From his seminary days Fr.Noailles had conceived the idea of founding an association open to all vocations. He started realizing this desire in his first parish of St.Eulalie by starting the Catechism of Perseverance with lay people. In this rich soil of lay commitment, was planted the first religious community. Caroline Romain, Seconde Giraudet and Catherine Aimée Noailles came together with the desire to consecrate themselves by religious vows, to live in community and to be engaged in the service of others. They started their community on the eve of 27th May 1820, the feast of Holy Trinity, having for all their resources only 80 francs. As time passed, they received more members, moved to other places, and responded to many needs. Fr.Noailles guided the members spiritually and wrote their Rule of Life.  As new needs were seen and ministries increased they were organised into different branches. The Consecrated Seculars, Priests and Contemplatives were also founded.  The Lay Associates who had been present since the beginning became more active and were solemnly received into the Association. 

We need to remember that what Fr.Noailles wanted to found was not a religious congregation as such, but an Association open to all vocations. The Apostolic Religious Group was part of that Association. However, as it evolved and expanded numerically and geographically the Association experienced a tension between what the Founder intended and what the Church demanded. There are three key moments when this tension was strongly felt.

1. Spain demanded that the congregations working in Spain had to be canonically approved by Rome. Sisters had to accept it even though it was not quite in keeping with the idea of Fr.Noailles. However this approbation made it possible for the Holy Family to survive. As a negative outcome other vocations within the Family received less attention.

2. When the missionaries were called to distant lands, it was the Religious Sisters who responded to that request. As a result they grew faster in the mission lands while other vocations were not promoted in the new places. In the new places it was not easy to keep the identity of the Branches.  However the different vocations continued to be there in France and in some other European countries but they did not get equal attention as part of the same Association.

3. In 1957 there was a call from Rome to change the structure of the Religious Congregation by dividing it into Provinces and Delegations. Once again the leaders were faced with the question of the original idea of the Founder and the demands of the Church. At the General Chapter of 1957 the new structure was accepted.

These three moments weakened the Association as one Family with five different vocations. However the members tried their best to safeguard and live the spirit of the Association.

The moment of grace was the second Vatican Council. It invited all the Congregations to go back to the original founding inspiration and make it relevant to the present day. Our congregation took this invitation very seriously and worked hard to revive the original inspiration both in the spirit and in the structures of the Association. This was important because the very structure is an integral part of our charism. A great deal of hard work was done to study the writings of the Founder, classify them, translate them and to present them in forms that are easily accessible and readable for everyone. While this work was going on at the General level the different Provinces and Delegations started promoting all the vocations of the Holy Family. It was a moment of research, discernment and untiring efforts. It was a journey without a road-map. After all the hard work, difficulties surfaced once again. The Church had no formal structure to deal with associations composed of different vocations, so it could not approve a Family with five vocations. The possible alternatives were proposed. After another process of discernment, the Family opted for the present structure of Religious Institute of Apostolic and Contemplative vocations, Consecrated Secular Institute and the Priest Associates and Lay Associates. This is the canonical structure, yet in faithfulness to the original intention of the Founder we live as One Family with five vocations. Today the Council of the Family and its Permanent Committee help the Family of Pierre Bienvenu Noailles to journey together, living its spirit and mission.

At the General Chapter of the Religious Institute held in 2021, we asked ourselves a crucial question, which we kept before us throughout the preparation and the actual Chapter process.

“Can we still live our purpose as we begin our third century?

We believe we can but how? At the General Chapter itself we have proposed for ourselves six audacious steps. It all depends on each one of us. Are we ready to own them and live them in the true spirit of transformation? Are we ready to let go what needs to go and give ourselves selflessly and fearlessly in order to be transformed into something new? Can we live the specificity of our Vocation as Consecrated Religious, while being conscious that we are equal members of a Family with five vocations? Can we be conscious of the fact that we are Apostolic and Contemplative Associates in the Family of Pierre Bienvenu Noailles even though we are called Consecrated Religious according to the canonical requirement of the Church?

In the nineteenth century, Fr. Noailles was seen as a man ahead of his time. In the 21st century, he is still ahead of his time. The Church still does not have the provisions in Canon Law to approve the beautiful project Fr. Noailles conceived, even though at every stage it has been appreciated and encouraged by the Church.

Winifreda Wasalathanthrige

Kitumba, Uganda