Saint Joan of Lestonnac
Jun 10, 2021 / Written by: Tonia Long
FEAST FEBRUARY 2
Saint Joan was born on December 27, 1556, in Bordeaux in 1556, the daughter of Richard de Lestonnac, a member of the Parliament of Bordeaux, and Jeanne Eyquem, the sister of the noted philosopher, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
She grew up at a time when the conflict between the Protestant revolutionaries and the defenders of the Catholic faith was at its height. This was painfully evident in her own family: while her mother became an enthusiastic Calvinist and tried to persuade her to convert, her father and her uncle Montaigne adhered to the Catholic faith and were her support in remaining a Catholic.
At 17 years old, she was married to Gaston de Montferrant, with whom she had seven children, only four of which survived infancy. Despite the heartbreak of losing three infant children, Joan and Gaston enjoyed a happy marriage which lasted for 24 years until Gaston died suddenly in 1597. This marked the beginning of a very painful period in Joan’s life, with the further death of three important men in her life: her father, her uncle and her eldest son.
At the age of 46, and with her children now grown, Saint Joan turned to a contemplative life and entered the Cistercian Monastery in Toulouse where she was given the religious name of Jeanne of Saint Bernard.
After just six months of relative peace and spiritual comfort, she became very ill and had to leave the monastery. She then went to live on her estate to recover her health. Eventually she was able to perform many acts of charity, including distributing food and alms to the poor.
Soon Saint Joan began to meet regularly with young women of her social class to pray and discuss religious questions. She developed a strong devotion to Saints Scholastica, Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila.
The Holy Ghost inspired her with the idea of forming a new congregation, and several young girls joined her as novices. They ministered to victims of a plague that struck Bordeaux in 1605, risking their lives to minister to the poor in the slums. Saint Joan and her young followers were also determined to counteract the evils of heresy promulgated by Calvinism, a certain “plague” of the soul.
The Compagnie de Notre-Dame
Saint Joan of Lestonnac's brother, a Jesuit attached to the college in Bordeaux, arranged a meeting between her and two Jesuit fathers: Jean de Bordes and François de Raymond.
The Jesuits asked Saint Joan to serve as foundress of a new teaching order for young women, a sort of “Jesuit” formation for young ladies. The three decided upon a cloistered community to follow the Benedictine rule, modified to allow sisters to teach.
The new institute, approved by Pope Paul V in 1607, was the first religious order of women teachers approved by the Church, taking the name of the Compagnie de Notre-Dame.
In 1608, Joan and her companions received the religious habit from the Archbishop of Bordeaux.
Joan was elected superior in 1610, and the group moved in September to a large, old monastery on rue du Hâ. They were well received and financially supported by the city's elite. The community established its first school for girls in Bordeaux.
Foundations proceeded in Beziers, Périgueux, and Toulouse through Lestonnac's personal connections, as well as her connections with the Jesuits and Bordelaise political elites.
At her death on February 2, 1640, at the age of 84, thirty houses existed in France. Many miracles occurred at her tomb.
Saint Joan De Lestonnac was beatified in 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized on May 15, 1949, by Pope Pius XII.
As of 2016, her religious order has over 1,450 sisters that can be found in 27 countries throughout Europe, Africa, as well as North and South America.