“It was a miracle that holiness should blossom at the time of the French Revolution, yet such a flower of sanctity was beatified on May 23, 1982: the foundress of the Congregation of Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, Marie Rivier.
She was born on December 19, 1768, in Montpezat-sous-Bauzon (departement Ardeche, France). Toward the end of April 1770, at the age of sixteen months, she fell out of bed and injured her hip and ankle so badly that she completely lost the use of her feet; she could not even stand, much less walk. Lying on her back, she would laboriously use her little hands to creep forward bit by bit. Her disability increased from day to day, because her legs developed slowly and became crooked. The child kept getting weaker and more frail.
From her earliest childhood Marie had a tender love for the Blessed Mother, and when she had reached the age of six the thought occurred to her to entrust herself unreservedly to the Blessed Virgin for life. The Mother of God answered Marie’s confident act of devotion on August 15, 1777, by obtaining for her a complete and miraculous healing at the age of nine.
Now it was up to the girl who had been miraculously restored to health to find the right way of expressing her thanks to Mary. First Marie thought of a life of continual prayer in a wilderness retreat. This intention, though, quickly turned out to be impractical. Since she could not become a hermit, she became a ‘woman apostle’, as she was characterised by Pope Pius IX. She recalled the resolution she had made as a little child to lead many children to their heavenly Mother. Now she put this into practice. She looked up other girls her own age, gathered them around, and began to instruct them in the truths of the faith. Soon her comrades were calling her the ‘petite Maman’ (little Mum), and they respected and loved her accordingly. Above all, Marie took care of poor, needy, and sick children.
The reception of her First Holy Communion awakened in this darling of Mary an ever-stronger yearning to belong completely to God. Therefore she was very happy when she arrived, together with an older sister, at the boarding school of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Pradelles (Upper Loire region). After finishing her studies with these nuns, she asked to be admitted to their congregation. When she did not receive permission, however, she promptly resolved: ‘If these Sisters don’t want me in their religious community, I’ll start one myself.’
The time was not yet ripe, and so at first the young teacher founded a school, where from the very beginning she gave numerous children the best possible instruction and training. Many parents personally brought their children to this school so they could observe the pedagocical talents of the young teacher. As Marie Rivier saw it, the proof of her pedagogical talents was not only her pupils’ success in learning but also their piety and goodness. Later she admitted, ‘Of all that I have done and accomplished in my life, what gives me the most comfort is that in my youth I devoted myself to the education of children, so as to instruct them well and to lead them to God. Some of my pupils went on to be especially zealous Christians.’
Then in 1789 the French Revolution broke out and seemingly destroyed the entire work of the now twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher. In concealment, however, the work continued to grow and finally developed into the Congregation of Sisters of the Presentation of Mary; at the death of this Frenchwoman, whose bravery and organisational talent had been compared with those of Napoleon, her community had already spread to 130 houses in twelve departements in France.
After the outbreak of the Revolution, Marie Rivier had to leave her native village of Montpezat and flee to the neighbouring village of Thueyts. Here she became acquainted with the Sulpician priest Father M. Pontanier, who likewise had fled from the revolutionary dictators and who from then on was her strong support in the development and extension of her work.
In Thueyts she began again to instruct many children and also devoted herself more and more to religious education for adults, along the lines of evangelisation. Sunday after Sunday great crowds of people gathered around her, from neighbouring villages too, to hear this brave schoolteacher explain the truths of the catechism. She was joined by like-minded assistants.
On the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1796, while Father Pontanier celebrated Holy Mass secretly in an attic of the school building, Marie Rivier promised, in the presence of her assistants and pupils, ‘to consecrate herself and her work completely to the Queen of Heaven’. That was the start of the congregation of Sisters that she had planned. One year later, on November 21, 1797, the first ‘Presentines’, together with their foundress, promised to live by the rule of the community, which Father Pontanier had drawn up provisionally. He immediately informed the archbishop of Vienne, Francois-Charles d’Aviau (who during the French Revolution was also apostolic administrator of the diocese of Viviers), about the event. Soon afterwards, on August 7, 1801, the saintly chief shepherd approved the rule and the newly formed community, which from then on developed magnificently. The house in Thueyts soon was too small. In 1815 the former convent of the Visitation Sisters in Bourg-Saint-Andeol (Ardeche) was obtained. From there Marie Rivier guarded and directed the work, which grew mightily. She remained the soul of this teaching apostolate and was highly respected as Mother, Foundress, and General Superior of the Congregation of Sisters of the Presentation until she went home on February 3, 1838.”
– F. Holboeck