Mother Francis Xavier Marchand
Our Foundress 1862 – 1878
Zelie Marchand foundress of Jaffna Convent in 1862 was born in Bordeaux on the 6th December 1822 to Christian and virtuous parents. At an early age she manifested a precocity far above her age, a love of piety and special attraction for the practice of virtue. The loving and firm education given by her mother oriented her towards things good and beautiful. She acquired a strong faith and unusual strength of will which enabled her to find joy in duty accomplished and never shirked any sacrifice demanded of her generosity. Austerity and self-renunciation became the basis of her character.
As a young girl she was popular for her amiable and serious character and fulfilled the various missions entrusted to her so well that she won the confidence of the people. One lady was so struck by her outstanding qualities that she conceived the idea of arranging an advantageous marriage but this met strong resistance from her. Zelie realized that the revulsion she felt for marriage awakened her to things of God. Her only obstacle to answer the call was a the great love for her parents and she was determined to overcome this love. With the help and consent of her good parents she entered the Novitiate of the Immaculate Conception on the 18th June 1844. The notes of her Superiors describe her as a person of sound judgement, upright spirit, diligent, charitable and always available. Zelie received her habit from our founder himself with six othr novices. After the reception of the habit the Founder usually called the novices to ask each one, by what name she wished to be known. When Zelie’s turn came she expressed the wish for our Blessed Lady’s name, whereupon the Founder replied, “No, my child”, in a voice she later described as prophetic, “You will be called Francis Xavier and like your patron Saint you will evangelize the Indies. When she was designated for the new foundation in Ceylon, Zelie then remembered the Founder’s prophetic words and the knowledge that her mission came for the Founder himself, gave her a supernatural courage and energy when the time came.
In November 1844 she with two other sisters took up the new apostolate of religious education to the poor children in the parish of Airvault. She was involved in the apostolate of visiting the sick and assisting in the meetings of young people. Her natural reserve, her modesty and religious attitude gave inspiration of God to the people, she visited. She made her First Vows and prepared for her Final Profession at Airvault. Then she was Assistant in Montpiller and returned to Airvault as Superior.
On the 13th October 1849 she made her Final Profession an on the 18th August 1852 she was received as the Daughter of God Alone. In 1856 she was made the Mistress of Novices of the Immaculate Conception Sisters in Bordeaux. As Novice Mistress she gained the entire confidence of her novices and was loved dearly by them. Mother Xabier was a model of punctuality, silence and poverty.
When the request of Mgr. Semeria was accepted and the foundation and number of Sisters were decided upon, the urgent task was to find the person- the foundation stone – a person capable of assuring direction of work, insuring stability and development, inured to suffering and hardship, to life of poverty, soul experienced both in interior and exterior tribulation and accustomed to depending on God Alone, without seeking human consolation, but with generosity to accept difficulties and sacrifices inherent to the life of a missionary of Jesus Christ.
The choice of our Founder and Superiors fell quite naturally on Mother Xavier Marchand. The departure was first fixed for the end of 1861 but was postponed to August 1862. Accompanied by Bishop Semeria himself the first band of missionaries left their homeland shores to toil in the Lord’s vineyard. After a very tedious journey they arrived in Jaffna on the 2nd November 1862. The words that kept the zeal for souls burning was, “zeal for your house devours me, O God.
Mother Xavier toiled for 16 years in Jaffna and during this period by her wise and vigilant administration she founded schools, orphanages and Sister’ Congregation – Sisters of St. Peter and they all flourished well.
She breathed her last peacefully while Bishop Bonjean was administering her the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and the Plenary Indulgence on the 15th October 1878.
In the town of Jaffna where very few people had not experienced her care and devotedness, the news of her death spread rapidly. A sense of irreparable loss was most deeply felt by the Ceylonese Sisters on whom she had lavished such maternal love and care; they were inconsolable. They expressed their grief in this letter to the Superiors.
“Glory to the Divine Heart of Jesus from whom all blessings come”. Dear Mother, we, the Sisters of st. Peter, unite in relating a sad event. We would like to write it with our tears. A mother in a thousand was given to us. Now death has taken her away. We are unable to express our sorrow. During the last 3 years of her long illness she was, for us an outstanding example of patience; however tired she felt, she was ready to receive any one of us, who went to her at any time. If ever she noticed traces of sadness she would gently ask the cause and offr us consolation as only she could do. To relate all the good she did during the last years of her life would be impossible. Two weeks before her death we assembled around d her as usual for the Sunday recreation. She showed us pictures and related miracles that had taken place in Lourdes promising to continue the following Sunday. That was not to be, for during the following days she was very ill. We saw her again a week before she died. She could no longer speak but gazed at each one, gave each one her crucifix to kiss and whispered, “Pray for me”. On leaving her were in tears. On Tuesday we were asked to pray for her as she was very ill. A little later we gathered in her room and knelt around her bed while she received her last Sacrament, hoping she would regain consciousness and say a last word of farewell. At 5.30 she died. That night and the following day we took it in turns to pray near her mortal remains. When she was taken away we found it hard to believe we would not see her again. We followed the funeral corteg to the Church, then to the Cemetery where she was laid to rest. On returning home we knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and made our act of resignation. We miss her everywhere. Though she had often reminded us she was growing old we never thought this could happen, even now it is like a dream. The remembrance of all she had done for us will remain engraved in our hearts forever.
We are, dear Mother
Your respected children
The Sisters of St. Peter