A Model of Motherhood: Gabrielle Lefebvre-Watine, Mother of Archbishop Lefebvre
If it is true that “the soul of a priest is formed on his mother’s lap,” then seeking to know Gabrielle Watine will help us understand Archbishop Lefebvre more fully. Gabrielle Watine was born in Roubaix on July 4, 1880, the fourth of seven children of a textile manufacturer’s family in the north of France. Gabrielle Watine clearly inherited her mother’s energetic spirit and learned Christian piety from her good example. She accompanied her mother on visits to working families and the poor under the aegis of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; seeing the weeping sores and pale faces of the anemic was a valuable experience.
At boarding school she showed “a balanced temperament, smiling energy, a pleasant manner, modesty and gentleness.” Her personality came out in the discussions of ideas in which she participated energetically, never wanting to give way out of weakness.
When she had finished her education, Gabrielle was uncertain about her future. Should she become a nun? After much prayer and reflection, and having discussed the matter with her spiritual director, she decided she should marry. She was married on April 16, 1902, to René Lefebvre, a young manufacturer of Tourcoing.
Mother of a Large Family
Convinced that the future of a Catholic homeland depends on fruitful Christian marriages, the Lefebvre-Watines wanted to surround themselves with many children: After René, who was to become a missionary, came Jeanne, a future nun of Mary Reparatrix; and Marcel, born November 29, 1905. Then came Bernadette, a future missionary Sister and then co-foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Society of St. Pius X; and Christiane, a future Carmelite. After “the five eldest,” all of whom would answer God’s call to the religious life, were born Joseph and Michael, who carried on the family name, and Marie-Thérèse, born in 1925.
Action and Contemplation
Mrs. Lefebvre was both profoundly spiritual and, in spite of her duties as a mother, an extremely apostolic woman. Her apostolic activities were not her activities as a mother, but as a Catholic woman. Her apostolic spirit had a good influence on her children; this influence was her own as a mother. But in themselves, her apostolic activities could have been an obstacle to her dedication to the family. But the good Lord had His plan and she followed the judgment of her spiritual director, who encouraged her in the direction of her apostolic zeal. Marcel inherited all these traits. She was a qualified Red Cross nurse and devoted one and a half days a week to the care of the sick in a clinic, seeking out the tasks which others preferred to avoid. She and her husband were also members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and visited the poor, but her most important apostolate was with the Franciscan Tertiaries. Under the guidance of Mrs. Lefebvre, who became president of the chapter in Tourcoing, the number of Third Order “sisters” reached eight hundred. The novice mistresses were chosen by her, and they had their own private retreats.
Directed by her spiritual director, Father Huré, a Montfortian priest, she practised penance. Among her personal effects now preserved at the International Seminary of St. Pius X at Ecône, Switzerland, are her hair shirt and a spiked iron chain she wore around her waist. But soon, after the privations and trials of the war years, Mrs. Lefebvre contracted Pott’s disease, or spinal tuberculosis, from her imprisonment by the Germans in the basement of city hall, where she had been confined for her patriotic resistance. For a year and a half she had to stay lying down, encased in a corset of plaster of Paris, sleepless, tortured, a living example of Jesus crucified. Marcel would say later on: “We understood what suffering is. We five older children were really marked by it. Our vocation to the religious life originated then.”
Father Huré had taught Gabrielle how to do mental prayer. She meditated and did spiritual reading. She was courageous and magnanimous, and practised mortification and self-sacrifice. In 1917, she took a vow always to do the more perfect thing (which she renewed at each confession). She lived by faith, referring everything to God and His holy will, and the most abiding characteristic of her soul was gratitude to Divine Providence.
She was an excellent educator. Her husband set high standards for his children, but tended to be excessively severe in his demands. She, on the other hand, was more balanced; she preferred to guide the family by establishing an atmosphere of trust that never crushed the children’s spontaneity, but stimulated their generosity by good example. To one of her daughters who had committed a slight fault, she made this tactful remark: “I say, my dear, in that you may not have been at your best...”
The Sanctuary of the Home
The Lefebvres’ home was a sanctuary with its own liturgy, in which the Blessed Sacrament held the central place. While Father went to Mass with the maid Louise at 6:15 a.m. and served for the Dean, Mother woke the children, made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and made sure they made their morning offering. Then she went to Mass at 7 a.m. with the children who were old enough to walk—they did not need to be asked twice to go. When they were older, they went to Mass at boarding school. Every evening, the family prayers led by the father gave them the opportunity to put right any disagreements that might have occurred during the day, and to unite their hearts in God’s love. The children never went to bed without receiving their parents’ blessing.
Ascension and Consummation
Gabrielle had the joy of seeing her children, one after the other, find the path prepared for them by divine providence. She corresponded often with her three missionaries in Africa, and her letters remain a source of spiritual guidance.
The ascension of her soul to God was consummated during her final illness, an intestinal obstruction or perhaps cancer. She was hospitalized on July 7, 1938, and on the 11th was given Extreme Unction. She admitted: “I could not have imagined that it was possible to suffer like this.” On the 12th she received Communion and made a large sign of the cross to bless from afar her five eldest children who could not be there. Then she said to her three youngest: “I am not St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, but I will obtain for you whatever you ask me.” And then turning towards her husband: “You too, René,” she said. That morning she had said to her brother Felix: “You know, I am going to heaven.” And when he looked at her speechless, she added: “I am called to Paradise.” In the evening around 5 p.m., she gave her last piece of advice to her children: “Put the good Lord above everything on earth.” After the prayers for the dying recited by the family, she had “this amazing look on her face as if she were seeing something impossible to describe and towards which she felt drawn, because she seemed to be trying to prop herself up in bed,” and then she breathed her last.
Convinced of the holiness of their mother, the Lefebvre children did not hesitate to invoke her intercession. Fr. Le Crom’s study of the soul of Mrs. Lefebvre (Rev. Le Crom, The Life of Gabrielle Lefebvre: The Mother of Archbishop Lefebvre, Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1994) reveals her continual renouncement and constant union with God in thanksgiving—a mark that shows that the fundamental gift of wisdom has been active.