1837 Bastille Day dinner: Long friendship between Catholic nuns and French president

Michele Slavin, CNN • Updated 24th May 2016 ( CNN ) — It’s a story that has elements of romance, history and folklore. In 1837, as an inmate at the French Convent of the…

1837 Bastille Day dinner: Long friendship between Catholic nuns and French president

Michele Slavin, CNN • Updated 24th May 2016

( CNN ) — It’s a story that has elements of romance, history and folklore.

In 1837, as an inmate at the French Convent of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, Vivian Brigitte Clay was given a chance to escape her oppressive religious life — only she declined.

“Before I reached freedom, I would be sold to a man who will be my slave for life,” she wrote in a memoir.

Born at the St. Louis Fine Arts School , Clay grew up surrounded by music and art. She was also deeply affected by scripture and continually study its passages.

“After a few years in Christian education, Vivian was a very observant Christian and she taught herself as much as she could,” said historian and author Isabelle Sherborne, who wrote a book on Clay.

Vivian Brigitte Clay and Henri Frederick Clivivens. Courtesy Library of Congress

Clay also studied history. Her knowledge of the American Founding Fathers and how they came to be was profound, Sherborne said.

French President Alexandre Monachin (center) hosted a historical dinner in the presence of French and American dignitaries (below) at the French Convent of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul during Bastille Day celebrations in 1838, marking a first of its kind in foreign relations between France and the United States.

But Clay had a difficult childhood. She lost her mother and two sisters at a young age, leading her to speak almost exclusively in broken French.

“She carried with her the pain of loss, and the pain of her mother not being able to come to her when she was really getting her life on track,” Sherborne said.

Vivian Brigitte Clay and Henri Frederick Clivens. Courtesy Library of Congress

When she was 20, Clay entered the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul.

French President Alexandre Monachin (in purple) hosted a historical dinner in the presence of French and American dignitaries (above) at the French Convent of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul during Bastille Day celebrations in 1838, marking a first of its kind in foreign relations between France and the United States.

Her religious devotion had another surprise: Although she was supposed to observe strict rules regarding her dress and manner, Clay walked around barefoot, painting portraits and writing poetry in French.

“This sort of unusual behavior, from a very low-society woman, goes against the nuns’ doctrine,” Sherborne said.

Clay was eventually sent to the convent’s library.

Michele Slavin, CNN • Updated 18th May 2016

As part of their personal library of thousands of pages, the nuns began to notice Clay’s fiddling with her dress.

She was fond of reading with a pencil. And she made lots of drawings in the margins, filling out passages and straightening up the pages.

“She had a special interest in the French Revolution, and like many of the women of her generation she wanted to understand what was going on in that world,” Sherborne said.

Over time, Clay grew closer to the nuns, suggesting ways to preserve their library. They agreed.

“The nuns needed a lawyer to help defend their property, and Vivian took up that mission.”

Clay showed the nuns documents about repossessing the collection, and they published a poem in her honor in 1835. Then, she wrote a little book to share with the nuns.

“It was an amazing document,” Sherborne said. “It was a little children’s book, inside which she talked about her life — what she had lived.

It was also a warning.

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