A Journey to Joigny
Stephany Fontanone, Director of Upper School

I've always been drawn to the writings of Janet Erskine Stuart, rscj. Her meshing of intellectual pursuits with a deep faith is something that always spoke to me on a profound level - both as an academic and a Catholic woman. Her writing is clear, concise, precise, and so visceral in its authenticity. I've always included her writing on course policies for English classes I’ve taught because the message is so timeless, appropriate, and fundamentally important for students to remember. For truly, "…The indirect method [of education] is longer and less clearly defined. It aims at giving a guiding light within, and power to climb a difficult path, and pick a way though unknown country by that light. This must be waited for, and slowly developed, but in the end it is of greater worth. The training of the Sacred Heart aims at this. God hears out unuttered desires and as they are satisfied they grow… The more we desire and attain the more we shall desire and the more attain…that is why our life is so immense.” The notion of an indirect path that cultivates the self all for the glory of God is part of what I love most about the mission of the Sacred Heart.

A few years ago, I was afforded the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the history of the Society of the Sacred Heart by taking a 4-week trip to parts of Europe so important to the Society’s foundation. The impetus for my European getaway was the opportunity to develop a trip for students to truly connect with the mission and charism of the Sacred Heart. Inspired by Connie Solari's talk during the Roots that Gives Us Wings, an annual formative experience for educators of the Sacred Heart, I was determined to visit Joigny for myself. More profoundly, the realization that many students in Network Schools will not have ever had the opportunity and joy to interact with an RSCJ on campus was a stark reality that struck a chord (we are so blessed to have Sr. O’Dea on staff!). As lay people, we are impelled to bring the mission to life, to let the legacy flourish, which is a daunting responsibility. The trip I designed to take students on is truly a spiritual retreat, for the experience I had in Joigny and Roehampton can best be described as transcendental.

I stayed down the hall from the room where St. Madeleine Sophie was born; I walked on the same floors and stairs. At one point, I swore I could smell the charred wood from the fire that caused her premature birth; I smelled the pinot gris grapes in the vineyards where she would frolic as a child. I sat in the hillside above Joigny, surrounded by those same vines, and actually heard God. Praying with Sophie's favorite scripture from John, I truly began to realize the "I am the vines, you are the branches" message we celebrate on her Feast Day. I blessed myself with water from the church in which she was baptized; I basked in the sun on the side of the Yvonne; and I enjoyed wondrous moments of espacio under a brilliant row of chestnut trees. How I can capture a trip like this in mere words is a daunting task, and I only hope I can do it half the justice of the joy and peace it brought me.

Connecting with Sophie's childhood haunts made her even more real, even more visionary, even more remarkable. My next stop took me to what would be the mecca for any scholar and admirer of Erskine Stuart: the archives at Roehampton. A few weeks before my trip, I participated in the Network Spirituality Forum in St. Louis, and connected with some RSCJs from England/Wales, including the Archivist at Roehampton University who invited me for a private tour. I touched letters Mother Stuart wrote; put the thimble she used during the entirety of her religious life on my finger; smelled leather bound missals she carried with her around the world (literally); marveled at the timeless erudition.

Janet Erskine Stuart implores us to "not wait for ideal circumstances, nor the best opportunities; they will never come." While these perfect moments may never come on their own, we're always able to make them ourselves.