St. Anne Marie Javouhey was responsible for the revival of Roman Catholic missions in Africa. The suppression of the Jesuits from 1773 to 1814, the ravages of the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars left the missions in a state of almost total collapse. These events occurred just before an explosive revitalization of religious orders, however, which resulted in a new missionary era that would parallel, and in many ways be part of, Western colonial expansion. Javouhey was the pioneer in this missionary movement at a critical juncture.
Javouhey was the daughter of a peasant family that hid priests who had refused to take the anticlerical oath of allegiance to the French Revolution. One of the priests encouraged her to pursue a religious life, and she left for the freedom of Switzerland to pursue her goal. With three companions, she began a community of sisters, which was formally founded in 1807 as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny.
The first St. Joseph mission was on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion (1817), but more important were the missions in Senegal (1819), where the sisters opened hospitals. Javouhey arrived in 1822 and discovered a struggling and demoralized church. She concluded that the evangelization of Africa had to be indigenous and set to work developing African leadership. Her first attempt was to found a Christian village, but this effort failed after an epidemic. At the invitation of the British governor, Javouhey reorganized the hospitals of the Gambia and Sierra Leone, an achievement that helped her refine her goals of church Africanization. She returned to France to arrange for Africans to be sent to France for education - some as priests, others as teachers. The first went in 1825, and by 1840 three Senegalese priests had been ordained.
Javouhey then founded a seminary in Senegal and established an interracial religious order, which was open to both French and African candidates. At first the seminary prospered, and by 1833 there were six priests and nine seminarians, along with a group preparing to be religious brothers. Africanization, however, threatened the missionary authorities, and the local bishop opposed her plan. After a tuberculosis epidemic, the project collapsed. Her most enduring effort was the direction she gave to a struggling new community, the Holy Spirit Fathers. Due to her interventions, they regrouped and went on to become a major instrument in African Catholic missions.
Javouhey was also involved in the antislavery movement, and in 1828 she set sail for French Guiana, the site of her most remarkable achievement: a self-supporting colony of freed salves. She was largely responsible for emancipation in that colony. In all her efforts Javouhey faced considerable opposition, both because of her opposition to slavery and because she was a woman. One French bishop attempted to take over direction of the congregation, and the clergy in Guiana refused her the sacraments for almost two years, which was a terrible rebuke at that time. She outlasted all her adversaries, and at her death, more than 300 of her sisters were in mission territories, primarily in Africa.
In 1950 she was beatified by the Catholic Church. Her feast day is observed on 15 July. In Senegal she is especially remembered, and her home on Gorée Island, a short distance from the former slave pens, is maintained as an antislavery memorial.
Norbert C. Brockman
- Correction from “canonized (1961)” to “beatified (1950).” Source: email message dated 1/23/2019 from Sister Marie Cooper, SJC, Javouhey House, Newport, RI, USA.
- Correction from “colony” to “congregation.” Source: email message dated 1/23/2019 from Sister Marie Cooper, SJC, Javouhey House, Newport, RI, USA.
Martindale, C. C. Life of Mère Marie Javouhey (1953).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.