The Sisters of Keur Guilaye, OSB
MOTHER FRANCOISE MARGUERITE DE BRANTES
Abbess of Keur Guilaye
Françoise Marguerite de Brantes was born in Paris on 24th March, 1935, into a very united Christian family with which she always kept close links despite geographical distance. She was the penultimate of five children. One of her sisters, Anne-Aymone, married the President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
Marguerite entered the Abbey of St Cecilia of the Congregation of Solesmes on Easter Monday, 2nd April 1956, taking in religion the name of her deceased father, an officer, who had died in tragic circumstances during the war and to whose memory she remained closely attached. She made her profession on 2nd April, 1956, and was definitively consecrated to God three years later on the Feast of St Scholastica, translating her motto ‘Sicut oculi ancillae’ (‘as the eyes of a servant’), desiring only to serve.
From the noviciate onwards she showed great zeal for humility and obedience, which she continued to exercise in love, knowing also how to use her natural disposition to take part in the joyful activities of her sisters. She worked in the bursary and in agriculture, making use of skills learnt before her entry and of her love of nature. Utterly faithful to the Office, she was an inspiration for festivals and sometimes, under obedience, helped the novices to celebrate them. It was also an inspiration to see her delight as she returned from the stables in her farming-gear, carefully carrying one or two pails of fresh milk.
She was chosen by Abbess Gaudentie Limozin to be superior of the new foundation in Senegal, although she was the younger of the two sisters. She arrived at Dakar with Sr Bernadette in 1967. Dom Philippe de Ribes, at that time prior of the monastery at Keur Moussa, received them and guided them in everything they needed to do, first of all finding the best position and building the monastery. Plenty of indabas in prospect, not to mention walks on the so-called paths of sand, decorated with ham-ham (little spiny balls which follow you and prick you wherever you go). Plenty of questions to ask and initiatives to try. With help from the monks of Keur Moussa, the support of the Servants of the Poor who ran the dispensary, the understanding of the chief of the village of Keur Guilaye and his team (some of whom were proud of having fought for France), everything went ahead: the church and the main buildings gradually arose, and the monastery dedicated to St John the Baptist was opened on 16th April 1980 under the presidency of Mgr Thiandoum, Archbishop of Dakar, and a large gathering.
Mother Françoise presided over the establishment of a true monastic life, always alert to the teachings of the Church, especially in the liturgical domain, whose execution she carefully oversaw, assiduous with the whole community, which at that time numbered twelve sisters, at the patient and enjoyable singing practices of Dom Dominique Catta on the first elements of the psalmody of Keur Moussa, which gradually developed. Her wisdom showed also in the adaptation of our monastic heritage to local conditions. To achieve this, during periods of building and enlargement she visited communities in Senegal and the new monasteries of West Africa to make use of the experiences of the different superiors encountered. On this basis she developed fruitful friendships which issued in mutual assistance.
Busy as she was, Mother Françoise always had time for guests of the monastery, especially religious. She was sympathetic to the needs of the surrounding families, always eager to help them and soothe their troubles. She became conventual prioress when the monastery achieved its independence, and when it was raised to the status of an abbey, the sisters renewed their confidence in her by electing her as first abbess. She received the abbatial blessing at the hands of Mgr Jacques Sarr, bishop of Thiès, on 12th April 2008, the Saturday before Good Shepherd Sunday, taking as her motto ‘Illum oportet crescere’ (‘He must increase’) of John the Baptist, thereby expressing her desire to see the Reign of the Lord increase in herself and her sisters. She celebrated her golden jubilee on 10th February, 2000. Being of delicate health, she put up with many a trial in this matter with silence, courage and a sense of humour. She continued to enlarge and embellish the monastery. In March 2010 she made known the serious illness which was to carry her off. Accepting every medical care, she spent nine long months at her monastery of profession, St Cecilia at Solesmes, where she was surrounded by fraternal encouragement. When it was evident that science could do no more to improve her condition, she returned to Senegal, to her beloved monastery, determined to remain there surrounded by her community till the definitive day of meeting her Lord. She died peacefully in the Lord the 20th March, 2011, the Second Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Transfiguration.
Taking our inspiration from the homily of the Abbot of Keur Moussa on the occasion of the six-month Mass of Mother Abbess, we may conclude:
It remains for us to thank the Lord, who gave her to us and kept her faithful to her vocation right to the end. In our midst she bore witness to her real love of God and the neighbour. Thanks also for the heritage she bequeathed to us, the example of serious monastic life, attachment to the Church and the monastic tradition received from Solesmes. Finally, thanks for the place we hope she enjoys with the Lord. The Lord promised what the eye has not seen and the ear not heard to those who renounce themselves and the world to follow Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. This is the basis of our hope.