PHOTOS BY KATHARINE DUKE, GEORGETOWN VISITATION CLASS OF 2018
From left to right: Thierry De La Villejegu, executive director of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation France; Sister of the Visitation Sylvie Guerron; David Lejeune, co-founder and president of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA; Birthe Lejuene; and Brittany Yevoli, a Georgetown Visitation alumna who organized the Birthe Lejeune's visit to the school on Oct. 18.
PHOTOS BY KATHARINE DUKE, GEORGETOWN VISITATION CLASS OF 2018 From left to right: Thierry De La Villejegu, executive director of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation France; Sister of the Visitation Sylvie Guerron; David Lejeune, co-founder and president of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA; Birthe Lejuene; and Brittany Yevoli, a Georgetown Visitation alumna who organized the Birthe Lejeune's visit to the school on Oct. 18.
As she spoke to a room full of students at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington on Oct. 18, Birthe Lejeune encouraged the students not to be afraid to stand up for life.

Birthe Lejeune is the wife of the late Jérôme Lejeune, who discovered the extra chromosome, called Trisomy 21, which causes Down syndrome. He is often referred to as the “father of modern genetics” for his discovery. Jérôme Lejeune dedicated his life to treating patients with intelligence disorders, and thought his discoveries would lead to finding a cure for these conditions. 

To his dismay, his discovery ended up being used to identify Down syndrome early on in a pregnancy and often led to parents choosing to abort the child. He spent the rest of his career trying to protect unborn children with Down syndrome and speaking up about the value of every human life.

“It was devastating for him to see his discovery used against his patients,” said Birthe Lejeune.

After Jérôme Lejeune died in 1994, The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation was founded to carry on his work.

“I was a physician who should have cured them, and I am leaving them,” said Lejeune before his death. “I have the impression I am abandoning them.”

The foundation focuses on research, care, and advocacy for individuals with intellectual disorders. It began in France, where Lejeune is from, but now has chapters in the United States and Spain as well. They are working on a new hospital in Washington specifically for the care of patients with Down syndrome, which is expected to open in May 2020.

Looking out on the crowd of eager high school girls on Oct. 18, Madame Lejeune said she thought her husband in heaven would be happy to see them.

“In the last day of his life, Jérôme was very anxious to find out who would be the ones to continue to fight,” she said. “I think you are some of them, and I thank you with all my heart.”

Jérôme Lejeune faced alienation from the rest of the scientific community for his stance on the dignity of life, but that did not stop him. After he began speaking out against abortion, he was often denied funding for his research, opportunities to get his papers published, and invitations for interviews. His wife recalled how the family would often see protesters or posters threatening him.

But amid this opposition, Jérôme Lejeune got support from the Kennedy family, and President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Kennedy Prize for his discovery in 1962.

His courageous defense of life also led Pope John Paul II to appoint Lejeune to the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1974, and as president of the Pontifical Academy for Life just before he died in 1994. Now, in addition to being the vice-chairman of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation in France, Birthe Lejeune serves on the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The Lejeunes had a close relationship with now-Saint John Paul II, and Madame Lejeune recalled how the couple had attended lunch with the pope on May 13, 1981, just hours before the pope was shot four times while blessing the crowd in St. Peter’s Square.

Two years after Jérôme Lejeune died, Pope John Paul II was in Paris and wanted to visit his grave. Since it was about four hours outside of the city, many people advised against it, but he insisted on going. Madame Lejeune recalled that the media reported that he had “visited the grave of a friend.”

“I think it wasn’t that,” she said. “I think he wanted to go honor a man who defended life.”

In 2007, the Catholic Church opened the case for beatification of Jérôme Lejeune, who is now considered a “Servant of God.”

Madame Lejeune noted that before her husband’s discovery, many parents with children who had Down syndrome were ashamed of the situation because they thought it was a hereditary disease. But after Jérôme LeJuene discovered that it was a chromosome abnormality that could happen to anyone, he encouraged them to be proud of their children, she said.

In addition to the students of Georgetown Visitation, there were several members of the audience who have children with Down syndrome, including the school’s director of finance, Kristen Hartman. She said she had begun to tear up during the presentation.

“It is very emotional for us,” she said. “It makes us realize how fortunate we are to live in a day in age with supports (while raising a child with Down syndrome).”

After she finished speaking, Madame Lejeune gave the students the opportunity to ask her questions. One student asked how to help the foundation. Madame Lejeune emphatically told her to “not be ashamed to defend life.”

When doing so, “for many people, you will be the enemy,” she said. But nevertheless, she encouraged the student, “don’t be afraid to tell what you think.”

This is the attitude that Jérôme Lejeune had, and it is what inspired Brittany Yevoli, a 2017 graduate of Georgetown Visitation, to reach out to the foundation and volunteer during her gap year before college.

“He always did what was right by God and by the children, regardless of what the world thought of him,” Yevoli said. “That inspires me to do what is right.”

Yevoli, who organized Birthe Lejeune’s visit to the school, first found out about the foundation when she was studying ballet with Keenan Kampa, the first American admitted to study at Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia. Kampa taught ballet classes for children with Down syndrome, and inspired Yevoli to do something similar.

Yevoli still hopes to do something like that, and in addition to volunteering with the Lejeune foundation, she is spending this year training professionally in ballet before starting college at Georgetown University in fall of 2018.

During her time at Visitation, Lejeune said she was also inspired by Lucy Collins, a young woman with Down syndrome who works in the day care program at the school.

“Every time I go in there, she is so sweet and so beautiful,” said Yevoli, recalling how Lucy Collins always comforted her after her grandpa died.

This sentiment reflects what Carin Collins, Lucy’s mother, calls the “Lucy Effect,” where Lucy “wraps her love around family members or unsuspecting soon-to-be friends,” Collins wrote in remarks that she had prepared for the event.

Collins believes God works in mysterious ways, and said her 27-year-old daughter was “one of the greatest surprises that has ever come into my life.”

“How else would I ever have had the chance to feel the depth of unselfish love that Lucy has provided?” she wrote. “We do not always know what we need in our lives, but God does.”

“I know that Lucy is a channel of love from God,” she continued. “There are no barriers to the amount of love she gives out every day. She reaches out to people who are happy or hurting in an instant…She looks past the masks we all wear and looks straight into our hearts.”

Collins reflected on how society values achievement above all things, and often  “there is no room for the Lucy’s of the world.”

“But this is what is missing from the lives of many,” she wrote. “They do not know it until they meet her and then realize that this is the unconditional love that has been missing.”