Mother Josephine Potel
Sister Mary Joseph
"Great energy and extreme goodness were well blended in her person and her refined and charming manner were the response and expression of her moral qualities"
First Superior General
Congregation of BON SECOURS of PARIS
The story of these humble beginnings could be summarized in three words: humility, poverty and charity. Thus the roots of this new Congregation were planted in the fruitful soil of the virtues which are the Religious Order's source of life. The house on Rue de Cassette was truly a Bethlehem. Many inconveniences and hardships awaited them on their return after the fatigue and work of the day, but God's love and charity motivated them and made these burdens easier to bear.
Under such conditions it is not surprising that the Sisters' work was a real apostolate. Soon the world began to understand this too, and, whenever there were sick to be nursed or patients to be prepared for death, their presence was requested. (p.14)
The great day arrived! Divine Providence brought the small band of chosen souls to port at last. They had waited impatiently for so many months to begin their religious life; and now, it was opened before them........The aspirants ...presented themselves at St. Sulpice on the 24th of January, 1824 ..... ( p.19)
Josephine Potel, aged twenty-five, received the name of Sister Mary Joseph and was made Superior General.
Jeanne Letellier, aged twenty-three, received the name of Sister St. Anne and was named the Assistant.
Delphine Fouché, aged twenty-three, was called Sister St. Francois and was chosen as mistress of novices.
Victoire Langlois, aged twenty-one, Sister St. Ignace.
Marie Lheureux, aged twenty-two, Sister St. Hyacinthe.
Anne Deronel, aged twenty-three, Sister St. Sulpice
Madeline Galau, aged thirty-three, Sister St. John of God.
Virginie Hénon, aged twenty, Sister St. Vincent.
Marianne Bouthor, aged twenty-six, Sister St. Marthe.
Félicité Thirial, aged twenty-three, Sister St. Camille.
Thérèse Moyencourt, aged twenty-nine, Sister St. Thérèse.
Madeleine d'Ablincourt,aged twenty-two, Sister St. Stanislas. (p. 21)
The Government of Mother Potel - 1821 - 1826
Very little is known about this first Superior General, except that she assumed the heavy responsibility of the new foundation. The fact that Archbishop de Quelen chose her permits us to assume that she was capable of that heavy task. Her companions unanimously state that great energy and extreme goodness were well blended in her person and that her refined and charming manner were the response and expression of her moral qualities.
Once they were officially recognized, the Sisters left the apartment which they had occupied on Rue Cassette and rented a small house on Rue Notre Dame des Champs where they were more independent and better situated to lead a community life. Postulants were not long in coming and Mother Potel received them with open arms. Each request for admission brought tears of joy to her eyes, to which she added the anguished cry: "My poor children, I have no beds for you to sleep in." (p.23)
Indeed, the community was in great need, but, when you intend to make a vow of poverty, a little obstacle like that does not stop you; so, they willingly stretched out on mattresses on the floor. Everything was shared equally but necessities were often lacking. Thus, when one sister came home from nursing, she took off her dress to give it to another who was getting ready to go on duty. Now, a small detail that speaks for itself. In the evening after a hard day's work they were content to have some coarse bread, soup, and apple and a few nuts for their main meal. Those pious women, still filled with the first ardor of their calling, generously accepted all privations. (p.24)
These trials, for the most part, were mere trifles when compared with the opposition which was initiated against the Sisters, in spite of the welcome they received from the families and the esteem in which they were held. This conflict arose from the wise and prudent of this world 19 who judged that the work which had been undertaken was inappropriate, and they created a thousand objections. (p.24)
In spite of these contrary opinions, however, the community had grown visibly by the end of the first year and numbered some thirty members. There were as many postulants as there were novices and professed. So, once again, it was necessary to look for a larger house and one was found at 7 Rue cassette. The structural arrangement of this house lent itself to the installation of a chapel within its walls. Archbishop de Quelen quickly gave authorization for it and the Fathers of the Foreign Missions supplied their services. At any hour of the day the Sisters could go into this Oratory to find light and consolation and this was a great grace for them. How could they lack strength when they were so close to the Source of life? During those first years, Father de Pierre's and Father Desjardins' understanding, devotion and concern were another wellspring of reassurance. (p.24)
He sustained Mother Potel during her short but painful Calvary and, thanks to him, she was able to die in peace for she knew that her Sisters would not be abandoned. He also perceived and appreciated Mère Geay's eminent qualities and guided her first steps along her thorn strewn path..... (p.24)
It was not long, indeed, before a crushing trial fell in the Congregation. Little by little the valiant and generous Mother Potel felt her strength diminish. In spite of Dr. Recamier's dedication and the best care which was provided for her, she soon had to yield to the symptoms, recognize that she had tuberculosis and that its fatal outcome was certain. Her Sisters attributed her premature death to the excessive privations and mortifications which she had imposed on herself for the success of her work, and which had exhausted her before her time. (p.26)
It is not hard to imagine the keenness of the pain which this soul generously gave to God when she fully understood the sacrifice that was being asked of her. Everything she had dreamed of gave way beneath her. What would become of the newly born Congregation? What would the future hold? What responsibilities in the here and now! How could the Reverend Mother hold the reins of government and fortify her Sisters against laxity if she was paralyzed by illness? All of these thoughts tortured the poor Mother and her repeated acts of complete submission to God's will were her only source of strength. (p.26)
When two of the first Sisters left the Community it was a great trial for Mother Potel. These departures, which brought to mind the young man in the Gospel whom Jesus looked upon but could not hold,20 only served to strengthen the bonds among the remaining Sisters. (p.27)
During the year 1825 Mother received some consolation for this great trial. It has already been noted that, even before the Nursing Sisters received legal recognition, they had been requested from many sides to establish a house in the provinces. A request of this type was renewed after the Sisters' profession. It had been made by a noble and pious Christian from Lille, the Countess d'Espel, and Mother Potel believed that it was their duty to seriously consider it this time. (p.27)
Thus, in the midst of her tribulations the Superior General was consoled by realizing that the Divine Master wanted her daughters' services not only for the relief of the sick but also for the instruction of the dearest part of His flock, the children. Indeed, the Municipality of Lille would not accept the foundation of Nursing Sisters except on condition that they also take charge of several free classes; (p.27)
The conditions imposed by the Municipal Council were accepted, and four Sisters went to Lille to carry out the work that had been requested; they had been chosen with careful discernment by Mother Potel. This was the first branch on the trunk of the tree and it was to produce abundant fruit. (p.28)
The religious who were sent to that foundation found the poverty of the Mother House there. Mother Potel had given them the example of habitual mortification and they were well able to put it into practice. (p.28)
The Superior General's strength was diminishing more and more; she calmly watched her own end approaching but was more anxious for the future of the Congregation. In spite of his many occupations, Father Desjardins came to visit her quite often. One day, in the spring of 1826, as she was pouring out her troubles to him, he was inspired to ask her if she saw anyone among her Sisters who was capable of replacing her. (p.28)
Mother Potel was very clear-sighted and stated that there was only one Sister who appeared to be capable of bearing the burden of government, Marie Angélique Geay, in religion Sister St. Antoine. She was a young novice who had not yet completed her year of novitiate. Father Desjardins already had had the occasion to become aware of the novice's abilities because he had entrusted her with a very delicate mission during the last months of 1825. She went to Montmorillon because a request had been made and it was believed that some Sisters could be sent there to make a foundation. The petition, however, had come from persons who were more zealous than prudent. Sister had to either establish them as a regular community or bring them back to the Mother House. (p.28)
The wisdom and charity which Sister St. Antoine displayed on the occasion did not escape Father Desjardins' notice. The circumstances required her qualities as well as the devotion and zeal which filled her soul. His characteristically keen perception enabled him to understand that Mother Potel was not mistaken in her judgement of Sister St. Antoine. He arranged to have an interview with Sister, assured himself that her interior dispositions corresponded with the faculties of her mind, and then, without any preamble, he said to her. "Sister, you will begin your retreat because you will pronounce your vows in eight days. Prepare yourself to be named Superior" (p. 29)
In the peace of complete acquiescence Sister St. Antoine began and finished her retreat and on May 5, 1826 she pronounced her vows. Her profession was not the occasion of one of those solemnities which resemble a triumph whose splendor eases the sacrifice. Affliction presided at the marriage feast and there were only tears to celebrate Mère Geay's entrance into the army of consecrated women. Mother Potel was failing rapidly and the next day, May 6, after offering her life for the work to which she had dedicated herself, she quietly gave her soul to God. (p.30)
We have not been able to obtain the details of her last moments because the writings which concerned the first years of the Congregation disappeared during the political upheavals which took place since then. In order to render homage to the memory of the first Superior General of Bon Secours we can only transcribe the words written to us not long ago by Mother Mary Joseph who presently holds the post: "Good Mother Potel was like a victim placed at the base of the Institute and before it, in order to assure its existence by a premature sacrifice" of her life (p.31)
The Sisters, who were present when she died, had both felt and understood the meaning of her last sigh. They were in tears and at a loss as how to worthily revere their first Mother, so they offered her this naive and touching homage. They dressed her in the religious habit and then placed her in a wicker armchair in the center of their simple oratory. This memory has remained alive in Bon Secours. When a Superior general is elected, she is seated in this little armchair and receives the homage and submission from her Sisters. (p.31)
The mortal remains of Mother Potel were buried in the cemetery at Montparnasse on the 9th May. The same day, Archbishop de Quelen delegated Fathers Desjardins and de Pierre to appoint, in his name, Sister Marie Angélique Geay as Superior General of the Sisters of Bon Secours. According to the Archbishop's desire, the Sisters' votes were not collected. At that time they numbered twenty-eight professed Sisters and ten novices. As explained in the statutes, Sister Geay took the name of Mother Mary Joseph, which name was thereafter taken by all of the Superiors General. (p.31)