Marie-Justine Raclot was born two hundred years ago this year (1814) and lived for almost a hundred years (+1911). She was to become the pioneering missionary Infant Jesus Sister to Malaya, Singapore and Japan. The first sign of her having been observed to have authority and ability to control situations was her appointment, while still in her twenties, to the school in Béziers where the Form Vs were proving to be rebellious.She soon sorted them out and also, during the decade she spent there, led large reconstruction works.
Her mission to Penang was in response to another rebellious situation. Under the auspices of the Missions Étrangères de Paris, five sisters had set out for Singapore in 1851: Paulin Radot, the designated Superior, died at sea; the sole English woman chose a different life with the Captain; Euthyme was injured by a falling pulley in a storm and was unable to work thereafter. The Bishop in Singapore took one look at Euthyme (24), Eudoxie Claerbout (22) and Rosalie Flammarion (32) and sent them on to Penang. A Miss Aloysia was appointed to teach them English but, when she led them astray, Paris took action and in 1852 Mathilde was told to “leave everything and come” with no further explanation. Gregory Connolly, a 21-year old Irish novice who had a De la Salle brother already in Malaya, Appolinaire Testeride and Damien Dijeon accompanied her. Mathilde’s letters from the ship indicate that they were seasick most of the time, but her “heartsickness” at the responsibility entrusted to her was worse: “If I were still there with you I’d be able to convince you of my limitations”, she wrote to Mother General. She faced major problems in Penang, where the young Sisters had become used to an easy life with less prayer time and more leisure time spent with the MEP priests. Mathilde insisted that they return to the Rule. She found a young Irishman, a very good Christian, to teach them English. The following year Damien was named Superior in Penang and Mathilde sailed with three Sisters for Singapore.
About twenty years after her first going out, Mathilde was again on the move, this time accompanying the first four Sisters to Japan. She had to return to Singapore two months later with Gregory Connolly who was ill. When Ferdinand Constantin, the youngest and to all appearances the strongest, died, the mission was reduced to two sisters. Mathilde went to France and returned with twelve sisters for Malaya and Japan. In 1875 she offered herself to the Japanese mission and was replaced in Singapore by Mother Gaetan. Between her first departure for Japan in 1872 and her final visit to Malaya in 1881, Mathilde made twelve journeys between the two countries.
She was devoted to the poor and the orphans. When the government established public schools to cater for the poor, the Archbishop of Tokyo asked the sisters to educate Japanese ladies. Because the Roman Catholic religion could not be promoted, Mathilde told her sisters that it was even more important now that the pupils see them practise their religion. They all hoped she would make it to her hundredth birthday but, just in case, they decided to celebrate it on 7th July 1910 so that she could see her past pupils, boarders, Japanese and European. On the 8th December she was heard to pray, “My God, what are you waiting for?” Huge crowds attended her funeral in January 1911. One of her orphans said: “She cared for the body and the soul. For us it is no exaggeration to say that she is a second Francis Zavier.”
There is a rather daunting four-volume life of Mother Mathilde in the archives in Paris. Sr Brigitte Flourez, with the help of her Sisters in France, has done us all a great service by condensing that biography into five booklets without losing the sense of this powerful woman: her deep faith, her trust in Providence, her courage and above all her Christian zeal which she communicated to her Sisters. We all think we know Mother Mathilde’s story. With these booklets Brigitte provides us with the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with her remarkable life and might even encourage us to undertake further reading about the early days of the mission to Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.