The following lines are based mainly on the “Vita beatae Julianae” (Life of Blessed Juliana), whose author asked the people closest to the saint, Eve of St. Martin, in particular.
1. Context and origins
At the end of the 12th century, new calls were heard: the gentle and tender call of Francis who was sorry to see that “Love is not loved”; the strong and demanding call of Dominic who invited his brothers to preach and teach… It is time because a new world is emerging and growing: that of cities absorbed by the concerns of manufacturing and trade.
Faith springs into new sources. In many cloisters, monks and nuns live at the rhythm of a life restored to its original requirements by Saint Bernard. Coming from the urban environment or the peasant land, young people respond to the vibrant calls of Francis and Dominic; they choose a poor life and offer the inhabitants of these expanding cities the spectacle of a life dedicated to preaching by example and by word.
Women are not left behind in the great spiritual quest of this late 12th century. There are those who choose the cloister; but there are those who want to fulfil their vocation within urban society; some retire to narrow relocations, in the shade of the bell towers of parishes and colleges; others gather in houses where they share the common life; others associate in communities dedicated to the help of the poor and the care of the sick. It is in this environment of recluses, beguines and nuns that Julienne of Cornillon will evolve.
In 1192, the peasants of Retinne, Henri and his wife Frescende, asked the priest (probably a certain Everelinus, priest of Fléron) to baptize their second granddaughter, Julienne. A few springs will suffice, alas! for the same church to sound, on two occasions, the sad accents of the liturgy of the deceased. Henri and Frescende, who went down to the grave, left behind them two young lives that had to be entrusted to other hands… The choice of relatives is made for the house of Cornillon, at the entrance to Liège, when, coming from Retinne and the heights of the Plateau de Herve, we go towards the City.
The pre-showers had been installed there since 1124. Next to the Norbertine abbey, at the beginning of the 12th century, a house was opened to accommodate lepers. Leprosy was present in our regions at that time but it seems that other diseases have been assimilated to it. The number of patients in this house was not expected to be very high (about twenty at most, it seems).
The Cornillon leprosarium actually had four parts: two for healthy brothers and sisters (haitis); they had to take care of the other two, reserved for sick brothers and sisters (méseaux). All, healthy and sick, participate in the administration of the hospice.
As early as 1176, the institution was well established and received its first regulations from the City. Brothers and sisters are expected to adopt community life and practice the sharing of goods. When they entered Cornillon, they dispossessed themselves of the assets they entrusted to the hospice for the care of the sick.
Religious services were provided by a few brothers residing in the house. Both civil and religious authorities claim to exercise their authority over the Cornillon leprosarium. It is the source of tensions and even open conflicts. All this does not prevent the house from playing its role and justifying the evangelical motto found on the seal of the institution: “Infirmus fui et visitastis me” (I was sick and you visited me).
2. Spiritual Portrait of Saint Juliana
Sister, Sapience, is responsible for the instruction and formation of Juliana and her sister Agnes. The author of La Vita, our main source, points out that circumstances have made Julienne a serious little girl, inclined towards the interior life, receptive to what she is taught. A daughter of her time, she listens to the stories from the lives of the saints. Julienne turns to the most humble occupations. She soon became active at the cattle factory, the community farm. She milked the cows. A novice farmer, she does not escape the indelicacies of these animals who, on occasion, rush her into manure.
She loves to meditate and read. She is proficient in the Scriptures in French and in Latin. She willingly turned to the books of Saint Augustine and the writings of Saint Bernard. Of the latter, whom she particularly loves, she studies by heart about twenty sermons from the last part of the commentary on the Song of Songs. «She especially loved the hymns of love, says the author of the Vita, because the language of love belonged to him, whom she loves.»
She reserved her talks for the simple and the little ones, putting herself within their reach. This repulsion to all forms of boasting is in line with St. Bernard’s teaching on the degrees of humility.
If Julienne rejects all pretensions, she nevertheless has a certain culture. However, we will know no more about the extent of her knowledge than is indicated above. It obviously exceeds that of the common mortals of her time, but there is no reason to equate it with that of the greatest minds of her time.
From her early days at the Boverie dates back to a deep affection for the Eucharist; this affection plunges Julianna into a prayer that she would never want to interrupt. At the Boverie, Julianna recollects herself in an oratory at the time of Mass; she unites herself mentally since she was unable to attend in person.
Communion plunges Julienne into the sweetest of joys; she wishes to savor it in silence “for at least eight days”. Julianna’s attitude is similar to that of the pious women of her time. In fact, these women are generally animated by such a Eucharistic piety that Jacques de Vitry wrote: “Among the holy women, there are some for whom the Eucharist is not only sweet in the heart, but also sweet in the mouth. There are also some who run to meet the Eucharist and find neither peace nor rest unless they receive communion”. Julienne prefers not to draw attention to her Eucharistic piety and sticks to the usual practices.
Juliana devotes herself to all the work until she is exhausted. Then illness forces her to interrupt them. The author of La Vita insists on this extraordinary capacity for renunciation which caused Julianna to fast from adolescence to death. She is content with a daily meal, taken every evening but often as derisory as a simple handful of boiled peas.
Julianna is very attached to the saints, even more so to the Virgin Mary. She follows the course of the liturgical year attentively, moved to relive in this way the work of Redemption. She repeats the Hail Mary very often, adding “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word”. Julianna also endeavours to spread the recitation of the Magnificat in convents and beguinages, to which she attributes a particular effectiveness.
According to her biographer and contemporary, three realities have exhausted Julianna’s strength: the work done at the Boverie, the memory of the Passion of Christ, the intensity of her love for the Creator.
Julianna thus appears to us from the outset as a woman who desires to take the last place and living her faith with the heart of a poor person, like Mary, whose Magnificat she can sing as an authorized interpreter.
3. «Fioretti» by Saint Julianna of Cornillon
The biographer presents us with a genuine anthology of anecdotes that highlights Julianna’s spiritual “sixth sense”, but also the many contacts she maintains with a whole series of pious people, in particular with Eve, a recluse in the church of Saint-Martin. The latter is, without a doubt, the witness who provided the most information to the author of La Vita. Recluse (there were some like her in many churches of the diocese) she was bound to a chaste life and withdrawn from the world, subject to a superior appointed by the bishop. Without doubt this was Jean de Lausanne.
The devotion of relics during the Middle Ages is well known; Julianna avoids the traps of impostors. A “great prince” and a personal friend of Julianna’s had been induced to leave for the Holy Land; they had been told that, thanks to this expedition, they would fall into possession of the column of scourging and the whip that had struck Christ. Julianna advises this friend not to add credit to these decoys and to give up her plan to leave. This advice is followed. When information finally arrives, it turns out that the column is “so big that it could not be brought back”; as for the whip, Julianna denounces it as a vulgar object that does not deserve any veneration. The investigation effectively leads to the demonstration of deception… Julianna is really not inclined to let herself be dominated by imposture and illusion.
4. The Prioress of Cornillon
Sapienca, who had assured Julianna’s formation, was for a long time Prioress of the sisters. When she died, the community voted for Julianna, who accepted this office only out of a spirit of obedience.
Julianna warned the sisters to abandon their male companionship. As they turn a deaf ear, she reproaches them more severely while maintaining her solicitude. She is very concerned about their salvation. They and their accomplices begin to hate Julianna. They defame her and spy on her. They find people to lend an ear to these slanderous remarks. It is a real persecution to which Julianna responds with patience and benevolence, comforted as she is by Godfrey, the Prior of the brothers.
In 1237, death takes away from Julianna the faithful support of Godfrey. Once Godfrey had disappeared, Cornillon lived in troubled times. A brother hostile to Julianna is designated to succeed Godfrey. Now a Prior, the character takes advantage of his position to fiercely oppose Julianna. He first wants to take in hand all the papers and official documents concerning all the property of the house, with the intention of using it as he pleases. Julianna refuses to give him the documents she possesses. She keeps them at home with the agreement and support of the most reliable sisters of the community. As a result, the Prior in question and his followers complained to the City of Liège. They accuse Julianna of having stolen these documents and of having given a large sum to the bishop “in view of the establishment of a certain solemn feast”. As a result, the citizens of Liege, irritated by what they heard, entered Cornillon with Julianna’s enemies, forced their way to the oratory but did not find the documents “which were nevertheless in plain view in a box”. They devastate the place and attack two nuns whom they accuse of hiding Julianna, who, indeed, has been able to find a safe refuge.
Informed of these events, Jean de Lausanne, canon of the chapter of Saint-Martin, puts his home at their disposal and decides to sleep in the collegiate church. This stay in Saint-Martin will last for three months. Robert de Thourotte, former bishop of Langres, bishop of Liège since 1240, could not ignore what was going on. He goes to meet Julianna in Saint-Martin and recommends her not to leave the place until he has managed to get to the bottom of this affair. He sends “discreet and prudent men” to investigate how the Prior was appointed and has, since his election, dealt with the spiritual and temporal interests of Cornillon. The bishop’s delegates uncovered the shenanigans in the appointment of the prior and then the exactions he had committed. The bishop can therefore only depose this Prior (he sends him to the leprosarium in Huy). And Julianna to return to her house with her companions.
It was probably at this time, in 1242, that the house of Cornillon was subjected to a new regulation decreed by Robert de Thourotte. These regulations were in line with the reform Julianna was calling for. Circumstances were hardly favourable to the serene appointment of a new Prior. It was Jean, a young brother who was safe from all suspicion, who was appointed. If Julianna approves this choice, she can only sympathize with the fate of the newly elected one whose future trials she anticipates. Robert de Thourotte also sees to it that Julienne has a new home, less uncomfortable and better situated. Jean de Lausanne and Eve of Saint-Martin are responsible for the expenses incurred. Many visitors from the clergy or high society come to find Julianna and recommend themselves to her prayers.
This infatuation wounded Julianna’s humility. But can she dismiss bishops? Now, among the visitors, there are two: Guiart de Laon, a very renowned theologian, bishop of Cambrai; and Robert, the bishop of Liège. Julianna took advantage of these contacts to win Robert de Thourotte to the cause of a new solemnity in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ.
The death of the Bishop of Liège, Robert de Thourotte, deprives Julianna of her main protector. Her opponents will take the initiative again. It was not the newly elected bishop, Henri de Gueldre, who thwarted their plans: as soon as he was appointed (October 1246), he abandoned Cornillon to the civil administration of the city! The former Prior returned to the house as a simple brother, while John was removed and the office of Prior was entrusted to a Premonstratensian from the neighbouring abbey. Julianna tries to maintain the morale of the faithful sisters and to encourage the young Prior to stay on. But the former Prior is soon restored to his duties. Here is Julianna in a very bad situation. She can only refuse to obey this unworthy superior. Later, when Julianna was asked about her conflicts with the Prior of Cornillon, implying that her attitude had not been immune from reproach, she would answer: “I would like you to know that I never strayed from the way of the gospel with regard to the Prior when he tormented and bullied me. You probably also know that I would never have uttered a lie or plotted anything against him that my conscience could reproach me for.”
The pressure is mounting to force him to leave the house. The citizens of Liège, mounted against her, invade Cornillon again. Armed with all sorts of instruments, they destroy her oratory while she takes refuge in the dormitory. Julianna can no longer stay in Cornillon. Her freedom is threatened by the supporters of the Prior; her life itself is in danger. She made her decision known to the sisters who remained faithful to her: “You see that I can no longer stay in this house when the hatred of my enemies is ever stronger and they seem to want to persecute me to death. I would provoke the anger and fury of those who persecute me. I do not want to be found guilty in the eyes of God for causing my death. Therefore, I must get away from here and seek a new home.”
Julianna then left (1248) Cornillon with a few nuns. She is without money. She answered those who asked her about her means of existence: “God will help us and, if it is necessary, two courageous sisters will go begging at the gates.
She stayed first in Robermont, an abbey which was rebuilt in 1244 by Cistercian nuns from the Benedictine Valley. She then went to Val-Benoît and was finally welcomed in Val Notre-Dame, not far from Huy. All these houses, of recent foundation, are daughters of Cîteaux…
The fact remains that the Prior did not let go: he intrigued and put pressure on each of these communities so that Julianna could not stay there. She resolves to take the road to Namur. And to say to those who share her fate: “Let’s go to Namur, where they are used to welcoming those who are driven out of their homeland.” So Julianna and her companions – Agnès, Ozile and Isabelle – take the road to exile, condemned to beg for asylum, with no income, far away from their loved ones. In these ordeals, Julianna reveals herself to be very strong, which astonishes our author: “Who would have believed in such a strength of constancy in this fragile sex and this almost useless body?”
Julianna and her sisters arrive in Namur “but there is no room for them in the hotel business”. They find refuge in the homes of poor beguines; they stay with them for some time and experience destitution. Imène de Looz, a Cistercian abbess from Val St. George in Salzinnes, sister of Archbishop Conrad of Cologne, “renowned for her great wisdom and grace”, was interested in the fate of the exiles. Coming from the great nobility (the family of the Counts of Looz), she benefits from numerous supports which will be very useful to Julianna. She contacts Archdeacon John, who administers this part of the diocese of Liège, and explains to him the situation of Julianna and her sisters. This archdeacon “who used to help poor beguines” was moved by their situation. He puts at their disposal the house he owns near the church of Saint-Aubain. The archdeacon then had a hospice built for the poor and sick sisters; he granted Julianna a plot of land adjacent to this hospice and the church of Saint-Symphorien to build a house. And, thanks to the donations of the faithful, a small house was soon built to house the sisters. There they could lead a poor life, but they were supported by alms giving and the good grace of the people of Namur.
Decidedly, Imène’s interventions prove to be effective since she obtains an annual income from the house in Cornillon, which will be paid to the sisters who have taken refuge in Namur.
Guiart, the bishop of Cambrai, also seems to be interested in their fate since he advises Julianna and her companions to place themselves under the authority of Imène. In this way, they would avoid being accused of living without a clearly defined situation. Agnès and Ozile, two of Julianna’s companions, die in the meantime and are buried in Salzinnes. Only Isabelle remains, who convinces Julianna to go and live in the Abbey of Salzinnes, finding it superfluous to maintain a house for two nuns. The two sisters go to Salzinnes. The abbess receives them with great affection and provides them with a very spacious room. Julianna refuses all this consideration and begs to be installed, like a recluse, in a small house near the church.
During Julianna’s stay in Salzinnes, a lecherous clerk indulges in her disorders in a house near the abbey. The “Empress of Namur” (indeed, the Countess Marie de Brienne is the wife of Baudouin de Courtenay, the last Latin emperor of Constantinople) learns of this and orders the destruction of the lupanar. As a result, the people of Namur became angry with their countess and with the house of Salzinnes who, they thought, had advised her. Julianna is appalled.
In the meantime, Isabelle dies in her turn; she will undoubtedly have been Julianna’s dearest friend.
In 1251, with the arrival in Liège of Hugues de Saint-Cher as legate of the Holy See, the institution of the feast was resumed. A former Prior of the Dominicans of Liège, he was one of those who had approved the establishment of such a feast during the very first consultations in 1230. Asked to establish it officially, he fixed the feast after the octave of Pentecost and sang the Pontifical Mass in the church of Saint-Martin. On 20 December 1252, Hugues de Saint-Cher made the feast obligatory throughout the diocese of Liège and the decree was approved and confirmed on 30 November 1254 by Legate Cardinal Pierre Caputius.
The unrest continued in Namur. The people plan to burn the Val Saint-Georges. The countess enjoins Imène to leave the abbey with her community until the turmoil subsides. Julianna denounces these illusions and, when the community has to disperse, she gives free rein to her pain. She spits blood and will not stop doing so until she dies.
Events prove Julienne right: the Countess Marie, made unpopular by measures that only benefited the empire of Constantinople to the detriment of the people of Namur, is expelled in December 1256. For the nuns compromised at her side, it is necessary to leave again… After the dispersal of her community, she took Julianna to Fosses where Robert de Thourotte had died ten years earlier. A canon, who was a cantor at the collegiate church of Saint-Feuillen de Fosses (today Fosses-la-Ville), welcomed her in a reclusery adjoining the collegiate church. Julianna lived there for two years (1256-1258) in the company of Ermentrude, a sister from Cornillon.
The end is near… Julienne is sick and has to go to bed. Seeing her end coming, she asks for the assistance of Jean de Lausanne. Does she want to reveal long-kept secrets to him? But neither Jean nor his relatives in Liege will come to see her: war is threatening the county of Namur, and it seems that they have not taken this illness seriously. Julianna had predicted it: none of her dearest friends would be present at her death. She will not be able to reveal to anyone the “secrets of her heart”, too modest to communicate them to people who had not shared with her the most crucial hours of her life. She answers to those who tell her of her death: “I’m not going to die, I’m going to live.” How can we not think of the last words of Thérèse of Lisieux: “I’m not dying, I’m coming into life!”
For her biographer, she will die a virgin but also a martyr because, as St. Bernard teaches, she wanted to travel a long and trying road carrying her cross for the love of the eternal Crucified One. Lent 1258 came to an end; on Holy Saturday, Julianna said to Sister Ermentrude: “Tomorrow I must go to church and bid farewell; never in this perishable life have I felt so much need to go to church. So she is taken there the next day; after hearing the matins and several masses, she receives communion from the hands of her host, sings the song, then returns to the place where she prays and remains in church until evening. She is then taken back to her house where, “with tears running down her cheeks”, she receives the last sacraments. She died two days later.
Finally comes “the day when the endless light shines” (April 5, 1258). Several nuns, the cantor of Fosses, Ermentrude and some relatives are at her bedside. Her state of extreme weakness precluded her from receiving Communion, but Imène suggested that she be presented with the Blessed Sacrament. Julienne refuses, considering that it is not for the Lord to come to her but for her to go to Him. However, the singer, in white ornaments, brings the Body of the Lord. When Julianna hears the bell ringing announcing the coming of the Blessed Sacrament, she rises up in her bed; the host is then presented to her: “Behold, Madam, your Savior, who for your sake has deigned to be born and to die. Pray to Him that He will defend you against your enemies and guide you.” Julianna, looking at the Blessed Sacrament, answers: “Amen! And so be it for Madam!” And so she wished Imène to share with her the spiritual blessings she had experienced. After having articulated these last words, Julienne, aged 66, died on a Friday, at the very hour when Jesus put his spirit back.
The Friday of the Easter octave…
After a night of vigil and prayer, Mass is celebrated for the deceased in the church of Fosses. Then, her body is taken on a wagon to the Abbey of Villers, according to her wish, “by her faithful friend Gobert”. Curiously, this character is named here for the first time, and yet it is him that Julianna has entrusted to carry out her last wishes. Gobert, Count of Aspremont, had once belonged to the high French chivalry and would be related to Robert de Thourotte. One of his brothers was bishop of Metz. Renouncing the world, Gobert had joined the sons of Saint Bernard at the Abbey of Villers. He died in 1263 in the odour of sanctity (the feast of this “blessed” is celebrated on 20 August).
The funeral procession is accompanied by Imène and his family. In Villers, Julianna’s body is treated with great respect and is watched over by the monks until the next day, Lord’s Day. That day, a cleric who arrived unexpectedly made an admirable preaching on this Sacrament of the Altar that Julianna had loved so much… It is also notable that in Villers, the feast of the Blessed Sacrament had been celebrated for several years. After Mass and the rites of farewell, Julianna’s body was buried behind the high altar of the conventual church where the remains of other saints of the abbey had already been deposited.
Saint Julianna ?
Julianna’s reputation for holiness was therefore premature. This burial and the writing of her Vita a few years later show it well. Even if she was not formally canonized, tradition is nevertheless constant in the affirmation of this holiness. Pontifical Acts of 1599 and 1698 allude to “St. Julian” and grant indulgences to those who venerate her. In the 18th century, Jean-Theodore of Bavaria, Prince Bishop of Liège, introduced Saint Julianna into the Liège breviary. In the 19th century, the Belgian bishops prayed to the Pope to extend this devotion to the universal Church but only obtained recognition. All this did not prevent Julianna from being invoked as a saint in her own right, which is what John Paul II did during his trip to Belgium in 1985. At present, the Roman Missal for French-speaking countries provides for this feast to be celebrated in Belgium on 7 August (and no longer on 5 April).
This text is largely based on the content of “Fêter Dieu avec Julienne de Cornillon”, published by Editions Fidélité in 1996 in the collection “Sur la route des saints”, n°14. We thank the Editions Fidélité for giving us permission to reproduce it here.