Zoe’s flight to Chatillon was not exactly jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but neither was it a release into untrammelled freedom. The trials she met there were not the coarse trials of the Parisian bistro, but they were real trials for all that. She had traded her chains for silken strands, but silken strands, too, can bind and hurt.
The boarding school conducted by Jeanne Laboure has its modern counterparts in the ladies’ seminaries of England and the finishing schools of the United States. The school was a place of elegance, done in the plush decor of the period with thick-piled carpets, velvet drapes, and full-length mirrors. It was exquisitely furnished with ornately carved tables and the tiny gilded and silk-upholstered chairs of the Age of Mozart. It was a useful and proper school for ladies of rank. They made an acquaintance with the classics; they read and composed poetry; they studied the history of France; they dabbled in astronomy; they learned to dance—in a word, they were powdered and primped for their future appearances in the flossy salons of society.
Zoe lumbered into this gilded cage like one of her own beloved pigeons among a flock of nightingales. She had never been to school before, any school. Her proper place was the first grade, not this exquisite lecture hall of refinement. She was twenty-three years old, much older than the sophisticated misses around her.
The situation was perfect material for a comic opera. Imagine a grown woman stuttering over her ABC’s! Imagine the tittering and suppressed giggles of her giddy schoolmates! Imagine the blush of shame on her stricken face, the hurt in her heart, and, knowing Zoe, the quick anger rising within her and being suppressed only with heroic difficulty. Yet it was suppressed. Zoe Laboure was indeed a valiant woman. This brutal humiliation before her own sex was a far more painful trial than any broad-humored sallies of rough men.
Humanly speaking, Zoe’s chief balm at Chatillon was her sister-in-law, for Jeanne Laboure proved herself a good and faithful friend. She shielded Zoe as much as possible from the ridicule of the other girls by giving her private instruction in the rudimentary knowledge she lacked. This very protection, however, was a trial in itself. It seemed that lately Zoe was always being protected from someone or something: from the vulgarity of her brother’s customers, from her father, from the snobbery of the pupils of Chatillon. It is a miserable thing, to be always protected. It was especially miserable for Zoe, who had always stood on her own two feet. Had she been a weaker character, had she been less certain of what she wanted to do, she could have developed an inferiority complex of appalling magnitude. As it was, she suffered keenly beneath the indignity of it all.
Jeanne Laboure performed an even deeper service of friendship for Zoe than that of shielding and instructing her. In the Providence of God, it was Jeanne, through her piety and love of the poor, who lead Zoe to the ultimate attainment of her religious vocation. How like God and His careful, well-knit plans, to give to this second gentle Gontard the task of finishing what the first, Zoe’s mother, had begun.
Jeanne set out from her lovely home on many a mission of charity. The poor of the town knew and cherished her. Her favorite charity was an institution conducted by the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, the Hospice de la Charite, located on the right bank of the Seine in the rue de la Haute-Juiverie. There she came and went like a member of the household, and there, naturally, she introduced Zoe with her kindred heart for the poor. It was in this house of charity at Chatillon that Zoe’s vocation was determined once for all.
Some weeks after her arrival in Chatillon, Zoe stopped one day at the Hospice to speak with the Sister Superior. She had scarcely seated herself in the parlor to wait, when her eyes were caught by a portrait on the wall. It was a portrait of a venerable priest, plain-featured, even homely, but with shrewd and smiling eyes that held Zoe’s gaze, even as they had done four years before. It was indeed the old priest of Zoe’s youthful dream. When the first shock of recognition had subsided, Zoe was in a fever of excitement, eager to ask the question that trembled on her lips. The Sister Servant finally came. The perfunctory greetings were an agony. Then, finally, Zoe spoke the few words that were the climax to all her years of seeking.
“Sister, who is that priest?”
“Why, my child, that is our holy founder, St. Vincent de Paul.”
Zoe knew, and it was enough. The self-control she had long since mastered took over, and Zoe went on to speak casually of the business at hand, saying nothing of why she had asked, giving no hint of the turmoil within her.
She lost no time in seeking out her confessor, M. Vincent Prost, to tell him of her mysterious dream and its sudden unraveling. When she had finished, he said without hesitation:
“St. Vincent de Paul calls you He wishes you to be a Sister of Charity.”
The ways of God are often slow. It takes the patient temperament of the saint to wait Him out. Zoe’s patience had been sorely strained: it was almost four years since the night of her dream, but its culmination was well worth waiting for. There is no greater blessing on earth than to know what God expects of you.
The extraordinary dream of Zoe Laboure and its long-delayed interpretation is surely the answer to those who claim that she meant to be a Sister of Charity from the time her thoughts turned to religion. Had she definitely decided so soon, the incident of the dream is wholly inexplicable. God is not a wastrel, lavishing the miraculous without reason. The whole tenor of the dream was to indicate to Zoe the wishes of Heaven. Had Zoe intended from the start to join the community of St. Vincent, the elaborate device of the dream as a directive loses its point.
Two stones yet lay in Zoe’s path, though they worried her little, for not long ago there had not even been a path. The first of these was to obtain the consent of her father. Zoe wanted her obedience to be complete and, like any fond daughter, dreaded leaving home under the cloud of her father’s displeasure. Her faithful sister-in-law again came to the rescue, counting still on Pierre Laboure’s predilection for her to carry the day. We do not know whether Jeanne wrote to him or went to see him at Fain; we do not know what arguments she used, but she gained her point. The harassed old man threw down his arms. He was sick of fighting odds too great for him. Besides, during the past year he had grown used to Zoe’s absence from home and had come to recognize Tonine’s competence in running the house. Reluctantly, he gave his consent.
He fired one parting, ineffectual shot: he refused Zoe a dowry. It was a mean thing to do, especially to the daughter who had served him so faithfully. It could serve no point but to embarrass and hurt her, for he certainly knew that she would get the dowry somewhere. This final action of Pierre Laboure toward his daughter had the effect of casting her off without a cent. It was a despicable action, branding as entirely false the sentimental notion that he resisted Zoe’s vocation because of his paternal feelings. Such feelings, naturally, were there, but even his grandchildren recognized that he had fought to hold on to Zoe “because she was of use to him.” To the end he was selfish, brutal and callous.
Jeanne was ready for him. The refusal of the dowry would make no difference, she assured him, for she and Hubert would supply it. Zoe was free.
Zoe felt no glow of triumph in besting the tired old man. There was only love and compassion in her heart. She knew what he suffered, even though he had brought much of it upon himself, and she suffered too. It was her bitter price for serving God. To her eternal credit, though she must have felt keenly the shabby way he had treated her, she never spoke of her father except in the most glowing terms.
Zoe wasted no time in idle tears, but set about removing the second stone in her path, the persuading of the Superior of the Hospice at Chatillon to receive her as a postulant. This was a harder task. Zoe had profited little, if at all, from her schooling at her sister-in-law’s, despite the private tutoring she had received. A girl of twenty-three has neither the aptitude nor the enthusiasm to learn what she should have mastered at seven. The Sister Superior, Sister Josephine Cany was new; she had been in the post scarcely a year, and was timid about receiving so unprepossessing a prospect as Zoe. There would be much clucking disapproval among the mistresses of the seminary in Paris, were they to discover that Sister Josephine had received a postulant who could neither read nor write.
Fortunately, Zoe found a champion in the Assistant of the house, Sister Francoise Victoire Sejole. It is comforting to recognize the true friends God gave Zoe when she needed them most. Sister Sejole was to be the closest friend of Zoe’s religious life. This good sister was a remarkable soul, and she had the supernatural gift of discerning the souls of others.
Sister Sejole had ample opportunity to study Zoe thoroughly, for Zoe quickly fell into the habit of accompanying her on her round of visits to the sick poor. Still, it was only Sister Sejole’s blessed gift of discernment that gave her deep insight into Zoe’s heart, for outwardly Zoe Laboure was shy and silent, even cold, of a personality that, all her life, was to cause her to be misunderstood, slighted, and overlooked. When Sister Sejole saw that Sister Cany was hesitant about receiving Zoe, she took a hand.
“Receive her,” she urged the Superior. “There is a great purity and great piety in this girl. She is out of place among all the silk dresses of Mme. Laboure’s school. She is a good village girl, the kind St. Vincent loved. I will teach her her prayers and everything else she will need to enter the seminary at Paris.”
Sister Cany deferred to her Assistant, and the last obstacle to Zoe’s vocation was removed. After so many years of prayer and waiting and struggle against vicious odds the news, for Zoe, was easily the gladdest tidings ever brought to her.
The Sister of Charity is one of the sights of Paris, the city of her birth. She is more omnipresent than the gendarme. In her billowing blue gown and white headdress she walks the boulevards, the back streets, the alleys. She descends into the depths of the metro and climbs to the heights of the garret. She is never without the huge market basket slung over one arm, and packed with the foods and medicines of her trade. nor the black cotton umbrella to protect her starched white linen from the sudden rain. She moves ceaselessly, silently, seemingly unaware of the bustle and roar about her, seeking her quarry; and her quarry is always the same: the poor—the hungry poor, the sick poor, the evil poor—but always the poor.
Her convent is the house of the sick, her cell the chamber of suffering, her chapel the parish church, her cloister the streets of the city or the wards of the hospital; obedience is her enclosure, the fear of God her grate, and modesty her veil. So St. Vincent had ordained in founding the Community.
They were a startling innovation in the Church, these Sisters. Until 1633, the year of their founding, a nun was a withdrawn, secluded woman, cut off entirely from the brawling world, a cloistered maid dedicated to contemplative prayer. St. Vincent changed all that. Many a kindred soul had tried before him, men with a keen awareness of the need for a woman’s touch in the active ministry of saving souls. St. Francis de Sales had tried, in founding the Visitation nuns, but his plan missed fire and the grille clanged shut on his Sisters. Where Francis failed, Vincent won out. It was to be; it was in the plan of God.
The world, the very people to be nursed and cared for, did not take kindly to the new order. They jeered, they joked, they slung Parisian mud at the Sisters who had come out to them. The Sisters did not mind. They had been splattered with cleaner, richer earth than the droppings from the streets of Paris, mud from the fertile fields of their farms at home. For they were country girls, healthy, strapping, and docile, the first Sisters of Charity.
Zoe Laboure, therefore, was to the manner born. Sister Sejole had been true to the mark when she said that Zoe was “a good village girl, the kind St. Vincent loved.” Vincent de Paul’s keen and fatherly eye could not have missed the marked resemblance to himself in this latest daughter of his. Of the same peasant stock—which is a very different thing from belonging to the lower classes—she had her spiritual father’s determined vigor and strength of character, his simplicity and candor of soul, his lowliness of spirit, his penchant for obscurity. Humanly speaking, the resemblance of Vincent and Zoe might be laid to the similarity of their origins.
Born in opposite corners of France—he was a Gascon, she a Burgundian—both, nevertheless, sprang from the earth Both were children of farmers who owned their own farms. Both had spent the years of childhood in fields and country lanes. Both were conscious of the soil and sky, the mountains and the plains, the lordly cedar and the common daisy. From this intimacy with the placid development of growing things, the unhurried pace of the changing seasons, both learned the common peasant lesson of patience. It was a lesson to stand them in good stead in waiting out the workings of God, in acquiring a surefootedness in His ways. Ultimately, it was this surefootedness that enabled them to affect so many souls for good.
The few Sisters of Charity first gathered together by Vincent de Paul have, under the divine command, increased and multiplied and filled the earth, to the number of 43,000. There is a story bruited abroad that, when Pope Pius XII recommended modifications in the outmoded dress of religious women, he excepted the white headdress, the cornette, of the Sisters of Charity—fantastic as this seventeenth-century French peasant headgear looks to modern eyes—because “it has become the universal symbol of charity.” The Sisters of Charity have indeed become, universally, a veritable legend of charity, and have earned the symbolic titles of folklore. The soldiers of the Crimean War called them “Angels of the Battlefield,” a title they earned again in the American War between the States. The Mohammedans, with an Oriental eye upon their white wings, named them “Swallows of Allah.” Anyone who has seen one of these Sisters with four or five tiny orphans clinging to her broad blue skirts and an infant cradled in her arms, will accord them the proudest title of all: “Mothers of the Poor.” These, then, were the valiant women among whom Zoe Laboure wished to be numbered.
Humanly speaking, Zoe could have had no misgivings about the physical demands of the life. The Sisters rose at four o’clock; so had she, all her life. They cooked and scrubbed and labored hard; she had known no other way of life. They observed long silences; she was quiet and reserved by nature. The outward trappings of the rule could cause her no alarm.
Nor need she fear the long hours of required prayer. In this regard, she had served her postulancy already, in the Lady Chapel at Fain, in the hospital at Moutiers-Saint Jean, in the night watches and day-long devotions of her choosing.
It was on January 22, 1830 that Zoe Laboure quietly left the world and entered upon her religious life at the Hospice de la Charite in Chatillon-sur-Seine. True to their word, Hubert and Jeanne Laboure supplied her dowry and all the clothing of her trousseau. The dowry of 672 francs, roughly equivalent to $125 in modern money, was a notable burden of expense, especially since it was payable in gold, and this generous couple cannot be sufficiently praised for their kindness to their sister. The trousseau, which Zoe brought with her to the Hospice in a goat-skinned trunk, consisted of the following items: “four pairs of sheets; twelve worked table-napkins; linen for chemises, eleven of these to be already made up; five dresses, four of them to be of cotton and one of violet silk; four petticoats, one to be of cotton; four shawls; one white foundation of wool and three of black wool; thirteen fichus of violet silk; one bolt of cotton; thirty coifs, twenty of them to be lined; eleven pocket handkerchiefs; three pairs of pockets; five pairs of stockings; one corset; and one black robe.” Zoe and her sister-in-law must have had a grand time shopping for this formidable list of things, and a busy time of fittings and sewing before she was ready to depart.
As a postulant, Zoe was not yet, of course, a Sister, not even a novice. She was an observer, come to examine the life of the Sisters at close range. She was a candidate, come to be examined in turn and passed upon. She rose with the Sisters, prayed with them, took her meals and her recreation with them. She helped in the kitchen and laundry, she sewed, she washed and dressed and supervised the foundlings of the house, she went out into the homes of the poor. And all the while she watched, and was watched.
In the short time of her postulancy, a scant three months, Zoe made a remarkable impression at Chatillon. It was not so much that she did everything she was supposed to do. Most postulants do that, both because the novelty of the life carries them along and because they are anxious to make good and be admitted to the community. It was rather the way she did things. She added an indescribable, intangible something to the commonest action that arrested the attention of the discerning. Whether she made beds or scrubbed floors or washed windows, she performed the duty with such care, such complete absorption, that she seemed wholly dedicated. All her life it was to be the same: she did the most ordinary things extraordinarily well.
Years later, an old woman named Mariette, who had been a servant in the Hospice of Chatillon while Zoe was living there, still remembered vividly how Zoe performed a daily act of devotion in honor of Our Lord’s Passion. According to their rule, the Sisters of Charity pause in their work every afternoon at three o’clock and repair to the chapel, there to adore the dying Christ and beg Him to apply the merits of His Death to the agonizing, to poor sinners, and to the souls in purgatory. Mariette was struck by the way Zoe performed this action, more than by the veteran Sisters.
Even more illuminating was Sister Sejole’s continuing discovery of new depths to the spirituality of Zoe Laboure. Although she lived with Zoe only three months, she was ready to pronounce her a soul “of surpassing candor and purity.” A few months later, when the community was rife with rumors, Sister Sejole had no hesitation in saying that, “if the Blessed Virgin had appeared to a Sister of the seminary, it must be Sister Laboure. That child is destined to receive great favors from Heaven.”
The days at Chatillon sped away, because they were full and busy. Here, at last, Zoe learned to write. Sister Sejole gave her the daily half hour of instruction allowed by the rule, and Zoe made notable progress in these extremely short class periods, although at her sister-in-law’s fancy school she had learned nothing. Zoe’s extant letters, preserved in the archives at rue du Bac, are written in a firm, plain, and legible hand, and the record book she kept at Enghien, also extant, is a model of order and neatness.
Marie Louise had written to Zoe on the day of her entrance into the religious life. This letter, which might seem tiresome to us, must have been deeply appreciated by Zoe. Certainly her family did everything possible to make up for their father’s sullen behavior and to surround her departure from the world with warmth.
Zoe Laboure had come to the end of an era in her life. Her sojourn in the world, which had never held her, was over. Her campaign to fly from it, a struggle begun a dozen years before at the time of her first Communion, was successfully concluded. In the chill dawn of an April morning, she set out for Paris and the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity, in the company of Sister Hinaut, an old and weary servant of the poor who was going home to die.