She was born in the commune of Jallanges, Côte-d'Or, the fifth of ten children of a local wealthy farm couple, Balthazar and Claudine Javouhey. When she was very young, she smelled wine and was about to drink the wine when one of the servants saw her and asked her not to drink the wine. She always added water to her wine for the rest of her life. Through her teen years, she helped to hide and care for a number of priests persecuted by the French Revolution, including keeping watch for them as they said Mass. She made a private vow when she was nineteen years old, but was not able to become a nun because the revolutionary government had closed convents and churches. Later on, she joined the Sisters of Charity at Besançon. While there is reported to have a vision of St. Teresa of Avila entrusting children of different races to her. She did not understand its meaning at the time, but it would profoundly influence her later life.
She moved from convent to convent, never being fully satisfied, until she and eight others founded the Institute of Saint Joseph of Cluny at Cabillon in 1805. The order was recognized by the local bishop in 1807. In 1812, they bought a former monastery and moved the congregation to Cluny. She founded the congregation to educate children and to help reduce the miseries which arose out of the French Revolution. In 1819, the scope of the order expanded to include missionary work in what is now the Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, and it established a mission presence in Gorée, Senegal in 1822. Two years later, she left for St. Mary's in Gambia, where she worked tirelessly to help the victims of an epidemic in the area. She also worked in Sierra Leone. She returned to Senegal later, and received the help of the government in her attempt to develop native-born Catholic priests after educating them in Europe. Eight of the candidates were ordained to the priesthood and some of them returned to Africa to minister to their people. This plan was later abandoned, as a number of the potential missionaries died trying to acclimatize themselves.
Later, the government of France contacted her to try to establish a colony in the interior of the country of the South American colony of Guiana. After receiving full approval for her plans, Mother Javouhey left with 36 nuns and 50 emigrants. She soon established a self-supporting colony, and returned to France in 1833. Two years later, she returned to the area, at the request of the French government to assist in preparing a group of 520 African slaves for emancipation. They had previously been 'owned' by the French Government at Cayenne. By the time she finished, the majority of her "students" had become Christians and learned the ways of European civilization and value of their own labor. Each couple owned a house in town with a garden and acreage beyond the town to raise crops. The settlement became quite prosperous and attracted the jealousy of colonists at the mouth of the Acarouany River. A plot was hatched to kill her, but the boatman who was to tip her into the crocodile-infested water could not bring himself to kill the "dear mother" as she was known. There were no scenes or other troubles at the emancipation and liberation of this group of slaves as marked similar occasions in other French colonies.
Her order had established a leper colony on the banks of the Acarouany River some years earlier. They encountered great success. With the advances of modern medicine, the leprosarium was closed, only to be later handed over to boat people fleeing the Far East.
She returned to France again in 1843, facing several difficulties, including ecclesiastical opposition. She and her order continued to establish new mission houses of her order all over the world, including in India, Tahiti, Madagascar, and over 30 foundations in France.
When news of her death in 1851 reached the black population of French Guiana, there was general grief for "the mother of the blacks". The cause for her beatification was introduced on February 11, 1908 and she was beatified on October 15, 1950.
Today the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny numbers close to 3,000 Sisters serving in over 60 countries, including the United States, Canada, India and Ireland. For more information about her spirituality, see External links (below).