April 8 – Niphon of Novgorod; Julie Billiart

Niphon of Novgorod (d. 1156), born in Greece but finding no monasteries there (we know nothing about the state of his eyesight), wandered north and was tonsured in the Kievan Caves Monastery, rapidly becoming a monk about whom there was nothing particularly interesting to write. Sometime later he was made bishop of Novgorod, where he undertook a church restoration and building project and worked to keep Orthodox believers from going over to the other team. Soon the area was staging Clash of the Princes MCXXXVI, and when the new prince (Svyatslav) tried to marry unlawfully, Niphon opposed him and instructed his priests to do the same. Svyatislav imported clergy from outside the area to perform the wedding, and sent Niphon on an involuntary holiday to Pskov for some five years.

Sometime later still, Niphon opposed the consecration of the new bishop of Kiev, which was made without the customary blessing from Constantinople. He was placed under house arrest in the Caves, not returning to Novgorod for eight years. When the usurper bishop was deposed and replaced, Niphon returned to Kiev for the ceremony, and thirteen days after seeing St. Theodosius in a vision, died peacefully in his beloved Caves.

Julie Billiart (1751–1816), born in Cuvilly, France, memorized the catechism by age seven, and would recite it to the neighbor children whenever they needed a freshener. She was communed and confirmed at age nine, and either made a vow of chastity then, or five years later. At sixteen she was working in the fields with the hired hands, reciting biblical parables to them during their lunch break. She became known as the “saint of Cuvilly.”

When she was 22, the sound of a pistol gave her such a shock that she was paralyzed in both legs. She maintained a strong life of faith, however, and even catechized the village children who loved to come and sit by her bed. When the revolution came, she fled to Amiens, where she met Françoise Blin de Bourdon, Viscountess of Gizaincourt, who was as devout as her name was long. Soon a group of young noblewomen had gathered, and Julie taught them everything she knew about the inner life, which was considerable. They nearly became a convent, and might well have made it, if everybody except Julie and Françoise hadn’t quit.

The two of them soldiered on, however, and in time, with the blessings of the bishop and the help of a certain Father Varin, they founded the Sisters of Notre Dame, a society dedicated to the education of young girls. Varin wrote a rule for the society which made no distinction between “choir” and “lay” sisters. This was unusual (most nuns sing standing) and done provisionally, but it worked, so it was never changed (but see later). Speaking of standing, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1804, Mother Julie was healed of her paralysis.

For reasons my sources do not make clear (irrefusable call to Wyoming?), Varin was replaced by a young meddler who tried to change the order’s rule, and when Julie pushed back, he got her in hot water with the bishop. With great sorrow the entire order* packed its bags and moved to Namur, whose bishop was only too happy to welcome them to his diocese. When the bishop of Amiens finally came to his senses, it was too late.

In 1815 Napoleon and his enemies chose Belgium as their playground, and Julie was terrified for her convents, but they all emerged unscathed. The next year she took ill, and after suffering in silence for three months, she entered the better life. In her short time in Belgium she had founded fifteen convents and made 120 journeys between them. She saved souls, as the bishop of Ghent said, by virtue of her inner communion with God, of whom she was wont to say, “Oh, qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu!” (Oh, how good God is![1]) She was beatified in 1906, and glorified in 1969.


[1]There’s a kind of play on words using “bon” that doesn’t translate