The first tabernacle
The Religious of the Assumption were founded in Paris in 1839 by Anne Eugenie Milleret, who in religious life was to take the new name of Marie Eugenie of Jesus, and Fr. Theodore Combalot, a well-known preacher of the time. He had the inspiration to found a new congregation, inspired by the mystery of the Assumption of Our Lady. He saw it working for the regeneration of society through the education of girls and women.
When Anne Eugenie came to confession to him in 1837, he recognised, in this nineteen year old who desired to dedicate her life to God, a person with the capacity and character to be the foundress of this congregation.
The beginnings were very poor. In 1839 four young girls came together in Paris. Their life followed a rhythm of prayer and silence, study and housework. When she was old, Marie Eugenie recalled what she called, “the spirit which marked our beginnings”.
There was, she said, “an openheartedness, a simple kindliness among us.” It was the beginning of what came to be called the “family spirit” of the Congregation and it is still today considered a hallmark of the Assumption. Every day Fr. Combalot came to give talks and to oversee the studies. In the Advent of that year he introduced them to the Divine Office of the Church, which has been a treasured part of the Congregation’s spirituality ever since.
In 1841 Combalot, who had always been eccentric and unpredictable, left them on their own. At this difficult moment, the decision of the sisters to stick together, realising that they already had an identity as a community and a vision which they all shared, was crucial. Slowly their numbers grew and they became accepted by the Church authorities.
In 1842 they opened a little school and word went round Paris that it was good. The mission had begun.
The story of the Congregation is the story of Marie Eugenie Milleret, its Foundress. It is also the story of the many other women who lived with her or who came after her. It is the story of people ablaze to extend the Kingdom of Christ. Explaining the Congregation to the Archbishop of Paris in 1841, Marie Eugenie had written that it is fire, passion and ardent love for the Church and this society so far away from God that has given birth to this work.
The first sisters added an extra vow to the normal ones of poverty, chastity and obedience. It was to consecrate my whole life to extending the Kingdom of God in souls.
In 1848 this apostolic energy found an outlet in an enthusiastic response for a mission in South Africa. It was heroic. The sisters were the first nuns to set foot in South Africa and the difficulties they had to face were enormous. In the end the community survived by breaking with Paris and adapting to the needs of the country. They became the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption, who are still working in South Africa and Northern Ireland.
From Paris other foundations were made, the next in Yorkshire in 1850. Other foundations followed and by Marie Eugenie’s death in 1898 the Congregation was established in four European countries, in Nicaragua in Central America, and in the Philippines in Asia: a total of 28 communities (including four in England).
The twentieth century brought setbacks, consolidation and great leaps forward. In the early years of the century anti-religious legislation forced the Congregation out of France. Properties were seized by the government and sold at auction. Some were bought by friends who held them in trust until the Congregation was able to return to France, but many – including the Mother House opened by Marie Eugenie in 1857 – were lost for good.
The Mother House was transferred to Belgium. The Congregation continued to spread. Slowly and very discreetly, wearing lay dress, the sisters moved back into France. At the same time new foundations were opened up in Denmark, in Argentina, Brazil and the USA. After World War II a new missionary impetus brought the Congregation back to Africa, where today there are some 31 communities in 11 different countries. During the same period there was a remarkable spread in Asia with the Congregation adding houses in Japan, Thailand and India to its base in the Philippines.
Today more than a 1,000 sisters of the Congregation are spread in 34 different countries. With even more reason we can echo the reflection of Marie Eugenie in 1884: Looking back to those first days and seeing all that Our Lord has done for us, I was struck by one thought that I would like to share with you. It is that in our work all comes from Jesus Christ, all belongs to Jesus Christ, all must be for Jesus Christ.