II. “Well, Then, tell Him”
Saint Remy was a village right out of a story book. It lay, pretty and peaceful, along a winding river, on the road from Fain to Montbard. The Jeanrot house was the first one you met after crossing the wooden bridge. The house had a lovely walled garden that ran down to the river and commanded a fine view of the ranging hills beyond. Here, in this country beauty, Zoe spent the years 1816 and 1817.
Zoe and Tonine were happy with their Aunt Marguerite. She was an aunt after a child’s heart, tender and kind, with a fond reputation for charity among her neighbors—the sort of woman you turned to immediately when there was sickness or trouble. That her husband was a kindred spirit is evident from the generosity with which he welcomed his wife’s two nieces into his home. The Jeanrot girls, who were older than their little cousins, doted upon them.
Life at Saint Remy was, therefore, comfortable, cheerful, and pleasant. The Jeanrots seem to have been a carefree and lighthearted lot, and it was this sunny attitude toward living that drew from Fain certain disapproving hints that “at Saint Remy the children did not receive all the useful attentions.” Certainly the Jeanrot home was run very differently from the strict, precise, and efficient household of Fain, but that is probably the worst that can be said of it. It is possible that Antoine and Marguerite Jeanrot seemed slipshod when measured against the unyielding discipline of Pierre Laboure, but who is to say which view lay closer to the rule of the angels? The Jeanrot home was profoundly Christian; nor were Zoe and Tonine shamefully neglected there—a great deal to say.
Life was almost as before. The broken pieces were gathered and put together by the soothing hands of Aunt Marguerite, the emptiness in the hearts of the little girls wholly filled by her love. Of course they must have had a few bouts with homesickness in the beginning, but, no doubt, these soon passed. Fain was but a few miles away, and they saw their father, Marie Louise, Auguste, and the dear substitute Mama often enough. All this, with the healing power of time and the quickness of children to forget, turned the trick. The little Laboures were content.
One thing Zoe never forgot: that she had chosen Mary for her Mother. Nor the catechism of sanctity her earthly mother had taught her. She went right on building upon these foundations, laying prayer on prayer and devotion on devotion like so many bricks. It was of immense help to her that Saint Remy possessed a resident priest. That meant many more church services than she had been used to, a whole new world of divine things. It was like turning a child loose in a huge, wonderful toyshop, for the things of the Lord were truly the toys of this holy child. The simplest object of piety, the crudest holy picture, or the most primitive statue, gave the same delight to her heart that a new ball or rag doll brought to other little girls.
Zoe’s cousin Claudine, who was eighteen and so very grown-up that Zoe called her “aunt,” never got over Zoe’s absorbed attention in church.
“What a pleasure it is to watch Zoe in church,” she would say. “How alert she is when she prays!”
It is the testimony of Cormarin all over again. Nor did Claudine stop at admiring her little cousin, but went on to imitate her. Mentally she checked her own behavior in church: whether she knelt up straight, whether she folded her hands devoutly, whether she kept her eyes fixed on the Mass, as she should, as Zoe did. By her own testimony, Claudine’s whole spiritual life grew better, all because of the artless piety of a little girl.
Among the “useful attentions” Zoe failed to receive at Saint Remy was schooling. The Jeanrots cannot be blamed overmuch for this; Zoe’s own mother and father neglected to see to it when she was at home.
This neglect of proper schooling is the strangest fact of Zoe’s childhood. Her father and mother were, after all, persons of a certain education and culture—a point that cannot be made too much of, for it was noteworthy enough in the country provinces of early nineteenth-century France. The mother was a schoolteacher, the father had pursued the graduate studies of the seminary. Like parents the world over, they must surely have wished their children to be as well educated as themselves, or better; and they had the means. What is more, they saw to it as far as the seven oldest were concerned. Marie Louise had a thorough, well-rounded education with the Sisters of Charity at Langres. Hubert’s education was such that he was fitted to make a brilliant career for himself as an officer in the French army and to marry the schoolmistress of a fashionable academy. Jacques and Antoine were trained to follow professional careers, the one in commerce and the other in pharmacy. Charles learned the catering trade. Joseph and Pierre were taken out of the village school in Fain and sent to boarding school upon the death of their mother. Only the three youngest of the family had no formal schooling. Of these, Auguste was too delicate in health for it, and Tonine at least learned from her father to read and write. Zoe alone was scarcely able to trace her name or stumble through a simple sentence.
Many excuses can be made for it: the reluctance of the ailing mother to part with her babies, the shunting about of the girls after her death, Zoe’s preoccupation with the housework when she returned home. There seems, however, only one reason: that all these human factors were permitted by God to work toward His own ends. Her lack of letters was to play an important part in both the vocation and the Marian mission of Zoe Laboure.
The stay in Saint Remy was intended to be a temporary measure to tide everyone over the crisis caused by Madeleine Laboure’s death. Like many temporary measures, however, it began to take on an air of permanency, and two years had gone by before anyone realized it.
Then two circumstances came about that made it both natural and necessary for the children to come home.
The first was the vocation of the oldest girl, Marie Louise. She had been attracted to the Sisters of Charity when they taught her at Langres, and had long ago made up her mind to join them. Her mother’s death had called a halt to her plans for a time, but now she was twenty-two and anxious to get on with them again. She could make no move, however, until someone was found to take over the running of the house.
The second circumstance developed at St. Remy. M. Jeanrot’s business was flourishing to such a degree that his wife was called in more and more to assist him with it. She found herself forced to be away from Zoe and Tonine for hours at a time. The good woman herself was the first to be dissatisfied with such a state of affairs, and she solved the difficulty by hiring a nurse for the children. Even this substitution, however, could not have satisfied her wholly, and her sense of responsibility must have been uneasy and disturbed. It was probably a great relief to her when her brother proposed taking his children home again.
The pain and upset attendant on this new change were softened for the children by their father’s decision to turn the house over to their charge—or, at least, to Zoe. Pierre Laboure had a great aversion to entrusting his home to a hired housekeeper, and he knew the capabilities of his favorite child
Nevertheless, it was a hard task for a little girl—Zoe was scarcely twelve—to manage a household, and such a household! Zoe had a fair-sized family to do for: her father, Tonine, Auguste and, for a time, Joseph and Pierre, home from boarding school. Auguste was a problem all by himself, for he required the thousand extra attentions of the invalid. Then there were the hired men, a baker’s dozen of them. They were part of the household, living in, their meals provided by their employer. In the middle of the day their meal had to be carried to them in the fields. A shrewd head was needed to calculate the stores and provisions to be laid in for such a hard-working, huge-eating crowd, a tireless frame to cook for them, a strong back to serve them.
The housework was enormous: beds to make, the house to sweep and dust—and it was large—piles of dishes to wash, glassware and pewter to keep bright and shining, clothes to sew and mend, launder and iron. Zoe had a servant to help her, of course, but she was a servant, and not a member of the family. The household was not hers to order; Pierre Laboure made that plain; the right and the duty belonged to Zoe.
Many a grown woman would have baulked at the formidable task, but not Zoe. It was her father’s wish, it would leave Marie Louise free to go to God, and that was enough for Zoe.
The Laboures had a busy round of it, that winter and spring of 1817-18. Besides doing her housework, Marie Louise had to stop to explain the why and the wherefore and the how of it to Zoe. Zoe worked right along with her, eyes and ears alert even while her hands were occupied. It was not all new to her: she had watched her mother at work, had followed at her heels as she now followed Marie Louise, and much of it came back to her. Bringing up the rear was the little Tonine, helping when she could, mentally laying up every duty against the day when she, too, would step into the post of mistress so that Zoe in turn could follow her heart’s desire. The father himself presided over all, making sure Marie Louise did not forget any least detail, noting with satisfaction how quickly Zoe caught on.
These few months were the only moments of their lives that the three Laboure sisters truly shared, knowing and sympathizing with one another as only the womenfolk of a family can. The most piteous figure of the three is Tonine, for her years of service under the parental roof were to be long and, toward the end, lonely; and, afterward, no golden religious life for her reward, but a late marriage with more than its share of heartbreaks.
With everything else, Marie Louise was making her preparations to enter the Sisters of Charity, gathering together the clothes and linens she would take with her. Naturally, her going was the household topic of the hour, a topic Zoe found fascinating, for each excited conversation fanned the flame of religious desire that was rising in her own heart.
She, too, had a work of preparation to crowd into these active days, the preparation for her first Holy Communion. She had begun it at Saint Remy and had gotten well along in the lessons of the catechism under the constant tutelage of the village cure. It was perhaps Zoe’s greatest regret in leaving her aunt’s home, that she could not wait just a little, to make her first Communion. To get on with her lessons at home in Fain was harder, because Abbe Mamer, with his three parishes to care for, was not always available; nor had she any longer the leisure she had enjoyed in Saint Remy. Postponement was a bitter thing, for her soul was ardent and eager; yet delay was only a tool in the Hand of God to sharpen her appetite for the heavenly Bread.
The delay, actually, was longer in her heart than it was in time. It was only a few weeks after her return to her father’s house, on January 25, 1818, that Zoe received her Lord for the first time, in the village church of Moutiers-Saint Jean. Doubtless this church was selected because it was the mother church of the three parishes and the seat of residence of the pastor; and the day, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, because it was the patronal feast of the church. Looked at in the light of Zoe’s subsequent greatness, however, an even better reason for the selection is apparent. It was another of those deliberate coincidences of God. The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated by the Vincentian Fathers as the birthday of their Community.
The first meeting of Jesus and Zoe Laboure seemed to effect a perpetual contract of mutual love and service. Zoe, who was already good and kind and devout even to a degree of heroism, began to display more and more the outward trappings of her love for God. Tonine was quick to notice the change. Ever and again in later years she would tell her children how their Aunt Zoe had become “entirely mystic” from the time of her first Communion.
Tonine meant that, with first Communion, Zoe put aside the things of a child in piety and devotion. From this time on, she went after her spiritual advancement in dead earnest, with order and system. In spite of the mountain of duties piled upon her young shoulders, she set aside certain fixed times for prayer. The most important of these times was the early morning, and her prayer then the greatest of all, the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Zoe began to attend Mass daily and to receive Holy Communion frequently. Given the circumstances, these were acts of devotion approaching the heroic. There was no daily Mass in Fain; there was not always Sunday Mass. The only priest in the district said his daily Mass in the chapel of the Hopital de Saint Sauveur in Moutiers-Saint Jean. It was not a question, therefore, of Zoe’s rolling out of bed and tumbling into church. The hospital was a good, brisk half-hour’s walk from Fain, and the Sisters’ Mass was at six o’clock. Daily Mass for this young girl just entering her teens meant an early rising—an earlier rising even than farm life called for, because she had chores to do before she left—and a long walk in all kinds of weather and, half the year, in the dark. The youngster was determined to go, however, and she never faltered. In a sense she had to go, for she went to a daily rendezvous with God, who was her whole life. On certain mornings, frequent but not frequent enough to slake her ardor, she enjoyed complete union with her Beloved in Holy Communion. She could not have this happiness every day, for daily Communion would not be permitted the faithful for a hundred years yet.
Here in the Hopital de Saint Sauveur, Zoe was a guest, as it were, of St. Vincent de Paul. The saint himself had founded the hospital in 1654 at the request of his friend Nicolas de Rouchechouart de Chandenier, Abbe de Moutiers-Saint Jean, and the Sisters of Charity still served it. The hospital was, therefore, another signpost placed along her way, but she failed to catch its meaning.
Zoe had decided, even at so early an age, that she was going to enter religion. Tonine says that she talked of it from the day of her first Communion. Strangely enough, however, though the Sisters of Charity were the only religious women she knew, she does not seem to have been drawn to their community in the beginning. As we shall see, it took a direct and supernatural intervention of God, a few years later, to determine her choice of the daughters of Vincent de Paul.
Attendance at daily Mass was but the start of Zoe’s day-long devotion. At home she quietly began the practice of slipping away from the others to some out-of-the-way corner of the house, there to keep her numerous appointments with God. Tonine would come upon her, so often that it ceased to be a surprise, absorbed, face shining—”entirely mystic.”
Zoe’s great love for Our Lady came out into the open now, too. It was as if she no longer had to pretend to recognize and look up to any earthly “mother.” Saint Remy and Aunt Marguerite belonged to the past. Marie Louise—if she had ever made any pretensions toward mothering Zoe—was off in Langres, where the Sisters of Charity had received her as a postulant on June 22, 1818. The beloved servant whom Zoe had once called Mama was now subject to the authority of her former child. Zoe could acknowledge freely that she had but one Mother, without regard to the feelings of anyone.
She made the acknowledgment in a singular way.
The centuries-old village church was across the lane from the Laboure house. A few steps and Zoe could be there. How often, in her years at home, she took those few steps! There were times between tasks when she could slip over to the church for a quick prayer and, at the end of the day with her work done, a longer, quieter time.
We have spoken of the Laboure chapel in this church. The family had defrayed the cost of certain repairs in the chapel, which was separated from the nave by a low railing, and in return the villagers had given it the family name and set it aside for the family use. In the chapel was a painting of the Annunciation. This was Zoe’s shrine, a fitting one for her who had been born at the ringing of the Angelus. She knew every line of the picture, every tint, every trace, every cracking and peeling of the paint. Her knees became familiar with the tiniestrise and fall of the hard stone floor, as the fingers of the blind become familiar with the feel of the objects around them. Here she knelt, before the picture of the Annunciation, day after day, year after year, in the pleasant days of spring and autumn, in the stifling heat of summer, in the freezing damp of winter. Upright she knelt, quiet and composed as a statue. All her life she feared that her attitude at prayer might not be humble enough for the house of God. Zoe was never to forget this chapel. She bore the sensible remembrance of it until the day she died, in the arthritis of the knees which she contracted from her long hours of kneeling on the stone flags of the floor.
Another favorite pastime of Zoe’s was making the Stations of the Cross. According to tradition, the Stations in the village church were the gift either of Marie Louise or of Zoe herself. Zoe’s devotion to Our Lord’s Passion was a natural outgrowth of her early bent toward mortification.
Now, with the new burgeoning of her soul, Zoe took on a new mortification, a startling one and, in a way, frightening because it was so very adult. In spite of all the labors of her hard day, she began to fast on Fridays and Saturdays. This worried Tonine. The little sister had nothing but admiration for Zoe’s intense, quickening holiness; she had even begun to imitate it: yet she felt there was a limit. Tonine knew well how work could whet the hunger of a growing girl, she knew the spells of faintness unrequited hunger could bring, and she decided there should be no more nonsense. Frowning severely on her sister, she threatened to tell their father.
“Well, then, tell him!” was Zoe’s short and decided reply.
This is one of the few verbatim sentences we have from the early life of Zoe Laboure; she was not given to much talk. The very isolation of the words give them a unique significance. “Tell him!” It is amazing how much insight these two words give into the character of this remarkable youngster. The iron will, the ramrod determination, the simple directness, all are here as fullblown as they would ever be. Had they been uttered fifty years hence, they would have been no more in character. The steel scaffolding for a supreme sanctity to build upon was already up.
Somewhat taken aback by Zoe’s indifference and lack of compromise, Tonine nevertheless decided to see the thing through. She told her father.
The father did not discuss the matter with Tonine. It was his way to keep his own counsel, especially where his children were concerned. He did, however, remonstrate with Zoe, pointing out to her the necessity of keeping up her strength for her arduous tasks. Zoe listened respectfully, but did not change a whit in her resolve. She went right on fasting Fridays and Saturdays. Tonine could only shrug and retire from the field. She had done her duty.
The importance of this incident lies in the fact that, wrongly interpreted, it could impugn the habitual obedience and humility of the saint. St. Catherine’s obedience was her most shining virtue, and it must not be even slightly dimmed without positive proof. If we knew nothing else of Zoe Laboure but this one incident, we should put her down as a headstrong and willful child. Her entire relationship with her father, however, was one of habitual filial respect and submission. Regarding the incident in context, therefore, we come to either of two conclusions, both favorable to Zoe: either the father’s admonition was of simple counsel—and there is very good evidence for this; or, if it was a command, a higher Authority overruled him. It is certain that Zoe, in disregarding her father’s advice in this matter, was following God’s Will.
It might be added that the incident caused little concern to the ecclesiastical judges of her sanctity. Moreover, humanly speaking, Zoe knew what she was about. She was strong and well made, and it is a matter of record that she never suffered any but the slightest indispositions in all the years that she was at home. Her frame could take the penance she imposed.
It is a sure mark of the swift progress of Zoe’s sanctity, this early addiction to self-denial. Like all the saints, she seemed to recognize the importance of it by instinct. Long before Our Lady told her, she understood the necessity of prayer and penance for salvation and perfection—and this, after all, is the drift of Mary’s message in her appearances at Paris, LaSalette, Lourdes and Fatima.
Instinct is a poor word to describe Zoe’s way of knowing the truth. She knew it rather by the infused knowledge perseverance in prayer had brought her from God. Nor is this idle conjecture. Zoe Laboure was an untutored, unlettered girl. She could not learn, therefore, from the reading of spiritual books, but only from the sermons she heard in church; and these were the simple spiritual food of the average Christian, not the spiritual diet needed by an advanced soul like her.
There is not the slightest hint that she received any ordered spiritual direction. In her later years, she used to speak lovingly of the good advice her father always gave her, but we do not know that this advice was spiritual, and, for that matter, we know that he tried to thwart her efforts to fast. Abbe Mamer was certainly capable of directing Zoe’s soul, and he was still alive at the time of her first Communion, but there is no evidence that he did. He must have been her confessor, but even confession was a haphazard thing in that district. Zoe herself used to say that when she wanted to go to confession, she had first to look for the priest.
If there was a director of Zoe’s soul life at this time, we might justly expect mention of it. Tonine would have known whether or not Zoe applied to a director regularly or not, and she would have let posterity know this fact. Tonine is the source of all the information we have concerning this period of her sister’s life. Zoe, who later would confide in no one but her director, confided wholly in Tonine during these growing-up years. Taking Zoe’s secretive nature into account, this is highly significant. Zoe would hardly have let even Tonine know her most intimate spiritual secrets, had there been a spiritual guide to tell them to.
Tonine fully respected Zoe’s confidence: she revealed nothing of what was told her except when silence no longer mattered, when Zoe was the hidden and forgotten Sister Catherine. Even then, she told only her children of their Aunt Zoe’s early steps in holiness. Nor can it be doubted that this was at the unsuspected urging of Our Lady herself, who wanted the whole world one day to know the greatness of her servant.
We have, then, fair assurance that, while at home in Fain Zoe had no authorized spiritual director. We can only conclude that God himself was her director, as He is of all the unlettered who are humble and good.
Zoe was fourteen years old now, and Tonine twelve. They had been running the house for two years and had done surprisingly well. It was at this time that the servant who had been part of the family for years announced that she was leaving the household to be married. When M. Laboure offered to replace her, his two girls answered promptly:
“We have no further need of a servant. The two of us will manage by ourselves.”
It was a proud boast, but not a vain one. Zoe and Tonine were young ladies now, quite equal to the task they had set themselves. They were perfect teammates, who thought as one and moved as one, without any lost motion. They differed in temperament—Tonine was not so serious as her sister—but they got along excellently for all that. Zoe, of course, was ever the leader, ever the elder sister, and she kept a weather eye open for the least impropriety or defection in Tonine. Tonine has admitted readily enough that she was a “gamin,” a mischievous, carefree urchin. Actually, she had no more than her share of the average child’s high spirits. It was Zoe who was different; and the early responsibilities thrust upon her had only served to deepen her natural gravity.
When Tonine got out of line, Zoe brought her back again promptly enough, and sometimes with severity. Zoe was too good-natured, however, to hold long with severity, but would endeavor to make it up to Tonine with an extra show of tenderness and affection.
The love was mutual. For her part Tonine showed it by that supreme of all flatteries, the flattery of imitation. She imitated Zoe in everything she did, even in her devotions. This latter imitation was no small act of love in one of Tonine’s light-hearted temperament. She had not the fierce spiritual enthusiasm that drove Zoe to her knees. Nevertheless, she tried to follow the beloved older sister wherever she led. She knelt with her daily in the chapel of the village church. She accompanied her to every church office. This gay younger sister even stumbled along in the early morning to Mass in Moutiers-Saint Jean.
“How pious they were, those Laboure girls!” recalled an old lady of Fain many years afterward. “They never joined the other young girls at play. When church was over, they would stop for a little to pass the time of day with the young people, then hurry home to their work.”
They led a true community life, Zoe and Tonine. They followed a regular order of day with fixed times for rising, Mass, prayers, meals, work—just like any religious society of the Church. They were the admiration of the village, and many a mother of Fain held them up as models to her less energetic daughters.
Zoe’s limpid holiness, welling up from the springs of her soul, was bound to overflow in good deeds for others. Visiting her sick neighbors became a favorite diversion; there was no unfortunate or ailing person in the village who was not her friend. Without realizing it, she was already leading the life of a Sister of Charity, that perfect integration of body and soul, of spiritual devotion and corporeal toil, of prayer and work and outward charity.
It was a life that sat well with her father, for it was a life very like his own. Pierre Laboure was a pious man who could admire the deep piety of his daughter. Her industry and capability he could admire to the full, for they were traits she took from him, traits he taught her, by example and counsel, to marshal and use. It was no doubt his recognition of himself in Zoe that prompted Pierre Laboure to lavish upon her his special love and predilection. The boys of the family all agreed that this father, a strict and demanding taskmaster, could find little to quarrel with in Zoe, or in the way she ran his house.
Tonine has left us a charming picture of her sister caught unawares, in one of her rare, light moments. Zoe kept for herself as a daily personal duty the feeding of the hundreds of pigeons in the Laboure dovecot. It was, indeed, the one recreation of her long, hard day. The pigeons knew her and, as Tonine says, “loved her.” The moment she appeared with the pan of feed, they swirled in great clouds from the dovecot windows. Swooping upon her in thick, multi-colored droves, they pecked and pulled at her hair and her clothes, completely dishevelling her. What a picture she made—hair unloosened, tumbling about her shoulders, one arm upflung across her eyes to shield them from the importunities of her beloved birds! Laughing, she would scatter the grain as best she could, wholly lost in delight at the friendly onslaught.
Most remarkable of all, the birds would soar round and about her, weaving a flashing halo about her head with their wings. Surely we can be pardoned for catching here a sudden glimpse of the white wings of a cornette and the immortal aureole of canonized sanctity.