strength and fortitude from her unconditional love for Christ and the intimacy with Mary. As a year passed, on April 26, 1932, she made her first vows, and on May 24, 1935, Sister Mary of St. Francis dedicated herself entirely to Christ through her final vows. She had only one desire: that of living in clandestine, living in God.
September 1, 1939 saw the outbreak of World War II. The community of Annunciade Sisters struggled with the difficulties of war. Sister Mary of St. Francis recalled: “It seemed that a different life began for us. All our strength would be in our faithfulness to God; we immersed ourselves in prayer.” Due to the seriousness of circumstances, Mother Mary Emmanuel decided to move the entire community away from Paris; six Sisters went to Orne in Normandy, and the others to the convent of the Annunciade Sisters in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Among the latter was also Sister Mary of St. Francis. In December 1939, almost all the sisters returned to Thiais to elect a new Sister-Assistant, which was Sister Mary of St. Francis.
In 1940, the war continued to spread throughout the world. Sister Mary’s baby brother Albert, who upon joining the Franciscan Order took the name of Brother Gabriel Mary, was killed on the battlefield. This was very painful for Sister Mary of St. Francis and her entire family.
Times were hard; getting food was difficult, yet the sisterly love reigned in the convent, there was each sister tried to bring joy to others. Sisters passionately prayed for peace for the whole world and offered their sufferings to God. Sister Mary of St. Francis was submitted to another test. In 1943, as the assistant to Mother Mary Emmanuel she was occupied with many various matters. Mother Mary Emmanuel, of poor health and nearly blind, wanted her assistant to be her private secretary. Before Mother Mary Emmanuel entrusted the task to Sr. Mary of St. Francis, she asked her to resign from her office of the Assistant. Not knowing the Mother’s intentions, Sister Mary of St. Francis suffered because of this request. Yet, being of great faith, she accepted without saying anything.
After the war, the Sisters moved from the house called “Maison Rose” to some larger quarters in the district of Grignon.
In 1950, five Annunciade Sisters from Thiais –Sr. Mary of St. Francis among them – participated in the ceremony of canonization of St. Joan de Valois in Rome.
On September 12, 1950, Sr. Mary of St. Francis was elected the Mother Superior – Mother Ancelle; she was 39 years of age. From that day on, for 46 years her life had been given to serving the Sisters. The circumstances weren’t always propitious; and she had to work on the unity of the community. She was convinced that God blessed personal renunciation and sacrifice for the sake of peace in the community. Mother Mary of St. Francis has made every possible effort to preserve the unity. She treated the former Mother Superior with tact and gentleness and listened to her opinion and advice. A true friendship was established between the new and the previous superior, while the sisterly love ruled the monastery. Mother Mary Emmanuel died in 1957. Mother Mary of St. Francis wrote: “Unity is what we need above all.” And she worked for it all the time both in her community and the entire Order. Cardinal Feltin helped her in decision-making.
Mother Mary of St. Francis unhesitatingly traveled to different Annunciade monasteries in Belgium and England. She was also able to establish deeper ties with the apostolic Annunciade Sisters in Belgium. She was aware that the unity wasn’t possible without struggle; she wrote: “Our Order needs prayer, because Satan wants to destroy it for it is the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let us be humble and gentle of heart in the example of St. Joan. Let our life and our joy flow from our close and constant intimacy with Jesus.” During her absence from the monastery in Thiais, she strove to be spiritually close to the Sisters by writing to them words of encouragement, full of wisdom and love.
In July 1961 she visited the monastery in England (this monastery was closed in 1976). She wanted to give herself entirely to Christ in everything. She always sought the will of God, was obedient to the Church, trusting the priests, whom God put on her road.
Just like every other Order before the Vatican II, the Annunciade Sisters revised their Constitution. Accordingly, all houses had to choose one version, which caused lively discussions within the communities. After the war the Annunciade Sisters had numerous vocations, and for this reason Mother Mary of St. Francis decided to create a foundation in Normandy. The new monastery was founded in Brucourt, in 1975. In September of that year Cardinal Feltin died. All the Sisters greatly felt the loss: he was like a father to them. Afterwards, Mother Mary of St. Francis had the support of Bishop de Provenchères of the Diocese of Créteil, who was very close to the Annunciade Sisters until his death.
In 1976, Mother Mary of St. Francis assisted the Sisters from the convent in England prior to its closing and then helped them moving to Thiais. Thanks to her love and kindness, the Sisters quickly adjusted to their new community. Another monastery – in Villeneuve-sur-Lot – awaited Mother Mary of St. Francis’ help in 1977, when it suffered from the lack of new vocations; seven Sisters from Thiais were sent there to help.
The hour has come for the Barteu foundation in the south of France, and Mother Mary of St. Francis long prayed and pondered before making a decision. She entrusted everything to the Mother of God. In January 1980, six Sisters went to Barteu in Provence …
Each foundation demanded Mother Mary of St. Francis’ many visits, efforts, and self-sacrifice in assisting the Sisters with settling down at the new facilities. Although some of the Sisters were living now in other convents away from Thiais, Mother Mary of St. Francis’ love of each one of them was unchanged. She would say: “What a joy to see again the beloved faces!” In July 1985, the Order was offered a chance for a new foundation in St. Doulchard, next Bourges. The Annunciade Sisters much longed to establish a new monastery at the place where their Order was founded by St. Joan de Valois … Mother Mary of St. Francis put a lot of effort into the organization of this monastery. In July 1988, six Sisters from Thiais went to the new foundation in St. Doulchard.
During her many years in the office of the Superior, Mother Mary of St. Francis strove to spread St. Joan’s spirituality – the most important point of which Rule was to “please Christ in everything” – and her message of fraternal love. She also managed to balance out her activities (the numerous duties she had to carry out) and contemplation (fervent love for Christ). Her secret was her frequent and profound gazing at Mary! She used to say: “Our only goal is to please Christ, let us live out everything in this spirit; intimacy with Christ allows us to participate in His work of salvation.” She always kept in her breviary the image of Crucified Jesus with the inscription: “All for You – my life for You.” Her vocation “to please Christ in the example of Mary,” meant loving Christ with great solicitude as Mary did; it meant living a life full of tenderness for Christ and compassion for everyone.
In life, Mother Mary of St. Francis was guided by the double regard for Jesus and Mary. She went forth among joys and difficulties, always drawing strength from the love of Christ. She used to say: “I belong entirely to Mary. The more we repeat these words in the depth of our heart the more profoundly we live them out.” Everyone who met Mother Mary of St. Francis was impressed by her dynamism, the energy emanating from her entire person. Although she did not enjoy good health she strove to forget herself and to accomplish more and more. She used to say: “We do not believe enough, so let’s gain strength by gazing at Mary.” She owed her decision-making ability to and firmness to gazing at Mary, because by nature she was unsure of herself, even a little prone to anxiety. Unwavering faith in Christ drove her forward; she never doubted His help. We often heard her saying: “I’m going to tell Jesus about it.” Her internal gaze at Jesus and Mary transformed her own outlook. A certain witness said that her gaze became that of Mary.
Mother Mary of St. Francis would not allow any “cloud” to overshadow her relationship with any of the Sisters. Sometimes she was too „brisk,” and her first reaction wasn’t appropriate, but she would immediately regret it and offer her apology. She could not go to Mass without reconciling with the Sisters. She always managed to extricate the Sisters out of trouble, to justify, comfort, and bestow them with renewed confidence.
After 46 years in the office, Mother Mary of St. Francis, aged 85, made an important decision about herself and the community in Thiais. In consultation with the bishop, she asked not to be re-elected as the Mother Superior. In October 1996, Sister Mary of Christ has been the Mother Ancelle [the Handmaid]. Bishop Frétellière gracefully allowed Mother Mary of St. Francis retaining her privileged place not only in the community in Thiais, but in the entire Order. Mother Mary of St. Francis always remained discreet and her relationship with the new Mother Superior was always profound and very good. For the Sisters and the „new” Mother Superior Mother Mary of St. Francis always remained a model and “true spiritual Mother.” So many times we went knocking at her door in search of her for advice … and we always went away spiritually fortified and soothed.
In December 1998, Mother Mary of St. Francis “accidentally” came across a newspaper article about the “Annunciade” monastery in Menton, which belonged to the Capuchin Fathers, being for sale. She showed this article to Mother Mary of Christ … and that was the beginning of a new foundation – the monastery in Menton. In February 2000, four Annunciade Sisters went living there.
In spite of the passing of time, Mother Mary of St. Francis stayed very energetic and open to innovations of our time, for example she enjoyed a new means of communication – the Internet.
For the Annunciade Sisters the year 2002 was a jubilee year for it marked the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Order. Several jubilee-related events took place during that year, and Mother Mary of St. Francis participated in a symposium at the Catholic University in Paris and visited the cathedral of Bourges.
In September 2003, Mother Mary of St. Francis entered into a long period of suffering, her own “Way of the Cross.” She was ready for this experience. One day she said to Mother Mary of Christ: “Jesus warned me that I would have troubles, but I’ll have to offer them to the Lord God.” Like Mary, remained a disciple of Christ, up to the cross, which she accepted by saying “Yes” to Christ. Despite all, she continued to participate as far as possible in the liturgical prayer and community life. But a nagging thought about “returning to her own monastery” kept coming back to her as if she felt like a stranger in a convent in Thiais. One day she asked Mother Mary of Christ: “Why won’t you let me to go back to my monastery?” The question clearly signaled her trouble in recognizing the reality of her situation. The whole community surrounded her with sisterly love, while she, despite her suffering, always remained full of goodness, and suffered … in silence.
In July 2004, Mother Mary of St. Francis’s health worsened, she suffered a heart attack. For 16 months before her death, the Sisters from the community in Thiais stayed at her side day and night as she lived out her Calvary. One day in the oratory Mother Mary of St. Francis said: “I no longer know who I am,” and these words betrayed the great weight she carried. However, she kept her gaze of faith on Jesus Crucified, and she uttered these words testifying to her trust in Christ: “Sister, I must accept it all, because it was just as God willed.”
At the beginning of 2005, Mother Mary of St. Francis lost her speech and was slowly approaching death. In the last days of earthly life she had her eyes fixed almost all the time on the crucifix (the Cross from the Church of St. Damian) hanging by her bed. She was totally united with Him, whom she discovered at the age of five when she saw the suffering Jesus in a picture book at school, and she suffered with Jesus. She looked at the surrounding Sisters, offering them her gaze full of light. It was her last farewell, on November 29, 2005, the feast of All Saints of the Franciscan Order, her eyes opened to the incomparable light of the One, whom she so much loved during her stay on earth.