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.”
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)