Celebrating the Life of Down Syndrome Advocate Birthe Lejeune

The vibrant tributes that the widow of Servant of God Jérôme Lejeune has received from the Catholic community worldwide, since her May 6 death, attest to the impact of her decades of work in defense of life.

Birthe Lejeune walks with granddaughter Emma Lejeune at the Course des Héros in 2016.
Birthe Lejeune walks with granddaughter Emma Lejeune at the Course des Héros in 2016. (photo: Courtesy of Emma Lejeune )

For more than two decades, she had been the voice of those who were denied the right to live. Birthe Lejeune, who died at the age of 92 after a long illness on May 6, returned to the Father’s house alongside her husband, the late French pediatrician and geneticist Jérôme Lejeune, who discovered the extra chromosome at the origin of Down syndrome in 1958.  

Since her husband died in 1994, Mrs. Lejeune had tirelessly continued his work at the service of people affected with genetic deficiency, through the foundation she helped create in his memory.

Born Birthe Bringsted in 1928 in Otterup in central Denmark, she moved to Paris in 1950, as a young student. There, she met Jérôme Lejeune, a man of faith, for the love of whom she converted to Catholicism. The couple married in 1952 and had five children.

An internationally renowned professor, Jérôme Lejeune dedicated his whole career to the defense of the dignity and the sacredness of the human life, with the continuous support of his wife. A few years after his death, Lejeune was named “Servant of God” by the Church, and his beatification process was opened in 2007.


Fruitful Complementarity

“When my grandfather died, Grandma pursued his work in a very impressive way,” Emma Lejeune, one of the couple’s 28 grandchildren, told the Register. According to her, the initial reason why her grandmother so passionately dedicated herself to the Lejeune Foundation — of which she remained vice president until her death — was because it was a way for her to stay close to her late husband. “She did that for the love of him; above all, it was a tribute, even if, of course, she truly and deeply believed in his cause and embraced it with all her heart.”

But if Birthe Lejeune so capably took up her husband’s torch and ensured a continuity in pursuing his goals, that was because she had always been her husband’s greatest support. They had very different backgrounds. Birthe was from a more modest social background. He was a city man, whereas she grew up in a fishing village. However, her rootedness and pragmatism were for him a decisive and indispensable support in his career.

“Grandpa was a brilliant scientist, but he was also very scatterbrained; while Grandma was extremely concrete, efficient and organized, and she could help him achieve things he might not have achieved without her,” Emma Lejeune said.

This is why “complementarity” is, in her view, the most appropriate qualifier to describe the strength of their relationship. “They were from different worlds but it is the balance of their two characters that enabled him to build his international career.”


Tireless Advocate of Life

But such a commitment in favor of life, at a time when abortion culture and its ideological corollaries were flourishing almost everywhere in the West, was not without consequences for the couple who had to face a long series of attacks and calumnies.

Indeed, while celebrating Birthe Lejeune’s funeral ceremony May 12 at the Parisian Church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris himself wondered about the reasons why the Lejeunes were the target of so much opposition and violence. “It is because Satan hates life and disfigures love in people’s hearts, using their blinded hearts which no longer know how to see the beauty of life,” he said.

Then, after praising “the good fight” they both conducted their whole lives, Archbishop Aupetit concluded that “Birthe and Jérôme loved in order to live, they lived in order to love,” and they fought their fight with “the pierced heart of Jesus Christ as their only weapon.”

Because of the ongoing health crisis in the country, the ceremony — concelebrated by Msgr. Patrick Chauvet, rector of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and Bishop Matthieu Rougé of Nanterre — took place only with the presence of the closest members of the Lejeune family and was live broadcast on YouTube, while Masses were celebrated for her intention in several churches worldwide at the same time.

After her children paid tribute to her, in turn, her son-in-law and president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, Jean-Marie Le Méné, stressed the fact that she never held on too much to the past and “was able to always actualize the presence of Jérôme Lejeune, to make him always alive in that part of ourselves where nothing passes, degrades or dies.”

In an interview the day before, Le Méné highlighted how Birthe Lejeune has been a fundamental presence within the foundation, since its creation in 1996, until her death. “She was able to personally know the thousands of donors of the foundation: She would send personalized handwritten thank-you notes to all of them and knew their personal situation, which is almost never the case with most foundations,” he said.

“She literally worked every day of her life for the last 26 years, she was never tired, and she basically just laid down to die.”


Worldwide Recognition

The foundation became state-approved in France in 1996 because of its action in defense of those with intellectual differences. Relying on its motto “Research, Care, Advocacy,” it has so far funded dozens of research projects on Down syndrome worldwide and supported countless families. In 1999, Birthe Lejeune was the recipient of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit for civilians, in recognition of the work she carried out with her husband.

In 2017, Pope Francis appointed her honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Life, of which Jérôme Lejeune was the first president.

“I was very sad to hear about the death of Birthe,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Register. “I have known her for a few years, since I was appointed at the head of the academy; and despite her advanced age, she never lost her passion in defending the most vulnerable human beings against any eugenic or Malthusian temptation, just like her husband before her.” And while recalling the “particular strength of their marriage,” Archbishop Paglia expressed his feeling that both of them were still “close to the academy to continue to defend, support and accompany life always, wherever and in every situation or condition.”

Birthe Lejeune’s death affected people far beyond France, and tributes to her testimony of life have flooded in since then.

For her relatives, however, this public outpouring of admiration and affection is as comforting as surprising. “We became aware of the extent of her legacy and impact only when she passed, when we saw the many articles in the media,” Emma Lejeune told the Register. “We knew her fights for the foundation, we knew she was frequently going to Rome, but we didn’t really realize how important she was to people before we started receiving messages of sympathy from all kinds of people, from modest families to the highest authorities of the Church.

“It is so edifying and impressive.”


Great Generosity of Soul

In fact, the great simplicity with which Birthe Lejeune always lived her life didn’t suggest such international renown. In fact, if she also was a subject of admiration within her entire family, it was above all because of the model of virtue and sanctity of daily life she embodied.

Her numerous public commitments never prevented her from taking care of her children and grandchildren, many of whom lived in the same building as her, near the Cathedral of Notre Dame. “Her door was always open to anyone; she was always willing to welcome people, to know our friends. … This is the main life lesson she taught us: the joy of opening our doors and arms and welcome everyone,” her granddaughter Emma Lejeune recalled.

She used to see her grandmother almost every day and fully intends to follow her path. Just as Birthe believed in the intrinsic dignity and value of every human life, she considered that everyone deserved her time, no matter who they were.

“Many of the tributes she received highlighted her generosity, and I believe it is truly the thing that characterizes her the most, both with her family and the people she helped through the foundation,” Emma said. “She always had a kind word for everyone, and she would always take the time to listen.”

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.