Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Nameday, Sophia!: Feast of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat

As the only St. Sophia is thought to be merely a legendary archetype and not a real person, our Sophia's patron saint is Madeleine Sophie Barat. From childhood, this saint actually went by the name of Sophie, since her mother was also named Madeleine.

Born in Burgundy in 1779, Madeleine Sophie was the youngest child of Jacques and Madeleine Barat. She was baptized the day after her birth, and her brother Louis was chosen to be her godfather. Louis noticed that Sophie had been gifted with a brilliant mind by our Lord. A seminarian professor himself, Louis taught his eager sister all he could, though she was still a child. She devoured whatever he presented her with and by the time she was a young woman had mastered Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, history, and natural science, surpassing Louis' students in her studies.

Louis knew and cherished his sister's heart as much as her mind, and once the Reign of Terror was ended, he summoned her to join him in Paris where he began training her for the religious life: her heart's deepest desire. Here, Sophie met her destiny. For many years, a priest named Fr. Varin had been searching for women to form a new society of sisters devoted wholly to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to prayer and sacrifice, and to the education of young girls. When he met twenty-year-old Sophie, Fr. Varin knew he had found one of these woman he had been praying for. Though she was retiring and unambitious, Sophie knew at once that this society of sisters would be the answer to the deep prayers of her own heart, and she yielded to Fr. Varin's authority and wisdom. With three other companions, she took her first vows on November 21, 1800, which also marks the founding date of her new society, the Society of the Sacred Heart. The Society opened its first convent in September of the following year, and in June 1802, Sophie took her final vows.

The community surrounding Sophie and her sisters became exceedingly popular, and a second "poor" school was opened in 1802. At that time, Fr. Varin was informed that the mother superior had some serious short-comings, and she was removed and Sophie, though the youngest member, was made superior. Her first act was to kneel and kiss the feet of each of her sisters. Mother Sophie was noted for her humility and love, and the Society flourished under her guidance. Eighty different communities were opened up during her reign as superior, including some in the New World, and over all these, Sophie was named superior-general.

In 1821, Mother Sophie called a meeting of all the superiors of the satellite schools in order to create a unified curriculum. She determined that the studies needed to be solid and serious, to fit the pupils to become intelligent wives and devoted mother, to cultivate not only the mind but also the character of true women. Under and over all the studies was to be a foundation of strong religious principles and devotion to the Sacred Heart. Mother Sophie guided her flock carefully for forty years, securing solid approbation for the society from the Vatican, travelling from convent to convent, and writing thousands of letters to ensure that the original spirit of the society remained in tact. Mother Sophie also founded the Congregation for the Children of Mary to minister to former pupils and other ladies.

Though St. Madeleine Sophie was intelligent, charming, intuitive, and skilled, she never relied on any of these qualities in her life or ministry. Instead, like Our Lord, she spent much time in seclusion and prayer, withdrawing herself from society whenever she could to be alone with God and to draw the strength and wisdom she needed from Him alone. The more demands were made on her time and talents, the more she retreated in prayer and grew in holiness. After a brief illness, Mother Sophie died in Paris on Ascension Thursday, 1865. She was declared Venerable in 1879 and was canonized in 1925.

Sophia (or Sophie) means wisdom, and it is clear that this saint was endowed with the gift her name bore. The most marvelous thing about St. Madeline Sophie's wisdom, however, was not her intellect but her devotion to God, the fountain of all true knowledge and Wisdom Itself! I pray that my daughter, like her namesake, will be not only intelligent but truly wise, devoted to her Lord, and fulfilled in a life of service to Him.

This year, with the baby's due date on the 24th (the day before St. Madeleine Sophie's feastday) and Memorial Day being on the actual feastday, and frankly, with Sophia being so young, we didn't really plan anything to celebrate, but I hope that we will in future years. For the time being, I have just enjoyed learning more about this wonderful saint whose prayers, I am sure, will enrich my daughter's life.


  1. Did you name your daughter after her, or found out about St Sophie afterword?

  2. Cindy- I fell in love with the name Sophia before I knew about St. Madeline Sophie. We actually named our Sophia for the book of Proverbs, which speaks of God's Wisdom (often personified in the Holy Spirit) as "Sophia" in the Greek. But, I did research if there were any patron saints by that name, as well. My name (Bethany) has no patron by that exact name, either, but I adopted St. Elizabeth of Hungary as my patron when I was a little girl, as her name is similar to mine.

  3. If you could ever find the time, would you mind elaborating about "archetypal" saints? I find this topic really interesting and I would *love* to hear a real, genuine Catholic perspective on it! I love it when you write on religious topics, so I know you would do the subject justice.


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