Claire Monestès was born in 1880 in Chambéry, a small French alpine city. She was the eldest of five children in an upper-middle class family. From her Christian family, she received a strong faith in God. Her childhood and her youth were happy times. Claire had a passionate, open temperament. Everything was of interest for her.
Early devotion to St Francis Xavier and the Eucharist
She showed a very early attraction to the Eucharist, with the desire to be a priest: “Host, I will be a host in praise and atonement.” In her writings, Claire recalls that on the day of her first communion, she begged God to not become a nun, despite her certainty that she would one day become one. She said: “The Cross was terrifying to me.”
She went to boarding school for several years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart where she first learned about St. Francis Xavier. As a teenager, she dreamt of going to the other side of the world to announce Christ to the whole universe, signing “Daughter of St Francis Xavier”.
Facing unexpected upheaval
Claire’s life was suddenly disrupted. The bankruptcy of her father’s small-sized bank led her to leave for Ireland at the age of 20. Adapting quickly to the new culture and language, she taught music and French in a school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart for two years and was able to send some money back home.
The world at that time was also changing rapidly. Emerging technologies (the telephone, power plants, cinema, x-rays, expanding railways, etc.) were reshaping society and culture. In France in 1905, a violent split between the Catholic Church and the State triggered the confiscation of many Church properties and the exile of 60,000 men and women religious (priests, brothers and sisters).
Later, Claire will give this instruction to the Xaviere Sisters:
Soyons ferventes du monde présent non de celui d’hier, adaptons-nous perpétuellement.
Immersed in contemporary issues and searching for her place
At 26, Claire met in Marseilles a well-known Jesuit priest and author- Father Antonin Eymieu. During the 1906 Lenten conference, Fr. Eymieu was preaching on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. When he mentioned the passage in which Christ calls all humanity to join his mission of reconciliation, Claire felt a burning call to consecrate her life to God. She did so, privately, still not knowing which form of consecrated life would correspond to this call.
Claire had discovered the Ignatian spirituality, which would shape her life moving forward. She became passionate about Christ’s desire to reconcile all humanity and all creation with God.
She became Fr. Eymieu’s secretary. Following his research interests, Claire reflected on contemporary issues and notably on the relationship between science and faith. She also asked him to be her spiritual director.
As the First World War broke, Claire served as a nurse with the Red Cross in several places in France. Influenced by the rise of the catholic workers’ movements and guided by Fr. Eymieu, Claire temporarily joined in Paris a group of women who helped workers organize and defend their rights and were forming a new lay consecrated movement. But she had to leave the group in 1917, a painful separation.
Back in Marseilles, Claire was still trying to find her way at the age of 37. Among other commitments, she had a particular concern for the holistic well-being of young female workers. She organised the “Noon-time Missions” (Missions de midi), a series of short spiritual talks over the lunch break. She also launched an affordable restaurant catering to these women, thus allowing them to attend the talks.
To the group of emerging Xaviere Sisters, she will give this incentive:
Tout accueillir pour tout épanouir
The birth of the Xaviere congregation
In 1921, a former acquaintance who was already a nun came to Claire and told her she felt called to continue her spiritual journey with Claire. Claire had never thought about herself as a potential foundress. Claire took the time to pray and received the confirmation that the form of religious life she was hoping for did not exist yet. The innovative form of religious life she started to envision reflected her desire to partake in Christ’s reconciling mission, not within the walls of a convent or of a religious institution, but in the midst of the world. In 1921, she founded La Xavière with the support of Fr. Eymieu. Claire wanted the Xaviere Sisters to be able to reach out and to journey with all people, believers and non-believers alike, fostering human and spiritual growth wherever this may be possible.
From 1925 onwards, Fr. Eymieu introduced the early stages of the theological research on the Mystical Body of Christ to the Xaviere Sisters. This new vision of the Church shifted the focus from its institutional role to its spiritual and mystical vocation. Claire recognised in this vision the foundational elements of her spirituality and calling. She rejoiced like someone who had found a treasure. And she started presenting the mission of the Xaviere Sisters as dedicated to the completion of the Mystical Body of Christ, becoming “co-workers” with Christ, in all types of milieus and settings.
The group of Xaviere Sisters numbered only twelve when Claire died of cancer on February 14, 1939. On her bedside, this note inspired by the Song of Songs was found: