For those hardwired for independence and wandering, it is easy to lose home. Lately, I have been roaming the Great Plains to chase bison and vanishing prairie. I published a multimedia bison history, then ran off to Nebraska to watch the epic sandhill crane migration. Two weeks later, I hopped a plane to France. I was going to a conference to pitch online communications as a means to engage the next generation in the protection of our heritage and environment.

When you sport for a spendy plane ticket, and you’re flying 15 hours, it makes sense to add some travel time. With a week to travel through the Normandy region, I figured I could solve a family mystery. My travelling companion was a historian who had lived in Rouen and was anxious to visit a place she loved. Rouen is the site where France’s patron saint, Joan of Arc, was imprisoned and burned at the stake.

It was my chance to walk in history and unravel why my mother once took this saint’s name as her own.


Rouen has many places to walk through Joan of Arc’s past. This is the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, where you can attend the second trial of young Joan in an immersive experience.

My mother’s first calling was to join the convent and devote her life to religion. This clearly did not last; she left and married, producing five offspring who are now scattered across the country, some with children of their own. Only two of us have pursued a life with religion built into the foundation.

MomDonaldAs part of becoming one with God, Catholic novitiates assume a new name, after a saint. At Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, the name my mother took included the saint of her order- Mary – and Jeanne d’Arc. In celebration of her commitment, my grandparents inscribed her name on the only piece of jewelry she would be allowed to wear, a retractable pin-on watch piece.

IMG_2962It is a mystery why my mother took this name. She seemed too rational to identify with a fierce young woman who changed the course of history for France.  Joan of Arc experienced visions and voices of saints and transformed herself into a teenaged warrior fighting for her country and king.


Joan of Arc on Horseback, musée Dobrée [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a high school student, my mother had taken up fencing, becoming skilled and competitive in the sport. Perhaps her admiration for this warrior saint started at a younger age- and maybe that is what drove her into the convent.


Fencing isn’t only for men. From Domenico Angelo’s 1763 instructional book, By Charlesjsharp  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a brief summary of Joan’s life. She was an illiterate peasant born in 1412 during the 100 Years’ War between Britain and France. Five generations of Kings from rival dynasties fought for control of France from 1337 until 1453, in three waves of war. Ironically, the conflicts were affected by rules against women inheriting the throne; when kings died without a male heir, the crown was up for grabs.

After 70 years of loss, desperation drove the French to envision a savior sent by God to  break the British.


English occupation of France, by Aliesin (File:Traité de Troyes.svg), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1928, British forces invaded Joan of Arc’s home town, Domrémy. Joan experienced visions beginning age 13 in which the Archangel Michael and two saints directed her to go to battle and defeat the British, paving the way to crown Charles VII  as King of France.  She persuaded relatives to bring her to Charles. After tests to ensure she was really a maid  (a virgin) and questioning by theologians, she managed to convince Charles to give her troops to lead into battle.  An unlikely but instinctive military leader, she led the battle to lift the Siege of Orleans in 1429.


Jules Eugène Lenepveu, Joan of Arc at the Pantheon de Paris, from Wikimedia Commons

Her first battles were successful and spread fear of the supernatural among the British. She appeared as the embodiment of a prophecy that foretold of a young virgin who would liberate France. Charles VII was crowned on July 17, 1429 as a result of Joan’s efforts.

There was now a price on Joan’s head.


Map of Joan’s battles, from medieval historian Scott Manning. Manning’s blog site has lots of in depth information on her military approach.

However, Charles failed to support her in her next efforts to take Paris. She mounted an independent effort, and she was wounded and then captured in Compiègne in 1430. Charles failed to pay ransom for her, and she was sold to the British.

After imprisonment, trial, and torture, she confessed, then recanted. The main charge against her was that she had again donned men’s clothes, as she had done in battle.  While men’s clothes afforded her better protection against rape in prison, they signalled heresy to the prosecutors. Eyewitnesses claimed the guards took her dress from her, forcing her to wear men’s clothes. On May 30, 1431, Joan was burned at the stake at 19 years of age.


Joan of Arc burning at stake, Jules Lenepveu, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The appeal of Joan’s conviction began in 1455, after the 100 Years War had ended. Charles VII may have supported the trial to assuage guilt about his failure to support the woman warrior whose actions facilitated his crowning. The first trial was studied and found to be tainted by corruption and false charges. The next year, she was exonerated.  In 1909, Joan was beatified by Pope Pius X. After that first step, she was canonized in 1920, and is now one of the patron saints of France.

Imagine you are my mother, the daughter of a fatalistic, hand-wringing Russian woman and browbeaten, invisible father who had reluctantly married on the rebound. You are educated, religious, and sincere, aspiring to higher thought and purpose.  What would possess you to take on the name of a long-ago warrior girl who heard voices, had visions, and rode into battle to kill people in the name of her country?


Hermann Stilke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was not mature enough to ask my mother this question before drunk-driving teenagers slammed into her truck at high speed and killed her on cold January afternoon long ago.

Dock, Hovland, MN

The dock in our little town of Hovland, where my brothers spread their share of my mother’s ashes in Lake Superior. Photo by Sharon Mollerus (Dock, Hovland, MN) via Wikimedia Commons

Before she died, I was concerned only what mattered to my existence: why she went into the convent, then why she left.  She explained that she envisioned the convent as a place unsullied by human drama, vanity, and politics. She learned Latin and studied for a life of religious devotion. Despite being in a non-speaking order, she did not find that place. She said competition and politics tainted even the cloister.

She became depressed and slept constantly, finally deciding to leave and return to college.  At the time, discarding your frock required writing a letter to the pope, she said. Her leave was granted, and the rest was history.


My mother, date unknown.

My mother reimagined her life and reinvented herself more than once. She married and divorced, not content to scrub floors with an infant in arms while my father chased his secretary. She never remarried and launched a small business effort as a single mother with five children in tow.

When the  Uptown neighborhood in Chicago became hunting grounds for a serial killer stalking boys like my brother, it was time to leave. In a flash, she transported us from a massive city to a tiny cabin on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.

The whiplash was massive for us children, but some good came from this. Minnesota connected us with wild nature in a place where wolves and moose roamed the woods and northern lights danced on the ice of Lake Superior. We spent our first years with no running water and no electricity.  We learned to hunt and fish and garden. It was remote, peaceful.


My mother moved us from skyscrapers and a bustling city of 3.5 million people to this. Lake Superior at Grand Portage, photo by Michael A. Orlando via Wikimedia Commons

But I was too young to want that much isolation, and eventually left for college.

When my mother died two years after I left, she was in the process of reinventing herself once more. She, too, wanted out, this time to start a different career in a place with fewer social problems and less harsh winters.

And maybe that defines the affinity or aspiration she found in a child saint. Jeanne d’Arc- or Jehanne, as she signed her name- was clear-eyed and fearless, the penultimate risk-taker, willing to put everything on the line for her ideals.

I sometimes felt we were pushed aside for my mother’s ideals, but I am ultimately her daughter:  driven, idealistic, curious. I was resilient enough to make it through her death, and have reinvented myself more than once as well. I have a strong sense of fairness, right and wrong.


This monument marks the place where Saint Joan was burned at the stake.  She reportedly called to Jesus repeatedly as she died.

Walking through lovely Rouen, reading the books I bought, and contemplation brought me no enlightenment about our family puzzle.  My mother’s voice is long silent, and she left no writings. My mother’s heart is as inscrutable as Joan’s was bold. But it does not really matter.

Both these women died before their time, like countless women across the globe. While Jehanne was burned for her beliefs, my mother was martyred by drunken hubris and our penchant for excess.

The enduring mystery is perhaps not about my mother and her dreams and choices. Perhaps the real question is what these two women- and millions like them who passed too soon- would have created in this world had they lived longer.


From the Church of Sain Joan of Arc, Rouen


Visiting Joan of Arc sites in Rouen:

Rouen Normandy Tourism and Congress has a superb guide to all things Joan of Arc in Rouen. Here are a couple of sites.

The Historial Jeanne d’Arc provides an immersive experience where you are guided by audio and visuals through Joan’s history in the context of her second, posthumous trial. Chapters play out in a series of rooms. You will enter the remains of the room where she was condemned the first time and exonerated the next.  There is a well-deserved fee, and you can obtain audio in a number of different languages. The experience is almost overwhelming, so it’s good to do on a day when you are fresh and have time to soak it up. Plan for a meal and drink after to absorb it.

On a walking tour, you might miss the Joan of Arc Dungeon, where the Maid of Orleans was imprisoned and tortured. When we were in Rouen in 2018, there was major construction underway by the tower; I can’t imagine the protections that must be in place to ensure the construction didn’t impact the structure!


Photo by Vitold Muratov, from Wikimedia Commons

The Church of St. Joan of Arc has unusual architecture with deep meaning. The building is peculiar looking from the outside, with an adjacent market, but immensely peaceful within. The roof is molded in the shape of an overturned longship; reportedly, early Christian churches were often in this shape.


Photo from Architecture Revived,


The roof of the Church of Saint Joan of Arc, from within.  Photo Van der Vieren

The stunning stained glass windows were removed for protection during World War II, when the original church was destroyed by bombs. They are restored here in all their glory.