The Eucharistic Letter remained largely unknown even to the Sisters of St. Joseph until the days after Vatican II when all religious were challenged to return to the Gospel and the ‘original inspiration’ of their founders for their renewal. Almost immediately after Vatican II, translators from the French and American Sisters of St. Joseph met with Fr. Nepper, S.J. and worked through all the written documents bequeathed to us by Father Jean-Pierre Medaille, S.J.

1. Among the sisters in the 17th and 18th Century

The status of The Eucharistic Letter among the sisters in the 17th and 18th century is uncertain. Apparently, the actual Eucharistic Letter remained hidden in this form from the sisters and was not circulated, or very little, among the communities. Certainly, ‘fragments’ of the mystical spirituality described in the Eucharistic Letter are found throughout the Constitutions, the Reglements and the Maxims so the sisters were getting the same spirituality and inspiration.

According to Marguerite Vacher, “When Father Medaille wrote the Letter in 1660, most of the existing houses were very small, with as little outward appearance as Jesus in the Eucharist. This he saw as gain: “How happy our Institute will be if it maintains this spirit of littleness, humility and self-emptying.” (p. 106)

After 10 years of witnessing the first development and fruits of these early communities, Fr. Medaille seems, upon reflection, to get a glimpse into the future. In The Eucharistic Letter, he reiterates and expands the mystical aspects of the littleness and hiddenness and self-emptying love. There seems to be no doubt that he is directing our attention toward what was newest, that is - the little houses scattered in the country, rather than toward the more prominent and already more recognized city houses.

Even from these early beginnings and throughout the 4+ centuries, there seems to have manifested these two parallel paths for this Medaillan spirituality to grow and evolve:

- one group was attracted to a more mystical way of life, remaining little, hidden, small groupings, not needing to be legally recognized. (‘Little Design’ is a term used profusely in The Eucharistic Letter.)

- one group was seeking a more socially recognized and canonically approved religious life that had larger houses, superiors, public vows and ministerial apostolates. (Constitutions, Congregation of St. Joseph)

Throughout the years, the ‘gift’ has been a spirit of unity and charity in all the diversity of forms. This comes from our deep intimate sharing in the love of Christ that has gathered us together as one. The ‘Beams of Love’ embrace everyone! Everything belongs! Certainly, this absence of The Eucharistic Letter in our hands for 210 years makes us take pause!



2. Rediscovered at Riotord, France in 1870

The archives of the community of Sisters of St. Joseph at Riotord contain a small notebook, dated 1870 on the first page, in which Father Freycenon, then ecclesiastical superior of the community, introduces the Eucharistic Letter to the sisters. He discovered this document among the community’s old papers, and thinking its content worthy of reflection, he gave the community some explanation and commentary on it.

The notebook contains notations of long passages from the Letter as well as the very appreciative interpretations Father Freycenon gave the sisters. Could Father Freycenon have had the original in his hand? In the same notebook, the sister superior of the community recorded that he took the document away and did not return it. She is not alone in voicing her regret.”  (Vacher, p. 373)



3. Rediscovered again at Lyon, France in 1878

It comes out of the silence again and the sisters hear it as a summary of their true vocation. However, its omissions distort its pristine essence.   

“In 1878 Abbe Rivaux had The Eucharistic Letter published in his Life of Mother Sacred Heart. However, the author, without alerting his readers, omitted everything that alluded to the secrecy characteristic of the first foundation of The Little Design and thus established firmly the idea that this Eucharistic Letter was a primary document intended for the present congregation of Saint Joseph.”

And now a new shift…



4. Marius Nepper, S.J.  and research team   (1969-1973)

The early research of Marius Nepper linked The Eucharistic Letter with a 1646 date and what was called a ‘first foundation’. “About 1646, Father Jean-Pierre Medaille founded an active religious group by the rather singular name, Little Design. Two documents provide us with rather abundant details regarding the structures of this new congregation: The Eucharistic Letter which reveals its mystique and the Reglements which state its organization and activities.” (Marius Nepper, SJ, 1973)

(Thanks to Marguerite Vacher’s latest research, Nuns Without Cloister, we now accept 1660 as the date for The Eucharistic Letter and it is not connected with the Reglements (1646). 

The birthing of the Congregation of St. Joseph was in a process for a few years prior to 1650 when the first six women took their public vows before Bishop de Maupas in Le Puy. So, there was no ‘first foundation’, only the movement of Spirit working within the women and the Bishop and Fr. Medaille that climaxed on the official foundation date. 

By 1975 the translators had given us all of the original MEDAILLE documents in English.

Father Medaille’s writings include:

1646     The Rules for the Daughters of Saint Joseph

1657     The Maxims of Perfection: Part One (written for all devout souls)

1660     The Eucharistic Letter (written for all devout souls)

1672     The Maxims of Perfection: Part One and Part Two 

           (written for all devout souls)

1693     The Primitive Constitutions 

           (first printed version for the Sisters of St. Joseph)

            Maxims of the Little Institute 

           (100 Maxims for the Sisters of St. Joseph)


Another shift in our awareness…


5.  Adrien Demoustier, S.J.  (1968 and 2000) 

Fr. Demoustier has spent considerable time pondering and sharing his commentary on The Eucharistic Letter. He first wrote an article in 1968 and wrote another insightful article, some 32 years later in 2000. I quote from these sources to add to our reflections here.

In a Commentary on the Letter of Father Médaille on The Little Design (1968 talk) he says:

 “We do not know if the Letter reveals a plan oriented toward a future undetermined, or if on the contrary, it traces out a path to little groups already in existence. Certain indications suggest that it is addressed to little communities which are seeking to come into being and to survive while struggling to remain unknown.

Father Médaille encourages them in a path which he knows to be good. But, he must also know that it cannot lead to stable communities. It would not be possible in little gossiping cities of the 17th Century. He would have no illusions that his own confreres would set about to destroy it. The letter would then take a very precise tone… The Letter poses one question: How must one organize a community in order to be able to communicate this deep spiritual experience of the Christian life lived in a religious manner?”

Fr. Adrien Demoustier, S.J. spoke at the Le Puy Assembly (Oct 12, 2000) during the week of celebrations for the 350th Anniversary. His theme presentation was entitled: A Congregation without a Congregation. (I had a copy of his full talk translated into English.) In his address he is reflecting upon his own thoughts as an historian/grandfather since he wrote his first commentary on The Eucharistic Letter in 1968. Older now, and seeing the reality unfold from a 32-year perspective, he is bold and daring and forthrightly tells us to prepare for the birth of the future!

He says: “Essentially and primarily religious life is associative and not hierarchical. Canon Law and the Church will find a way to embrace a new way if we present it to them. From the beginning Canon lawyers found ways of helping the congregations to subsist and to affirm themselves.  As he sees it, the model of union and fusion, the only one experienced so far, has proved fruitful and vitalizing; however, it is not the only solution possible. In the long run, it does not solve the problem since it maintains the “old model” of the Congregation with a Superior General. With the trend in decreasing numbers becoming permanent, this could lead to grouping of all kinds of ‘originalities’ into one congregation.”

He speaks about us women being courageous and mature enough to face this Paschal hour in our history and prepare for a “congregation without congregation!” It must be embraced from within a powerlessness and a self-emptying that is willingly accepted… at least by a small number of the members.

 “The central portion of the Letter takes on a precise meaning. It is a question of actively facing the “death of forms,” their mutation/disappearance, to make way for a “new birth.” (As a woman gives birth). Death of pre-existing forms, as opposed to the past when there were no forms. In both cases: it is impossible to imagine non-existent forms.

It is the essence. It is not meant to be explained, but lived. Dare to live our individual experience of aging as a mystical experience. Live the character traits of our own psychological make-up, and that of others, as a passage of the Cross in our lives.

Collaborate actively at finding ways to let go, to move aside, to make way for others to invent new, unimaginable things, albeit somewhat foreseeable (temporary measures). Be able to say to ourselves: “Luckily, we are no longer needed”, giving us the freedom to invent our future, be it our passage to eternal life. It is a paradoxical happiness, i.e. one that can cause much pain and still bring happiness – I do not say joy – only inasmuch as we accept this pain that does not go away, even as it transforms itself into happiness. … And there are ways and means of doing it before it is too late, if one wants to avoid a very miserable old age. This goes for individuals, for communities, and for institutions.”


6.  Sr. Marguerite Vacher,Clermont-Ferrand, France, 1990 - 2010

book vacher

Sr. Marguerite concludes her wonderful book, Nuns without Cloister (English, 2010) with this open invitation to revisit our understanding of The Little Design as compared to the founder’s original inspiration. “Vacher’s methodology, comparing the congregation’s theoretical, prescriptive documents with evidence about the actual life of these communities in southern France, leads to the question of whether and to what degree succeeding generations grasped the original inspiration.” (Back cover of book) 

In the time since Vatican II, it has become possible to rediscover and reconstitute the complete heritage of Father Medaille. Over the centuries, external conditions, especially in psycho-sociological and juridical realms, limited the full realization of his insight. Changes now experienced on multiple levels – not least in historical understanding – have put all the cards back in our hands. For Sisters of St. Joseph, this provides the prospect of discovering, through the life lived by women of their own time, genuine forms of fidelity to their vocation.”  (p. 319)


Today - 1997 and beyond

Like Father Demoustier, some of us are celebrating the rebirthing of these Little Design communities as a ‘new way’ that is outside the norm/form and within the dance of Trinitarian life and speaks to us in this Third Millennium.

As we celebrated the 400th Anniversary of Father Médaille’s birth on October 6, 2010, we surrendered to the grace of the moment and began to set in motion the vision that has been growing steadily within us.

Seeing that this is our ‘perhaps in time’ moment, we invite you to return to the Source and revisit The Eucharistic Letter at your kitchen tables all around the globe!  Who knows what the Spirit might create? Where do you resonate? What wants to come to birth within you? Within the circle of spiritual seekers around you?

“To be able to accept these ‘new ways’ requires detachment from the priority given to those we had inherited from the past, and which were a blessing.” (Adrien Demoustier, SJ)


We experience this Pentecost moment in time as highly charged with Spirit-grace! Yes, Marguerite let us “put all the cards back in our hands” and exercise our highest selves in this rebirthing movement of Spirit and trust our lived experience. Isn’t it remarkable what has happened in just 37 years since The Eucharistic Letter is back in our hands, and in our own native languages?

Yes, we are gathering once again in our own homes with a small circle of friends. We are having wonderful conversations and sharing hearts. There is a readiness to move in new directions, as the Spirit blows!