FILLES DE MARIE: 150 YEARS CELEBRATION: Discreet Women Social Reformers

On Saturday 8th March 2014, a special mass was held in Saint Louis Cathedral to mark the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Reunion Island born religious congregation, namely La Congregation Filles de Marie (CFM) in Mauritius. The mass was celebrated by Bishop Mgr Maurice Piat, Diocese of Port Louis in the presence of the Papal representative, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Eugene Martin Nungent and some priests of the local clergy. In the catholic jargon, a congregation is a group of persons who follow a common rule of life, focused on Christian faith, take a solemn vow and guided usually by the charisma of their founding mother or father. In addition to Reunion and Mauritius, the Filles de Marie have missions in Seychelles, Rodrigues and Tanzania. In Mauritius they have hospices in several regions across Mauritius and were the first to run primary schools which later came under the control of the Roman Catholic Education Authority (RCEA) in the 1940s. A brief incursion in the history of the Filles de Marie provides valuable insights for historians, social analysts, researchers and academics into the early years of Catholic Church after the abolition of slavery in Reunion Island and Mauritius.
Golden Rule: Equality for Black and White Sisters
 On 20th December 1848, a decree promulgated the abolition of slavery in Reunion Island. On the following days, Fr. Levavasseur, co-founder of the Congregation, encouraged Miss Aimée Pignolet de Fresne (whose religious name will be Mère Marie Magdeleine de la Croix ) and some other women  of Reunion Island to set up a congregation for the emancipated slaves. This project was a long mooted idea of Aimée who came from a bourgeois Creole family. Finally, four months later the Congregation was set up in April 1849. In those days, social practice made that there were two categories of sisters namely first, those who looked after menial duties (called “soeurs de converses”) who were Blacks and second, those who conducted prayers being literate (called “soeurs de choeur”) and who were Whites. Mère Marie Magdeleine de la Croix, a woman of character and conviction, abolished this distinction and made equality a golden rule for White and Black sisters.  Probably fully conscious of the obstacle in which they were heading, the new Sisters comprising both Blacks and White already on the very first day of its foundation chose as motto: Jesus Only. Their project was considered horrendous. Against adversity, the Sisters developed a spirituality of the Cross, meaning by this that contemplation of Jesus on the Cross leads us to accomplish our mission on earth against all odds because the Cross which may be mistakenly taken as the symbol of submission translates in fact a spirit of resilience. It is then interesting to note that Father Laval while going at times on retreat in Reunion Island in those days met the Sisters and persuaded Bishop Collier (1847-1863) in Mauritius to invite the Filles de Marie to set up a mission in our country.
Overcoming Pigmentocracy
The mission opened in 1864 at La Paix street, Port Louis.  In his publication, Les Filles de Marie, A l’Ile Maurice et à Rodrigues (2005)   Joseph Maunick relates that there were at first two major roadblocks which the Sisters  succeeded tediously to overcome. First, negotiations between the Congregation and Bishop Collier which started in 1854 stumbled on the status of the Congregation in the Diocese. It was only after the departure of Bishop Collier in 1862 that things evolved positively and finally his successor, Bishop Hankinson, o.s.b (1863-1870) and Mère Marie Magdeleine de la Croix came to an agreement on the terms and conditions of their mission in Mauritius. The second obstacle, which was the thorniest one, was the issue of ‘la question de couleur’. In Histoire de l’Eglise, Isle de France-Ile Maurice (1721-1968), Amédée Nagapen coined ‘‘pigmentocratie’ as a term to describe the prevailing social hierarchy which was based on skin colour and class belonging. Like Father Laval, the Filles de Marie had to come to grips with this situation. Besides, the chapter on education and  reparation in the Truth & Justice Commission Report (2009) points out that the Filles de Marie have been a key agent in secondary education for girls of the working class when they  opened Notre Dame College (NDC) in 1954. Education was not yet free and most girls coming from families of domestic servants living in home dependencies of Curepipe attended NDC.
Hence, without underestimating the role and contribution of other women congregations in Mauritius, I would say that by their radical positioning in favour of the newly emancipated population, the Filles de Marie have been particularly discreet women social reformers within the Church in this region of the world. They have most probably shaped relations between the church and the common people in this transition period, thus accelerating the advent of a new social order.