Madeleine-Sophie Barat was born in France in 1779 in the little Burgundian town of Joigny. She went to Paris in 1795, at the height of the French Revolution, and initially considered becoming a Carmelite. However, her experience of Revolutionary violence in Joigny and Paris led her on another path. In 1800 she founded the Society of the Sacred Heart whose purpose was to make known the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ, and take part in the restoration of Christian life in France through the education of young women of the rich and the poor classes.
The Society of the Sacred Heart quickly expanded within Europe and beyond. At the same time Sophie Barat also grew, transformed by her experience as leader and friend to so many women who joined her. She learned to face the impact of Jansenism in herself, in her family, in the Church and to understand that its true counter-balance was the experience the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ. Sophie Barat had a natural capacity for friendship and she enjoyed a wide network of relationships, with her family, with members of the Society, with the clergy, and with students and friends in all walks of life. On another level, Sophie Barat was awake to the social, political, economic and religious currents operating in Europe and in the wider world of her time. By her awareness of their impact on the world of education Sophie Barat ensured the Society’s contribution to the education and the promotion of women in her time and into the future.
In exercising her role as founder and superior general Sophie Barat gradually created her own style of leadership. This tended towards moderation, seeking the middle ground, accepting the possible, more realistic option, rather than the impossible ideal; and she tended by instinct to consult rather than decree. This style of leadership was tested several times within and without the Society, especially from 1806-1815 and 1839-1851. Nevertheless, Sophie Barat remained superior general of the Society of the Sacred Heart from 1806 until her death in 1865.
Sophie Barat’s spiritual leadership of the Society was centred on the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ. She was committed to a deep life of prayer and reflection, and she continually invited the members of the Society to see this as the basis for their inner lives and for whatever tasks they undertook. The importance of such qualities was stressed in the original Constitutions of the Society of the Sacred Heart of 1815 and reaffirmed in the revised Constitutions of 1982. They are also found consistently in the collection of Sophie Barat’s 14,000 original letters and remain a vital legacy to the Society and to the wider Christian community.
By the time of her death in 1865 Sophie Barat guided an international community of 3,359 women, inspired by a deeply held spiritual ideal and offering a service of education to women in Europe, North Africa, North and South America.
No authentic portrait of Sophie Barat exists from her lifetime. She specifically refused to sit for a portrait, or to have her photograph taken.
Madeleine Sophie Barat was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on May 25, 1925.