Catherine Francheville

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Entry by Marion Thouvenin, 2013

Born on the 21st September 1620 in Sarzeau, in the Gulf of Morbihan, Catherine was the daughter of Daniel de Francheville and Julienne Cillart. Her father, who would be knighted, grew up in the parliamentary setting in Vannes, a town where the relics of Vincent Ferrier were venerated. This devotion occupied a prominent place in the development of young Catherine’s faith. In 1656, she renounced marriage, after the death of her fiancé. Her singular vocation took shape during Lent in 1661, preached by the Jesuit François Berthelot. She then tried to erase all signs of wealth, by cutting her hair and distributing her jewellery to the churches. She imposed strict discipline on herself (readings, meditations, prayers, fasting four times a week, acts of charity , and wearing the hair short and the sackcloth), while remaining in the world, under the direction of Jesuit Adrien Daran. Her monthly pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne d'Auray, much frequented by Bretons since 1625, began to attract attention. From 1665, she started hosting noble ladies from Vannes for spiritual retreats designed in a similar spirit to those created in 1663 for men (priests and lay people from all walks of life) by the Jesuit Vincent Huby. All were guided by the same teaching, depending on the capabilities of each person. Catherine Francheville wanted to offer women the opportunity to practice, like men, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Although it was supported by the vicar general of Vannes, Louis Eudo Kerlivio, her project was a disappointment. The result of private initiative of a secular woman (she still refused to enter a convent), it did not receive the approval of the new bishop Cazet Vautorte and the retreat had to close its doors in 1673. The arrival of the Parliament of Brittany in Vannes in 1675 allowed it to reopen, attracting many wives of parliamentarians. Each year, fifteen to twenty retreats welcomed one hundred to two hundred women from all social categories. The same year, strengthened by this success and in order to sustain her work, Catherine decided to start a community of collaborators (who were still not nuns) with ClaudeThérèse de Kerméno .The famous Madame du Houx was called upon to guarantee part of its spiritual direction. Catherine Francheville continued to support the endeavour spiritually and financially until her death on March 23rd, 1689. Retreats similar to that of Vannes were founded in Brittany, in Paris and in Angers. The work of Catherine Francheville fitted into the current of religious fervour that animated Brittany in the second half of the seventeenth century. Vannes was a place which was conducive to such initiatives, because of the presence of the very active Society of Jesus. Catherine Francheville was among the first to offer spiritual retreats for lay women. Her character and motivations leave more to guesswork, because unfortunately she did not leave a written record of her experiences. One may therefore imagine her anxious to offer to all women, regardless of their socio-cultural backgrounds, opportunities for sanctification that were identical to those proposed in secular world, which made her a pioneer, in her own way, of gender and social equality. Her goal was to offer her followers a teaching based on that offered to men by the Jesuits, who served her as a model and also as a guide. While many women were interested, it should nevertheless be noted that many of them belonged to a wealthy family. Finally, the originality of her work also lay in the fact that she always refused to opt for the traditional religious life, by entering the convent. It is comparable to similar projects that drove women to want to stay in the world, while carrying out a mission that integrated into the programme of the Catholic Reformation. However, many could not withstand the pressure of the ecclesiastical authorities who worked to convert them into religious communities, bound by the ordinary and enclosure vows. The issue of vows in the community Vannes would only arise after her death and led to the creation of the Congrégation des Filles de la Sainte Vierge Congregation [Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady] of the Retreat in Vannes, still active in 2013.

(translated by Julie Robertson)

Unpublished sources

• Archives départementales du Morbihan (France, Vannes), 70H1, Maison de la retraite des femmes de Vannes (1673-1832) • Archives départementales du Morbihan (France, Vannes), 93 J 1-1063, Château de Truscat en Sarzeau (1401-XXe siècle), Lettres patentes de Louis XIV pour l’établissement d’une retraite à Vannes, 1683 • Archives départementales du Morbihan (France, Vannes), 88-90 G, Clergé séculier - Officialité de Vannes (1454-1791), Attestation devant notaire de l’approbation de la construction d’une maison de retraite par Monseigneur de Vautorte, 1675

Published sources

Champion, Pierre, La vie des fondateurs des maisons de retraite, monsieur de Kerlivio le Père Vincent Huby de la Compagnie de Jésus ; et mademoiselle de Francheville, Nantes, J. Marechal, 1698 –- Vie du Père Vincent Huby de la Compagnie de Jésus, de Mlle de Francheville, de Monsieur de Kerlivio, rééd. RP Watrigant, Lille, DDB, 1886, p. 167-211.

Selected bibliography

• Broutin, Paul, ‘Francheville (Catherine de)’, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, t. 5, col. 1004-1007. • Butel, Fernand, L’éducation des Jésuites autrefois et aujourd'hui; Un collège breton (Vannes), Paris, Firmin-Didot, 1890, p. 529. • Héduit, Jacqueline and Théry, Gabriel Théry (pref.), Catherine de Francheville : sa vie (1620-1689), son œuvre : la retraite de Vannes: Initiatrice et fondatrice des retraites de femmes, Tours, Mame, 1957. • Théry, Gabriel, Catherine de Francheville, fondatrice à Vannes de la première maison de retraites de femmes : 1620-1674, t. I, 1620-1674. Famille, adolescence et première période des retraites de femmes ; t. II, 1674-1689. La Grande période de la Retraite, Tours, Mame, 1957. • Théry, Gabriel, ‘Catherine de Francheville, fondatrice à Vannes de la première maison de retraite de femmes’, Revue d'histoire de l'Église de France, vol.44, n°141, 1958, p. 163-167


• Site des sœurs de la retraite, avec des indications sur leur fonctionnement, leurs missions et leur histoire [2] [website of the retreat’s sisters, with some information on their management, missionary work and history].


  • « Cette maison est gouvernée par la Fondatrice, qui s’y est donnée elle-même ; et y travaille avec beaucoup de zèle et d’édification avec quelques autres Demoiselles d’une vertue reconnue en point nombreux, mais qui vivent en communauté par la permission de Monseigneur l’Evêque, et sous sa jurisdiction, et la conduite d’un Ecclésiastique, auquel mondit Seigneur a confié le soin de tout ce qui regarde cette maison » (Témoignage du Père Huby cité dans Gabriel Théry, Contribution à l'histoire religieuse de la Bretagne au XVIIe siècle, 2, voir supra, Choix bibliographique, p.69)
  • « Fonder ce n’est pas seulement laisser à ses héritiers la possibilité de vivre, de subvenir aux frais d’une œuvre ; fonder c’est aussi laisser en héritage sa volonté, léguer son esprit et transmettre son idéal. En fondant sa Congrégation, Catherine de Francheville devenait, par le fait même, la Mère de ses Filles en leur laissant la possibilité de maintenir et de développer l’idéal pour lequel elle avait elle-même vécu » (Gabriel Théry, Contribution à l'histoire religieuse de la Bretagne au XVIIe siècle. 2, voir supra, Choix bibliographique, p.66)
Catherine Francheville
Birth date 21 septembre 1620
Death 23 march 1689
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