I. “Now You Will Be My Mother”
The Evening Angelus was ringing over Burgundy. The mild May breeze caught the sound from a hundred belfries and blew it across the mellowing fields and ripening vineyards. Workers in the fields stopped turning the ancient earth and straightened to bless themselves and pray. In the villages, housewives paused in their preparation of the evening meal. Even the children stood silent in the cobble-stoned streets where they were at play. Everyone and everything was still, while the sweet bells told once more of the meeting of Gabriel and Mary.
This moment had not changed over the centuries. The lords and ladies of the Ducal court had known it, and the serfs toiling beneath the blue Burgundian skies, and the monks of St. Bernard and the nuns of St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Only the people and the dress and the customs had changed.
Now it was the second of May in the year of Our Lord 1806, and the evening Angelus was ringing.
In one house of the village of Fain-les-moutiers no one paused for the evening prayer. It was the house of the prosperous farmer Pierre Laboure, and within its stout stone walls his wife, Madeleine Louise, was being delivered of a child. The bell of the little church across the lane had not ceased striking when the baby breathed its first breath and wailed. It was a girl, the second daughter of the household.
In the midst of all the to-do and bustle, the washings and exclamations of delight that all was well, the exhausted mother made herself heard. She had a startling request: that her newborn daughter’s name be entered on the civil register at once. It was something that could wait: the official day was over; but, no, Madeleine Laboure would have it done now.
Nicolas Laboure, cousin to Pierre and mayor of the village, was summoned from his office. He brought with him his secretary, Baudrey, who carried the book and pen. The child’s name was duly entered: “Catherine, daughter of Pierre Laboure and Madeleine Gontard his wife, was born this same day (May 2, 1806) at six o’clock in the evening.” The mother raised herself resolutely to sign the record with her own hand. It was a marvel to her family. She had not done this for any other of her children, nor would she do it for those to come. Only for Catherine.
Thus it came about that the name of Catherine Laboure, saint of Burgundy and France, was inscribed in the written history of the world within a quarter of an hour of her birth. The very next day, the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross, Catherine was baptized, and her name entered on the books of the Church. Her existence had now been noticed by both Church and State; both would have occasion to take note of her many times in the years ahead.
Abbe Georges Mamer poured the waters of baptism on the head of the little Catherine. He was the last Benedictine of the famed Fifth-Century Abbey of Moutiers, which lay outside the village. When his abbey had been suppressed and the monks dispersed during the French Revolution, Abbe Mamer had stayed on in the district to serve as pastor to the villages of Moutiers—Saint Jean, Fain and St. Just. He was honored by his people, for he had courageously refused the Constitutional Oath, that shameful pledge by which the taker denied his Master’s Vicar in Rome for the bloody silver of the State.
According to legend, the lands of the Abbey of Moutiers had been the gift of Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks. The first abbot, so the tale went, having found favor with the King, Clovis promised him all the land he could encircle in a day, riding on a donkey. Whether the charming legend is true or not, there is a poetic justice in the linking of Catherine, the maid of a new religious era, with the beginnings of French Catholicism fourteen hundred years before.
A coincidence like this—in fact, everything we call coincidence—is not one with God. It is part of His plan, a signpost He places along the way of a soul. It was not merely coincidence, for example, that Catherine was born at the ringing of the Angelus. It was God’s charming touch, this heralding by the bells of Mary of the saint who was to usher in the Marian Age. Nor was it coincidence that, of all the Laboure children, Catherine’s name alone received the prompt attention of the world: surely it was a holy mother’s intuition that led Madeleine to call attention to her elected child. Even the feast of Catherine’s baptism was prophetic, for Catherine was to “find” the Cross at every turning of her life, was to have a deep devotion for it, and was to see it in mysterious vision.
Catherine’s baptismal name was rarely used by her family. They called her Zoe after an obscure saint whose feast fell on the day of Catherine’s birth. St. Zoe must have enjoyed a certain local prominence, for the leading saint of the day on the calendar of the Church is Athanasius, the great champion of the Mother of God. Although entirely unofficial, the name Zoe was so much a part of Catherine that, when she served as godmother to a neighbor’s child in 1826, she signed the baptismal register: Catherine Laboure Zoe.
Zoe Laboure came by her goodness honestly, for her father and mother were pious country folk. The father, Pierre, was born in 1767. He entered the seminary in his teens but, after a few years, gave up the idea of the priesthood and took to farming. His grandchildren, in testimony before the Beatification Tribunal of 1909, blamed the French Revolution for his change of heart. This was evidently a family tradition and must be respected as such; however, the facts indicate that the Revolution discouraged rather than obstructed the vocation of Pierre Laboure. He was already twenty-two when the Revolution broke out, an age when he would have been well along in his theological studies, and even in orders, were he still in the seminary. Furthermore, the Church was not hampered in her functioning, nor the seminaries closed, at once. The Constitutional Oath was not demanded until 1790, and the Days of the Terror, when persecution and martyrdom began in dead earnest, did not strike until 1793, some months after Pierre was married. Probably the shadow of the coming Revolution gave Pierre Laboure pause in his leanings toward the priesthood and, after an honest searching of his soul, he decided that God had other plans for him.
Zoe’s mother, Madeleine Louise Gontard, was born in 1773, three years before the American Declaration of Independence. She came of cultured and respected people: the Gontards were looked up to as a sort of local aristocracy. When Pierre Laboure met her, she was living in the family home at Senailly, teaching school to support her widowed mother.
They were married on June 4, 1793. He was twenty-six; she was twenty. They were brave youngsters, to set up housekeeping in the reeling world of that day. The French Revolution had been disrupting normal living for four years. The King had been killed in January, and the Queen was to come to the scaffold in October. The heads of priests and nuns were soon to be falling into the blood-soaked baskets of the guillotine. The Laboures’s daughter Catherine would come to revere the hallowed names of some of them: the Vincentian priests Rene Rogue, Louis Francois, and Henri Gruyer; the four martyred Sisters of Charity of Arras—all members of the double religious family Catherine was to join. Devilish cruelty, blasphemy, and lust were on the rampage, and even the far provinces and hidden villages like Senailly and Fain-les-moutiers felt the pangs of the frightful cancers that were eating away at France. But Pierre and Madeleine were young and in love, and young love knows no terrors or fears.
For the first seven years of their married life, the couple lived with Madeleine’s mother in Senailly. Here the four oldest children were born: Hubert, in 1794; Marie Louise, in 1795; Jacques, in 1796; and Antoine, in 1797—and perhaps two of the six babies who died at birth or soon after. Madeleine Laboure had seventeen children in all: eleven lived, and one of these, Alexandre, died when a year old.
In 1800 old Mme Gontard died, and the Laboures moved to the farm in Fain-les-moutiers. Soon after their arrival in Fain the fourth son, Charles, was born. Then came Alexandre, in 1801; Joseph, in 1803; and Pierre, in 1805.
And in 1806, Catherine.
Catherine’s parents were a study in contrasts. Pierre Laboure was a gruff, silent man, a devout and good Catholic, an able father, but one who ruled his children with a rod of iron. In all things a perfectionist, he saw to it that his farm and his household ran smoothly or he knew the reason why. It was this quality of management that made his land prosper and his children grow in courtesy and character. Madeleine Laboure was of a softer nature. She was truly the heart of her home, educated, genteel, and saintly.
They were a wonderful combination for the making of a saint, this father and mother, and Zoe took the best qualities from each. She had her father’s iron will and capable hand, her mother’s gentleness and deep piety.
On October 21, 1808, when Zoe was nearly two and a half years old, Marie Antoinette, or Tonine, the sister who was to be the confidante of her childhood and adolescence, was born. And, in November 1809, the baby Auguste; he was born in poor health and was delicate all his life.
The little village of Fain-les-moutiers—there were scarcely 150 inhabitants—had honorable memories to recall, memories that bred in it a just and natural pride. It had once been part of the lands of the Abbey of Moutiers. St. Bernard and his holy brothers had been born and raised not far away and, later on, St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Some miles to the south lay f Paray-le-monial, where the Sacred Heart of Jesus had unburdened Itself to St. Margaret Mary.
Fain was a charming village, perched on a shelf among the rolling hills, commanding a glorious view of the lovely Burgundian countryside stretching away beneath it. Just below, in the plain, lay the ruined abbey and, farther on, the larger village of Moutiers-Saint Jean. It was a good place to grow up in—healthful, quaint, and serene.
The Laboure farm was large, the house spacious. The sight of the prosperous farmstead was enough to tell the stranger to Fain that here lived the first family of the village. A dozen hired hands tilled the soil for Pierre Laboure. His barn was full, his granary bursting. Nearly 800 pigeons flew in and out of the large, stone dovecot which presided over the farmyard like a medieval battle-tower. Raising squabs for the market is a native French industry but, by ancient law, only one or two farmers in a given area may engage in it. Indoors as well, the polished oak and gleaming pewter reflected the comfortable station of the family. And, if further proof were needed, there was the tiny side chapel in the ancient village church, called the Chapel of the Laboures, and reserved for their use. Pierre Laboure was village mayor from 1811 to 1815.
The Laboures were prosperous because they worked hard and managed well. They knew simple comfort but never luxury. From sunup to sundown the father was in the fields, about his business of farming. At home, the mother was about hers, sewing and cooking, cleaning and dusting, managing her household. After Auguste was born, Mme Laboure had a servant to help her with the children and the housework. As the mother moved from room to room, the toddling Zoe tagged at her heels, taking in all the household tasks she would remember and do so well in the years to come. When the boys came home from the village school, they had chores to do to help their mother. As they grew older and stronger, they followed their father into the fields with plow and hoe.
Of course, there was time for play: the rollicking games in the barnyard or in the twisting streets, the leaping and wrestling in the high-piled hay of the barn. For Zoe and Tonine there were the dolls and the bits of bright cloth of little girlhood. When night had fallen and the whole family was gathered within the walls of the house, all was cozy with the sound of rattling dishes, chattering voices, and laughter.
While Zoe was still a tot, Marie Louise went off to live with an uncle and aunt in Langres. This aunt was Madeleine Laboure’s sister, and Marie Louise had been named for her. Her husband was the commandant of the military post in the town. The couple was childless, and in their loneliness had asked the Laboures for Marie Louise. It does credit to the compassion and kindliness of Madeleine and Pierre that they gave her up. Her uncle and aunt raised the girl as their daughter, lavishing every care upon her and giving her an excellent education with the Sisters of Charity at Langres.
In 1811, the oldest son, Hubert, enlisted in the army at the age of seventeen. Not long after, Jacques left home for Paris to take a job as clerk in a business firm. The departure of these two fired dreams in the eyes of the younger boys and they yearned for the day when they, too, would set forth to make their fortunes: their father was a hard man, and in the outside world there was freedom and adventure. In the meantime, however, the loving hand of their gentle mother kept them tractable and together.
Zoe was growing up at her mother’s knee, almost literally, for the two were drawn to each other in a special way. Naturally enough, this grave little girl and her baby sister must have been a comfort to Madeleine Laboure, surrounded and assailed for years by seven noisy boys. This womanly delight in little girls, however, is not sufficient to explain the unusual relationship between Mme Laboure and Zoe. It would seem, rather, that the native piety of the mother was quick to notice the difference from the others in this chosen child, was quick to detect in her an eager response to her own love of God. There can be no doubt that the future saint learned the beginnings of her sanctity from her mother. How well she learned, we know from the lips of one who was a little girl with her.
The Laboures had relatives in the village of Cormarin, and every year these cousins would invite the whole Laboure family to join them for the patronal feast of the village. The feast-day celebration would begin with the singing of high Mass in the village church. It was a long and trying ceremony for the children, who had thoughts only for the good times to come when it was over. Like children everywhere, they squirmed, they fidgeted, they played with their fingers, they looked this way and that. All except Zoe. She knelt up straight, hands joined, eyes fixed on the altar where Calvary had come again to a tiny hamlet in France. Her behavior was so different from that of the other girls and boys, her attitude so proper and attentive and grown-up, that it could not pass unnoticed. And noticed it was, even by the children, for the old lady of ninety who related it to the tribunal investigating the sanctity of Zoe Laboure in 1895 was one of those children, and she remembered all through the years.
There was another survivor of those feasts in Cormarin who had more to tell. When Mass was over, the people would pour into the village square, the grownups to chat and renew acquaintanceship, the children to romp and play. Zoe was there in the midst of the laughing, skipping, shrieking children. Eighty years after, a playmate remembered her as “not pretty, but pleasant and good, even when they teased her, as children will.” Teasing is hard for any child to take, for the teasing of children can be cruel, but Zoe was not a sensitive little girl. With her there was no hurting back or sobbing and running to mama. She only laughed and passed it off.
In a short time, in fact, the competent Zoe had taken over the group. Not that she organized the games and everyone played them her way, or else. Her leadership showed itself only when there was trouble—a quarrel or a downright fight. Then she stepped in quickly and quietly and made peace, and her peace terms were accepted and followed.
A wonderful treat for the children at the festival in Cormarin were the goodies—the candy and other sweets. It is hard for us today, when candy is so plentiful and cheap, to realize just how wonderful a treat it was for these simple country children. There was no such thing as commercial candy in the country provinces of France; it was all made at home. And life was so hard and provisions so few and precious that they could not be wasted on such a luxury as sweets, except on occasions like this.
There is no reason to suppose that Zoe Laboure was unlike the children of all ages in their common weakness for candy. She, too, must have had a sweet tooth. Yet she would give away her share of the feast-day goodies to the first poor child who had been forgotten. This was a really remarkable act of mortification for a little child, but there is sworn testimony that Zoe did it, and not once only.
Another banner expedition of Zoe’s childhood was the annual trek to Senailly, where the Laboure family spent their summer vacation at the mother’s old home. It was on one of these vacation trips that a tragic accident occurred. The horses bolted, or a wheel dropped into a deep hole in the rutty road, and one of the carriages overturned amid shrieks of fright and horror. When the dust had subsided, frail little Auguste lay oddly twisted, a cripple for life. Until his dying day, some twenty-two years later, he had to be waited on constantly and carried from place to place.
At home in Fain-les-moutiers the family circle kept getting smaller. Hubert and Marie Louise and Jacques were gone from the paternal roof. Antoine was the next to go. As soon as he was old enough, he apprenticed himself to a pharmacist in Paris. Charles was biding his time, waiting his chance to flee. Joseph and Pierre were in school most of the day. There was a village school for the boys of Fain; the girls had to travel to the school of the Sisters of Charity in Moutiers-Saint Jean.
Although Zoe and Tonine were old enough for school, their mother seemed loath to send them. It could not have been the distance that caused her reluctance: Moutiers-Saint Jean was little more than a half-hour’s walk from Fain, and little country girls were used to such a walk. More likely, having suffered the separation from her older children, Madeleine Laboure was anxious to keep the youngest near her as long as possible; and perhaps she had a presentiment that she herself would not be with them much longer. It was a strange way for a former schoolteacher to act, and, even more strange, she does not seem to have given her little girls any schooling worthy of the name at home.
These years, were pleasant ones for Zoe. Her pride in her home when she was its mistress and her deep, lifelong love for her family stem from them. She was the darling of her father and the comfort of her mother. Most fathers are helpless before the feminine wiles of their daughters, and Pierre Laboure was no exception. Zoe’s only wile, however, was her goodness, which penetrated her father’s hard shell and won his heart. Her mother’s heart was easier to win, for Zoe carried a great part of it in her bosom: the loving kindness, the gentleness, the piety of Madeleine Laboure, all were copied faithfully in the heart of her little girl. Out of these years, too, sprang the single-souled friendship that always united Zoe and Tonine.
But, like every earthly happiness, it was not to last. On October 9, 1815, Madeleine Laboure died. She was only forty-two; she and her husband had been married twenty-two years.
There are no details of her death; we do not know whether it was sudden or long-drawn-out; we have no hint of the nature of her last illness. It has been suggested that she was worn out by her seventeen pregnancies, but this can only be a guess, and a dangerous and misleading one. After all, many a woman has borne a large family without dying of it. Madeleine Laboure could not have been a delicate woman. In an age when infant mortality was high, nine of her children grew to strong, healthy adulthood. Auguste, the youngest boy, was the only puny one, and he lived to be twenty-eight years old in spite of the crippling accident suffered in his childhood. Only Alexandre died in infancy, and his death need not be blamed on inherited frailty; any children’s disease could have carried him off. Catherine lived to be seventy, and Marie Louise survived her, dying in her eighties. There is absolutely no indication that the Laboures were of weak stock, either on their father’s side, or their mother’s. Besides, Mme Laboure was not called upon to raise her family and keep her house single-handed. She had her mother with her when the older ones were babies, and a competent nurse and servant for the younger ones. To paint Madeleine Laboure as a poor, bedraggled creature, exhausted with babies and housework, is to paint a very false picture indeed.
The praises of this valiant woman could never be fully sung. She accepted fully the Christian duty of motherhood. She instilled in her children piety, honesty, and integrity of character: the children themselves have attested to it. The sanctity of Catherine is the crowning proof, for, as has been said, her mother taught Catherine the elements of holiness.
The greater the person, the greater the loss. Certainly the loss of Madeleine Laboure was a blow of major proportions to the Laboure family. It was like blowing out the light that had illumined the great square rooms, like tearing the heart out of the home. We do not know whether the three oldest boys were home when their mother died. Marie Louise came home from Senailly and stayed on after the funeral to manage the house. She was a young lady of twenty now, and her place was with her father.
He needed her. He needed every help, every consolation, for his way of life had changed suddenly and completely. The old familiar way was no more. It had started to crumble when the older children left home; now it broke up entirely. In the resulting chaos, Charles received his permission to go to Paris to learn the restaurant business. Joseph and Pierre were packed off to boarding school. Of all that large family there were left only the father, Marie Louise, Zoe, Tonine, and Auguste—and the servant. We do not even know the name of this good servant, but the fact that she earned from her little charges the name of Mama, speaks volumes.
Zoe was nine now, Tonine seven, and Auguste six. The poor little things wandered about, disconsolate, bewildered and unhappy. Of the three, Zoe seems to have taken her mother’s death the hardest. She was just at that awakening time of childhood when the happenings of life, joyful and sad, are no longer things looked at idly like a play, but flesh-and-blood experiences that touch and change the heart. Zoe had been especially attached to her mother; she had enjoyed the favored dalliance of a mother who knows that she is near the end of her bearing. Most of all, she had depended on her mother for her spiritual food. Now there was an emptiness in her breast. There was no mother to prattle to, to run to with hurts to be kissed away; above all, to trust with her wise and pious childish thoughts.
It was in this crisis that Zoe adopted Mary as her Mother.
It was on a day shortly after her mother’s burial that the extraordinary thing happened. A statue of Our Lady stood on a shelf in the bedroom of her father and mother. It was probably a cheap statue, battered and chipped. It might have been of stone or wood or only of plaster, colored or plain—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was a statue of Our Lady, perhaps the most important statue of Our Lady in modern times. That unknown, long-discarded statue was the instrument that ushered in the Marian Age.
Zoe was alone in the bedroom; she had looked carefully about to make sure of that. She had a duty to perform, and like all the solemn and decisive acts of life, it had to be done alone. Of course even Zoe did not realize that what she was about to do far transcended her personal life. It was vital to countless millions yet unborn; and so she might have spared herself her pains, for all the world was to see her. The Blessed Virgin arranged for the servant to happen quietly on the scene and to observe it all.
Zoe pulled a chair over beneath the shelf, for it was too high for her to reach, even if she stood on tiptoe. Climbing up on the chair, she stretched overhead and took down Our Lady’s image. She was too much engrossed in the ecstasy of her devotion to notice anything now. She did not even get down from the chair; it would serve well enough for the altar of her choosing and dedication. Throwing her arms about the statue, she hugged it close to her little body, as a child might fondle her favorite doll or teddy bear.
But this was no doll. In a sense, it was no longer just a statue of Our Lady. It was Mary herself. Zoe’s words showed that very clearly.
“Now, dear Blessed Mother,” she said aloud with childlike fervor, “now you will be my Mother!”
Only that. She put the statue back in its familiar place and climbed down off the chair.
What Zoe meant to do, what she did, is clear enough. She missed her mother terribly, she felt deeply the need for someone to take her place. Yet how was it that, at the tender age of nine, she made the perfect choice?
It seems obvious that Zoe’s instincts were, already, those of the saints. The great St. Teresa of Avila had made the same choice of Mary for Mother while praying before a statue of the Virgin, not long after her own mother’s death. Certainly, Zoe’s action was not just a cute, childish trick. As children say, this was “for real.” Zoe had chosen Mary, the Mother of God, for her own mother—solemnly, surely, with a certain knowledge of what she was doing, of what she meant. Her whole life from this time on bears it out plainly.
From this day forward Zoe Laboure was truly the child of Mary and Mary was truly her mother. The reality of their relationship is evident in Zoe’s simple, straightforward acceptance of it. Mary was as real to her as her father and brothers and sisters. This is the literal truth and it is the key to Zoe’s life. It explains her intimate, her almost casual communion with the Mother of God. It explains how—whether now or a little later, we do not know—she could foster a desire that seems at first glance presumptuous, preposterous, nearly blasphemous: the desire to see the Blessed Virgin. She clung to that desire, made it the constant petition of her prayers, and, most amazing of all, was serenely confident that it would be realized. This little village girl knew that some day she would see the Mother of God.
It might be justly objected that, since children have marvelous imaginations and are adept at the game of make-believe, this whole business was but a child’s fancy. Not so. Zoe Laboure was not an average child and her sister Tonine tells us, significantly, that Zoe disliked the games of childhood. Neither in her young years or later did she ever display the least tendency to daydream. She was singularly practical and unimaginative. If she spoke out loud to an inanimate statue, it was because she believed wholeheartedly in the living, breathing person the statue represented; it was because she felt, perhaps instinctively and without understanding, that this solemn choice must have a visible and sacramental form.
Probably the incident of the statue was almost entirely for the benefit of mankind, a way of serving public notice that the Marian Age had begun. Why else would Heaven have provided an eavesdropper in the person of the Laboure servant? Certainly the devotion of St. Catherine Laboure for the Immaculate Mother of God, with its enormous consequences for the human race, dated from this childhood dedication. It was the first act of homage of a new day, a day which was to dawn in a burst of glory with the Apparitions of the Miraculous Medal, was to grow steadily brighter with the Apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima, and was to reach its zenith in the solemn proclamation of the Assumption of Our Lady and in the intense, worldwide devotion of the Marian Year of 1954.
Having made her choice, Zoe was no longer lonesome. She had regained a mother. Her action did nothing to solve the family problems of the moment, however; indeed, it may have aggravated them, for, when the servant told Pierre Laboure of the touching scene she had witnessed, his heart must have been torn apart at this poignant evidence of the terrible loss his children had suffered in the death of their mother.
At this point Pierre’s sister Marguerite came forward with a very generous offer. Marguerite Laboure was married to Antoine Jeanrot, who conducted a profitable vinegar distillery in the village of Saint Remy. The Jeanrots had four daughters who would make perfect companions for the Laboure girls; and so Mme Jeanrot proposed to her brother that she take Zoe and Tonine into her home and family.
Pierre Laboure accepted his sister’s offer. Perhaps he felt that it would be better all around. It would be a change for his little girls, and that in itself might help them to forget. Then they would be surrounded by a normal home life, complete with the tender ministrations of a mother. Certainly it would be a help to Marie Louise and the servant, who had all they could do to keep the house, feed the farm laborers, and nurse the invalid Auguste. At least it would be worth trying.