The History of the Sisters of St. Louis
The Institute of St. Louis owes its origin to three people, two priests and a laywoman: Joseph Louis Colmar (1760-1818), Marie Madeleine Louise Humann (1766-1836) and Louis Marie Eugene Bautain (1796-1867). They were all French and lived through one of the most troubled periods in French history. Louis Colmar and Louis Humann experienced the turmoil of the Revolution; Louis Bautain – the Founder of the Institute – was born during the Revolution and grew up in the trouble years that followed.
All three had one shared ideal: to bring back the society of their time to the truths and practice of the Christian faith. Even before the Revolution the faith of many French men and women had been undermined by influential writers and philosophers; they therefore saw the need for a solid Christian formation in tune with the spirit of their times and they devoted their lives and talents to restoring the Church. During the difficult years of the Revolution Louis Colmar and Louise Humann worked in Strasbourg, and later in Mainz in Germany when Louis Colmar was bishop (1802-1818). Louis Bautain in his turn took up the work consecrating his life to Christ and the Church as “an instrument and herald of the truth among people.” (Chrétienne de Nos Jours, Vol 2, p. 384).
Louis Bautain had met Louise Humann after her return to Strasbourg in 1819. A young professor of philosophy, he had been searching for the truth and under her guidance had returned to the Church. Such was the influence of his teaching that a group of his students gathered around him. This group formed themselves into a spiritual family looking to Louise Humann as their spiritual mother. For a number of years she was their spiritual directress, forming them in the Christian life and mission as Louis Colmar had formed her, and later on encouraging them in their vocations to the priesthood.
During this time (Spring 1841) they were joined by Clemence Baronne de Vaux, a society lady who at the age of 29 had experienced a call to conversion and ever since then had dedicated herself to living a more serious Christian life, to working for the poor, helping prisoners and seeking justice for those who had no one to help them. It was this woman whom Louis Bautain chose as first Superior of the Dames de Saint-Louis when in 1842 he established the double Institute of Saint Louis in Juilly.
The new Institute had grown out of the spiritual family of Strasbourg; the Constitutions drawn up for it reflected this heritage and centred around the phrase ‘”Sint Unum – May they be one” taken from Our Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper (John 17:22). Louis Colmar had chosen this phrase as his watchword. It was central to the Pact he made with Louis Humann in 1797 and has remained central to each successive re-writing of the Constitutions of the Institute. “Sint Unum” profoundly influenced Louis Bautain’s vision of a world made one in truth and it was the expression of his hopes for what the new Institute would be and do.
“All that I might recommend to you dear brothers,” (Louis Bautain wrote to the Fathers of St Louis in Rome in October 1844), “can be reduced to a single injunction and that is … Sint Unum … (it) should be the thought of all our thoughts, the will of all our wills, the soul of all our actions.”
The double Institute of St Louis received provisional approval from Rome in July 1844, but by 1850 the Fathers had formally disbanded and only the Sisters remained. Numbers increased and within a few years the community included Sisters from Ireland. New works were developed and new houses opened and in 1859 the first Irish foundation was made: in Monaghan in the Diocese of Clogher. The leader chosen for this foundation was Sister Genevieve Beale, an English convert from Quakerism. The foundation took root but two years later (1861) was obliged to cut its formal links with Juilly because the Bishop of Clogher did not wish Monaghan to be governed from France. Consequently, the Irish and French branches of the society became separate institutes and developed separately, though for many years their rules remained almost identical.
Both Institutes prospered: the Irish Institute with Monaghan as its Motherhouse spread over many parts of Ireland and later into England (1912) and after World War II into West Africa and the United States – Ghana 1947, Nigeria 1948, California 1949 and in 1977 this latter Region made a foundation in Brazil. Juilly made many foundations, mainly in the diocese of Meaux and in the Paris area; in 1903 the first Belgian foundation was made and in the 1930’s a few small houses were opened in the south of France. But by the end of the 1939-45 war, the decline in numbers had become serious and in 1950 the French Institute asked for amalgamation which was granted by Rome in December 1952.
The amalgamation gave the French branch of the St Louis family the hopes of a future. To the Irish branch it gave greater access to its rich French heritage to that together they might continue the work of their spiritual ancestors and of Louis Bautain, their founder.