I often notice that whenever we talk about faith and business, the discussion is mostly about businessmen and their faith. But what about women who seek to live a life of holiness in business? It’s not an exaggeration to say that they receive much less attention.
I recently read an article published on the French-language version of the Catholic website Aleteia which provides a welcome corrective to this tendency. Entitled “Businesswoman et bienheureuse, c’est possible!” and authored by Agnès Pinard Legry, it summarizes the life of a seventeenth- century Frenchwoman, Marie Poussepin. She combined the pursuit of sanctity with an active life as an entrepreneur. As Pinard Legry writes, “Her story, whether it is her business acumen or her piety, has something to inspire many busy businesswomen in search of holiness.”
Born in 1653 into a middle-class family, Marie was the daughter of a landowner who owned a silk needle mill. From an early age, she was very devout. After her mother died, Marie’s father went heavily into debt in an effort to maintain his social status. On the edge of bankruptcy, he abandoned his family.
It was at this point that Marie rose to the occasion. She lifted the threat of bankruptcy and took over management of the family business, a highly unusual step for a woman at the time. But Marie quickly showed that she possessed, as Pinard Legry observes, “incredible entrepreneurial intuition and a keen business sense.”
Marie saw that the future lay in the machine manufacturing of wool products rather than handknitting. Marie consequently made the courageous decision to abandon obsolete forms of guild craftsmanship and introduced the loom into the wool industry. She personally learned how to operate the equipment and trained her employees in this new method of production. At the same time, Marie made a point of recruiting and training, according to Pinard Legry, “apprentices aged between 15 and 22 years of age.” She thus not only bolstered the economic growth of her city but also provided new jobs to young people who might otherwise have faced bleak economic futures.
Throughout this time, Marie continued an intense prayer life and performed works of charity while simultaneously raising her younger brother, Charles. Once he was old enough, in 1690, Marie turned over the business to him. Pinard Legry points out, however, that this was not the end of her entrepreneurial or charitable ways. She followed her late mother’s footsteps in becoming president of the Confraternity of Charity, an adjunct of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In 1695, Marie founded a female community of third-order Dominicans – the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin – who served the sick and educated young people, especially in rural areas. By 1725, her community was responsible for 20 educational and healthcare institutions. Marie died in 1744 at the age of 90. By that time, there were 20 additional communities in her order. Some 250 years later, in 1994, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
In the words of Pinard Legry, Marie illustrates that “the worlds of business and charity” and the “spirit of capitalism and Catholic ethics” (esprit du capitalisme et éthique catholique) need not be in opposition. To that, we can add that Blessed Marie Poussepin shows that Christian women are as capable of living holy lives while being successful entrepreneurs and business leaders as any man.