- Madeleine Sophie Barat, 1779–1865: A Life
Phil Kilroy has written a masterful biography of Sophie Barat, founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The book not only offers an intimate portrait of Barat's personal and professional evolution, but also draws the reader into the fascinating intricacies of ecclesiastical politics, Gallican and ultramontane battles, French spiritual currents, and the precarious fortunes of an apostolic women's religious order vis-à-vis church demands for strict enclosure and bishops' desires for full control over convents in their dioceses. Kilroy has painstakingly made her way through a wealth of primary sources, many largely overlooked heretofore, including 14,000 letters by Barat, thousands of letters to her, and a trove of documents such as house journals, personal memoirs, and ecclesiastical and governmental decrees. The author has left no stone unturned in research at sixteen archives in France and Italy. [End Page 327]
Sophie Barat came from a lower bourgeois family in the small town of Joigny, France. She received a rigorous education, unusual for girls of her day, from an overbearing older brother. He inculcated in her a Jansenistic spirituality that she struggled over many years to counterbalance with the warmer image of the human, loving, suffering Christ manifested in devotion to the Sacred Heart. At the young age of 23, Barat was elected superior of a fledgling group of women dedicated to educating girls in post-revolutionary France. The Society of the Sacred Heart stands out within the explosion of nineteenth-century French women's religious orders for its famed education of the elite sectors of society, although it was Society policy to attach a poor school or similar work to each of its boarding schools. Reflecting the biases of her times, Barat opposed mixing girls from distinct classes. She believed, as did so many Catholic leaders, that educating the elite to a sense of Christian responsibility, morality, and charity, was the best way to restore religious values to society.
Kilroy's book surpasses all previous biographies of Barat and is unlikely to be replaced for many years. She has a fine sense for the myth-making and hagiography that enters into histories of religious orders and their founders and knows how to draw on these without sharing their facile conclusions. A number of sacred cows meet their end in this biography. For example, Father of the Faith and then Jesuit Joseph Varin, formerly lauded as faithful friend and supporter in the foundation of the Society, is shown frequently to be undependable, distrustful of Barat's leadership ability, and a poor judge of character. More significant are Kilroy's insights into Barat herself. The author frankly examines not only Barat's successes, but also her mistakes and failings, and how these contributed to her evolving leadership skills. In 1820, for example, Barat purchased the sumptuous Hôtel Biron (now the Musée Rodin) in the aristocratic center of Paris, a choice she later rued for its identification of the Society with the reactionary forces of the Parisian aristocracy. For much of her life, Barat relied on her gift for relationships to lead the Society, but this style proved inadequate as the Society grew, and disastrous when Barat failed to take the measure of those whom she trusted. The most notable example is her intimate friendship with the French aristocrat Eugénie de Gramont, whom Barat left as superior of the community on the grounds of the influential Hôtel Biron for thirty years. Despite repeated and overwhelming evidence that de Gramont was severely undermining Barat's authority and dividing the Society to the point of schism, and despite constant warnings from other religious, Jesuit friends, a trusted bishop, and the Society's own ecclesiastical superior in Rome, Barat failed to remove de Gramont from power. On the other hand, Barat astutely employed her non-confrontational mode of diplomacy to win a modified form of cloister for the Society, to gain recognition from Rome of her own right to make policies...