Monday, January 18, 2010

SAINT MAGDELEINE and LIFE ON THE MARGINS

I'm currently doing research for a crime novel I'm writing set in Prague and Eastern Europe, a political thriller with religious overtones revolving around a gay teen love story. In the course of my research, I came across the remarkable story of this saintly marginalized Christian woman, Magdeleine Hutin, the founder (much to her surprise) of the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus, who are inspired by the witness of the great desert hermit, Blessed Charles de Foucauld. The Little Sisters for many years ministered to traveling Gypsy-Romany circuses and one of their sisters is currently a tight rope walker in Italy and is apparently quite famous. I'm surprised the Vatican has not fulminated against this woman for engaging in work not suitable to a religious. Apparently not.

From their website:


We are an international community founded in Algeria in 1939 by Magdeleine Hutin.  She was born in 1898 in a small village on the French-German border, the youngest of six children.  By 1925 she was the sole support of her mother, having lost the rest of her immediate family to war or illness.


Growing up along a border which was constantly in question and having been displaced by war, the pain of divisions left a deep imprint upon her spirituality.  Magdeleine wanted her life to somehow reach across that which separates people from one another, to be a sign of love to those who were rejected by others.
While she desired to be a religious, due to poor health none of the orders she knew of would accept her.


Magdeleine waited 20 years for some kind of sign that she should go to North Africa to follow in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld.


Her dreams were considered foolishness.  The hoped for sign finally came in the form of a potentially crippling bout of rheumatism when her doctor advised her to go somewhere where it never rained…



She immediately left for Algeria (1936) with her mother and one companion, Anne, who eventually left.  After two years of intense work, she asked to spend time in the novitiate of the Sisters of Africa (the White Sisters as they were known) where, at the urging of the Bishop, she wrote her Constitutions and made her first vows on Sept. 29, 1939.




In order to be able to visit the nomadic people who lived in tents outside of the villages, they asked their first friends in Algeria to teach them how to ride.  


As World War II was breaking out, Sr. Magdeleine was forced to return to France.  She used that time to share her dream with anyone who would listen to her.  Soon others began joining her.  It began as a small group geared only to presence among the nomads of the Sahara Desert and in the midst of Islam. Everything radically shifted in 1947 when she realized that this same form of contemplative presence could be lived anywhere. With the War over, more and more women began joining her.  She began traveling around the world defying the conventional wisdom that her dream was unrealistic.  Her "little sisters" would go wherever there was a handful of people or a group that was inaccessible in some way to other forms of Church presence.

 Serving tea to a Tuareg friend under the tent

Little sister Magdeleine was also clear that, although truly a contemplative vocation, she did not want to be cloistered in any way.  She had to struggle with those who did not find the life-style of ordinary poor people to be appropriate for religious life.  While many questioned the audacity and novelty of her vision she always acted with full knowledge of the Church.

Early nomad community in Algeria with “neighbors.”  

The “top” on their tent designated their belonging to the particular clan that “adopted” them.  

By the early 1950’s she began traveling extensively behind the "Iron Curtain" throughout the Cold War years and until a few months before her death.  She founded clandestine communities that have only recently been able to exist openly




Travelling in Prague in a modified van
which served as camper.

True to our nomadic roots litle sister Magdeleine also founded communities among migrant farm workers, gypsies, traveling circuses and carnival workers.



In Touggourt, Algeria with friends


Early community among gypsies.  



For 25 years we traveled with circus workers in the USA. Here they all join in praying a blessing over the tent at the beginning of season.  While we are not actually on the road right now, we are still in touch with these friends of many years and miles. 






Little Sister Magdeleine died in 1989 at the age of 91 after celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation and receiving the final approval of the Constitutions of the congregation that she never started out to found.  She is buried in Rome.   

"God took me by the hand and, blindly, I followed…
in what seemed the most total darkness, and in the most disconcerting absence of human means, but with unlimited trust in Jesus, Master of the Impossible."

                                                                                                   
l sr Magdeleine

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