Linda LIERHEIMER, The Life of Antoinette Micolon. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2004. pp. 144. No Price Listed pb. ISBN 0-87462-708-7.
Reviewed by Georgie Ann WEATHERBY, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258-0065

It was an accident of birth that Antoinette Micolon founded six Ursuline convents from 1613 to 1650 in the general vicinity of Auvergne, France. Like other adolescent women of her time, she had wished only to marry. But at the age of 15, due to a bad complexion and two wayward suitors, her hopes were dashed. Mocked by her family, telling her she should become a nun, the seed was planted. After the mishap with the second arranged marriage (to which she was actually vehemently opposed anyway), she overheard that to be a religious sister was indeed "fortunate." Naively, she then felt she had been complimented by being recommended for a cloistered life.

The account of Micolon's life begins with her birth on March 16, 1592 in Auvergne. Her mother died in her infancy and her father and eventual stepmother tucked her away in the country for her first 12 years, with no education and no religious training available. She was charitable from the beginning, often secretly providing generously for the poor.

Plagued with childish manners and plain looks, Micolon was shunned by everyone. She was said to have lived in "peaceful simplicity" (pg. 33). Hearing that aspiring to be a nun was a noble cause, she decided then and there to give her life over to chastity and God. Though she knew nothing of religious life, she vowed to follow it, never marrying. She renounced her hair and wig (destroying both) and dressed modestly, removing all ribbons and lace and striking color from her wardrobe.

Unlike most, she began taking communion regularly, and, as if speaking in tongues, learned proper French without so much as studying. Learning the evils of money-lending, she even convinced her father to cease collecting on loans.

"In 1611, at age 19, Antoinette is placed in the Benedictine Convent of Sainte-Fleurine" (pg. 49). A holy voice then came to her in 1613 telling her to found her own order and convent in Ambert. She had, in the meantime, not taken her religious vows because her father failed to show up on each scheduled occasion.

She founded her first house by the work of the Lord, converting three other women to the order along the way, and then speaking eloquently to the townswomen "who were transformed through her counsel from the ignorant and undevout... into very pious women knowledgeable about the truths of the faith and of salvation" (pg. 73). As a result, girls flocked to the convent to become Ursulines. The community was a better place in every way. They endured future attacks by visiting priests and monks without complaint and were all the more admired for it (pp. 73-75).

In 1615, Antoinette established another congregation of Ursulines in Clermont (pg. 75). In 1618, she did the same in Tulle (pg. 85). Among hard times, the sisters received grain from an unexpected donor—and it never diminished, only multiplied until the time when they were on their feet and had the means to acquire more. This was viewed as a true miracle. God "never abandons those who trust in him" (pg. 107).

A girl of 12 making her vows in the convent at Tulle was protected at all odds from being taken back by the Governor as exchange for a debt he owed. God gave Micolon the strength and reserve to fend off his attacks, and 10,000 soldiers surrounding them, if need be (she maintained that she would counter with 11,000 virgins).

Then, Antoinette's closest friend, a fellow nun, turned on her when Micolon took 30 of the 55 (total) nuns to a chateau elsewhere to avoid the plague, which was ravaging Tulle. "...As it is said, from great friendships come great enmities" (pg. 129).

After the nuns' return, still in the midst of the plague, there was a mutiny. Micolon was threatened to be deposed, and only a few (about 3) stood by her. This was seen as God's greatest test. She offered to step down as Superior, but the house was warned that "God would punish them later, especially the one who was at the helm of this faction" (pg. 135) for being ungrateful for being protected from illness and led with strength through the years by the current Superior. Micolon left anyway, feeling God called her away to a new foundation. She left Tulle financially well off, out of debt, and built up, with only a roof to complete.

The trouble behind continued. The author of the division against Antoinette fell as Superior herself in the years to follow. The townspeople, to Micolon's relief, never knew of the disunion during her time, or at any time thereafter. "There is nothing that makes religious houses flourish so much as a good reputation sustained by good morals" (pg. 139). The account ends abruptly, desiring above all else to be an inspiration for the instruction of the young (pg. 139).

This work is important most of all because it uncovers the strength and perseverance of an intensely focused woman in a time dominant with male rule. An historical look quickly reveals that Micolon has been greatly and undeservedly overlooked in previous literature on 17th century religious life.

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