On February 26, Marymount celebrated Founders Day in honor of the university’s founding order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The guest speaker was Sister Gabrielle Corbally, RSHM, who is celebrating her 60th jubilee and was a member of an RSHM international group that translated all the early founding documents of the order from the original French to modern English.
Sister Gabrielle brought to life Father Jean Gailhac, who sowed the first seeds of what would eventually become the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Father Gailhac risked his reputation by dedicating himself to rescuing prostitutes and their children from the streets in 19th century provincial France. Sallying forth with his mission despite the small-town rumor mill, he established the vision and values of Marymount’s founding order, which has continued to fight for social justice and access to health care and education.
Sister Gabrielle noted that Father Gailhac (1802-1890) and the noted French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) lived through what she called “the most tumultuous, chaotic period of French history.” She urged the audience to recall Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, because that painted a dramatic but true picture of the dirt, poverty, and misery that was the daily reality for most people, not only in Béziers, Father Gailhac’s hometown, but throughout France.
Father Gailhac had been teaching philosophy at the seminary in Montpellier, his alma mater. During a school vacation, he went home to his parents in Béziers and started working at the Hotel Dieu, a hospital for poor veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The hospital also treated prostitutes, as venereal diseases were rampant among both sets of patients. That’s when he decided to leave teaching and start caring for the most dispossessed people in his community.
Victor Hugo, in a letter to his Italian publisher, summed up his intent in Les Misérables: “…Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "Open up, I am here for you."
That sentence could easily illustrate Father Gailhac’s intent in starting first a refuge for the women that he established at Hotel Dieu, then an orphanage for their children. Sister Gabrielle noted, “Father Gailhac had 50 prostitutes in his first work, The Refuge. Just think about the gossip!”
His works drew raised eyebrows in Béziers, a town of 5,000 in southwest France. But his efforts also drew the financial support of a childhood friend, Eugene Cure, and later of his widow, Appollonie Cure, the woman who eventually would give up her wealth, take religious vows, and become Mother St. Jean, the founding member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
From Béziers, the RSHMs fanned out to serve around the world, providing quality education and health care, and advocating for social justice. Today, Marymount continues to carry forward Father Gailhac’s vision through its strong commitment to Catholic values and a culture of engagement that fosters intellectual curiosity, service to others, and a global perspective.