Catherine Laboure´: Saint of the Miraculous Medal – Part 4

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Madonna of the Medal — illustration by the author

The visionaries who followed Catherine Laboure´ into the Marian Age would be at the center of the attention surrounding the phenomena of their apparitions (i.e., St. Bernadette of Lourdes, the three children of Fatima), but not Catherine. She adamantly insisted to Fr. Aladel that Our Lady had told her to “speak only to her confessor” about the visions. Catherine would not budge from this position for 46 years. We can well imagine the sense of excitement and intrigue in the convent when the news leaked out that one of the Sisters had been privileged to see the Blessed Virgin. The endless conjecture, the sly questions intended to unearth the seer in their midst, could well have tripped up Catherine, but she was more than equal to the task of protecting her secret. Over time, she became quite adept at deflecting suspicion, and probably even enjoyed this challenge to her cleverness and wit.

There is no doubt that the humility, discretion, and courage it took for Catherine to keep her secret until shortly before her death in 1876 were of such a heroic nature that it remains one of the most significant acts of her life. She truly is a role model for those who lead hidden but fruitful lives in God’s service. At Catherine’s Beatification service, Pope Pius XI said with dry humor, “To think of keeping a secret for 46 years — and this by a woman, and a Sister!”

Not that Catherine adopted a standoffish attitude to protect herself — quite the contrary, although she had a quiet nature, she was lively and even merry as a novice, spending many happy hours with the other Sisters during recreation. There is little doubt, however, that keeping her secret was the right thing for her particular soul, as she was shy and did not like the limelight.  For her, obscurity was the road to sanctity. She knew she was only an instrument of God’s grace, and that her visions were a gift to the world and not for herself alone.

Catherine’s life in the years after the great Apparitions of 1830 is beautifully summarized in the words of her dear friend, Sr. Sejole: “Later on, when they speak of her who saw the Blessed Virgin, you will be happy to have known this beautiful soul, living such an ordinary life and keeping herself hidden behind her duties.”

Like all of us, Catherine had her own particular faults to overcome. Throughout her life she was given to flashes of temper and a sharp tongue. She also had a very strong will, which is obvious in the way she overcame so many obstacles in the early years of her life. But once the mission of the Medal was accomplished, Catherine’s life took on a different tone. Now she had to live in complete submission to her superiors, who were sometimes unreasonable, even wrong, in their judgment. Yet because of her vow of obedience, Catherine had to conquer her natural impulse to do things her own way.

For instance, although Catherine had been the very competent mistress of her father’s household from a young age, she was now often forced to accept a superior’s way of doing things, despite the fact that Catherine was far more capable than her superiors of the task at hand.  Having strong ideas herself about how things should be done, she often found it difficult being contradicted. But she rose above this by developing the virtues of patience and humility to the extent that she was able to graciously defer to the other Sister and be charitable to her above and beyond what was required.

Although Catherine took her vow of poverty so seriously that upon her death the Sr. Servant was shocked to find so few belongings in Catherine’s possession, she was generous in her consideration of others. One day, she saw a Sister return from laundry duty with her habit soaking wet. Concerned that the Sister should not become chilled, Catherine went hastily to the Superior to get some warm flannel so the Sister could change her clothes.

Catherine’s superiors definitely recognized her extraordinary capabilities and common sense, because in 1836, at the age of 30, she was given the important position of being in charge of the elderly men at Enghien and running the little farm attached to the Hospice. Catherine loved this because it reminded her of her childhood on the Laboure´ farm, and she enjoyed feeding the chickens and milking the cows. Though not officially given the title, she was Assistant Superior of both the Hospice d’Enghien and the nearby House of Charity of Reuilly, which shared a common Superior and chapel.

For the next 10 years, Catherine’s daily routine remained virtually unchanged. She cared for the aged residents in her charge — irascible and difficult as some of them were — with unflinching devotion, patience, compassion, and kindness. She already had experience dealing with these sorts of men at her brother’s restaurant, and it must have occurred to Catherine that the time she had spent as a waitress had served a Divine purpose after all, in preparing her to deal with the men at Enghien. As she had done for most of her life, Catherine served meals, mended clothes, nursed the sick, comforted the dying, and kept everyone content and everything running smoothly. For those who are caregivers to the elderly, Catherine serves as a shining example and steadfast source of help and inspiration.

Catherine followed St. Vincent’s own counsel that no religious exercise, not even Mass, should come before the needs of the sick or poor. She was so devoted to her charges that she would turn down invitations to festivals and other diversions, saying, “These are good for the young Sisters, but I have to care for my old men.” She always took time out, however, for spiritual conferences and retreats, knowing she needed these to feed and sustain her soul.

She insisted that “her old men” receive the best of food in generous quantities. On her feast day, one of the men stood up at the end of the meal and announced, “Sr. Catherine, you are very good to us, and at table you always ask,  ‘Have you had enough?’ “ Yet she did not spoil her charges — she ruled the house with a firm but loving hand. Some of the old men would return drunk after their weekly day out. Catherine would put them promptly to bed, carrying away their clothes and hiding them for the next three days, and these men would not be allowed their next day out. But when another Sister once reproached her for not being stern enough with a particular offender, Catherine replied, “I can’t help it. I keep seeing Christ in him.” She did, however, dutifully reprimand him the next morning.

The one virtue that seemed to shine most brightly in Catherine was her purity. Her sister Tonine once said of Catherine, “she did not know evil.” Many who knew her believe that it was because of her extraordinary chastity that Mary chose her to be the recipient of the apparitions. Thus, the greatest trial Catherine faced was caring for those men in her charge whom she knew to be impure. Revulsion would engulf her, and it took a supreme effort of will, made possible by prayer, for her to see Christ in even the foulest of her charges. In this way, she was able to control her feelings and care for them with tenderness and compassion. With great charm and grace she was able to melt the hearts of even the most hardened sinners.

Even though she had entered the religious life, Catherine never lost her deep love of family and warmly welcomed the frequent visits of her brothers and their families, who lived in Paris. Tonine married in 1858 and also moved nearby, renewing with Catherine the close sisterly relationship they had shared in earlier years. When Tonine later died after a long and painful illness, Catherine was at her bedside. Catherine was also able to be at the deathbed of her brother Jacques, lovingly placing a Miraculous Medal around his neck. 

At the request of Fr. Aladel, in 1841 Catherine wrote out her first complete account of the apparitions. She also entreated Fr. Aladel to have an altar built on the spot of the apparitions and to have a commemorative statue made of Our Lady with the globe in her hands (the first phase of the Apparition of Nov. 27), to be placed on the altar. Although Fr. Aladel made a tentative start on this matter, he did not follow through, much to Catherine’s perpetual dismay.

In 1842, the dramatic and well-publicized conversion, attributed to the Miraculous Medal, of Alphonse Rattisbonne, a vehemently anti-Catholic banker, resulted in Rome’s official recognition of the Medal. There is no doubt that the Apparition of 1830 and the subsequent outpouring of devotion to the Immaculate Conception because of the Medal, had a great bearing on the solemn declaration by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  When in 1858 news reached Catherine about the apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she exclaimed, “You see, it is our own Blessed Mother, the Immaculate!”

Although Catherine had told Fr. Aladel in 1830 that the Blessed Virgin wished to establish a Confraternity of Children of Mary, he did not act on this until 1835, when he petitioned Rome about it. In 1847, the Children of Mary was officially established, soon spreading worldwide. Although for reasons of secrecy Catherine did not connect herself with the Confraternity, she welcomed and encouraged each new member of the Children of Mary in Reuilly. Always concerned with the souls of the young, she often spent time with the neighborhood children.

In 1860, 37-yr.-old Sr. Jeanne Dufes became Superior of Reuilly and Enghien. Because she and Catherine were alike in many ways — practical, capable, but stubborn and quick-tempered — there was a natural antipathy between them from the start. But, as Sr. Dufes herself was to later admit, Catherine was able to conquer her flashes of temper immediately, while Sr. Dufes had to struggle long and hard with hers. Because there was always the suspicion among the community that Catherine was the Sister of the Apparitions, Sr. Dufes may have felt it her duty to keep Catherine humble. Sr. Dufes did not dislike Catherine, but usually neglected her, treating her with indifference and little appreciation. She often reprimanded Catherine unfairly for trivialities, even in front of the other Sisters. Yet Catherine always held her tongue, remaining humble and obedient which, given her natural tendencies, required great strength of character.

On April 25, 1865, the 35th anniversary of Catherine’s first vision of St. Vincent’s heart, Fr. Aladel died of a stroke, and Fr. Etienne succeeded him as Catherine’s confessor. Five years later, France once again suffered terribly from yet another change in government following the Franco-Prussian War. Our Lady’s prediction in 1830 of the horrors that would occur “in 40 years” now came to pass, and the houses of Reuilly and Enghien were caught in the thick of it. But once again they were protected, as Our Lady had promised.

When peace returned to France, peace settled also upon Catherine’s soul in these, her final, years. She no longer had to dread the dire events prophesied by Our Lady, as she had for the past 40 years. Her country and her religious community had come through it safely. Catherine was now growing old and her body was beginning to wear down. Although she certainly did not fear death, and no doubt looked forward to seeing the Virgin again in the next life, she did not have the great desire for death that some other saints had. Despite severe arthritis of the knees, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, she carried out all her duties to the best of her ability, knowing in her wise way that this was all God expected of anyone. But gradually, her Superiors eased her workload and assigned assistants to her, some of whom, ironically, caused Catherine more trouble than the work itself had. One lay helper, being mentally unstable, was so difficult that Catherine was the only one who would tolerate her. Despite the woman’s cruel attitude toward her, Catherine refused to have her dismissed, because she knew the woman would not find employment anywhere else.

In 1874, Catherine was relieved of her position as Custodian, and Sr. Tanguy was chosen to succeed her, receiving the title of Assistant Superior of Reuilly and Enghien — a title Catherine had never been granted, despite having done the job for 38 years. This was hard for Catherine, especially since she did not particularly like Sr. Tanguy. Catherine, however, not only practiced charity toward her, but when asked her feelings about Sr. Tanguy’s appointment, she replied, “Our Superiors have spoken, and that should be sufficient for us to receive Sr. Tanguy as an angel from heaven.”

In May of 1876, perhaps realizing that she had not much longer to live, Catherine decided to make a last attempt to have the statue of “Our Lady of the Globe” made. Her failure to accomplish this task all those years was one of the greatest crosses of her life. But now she needed the help of both Fr. Bore, current Superior General of the Community, and of Sister Superior Dufes. This meant that Catherine had to break her silence of 46 years and reveal to them her identity as the Sister of the Apparitions. She did this after praying and receiving Our Lady’s permission.

Sr. Dufes set the wheels in motion by hiring a sculptor, Froc Robert, to begin work on the statue. Not surprisingly, upon seeing the finished plaster model, Catherine exclaimed in disappointment, “Ah — the Blessed Virgin was much more beautiful than that!” Nevertheless, Catherine had finally accomplished her one remaining mission, and now she told everyone that she would not live to see the New Year. Despite their disbelief, she insisted with a smile, “You will see!” Throughout her religious life, Catherine had predicted many events which later came to pass, but oddly enough, none of her fellow nuns seemed to recognize the significance of this extraordinary gift.

As the year wore on, she became sicker and weaker. Although she still went out occasionally, she found herself confined to bed with increasing frequency. It was at this time that Fr. Chevalier, her new confessor, requested that Catherine write once again a full account of her visions. This last account agreed in every detail with the accounts of 1841 and 1846.

On Dec. 31, 1876, Catherine was feeling well enough to receive a visit from her niece Marie, during which she gave Marie a Miraculous Medal — the last of her supply of the original ones. When Marie left, she told Catherine she would stop by in the morning to wish her a Happy New Year, but Catherine replied, “I shall not be here.” Shortly after 6:00 p.m., she took a turn for the worse. The Sisters gathered around her to say the prayers for the dying, and at 7:00 p.m., Catherine Laboure´ went peacefully to join her beloved Heavenly Mother.

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At supper that evening, Sr. Dufes read to the enthralled Community Catherine’s account of the Visions. The exciting news that Catherine had indeed been the Sister of the Apparitions (as many had suspected) soon spread beyond the convent to the whole city. Catherine’s funeral was held on Jan. 3, 1877, and she was laid to rest in a vault beneath the chapel at Reuilly, as she herself had predicted several weeks earlier. A few days after the funeral, the first cure attributed to Catherine Laboure´ occurred. A 10-yr.-old boy, who had been paralyzed since birth, was totally restored to health after touching Catherine’s tomb.

In 1895, a petition was submitted to Rome for a feast day in honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and shortly thereafter the Cause for the Beatification of Sr. Catherine Laboure´ was also begun. After a long period of research into Catherine’s life, she was beatified on May 28, 1933. As is customary, at this time the body of Blessed Catherine was exhumed. It was found to be as fresh and incorrupt as on the day she was buried.

Catherine Laboure´ was canonized on July 17, 1947. At the close of the ceremony, Pope Pius XII said of her:

“Favored though she was with visions and celestial delights, she did not advertise herself to seek worldly fame, but took herself merely for the handmaid of God and preferred to remain unknown and to be reputed as nothing. And thus, desiring only the glory of God and of His Mother, she went meekly about the ordinary, and even the unpleasant, tasks that were assigned to her….And while she worked away, never idle but always busy and cheerful, her heart never lost sight of heavenly things: indeed she saw God uninterruptedly in all things and all things in God.”

***

Author’s Note: I have always had a particular interest in and devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, having attended church and school as a child in the parish of that name (nicknamed “OLMM”) in Ridgewood, NY. I now live near Philadelphia, where the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal has its home in Germantown. It seems that Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is never far from me! Although I had learned the story of the Miraculous Medal as a child from the nuns who taught at OLMM school, I didn’t know much about St. Catherine Laboure, to whom the medal was first revealed. Always fascinated by mystics and visionaries, I wanted to find out more about her, and that’s how I came to write this series. I hope you found it interesting.

Catherine Laboure´: Saint of the Miraculous Medal – Part 3

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(The first two parts of this series covered the childhood of Catherine (“Zoe”) Laboure´, her entrance into the order of the Sisters of Charity, and her first visions. Part 3 describes the visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary that revealed her mission to bring the “Miraculous Medal” into existence.)

Part 3: The Miraculous Medal

By November of 1830, the unrest in Paris was over, and Louis Philippe had taken the throne. On Nov. 27, eve of the First Sunday of Advent, Catherine was in the chapel with the other sisters for evening meditation, when she again heard the swish of a silk dress. Looking up, she saw a vision of the Queen of Heaven dressed all in white, standing on a globe and holding a golden ball in her hands. Her fingers were covered with rings whose stones sparkled with brilliant light that poured from them all the way down to her feet. She was radiant “in all her perfect beauty,” as Catherine later described it. Catherine heard the words, “The ball which you see represents the whole world, especially France, and each person in particular. These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems from which rays do not fall are the graces for which souls forget to ask.”

Then the vision changed. The ball vanished, and Mary’s arms swept downward, the rays cascading to the globe on which she still stood, her foot crushing the head of a serpent. The globe had the year “1830” inscribed upon it. The Virgin wore a blue mantle over a white dress, with a white veil draped back over her shoulders. An oval formed around the vision like a frame, and written in gold letters within it were the words: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

The voice said, “Have a medal struck after this model. All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck….” The apparition reversed, and Catherine saw a large M surmounted by a bar and a cross, with the Hearts of Jesus and Mary beneath it, one crowned with thorns, the other pierced by a sword (symbolic of the prophecy of Simeon, when he told Mary, “a sword shall pierce your own heart, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Luke 2:35). Twelve stars encircled the whole thing. The vision then faded, but would be repeated five more times over the next year.

Catherine told Fr. Aladel about the latest apparitions and the request to have a medal struck. As with her other visions, he did not accord it much importance. Each time the vision was repeated, poor Catherine was compelled once again to approach Fr. Aladel about it. These were extremely unpleasant encounters for Catherine, often involving verbal battles between her and Fr. Aladel. The other Sisters would see Catherine approach the confessional trembling with fear, then hear the sound of raised voices issuing from within.

Although Catherine was never disobedient or rebellious, and would cease the discussion at Fr. Aladel’s order, she was not to be dissuaded from the mission she believed God had entrusted to her. While honoring her vow of obedience, she nonetheless possessed a strong will and a spirited tongue, and doggedly pursued her mission.  There is no doubt that, as Our Lady had warned, Catherine suffered much during this period, even to the extent of telling the Virgin that she “had better appear to someone else, since no one will believe me.” Only Our Lady’s promise of God’s grace sustained Catherine and made it possible for her to persevere.

In fairness to Fr. Aladel, his was not an easy task, either. He needed to determine if Sister Catherine’s visions were genuine and whether it would be prudent to act on them. But eventually, as he came to know Catherine better, he realized that by her very nature it was unlikely that she was inventing it all. He knew that she was good and pious, and he did not doubt the sincerity of her belief that she had seen these things. He also realized that of herself she did not possess the intellectual ability nor the imagination to fabricate such a story with all its lavish detail. Then, too, was the fact that her reported prophecies had indeed come true. Furthermore, he had given his promise to Catherine early on that her identity not be revealed, which placed all the responsibility for carrying out heaven’s orders on his shoulders alone.

Meanwhile, the end of Catherine’s novitiate was fast approaching, when she could possibly be assigned to a far-away post. Somehow, Fr. Aladel managed to use his influence to ensure that Catherine was assigned to the Hospice d’Enghien at Reuilly, where he was the regular confessor. This, of course, was necessary because of his role as Catherine’s spiritual advisor in the matter of her visions. The Hospice had been founded as a retirement home for the old men who in earlier years had served the royal family. Sr. Catherine’s duty would now be to care for these aged residents.

vision-of-mm-2Shortly after her arrival at Enghien, while visiting the chapel at the Motherhouse, Catherine saw Our Lady again. The apparition took the same form as it had on Nov. 27, but on this occasion Our Lady informed Catherine, “You will see me no more, but you will hear my voice in your prayers.”  In the following weeks, during her prayers Catherine heard the frequent urging of Our Lady that the medal be struck. When Catherine complained that Fr. Aladel did not believe her, Our Lady replied, “Never mind. He is my servant and would fear to displease me.”

No doubt it was these words reported back to Fr. Aladel that finally spurred him to action.  His love for Mary and his fear of angering her overcame the lingering doubts he had about Catherine’s visions. Indeed, Our Lady seemed to have great confidence in him, as he also would later be spiritual advisor to Sr. Justine Bisqueyburu, to whom the Green Scapular was manifested in 1840, and would be responsible for its production and distribution.

In January 1832, his good friend, Fr. Etienne, had an appointment with Archbishop de Quelen and asked Fr. Aladel to accompany him. After Fr. Etienne’s meeting, Fr. Aladel took this opportunity to tell the Archbishop about the visions and Our Lady’s request for a medal. After much careful questioning, the Archbishop, who was especially devoted to the Immaculate Conception, consented. On June 30, 1832, the first 2,000 Medals of the Immaculate Conception were delivered. Catherine, upon receiving her share of medals, said, “Now it must be propagated!” She was to keep a few of these first Medals until the end of her life (one of them can be seen at the Miraculous Medal Art Museum in Germantown, PA).

As the saying goes, the rest is history: The Medal’s rapid spread throughout France and the world, and its astonishing impact as a sacramental was rivaled only by the Rosary. So many healings, conversions, and wonders sprang from it that it soon became known as “the Miraculous Medal.”

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Front & Back of a  Medal of the Immaculate Conception (“Miraculous Medal”)

Catherine’s great mission was accomplished; and the ecstasy of the heavenly visions, as well as the despair and frustration of trying to convince Fr. Aladel to act on them, was over. Now Catherine would embark on the final, and longest, phase of her earthly journey: the hidden life of obscurity as she settled into the ordinary routine that was to be her destiny for 46 years.

(In Part 4: Catherine’s Hidden Life & Final Years on Earth)

 

Catherine Laboure: Saint of the Miraculous Medal-Part 1

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Part 1: Zoe, “A Good Village Girl”

Although most Catholics, and some non-Catholics, are familiar with the Miraculous Medal and its origin, few know much about St. Catherine Laboure´ (pronounced Lab-oh-ray), the woman to whom the medal was first manifested by the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not surprising, however, when one considers the personality of Catherine herself and the humility and restraint that characterized her entire life. Yet, she is the woman whose visions ushered in what Pope Paul VI called “the Marian Age,” and she was privileged to enjoy the longest audience with Our Lady of any visionary.

Born on May 2, 1806 in Fain-les-moutiers, France, to Pierre and Madeline Laboure, she was baptized Catherine, but was rarely called by that name. Instead, she was nicknamed “Zoe” after a locally popular saint on whose feast day she was born. The Laboures were a hard-working family who lived comfortably, if not luxuriously, in a spacious house on a large and prosperous farm. Zoe’s father, Pierre, had entered the seminary in his teens, but later changed his mind and became a farmer instead. Though devout, he was a silent, gruff perfectionist who ruled the family with an iron hand. By contrast, Madeline Louise Gontard was from a cultured, respected family and was genteel and saintly. She bore 17 children, 10 of whom survived their first year.

Zoe possessed the best characteristics of each parent — Pierre’s strong will and capability, and Madeline’s gentle, pious nature. Zoe was very close to her mother, their shared deep piety and love of God creating a strong bond between them. But on October 9, 1815, when Zoe was only 9, her mother died of unknown causes at the age of 42. Shortly thereafter, little Zoe climbed up on a chair and took down the family statue of the Blessed Virgin. Hugging it close to her, she whispered, “Now, dear Blessed Mother, you will be my mother!” The deep, loving, close relationship with her heavenly Mother had begun, and would grow and endure for the rest of Zoe’s long and extraordinary life.

In 1816, Pierre’s sister Marguerite and her husband, Antoine Jeanrot, who owned a vinegar distillery in St. Remy, offered to take in Zoe and her younger sister Tonine. Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Antoine were kind and charitable, and the girls were very happy there.  During the two years she lived with them, Zoe continued to grow spiritually and nurture her devotion to Mother Mary. In St. Remy she had plenty of opportunity for spiritual growth. The village had a resident priest, so she was able to attend more services than she had back home. In church, Zoe didn’t fidget and grow distracted like the other children. Kneeling with her hands joined in prayer, she gazed at the altar with a rapt devotion far beyond her years. Her cousin Claudine was amazed at Zoe’s devotion in church and sought to imitate her. “What a pleasure it is to watch Zoe in church,” she often remarked. “How alert she is when she prays!”

Young Zoe was a natural leader and peacemaker among her playmates, yet she was never bossy or arrogant. Though not a pretty child, she was sweet and pleasant. When teased, she would laugh and shrug it off, never taking revenge or feeling sorry for herself. On feast days, the children had the rare treat of candy, which in those days was made at home and considered a luxury. Yet on several occasions Zoe gave her own share to the poor children, who otherwise would never enjoy such a treat. 

Although Zoe had a rich spiritual life, she was sorely lacking in formal education. This is strange, because her mother had been a schoolteacher, her father had pursued graduate studies at the seminary, and her seven oldest siblings had all received a good education. But God used the limited circumstances of Zoe’s life to bring about His perfect plans. From an early age, she aspired to a religious vocation. During her childhood, she did not receive any formal spiritual direction, and was unable to study spiritual matters through books because she had never been taught to read. But because of her constant, deep communion with God, it is obvious that He guided her in the absence of human teachers.

After a couple of years, Zoe’s Aunt Marguerite became increasingly involved in the Jeanrot’s successful distillery business, and Zoe’s oldest sister, Marie-Louise, was preparing to leave home to join the Sisters of Charity. So Pierre decided to bring Zoe and Tonine back home so that Zoe, now 12, could take over Marie-Louise’s task of running the large household. It was a formidable responsibility for such a young girl to care for the household, which consisted of Zoe’s father, sister, and several brothers — one of whom was an invalid — as well as the dozen hired farm hands who had to be fed. Although she was assisted by one servant, Pierre made it clear from the beginning that to Zoe alone fell the duty of ordering the household. All day long, she made beds, washed dishes, did laundry, ironing, sewing and mending, cooked meals, and carried food out to the workers in the fields at midday. Zoe’s favorite household chore was feeding the hundreds of pigeons in the Laboure´ dovecote. The birds loved her and would swirl around her as she laughingly scattered grain on the ground for them.   

On January 25, 1918, Zoe received First Holy Communion in the village church. This event served to deepen and strengthen her devotion and virtue, and from that point on Zoe became, in the words of her sister Tonine, “entirely mystic.” Every day she attended 6:00 a.m. Mass, which meant a half-hour walk in all kinds of weather and often in darkness, to get to the church in Fain, as there was no daily Mass in her own village church. Throughout the day she would go to a corner and take a few moments to commune with God. She sometimes slipped across the street to the village church for the Stations of the Cross (one of her favorite devotions) or a quick prayer in her preferred spot before a painting of the Annunciation. In the evening she would return to church to end her busy day in quiet reflection.

Zoe often visited her sick neighbors, a harbinger of the work she would later do as a Sister of Charity. She fasted every Friday and Saturday, despite the objections of her family. This is one of the first indications of her iron will and determination when she believed herself to be directed by God. Zoe instinctively understood her need for prayer and self-denial. It was as if deep in her soul she knew she was preparing for a great mission.

One night in 1824, Zoe dreamed that she was attending Mass in the village church. The elderly priest saying Mass turned and looked deeply into her eyes. Zoe blushed and looked away, because the old priest’s eyes were so compelling. After Mass, he turned towards the sacristy and motioned to Zoe to follow. Frightened, she turned and ran from the church. On her way home, she stopped to visit a sick woman of the village. Entering the sickroom, she again encountered the old priest. She backed away in fright, but he said to her, “You do well to visit the sick, my child. You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me!” With these words, Zoe suddenly awakened; but now, instead of fear, she felt a great sense of peace and joy. She was puzzled by the strange dream, however, and would not discover its significance for several years. 

Shortly after this dream, Zoe received the first of several marriage proposals from young men of the district. She was now 20 years old, and although not beautiful, she was pleasant-looking, strong, well-built, nicely groomed, sweet and innocent. Wisdom and kindness shone out of her large, solemn, cornflower-blue eyes, her best feature. She was extremely capable and already highly skilled in the running of a country home — all desirable qualities for a future wife and mother. Zoe’s father was very pleased and tried to persuade her to accept one of the proposals, but since she had plans for the religious life, Zoe naturally turned them all down.

At age 22, feeling that she had fulfilled her responsibility to her family, and knowing that Tonine was quite capable of taking over, she told Pierre of her desire to enter a convent.  Surprisingly, he refused to give his consent. At this time, Zoe’s brother Charles, who lived in Paris and had recently lost his wife, wrote to Pierre that he desperately needed help running his successful restaurant. Pierre felt that this was a perfect opportunity to dissuade Zoe from the religious life. Living in Paris for a while and tasting its delights would show her what she would miss by shutting herself from the world in a convent! After much strong persuasion, Zoe finally agreed to go to Paris. Although she could have run away to a convent and would probably have been accepted, obedience and respect for her father kept her from acting on her own wishes.

The Paris of 1828 was a sparkling, exciting city, a world of art and culture far removed from the sleepy villages where Zoe had spent her early life. Charles’ bistro, however, was a humble establishment, frequented mostly by rough workmen who talked, joked, and quarreled raucously, loudly calling for service from their waitress, Zoe. Not by nature a timid person, she was unafraid of them; nonetheless, she found their vulgarity and bold advances offensive. Her decisive firmness in dealing with them earned her the eventual respect of the clientele, who recognized her goodness and altered their crude manners somewhat in her presence. Without a doubt, this was the lowest point in Zoe’s life. Charles sympathized with his sister’s feelings and tried to shield her as much as possible from any unpleasantness. But as the months wore on, Zoe’s patience was wearing thin and giving way to panic at the prospect of being trapped in her seemingly hopeless situation.

At this point, her brother Hubert’s wife, Jeanne, persuaded Zoe’s father to let Zoe live with them in Chatillon, where Jeanne conducted a boarding school for wealthy young ladies. Although Pierre consented, Zoe did not fit into this environment much better than she did at Charles’ restaurant. Being a 23-year-old unschooled, simple country girl, she was totally out of place among her refined, fashionable, well-educated and much younger schoolmates. 

A few weeks after her arrival in Chatillon, while visiting the Sr. Superior at the Hospice, Zoe noticed a portrait of a priest on the wall of the parlor. With shock, she recognized him as the same man who had appeared in her dream four years earlier! Upon inquiry, she was told that he was St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Sisters of Charity. Her confessor, upon hearing of this, told Zoe, “St. Vincent de Paul calls you! He wishes you to be a Sister of Charity.”

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St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Sisters of Charity

Now that Zoe’s vocation seemed clear, she set about dealing with the obstacles in her way — namely, gaining the consent of her father and that of the Sr. Superior of the Hospice. Again, Zoe enlisted the aid of Jeanne, who because of her similarity to Zoe’s mother (her cousin), was a great favorite of Pierre’s. Somehow Jeanne convinced him to allow Zoe to enter the convent. He did, however, extract a petty revenge by denying Zoe her dowry. Though this must have hurt Zoe tremendously, she never at any time spoke ill of her father. Fortunately for Zoe, Hubert and Jeanne generously assured her that they would supply the dowry she needed to enter the convent.

Now Zoe had to convince the Sisters of Charity to accept her as a postulant. To all outward appearances, Zoe had little to offer them. She was illiterate and her personality was of the shy, calm, silent type that was often misconstrued as cold and apathetic. But the Assistant Superior, Sr. Francoise Victoire Sejole, who would later become Zoe’s closest friend in the religious life, had gotten to know Zoe well, because Zoe often accompanied her on calls to the sick poor. Sr. Sejole saw past outward appearances to the beauty and depths of Zoe’s soul. She convinced the Sr. Superior Josephine Cany that Zoe was “a good village girl, the kind St. Vincent loved,” and offered to teach Zoe everything she required to enter the seminary in Paris. Sr. Cany agreed, and at last Zoe was free to follow the path God had laid out before her so many years ago.

(Coming up in Part 2: The Visions & Catherine’s Mission)