Theme 1 - Summary

Sophie Barat’s early years in Joigny, 1779-1795

Madeleine Sophie Barat was born in Joigny, Burgundy, on the evening of 12 December 1779 at 11pm. That evening a fire raged in the village and so frightened Sophie’s mother that she gave birth to Sophie two months prematurely. Fearing that the child might die Sophie was baptised the following morning at 5am in the church of St Thibault.

The Barat family household consisted of Jacques Barat (father), Madeleine Fouffé (mother), Louis Barat (eldest), Marie-Louise Barat (sister) and Sophie Barat. Jacques Barat was a skilled vigneron.  He cultivated vines, made the wine barrels and marketed his wine in Picardy. Madeleine Fouffé was a cultured women, deeply influenced by the spirit of the Enlightenment. She ran the family home and managed the family business. She also hosted a reading circle for her neighbours in the family kitchen, where each week they met to read and discuss the novels of the day.

Jansenism in Joigny during Sophie Barat’s childhood

When Sophie Barat was born Jansenism was widespread in France. This theology presented God as severe, distant and judgemental, and the human being as profoundly sinful and unworthy. Sophie was born in the most Jansenist region of France. Both her mother and her brother were deeply affected by Jansenism, although Madame Fouffé did not hold the rigidity of her son’s views.  Louis Barat was Sophie’s godfather and he played a key role in her early life in Joigny and Paris. He educated her at home and was an extremely strict teacher. However, this was balanced by the time Sophie spent time working in the vineyards with her father. From him she learnt how to care for the earth and respect the rhythm of the seasons. Her mother showed her how the family business was run, and she also taught her embroidery and dressmaking. Sophie also joined her mother’s reading circle and took her turn at reading.   

Political events in Joigny and in France

In 1789, when Sophie Barat was ten years old, the French Revolution broke out and triggered profound changes throughout France and Europe. For the rest of her long life Sophie experienced series of revolutions and wars in France and in Europe.

Sophie Barat in Paris, 1795-1800

Aged 16

In 1795 Sophie Barat went to Paris with her brother, Louis, to a city deeply traumatised by the Revolution, by widespread violence and unrest. In this atmosphere Louis continued Sophie’s education, which became even more intense and severe. She studied the Fathers of the Church, Church History, Scripture, Latin and French. Poetry and literature were singularly absent. All aspects of Sophie’s life were governed by Louis, her order of day, food, rest, spiritual life, including hearing her confession. Friendships were severely curtailed, and all spontaneity curbed. Without her parents for protection Sophie was exposed to the full rigour of Louis’s dominance. One of her contemporaries observed: Louis `wished to destroy her nature and replace it with grace’.  This period in Paris lasted from 1795-1800.

Sophie Barat paid a high price for her education. Her way of life in Paris was far too severe for a teenager and consequently Sophie’s health was permanently damaged by Louis. Her affective formation was stunted during these years. She experienced emotional confusion, expressed by shyness, indecision and lack of trust in herself. Her heart energies were repressed and Sophie often appeared somewhat lost and disconnected. In particular she developed inner complexes, doubts and scruples about her own worthiness and she struggled with her understanding of God. In time these anxieties become the ground and place of Sophie Barat’s inner transformation, and central to her task of transforming the image of a severe, Jansenist image of God into one of Divine Love, revealed in the Heart of Christ pierced on Calvary.  

Paris 21 November 1800

Sophie Barat’s life took a new direction when she met Joseph Varin in Paris in 1800.  He told her about his friend, Leonor de Tournély, who dreamt of founding a community of women, called the Society of the Sacred Heart but died without realising it. Joseph Varin also told her of a new community recently founded in Amiens and suggested Sophie join it. Until then she had considered becoming a Carmelite but after a period of hesitation she was persuaded to go to Amiens. Sophie made her commitment to God on 21 November 1800 in Paris and the following year set out for Amiens.

Sophie Barat in Amiens, 1801-1815

Aged    22

Sophie was 22 when she joined the newly established community in Amiens, called The Dilette di Gesù (Beloved of Jesus). Her experience there was widened when she met women from different parts of France, from Italy and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The community’s project was to run a poor school and a boarding school in the town of Amiens.  While this goal was clear the community itself was new, and soon serious divisions emerged between the members. In the midst of such tensions and to her surprise, even dismay, Sophie Barat was proposed as leader of the community.  Divisions in the Amiens community were further compounded in 1802 when the Dilette di Gesù were disbanded due to scandals in Rome surrounding the life of its founder, Nicolas Paccanari. With Sophie Barat still the leader in Amiens the community decided to take a new name, the Association of Ladies of Christian Instruction.  

During these years of tension Sophie’s health worsened and she developed a form of cancer which took two years to heal. Between 1804-1806 she founded new communities in the south and west of France and met two women who were to be among her closest friends, Philippine Duchesne in Grenoble and Thérèse Maillucheau in Poitiers. Tensions continued to grow in Amiens and from 1808 many of the community led by the chaplain, Sambucy de Saint- Estève, opposed Sophie Barat’s leadership. She became progressively more side-lined by the community. In addition, Joseph Varin did not support Sophie. Instead he took the side of Saint- Estève and reproached Sophie for her independent spirit.

Matters came to crisis in 1814-1815 when several members split away from the community. This provided Sophie Barat with an opportunity to act. She first confronted Saint-Estève and then announced a General Council to be held in Paris in the winter of 1815. That Council adopted a new name, Society of the Sacred Heart, drew up new Constitutions and confirmed Sophie Barat’s leadership for life.  

Sophie Barat in 1815

Aged 36

In 1815, at the age of 36, Sophie Barat had come through several testing periods in her life.  She had five rigorous years in Paris with Louis Barat, followed by years of opposition and rejection from the community in Amiens. During these years Sophie learnt to live for long periods without the approval of others, often with real difficulty and in loneliness. While these experiences gradually developed her sense of independence they also pushed her to the limits of her ability. This is a pattern which would be repeated in the course of Sophie Barat’s long life, in her own relationships and in her leadership of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

Texts for Theme 1. Formative years of Sophie Barat, 1779-1815


Thank you for remembering the 12th and 13th December.  It was during that night that someone was born who was destined to try you and many others, alas! but also to love you in the Lord. I cite the 12th and the 13th December since I was born on the night of the 12th around 11pm, and baptised on the morning of the 13th. They thought I was going to die.

           Sophie Barat to Louise de Limminghe, Paris 19 December 1857

It is true to say that in life there are certain circumstances, certain events, apparently of little significance and with little effect on what Providence has planned as our destiny.  It is good that you know I was born into a Jansenist family, very attached to this sect which has always been the declared enemy of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Louis found two very fine engravings in a print shop, one representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the other the holy Heart of Mary.  He bought them and sent them to Madame Barat, who forgot her former prejudices and welcomed her beloved son’s gift with joy.  And despite the remarks of her family, for one of her sisters was particularly trapped in the error [of Jansenism], she had the two images framed and they remained there [in the kitchen] throughout the Terror, without ever being insulted, or even remarked upon in the frequent visits made to the house during these times.

                Sophie Barat, 30 May 1856

She was confided to the care of her brother, who was more concerned about the spiritual development of his sister than experienced in the physical care such a fragile and delicate child needed. He dreamed of making her a saint and for this reason did not neglect her education. He made her work without the breaks necessary for her age and suited to her physical strength.  She was truly imprisoned; maybe if she had been less held she would have gained less too. But her body suffered always from the effect of this handling in childhood.

  Geneviève Deshayes, Notes on Sophie Barat and on the origins of the Society

I had to be ready to go to the schoolboys’ Mass which was at 7am. One morning, when I really wanted to sleep, my brother came and asked: `where is Sophie?’  I heard him and in fear I buried myself in my bedclothes. `Do you think that she is so lazy?’ said my mother.  Taking this as a reply my brother said nothing further. But I cried out: `I’m here’. So Louis said: `Get up immediately and be at Mass at the same time as me’. I was so afraid that I took just five minutes to dress.

Adrienne Michel, Journal of the second journey of Mother Barat to Gand in 1811  


[I met] a small person, very simple, very plainly dressed and almost completely in peasant clothes. I can still see her arriving from her village by coach to re-join her brother in Paris. He wanted to devote his life to our little society of the Fathers of the Faith and had only one problem, that of finding out what to do with his sister for whom he was responsible.

             Joseph Varin describing his first meeting with Sophie Barat in 1800, Journal of Mantes, 1846

I hope that your illness will not have any consequences and that you will suffer less if you gain some strength and do not weigh yourself down with depressing thoughts. You need to be aware that the [marriage] state you are in, by God’s Providence, of necessity brings with it these thoughts and afflictions. Do not waste them; make use of your suffering to bring you merit by living a truly Christian life and by patiently putting up with all the sufferings you endure. You see, my dear sister, I will not give you any human consolation, for that is both insufficient and empty. I can only offer you the comforts of religion. Soon you will realise that with a bit of effort everything comes to an end, even the most difficult things.

Believe me I have had  this happy experience, and  even though my position is not  like yours, I had to suffer somethings and I assure you that I have always taken great consolation from the little efforts that I made. My dear sister, open your heart to me. Ah! If you only knew how I feel your plight and how, if it was possible, I would love to take half of your burden away.  That moment will come. In the meantime Providence wishes that you carry on alone for a little longer. When you have a minute write and tell me of your sufferings and your hopes, indeed everything that concerns you. Despite the little time I have I will try to respond. Above all, tell me about your children. Give a warm hug from me to each in the little family, and be assured that I remain always with the same love your sister and your friend. Give father and mother a hug from me.   

Sophie Barat to her recently married sister, Marie-Louise Dusaussoy, Paris, 10 October 1800


Let us not distrust the wisdom of dear M. de Saint-Estève but leave this concern to loving Providence which seems to have chosen him as its instrument. I have already written to him in this sense about the matter.

                    Joseph Varin to Sophie Barat, Vichy, 31 May 1806

Dear M. de Saint-Estève writes to me by every post and is always pushing ahead for the important business which concerns you. You thought I was going to put a stop to his gallop. But, truly, no. I thought about it deeply in prayer before the good God and I felt within myself a great sense of trust in letting Providence act. So I have encouraged him.

   Joseph Varin to Sophie Barat, Roanne, 19 June 1806

What really astonishes me is that your other form of suffering is only increased rather than dispelled when you meet your brother. What! Have you not yet found out who is behind this, no one less than the dark spirit!  And if you have discovered this, then you are still taken in by it!   Oh!  Please, I beg you, may all such useless worries be dispelled by the time I arrive. Do you need an angel from heaven to reassure you? And if you refuse to believe in Jesus Christ in the person of his minister, will you have more faith in an angel? Courage, trust and blessed audacity.

Joseph Varin to Sophie Barat, Roanne, 20 October 1805

Oh yes!  Strip yourself entirely of your own will and do not keep even a shred of it under pretext of devotion and a higher perfection. The highest perfection I want you to have is the complete suppression of your intense inner struggles, which I can see in you when your own will is crossed, either in the role you exercise, or on the question of penances. Accept everything with good grace and in liberty of spirit.

    Joseph Varin to Sophie Barat, Roanne, 16 May 1806

I am not in the least surprised that my brother [Louis Barat] prefers prolonged periods of prayer to your embroidery, and that he laments the time you give to it. Long ago he tore up all that I made, saying that it was time lost. You know how useful embroidery is to us and I want you to learn how to nuance this. It is not the quantity of work that I ask, nor do I insist you on the time you give to it.  Take the time you can for embroidery but make sure always that your spiritual exercises, grammar and the other subjects come first.

          Sophie Barat to Emilie Giraud, Paris, 29 November 1809

The Society at its origin was essentially founded on devotion to the Heart of Jesus and must be so dedicated and consecrated to the glory of this Divine Heart that all the works and functions it undertakes are related to that chief purpose. Such is the glorious and attractive aim of our little Society: we become holy ourselves by taking the divine Heart of Jesus as our model, trying as far as we are able to unite ourselves to his feelings and innermost dispositions. And at the same time we dedicate ourselves to extending and promoting the knowledge and love of this divine Heart by working for the sanctification of souls.

I repeat, this is the destiny of the Society of the Sacred Heart which God graciously revealed at our origins. And if the turbulent times during which the Society began in France did not permit us to publicly declare our consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, now we believe we would be totally failing God’s plan if we did not refer to the origins of the Society in order to assume our true spirit and fulfil our destiny.

Letter of Sophie Barat presenting the Constitutions to the members of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Paris, 17 December 1815

Process for reflection on the life of Sophie Barat, 1779-1815

Theme 1

Read the Summary and the Texts which accompany this theme


As you reflect on the life of Sophie Barat from 1779-1815, reflect also on your personal biography, on the elements which formed you, at each stage in your life.  This personal reflection will enable you to accompany and to understand Sophie as she makes her journey.

Pointers which could help your reflection  

Can you pick out the key elements in your life that have marked you particularly?

For example, what can you remember about the place where you were born, about your family and the events which happened around you?   What were the important spiritual experiences of your early life? What effect had they on you personally? Then and now?

How do these help you understand the life experience of Sophie Barat?

How would assess your early growth and development?  In the light of your experience,   how would assess Sophie Barat’s growth and development by 1815?  

Further reading:

Madeleine Sophie Barat. A Life; The Society of the Sacred Heart in 19th century France


In the evening time, take time to speak with Sophie Barat about your life and your concerns at this time; about her life and her experience. Bring this reflection into sleep. In the night hours while we are asleep the spiritual world is open and present to us. Sophie Barat belongs to that reality. As a transformed being, she is alive, active and ready to help us.

10 October 1800 9 September 1817 26 July 1864 contents
Home Biography 19th Century France My Own Vintage A Journey with Sophie Barat
Madeleine Author - Phil Kilroy

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