V. Return of St. Vincent de Paul
Zoe’s arrival at the Motherhouse raised no stir. Apparently she was just another in the endless line of “good country girls” who had come to the Community since the days of St. Vincent. Few turned to give her a second glance as she entered the great wooden gate and walked for the first time down the long cobblestoned alley that led to the seminary or novitiate. A few Sisters hailed Sister Hinaut, hobbling along beside her, and Zoe stood back, silent and unnoticed, while the old friends greeted one another.
The Mistress of Novices welcomed her warmly, showed her a bed and a place at table, instructed her briefly in the rules of the house, and informed her that from now on she would be known as Sister Laboure.
Amid all this newness of scene and faces, Zoe was far from feeling strange. She was spared the lot of most newcomers to the religious life, the unreasoning panic, the sudden longing for home and familiar faces, the agonizing doubt as to whether she had made a mistake in coming. She tells us herself that, at this crucial moment, she was so happy that she felt she was “no longer on the earth.” It is what we should expect of Zoe Laboure, who had carefully planned this day for years, waiting, praying, removing obstacles. Now that it was here, it brought her the same quiet sense of achievement as when she had put the last dish on the shelf after a long, hard day in her father’s home at Fain.
Exteriorly she was calm, and it was this characteristic outward calm that caused everyone, even those who knew her best, to put her down as cold and apathetic. Interiorly she was a riot of ecstasy. A melting love for God, gratitude, relief, beat and surged through her heart, tingled through her body.
The French Revolution, and in particular the Reign of Terror of 1793, had scattered the two families of St. Vincent de Paul, the Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity, up and down the length and breadth of France. This, however, had not meant the end of everything. St. Vincent had not founded his Communities upon external trappings, such as seminaries, churches, hospitals, and orphan asylums. He had founded them upon a solid love for the poor. Therefore, like all divine patriots in time of persecution, his sons and daughters had gone underground, contacting souls on street corners and in doorways, healing bodies in cellar and garret. Apparently citizens and citizenesses in secular dress, they were priests and Sisters of the Lord, going about His work in spite of everything.
In 1800, Napoleon, shrewd enough to recognize that the Sisters of Charity were the nursing corps of France, allowed them to regroup and gave them a Motherhouse on the rue du Vieux-Colombier. The Sisters in turn, knowing the bargaining point they had in their services to the nation, pressed this advantage upon Napoleon until he also allowed their religious brothers to return, four years later, and take up residence on the rue de Sevres. In 1815, the Sisters moved to their present quarters on the rue du Bac, the former town house of the Comtes de La Valliere.
Recovery from the paralyzing blows of the Revolution was slow, and when Zoe came to the Motherhouse on April 21, 1830, there were scarcely a hundred and fifty women in the house, including the old Sisters, novices, patients, and servants.
The Sisters themselves were a raggle-taggle sight. Even thirty years after the Revolution, they were still unable to obtain the standard blue cloth of their habits. As a result, some wore black and some few wore blue. Zoe herself, now Sister Laboure, dressed in the peculiar and complicated black-and-white costume of the seminary Sisters. In cut, the costume is very much like the “Dutch Cleanser girl” familiar to Americans. It wasn’t until 1833 that the ingenious Mother-General Boulet managed to restore the familiar blue habit to her Sisters. The good Mother happened upon a weaver who was on the verge of bankruptcy. She offered to advance him sufficient funds to tide him over the crisis, provided he would contract, in return, to weave the blue material the Sisters needed.
The upset in the Community caused by the times was, of course, of a semi-permanent character, but Sister Laboure came to the novitiate in the midst of a passing upset that had the Motherhouse in a frenzy of excitement and joy. Three days hence, the relics of St. Vincent de Paul were to be solemnly restored to the Vincentian Fathers and enthroned above the high altar of their church, around the corner from the Sisters in the rue de Sevres.
During the horrors of the Revolution the precious body of the Founder had been hidden away, safe from the hands of desecrators. It had been a prudent step. Many incredibly foul sacrileges had been perpetrated in the name of Freedom. A woman of the streets had danced impurely upon the very altar of Notre Dame. The sacrosanct body of the great St. Genevieve, who had saved her beloved Paris from so many evils throughout the centuries, had been rifled from its tomb in the church built for her by Louis XV and burned ignominiously in the Place de Greve. What terrible things to come unhappy France had pulled down upon her head in that one unbelievable act! It seems hardly too much to state that she still bears the curse of it. It was most fortunate for France that it was the English strangers who burned her other noble Patroness, Jeanne d’Arc.
The third patron and hero of France alone escaped. The body of M. Vincent had happily been well hidden, and survived to honor posterity. Throughout the years of revolution the sacred relics had been moved from one hiding place to another in the Montaigne-Ste. Genevieve quarter. At length it found a resting place in the house of the lawyer of the Double Family of St. Vincent in the rue de Bourdonnais, where it stayed until the Sisters welcomed it home in 1806. On the feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1815, the Sisters brought the beloved body with them to the rue du Bac.
The body of St. Vincent has been spirited away for safekeeping, shunted about from place to place, during every war and uprising that has ripped the fabric of France. Throughout the occupation of Paris by the Nazis during World War II, it lay buried in an old packing box beneath a cellar floor. Always, however, the danger past, it has had a new resurrection, a triumphal return. Zoe Laboure, newly come to Paris, witnessed its greatest, its most triumphal return.
The Vincentian Fathers had completed the building of their mother-church of St. Vincent in 1827, but the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur de Quelen, long hesitated to allow them to expose the body of their Founder for public veneration. It was not that public devotion to the saint had died in France, but anti-religious sentiment was still so rife that the Archbishop feared incidents harmful to the Church. In 1830, however, when the French Army was preparing to move against Algiers, Monseigneur de Quelen decided to brave the wrath of the godless, and publicly invoke St. Vincent de Paul, who had himself been a slave in Algeria, to bless the arms of France. To this end, with the approbation of the Holy See, he authorized the solemn Translation of the saint’s relics to take place on Sunday, April 25, 1830.
In March, the body was removed from the Sisters’ Motherhouse to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where it was clothed in magnificent vestments and enshrined in an exquisite chasse of solid silver, the gift of the Archbishop. Pontifical vespers were sung at two o’clock in the afternoon, followed by the recitation of novena prayers in honor of the saint. King Charles X and the royal family attended. Then a huge procession set out from the cathedral to escort the Apostle of Charity to his own church.
It was a brilliant cortege: the elite of the army with uniforms glittering and sabres flashing in the afternoon sun; princes and nobles in velvet and lace; purple-clad bishops and ermined canons, the highest prelates in the land; a multitude of the secular clergy, dressed in the simple black soutane Vincent himself wore; the religious orders in their habits of black and white and brown; the civic officials in their robes of office; a sea of Sisters of Charity, more than a thousand, bobbing blue and black-and-white; then the sons of the saint, bearing his body joyfully in their midst; and presiding over all, His Excellency, Hyacinthe de Quelen, Archbishop of Paris.
As the splendid parade wended its way across the Petit Pont, down the rue de la Hachette, the rue de Saint-Andredes-Arts, and the rue du Four, it met with mixed reactions from the mob. By far the greater number of the common people entered wholeheartedly into the fervor of the day and packed the streets, windows, and balconies and even the roofs. Others were indifferent; some actively hostile, but these were in the minority and small attention was paid them.
Unknown and unnoted in this gorgeous equipage of a saint walked another saint named Catherine Laboure. Not entirely unknown, for Vincent de Paul knew she was there, and he found more honor to his holy remains in this one jewel than in all the proud pomp and sparkling display. He was soon to show his pleasure. He was soon to reach out and embrace this favorite daughter, to open up to her the secrets, sad and gay, of his paternal heart.
That memorable Sunday afternoon in April was but the brilliant prelude to a solemn novena of joy in honor of St. Vincent. Day after day, the Vincentian Fathers held open house for the thousands of Parisians and people from the provinces who thronged the church on rue de Sevres to honor the Hero of France. The common people, with their unerring instinct for the right, seemed to realize that the sacred body laid out in the choir was the last holy relic of their nation left to them, and they lavished their devotion upon it. Pontifical Mass was sung every morning and a novena service held every afternoon. On the fifth day, the King himself returned. The ceremonial was an official act of reparation for the excesses of other days. The times of excess were far from over, however. The volatile temperament of her Eldest Daughter would be ever the delight and the despair of the Church of Christ.
The Sisters and the novices were present at the festivities each day. Sister Laboure was there, packed in among her companions, devout and ecstatic. She fed eagerly at the groaning table of spiritual consolation spread before her. She needed every last ounce of nourishment and strength, for each night on her return from St. Lazare, she went through a grueling experience.
Celebrations like this can be a distraction rather than a help to individual piety. There was so much to dazzle the eyes and to fascinate one: the stately and intricate movement of the pontifical Mass; the rich, glittering vestments; the gorgeous backdrop of flowers and lights; such harmony to fill the ears: the thundering of the organ; the soaring melodies of the choir; so many great personages to stimulate human curiosity. The little country girl from Fain had never seen such display. It was a far cry from the simple Mass droned in the half-dark of a winter’s morning, the tentative voices of a few sleepy Sisters, the handful of worshippers in homespun. Yet, literally, it meant nothing to her, human-wise; it served only, as it was meant to serve, as a hint of Heaven. She felt, again, that she was “no longer on the earth.” Earnestly, she addressed herself to prayer, and with spiritual insight, she prayed well.
She prayed, first of all, for herself, for all the graces she needed. Then, with true Christian breadth, she prayed for the “two families,” the Sisters of Charity and their brothers, the Vincentian Fathers, “and the whole of France.” For Charles X, the last of the Bourbons, and for the lowliest peasant in his kingdom. For Paris, the teeming mother of the land, pious and sinful, learned and flippant, beautiful and dowdy, all in turn. For Paris, sprung legendary centuries ago from the Ile de la Cite; for Paris, whose great bid for ultimate salvation is that the lovely Cathedral of Our Lady still marks the spot of the city’s birth. For Paris, and Dijon, Orleans, and Marseilles; and for the tiny villages like Fain, that the brawling epochs have swept around and left unchanged. For Brittany and Burgundy and the Valley of the Loire. For all that sunny land, with its woods and hedgerows and vistas of landscape, cut out of some medieval tapestry. And for its puzzling people, prototypes of a puzzling race, angels of God and devils of Satan, the glory and the shame of the Most High.
Catherine was French, and we who are not cannot hope to understand. She tells us that she prayed “for the whole of France,” and in that simple telling she joins hands with Genevieve and Jeanne d’Arc, with Bernard and Vincent de Paul, and with a host of others, all forming a protective cordon about their beloved country, all presenting a defiant and unbroken front to the world. Fail to understand as we may, who is to say that Catherine Laboure, and all these others, were not right in their passionate devotion to their country? Catherine was to see Our Lady herself weep over the unhappy days ahead for France, and even Christ Himself come to earth to foretell the end of the Bourbon dynasty. Catherine was French, and that meant that France was a passion with her, a thread of her life and her sanctity, weaving itself through her thoughts, her prayers, her good deeds, her visions.
Finally, with truest Christian prudence, she prayed St. Vincent to teach her what she should pray for.
Until now, Catherine’s devotion to St. Vincent had been a casual thing, compared with the all-consuming thing it was henceforward to be. Not so many years ago, in her dream, she had fled from him. “You flee from me now,” he had said, “but one day you will be glad to come to me.” That day was here. And Catherine, with that characteristic generosity that gave everything when it was sure of the direction of its giving, came to him wholly. In these few days of novena, she told St. Vincent everything about herself, her hopes and fears, her powers and her needs. It was he she asked for the graces she required, it was to him she recommended “the two families, and the whole of France.” In a word, she gave him her heart.
Now, Vincent was to give his heart to Catherine.
As the novena service ended each afternoon, the novices emerged into the spring twilight, and marched two by two around the comer to their home in the rue du Bac. There, Catherine tells us in homely fashion, she “found St. Vincent again, or at least his heart.” The heart appeared to her above a little shrine containing a bone from the right arm of St. Vincent, in the chapel of the Sisters. It hovered over this precious relic, in front of St. Joseph’s altar and slightly higher than the picture of St. Anne that hung on the sanctuary wall. It appeared to her on three successive evenings in three different guises. On the first evening, it was of a flesh-white color. Inwardly, Catherine understood that the color foretold peace, calm, innocence, and union for the two Communities, the priests and the Sisters of St. Vincent.
On the second evening, it was a fiery red, and Catherine again, in the depths of her own heart, understood its symbolism: charity would be enkindled in all hearts, the Community would renew its fervor and extend itself to the uttermost bounds of the earth.
The next evening was a different story. The heart of St. Vincent took on a dark red hue. On seeing it, Catherine was plunged into sadness, a sadness which presaged misfortune for herself and for the King of France. She understood by this strange, spiritual sadness that she would have much to suffer in surmounting the obstacles that would be put in her path; and she understood, without penetrating further, that there would be a change in government. Then, for the first time, Catherine heard a voice speaking to her interiorly:
“The heart of St. Vincent is deeply afflicted at the sorrows that will befall France,” it said.
The apparition of St. Vincent’s heart, with its various changes of color, was repeated eight or nine times, each evening when Catherine returned from St. Lazare. On the last evening, the final day of the novena, it appeared, bright vermilion, and once more Catherine heard the interior voice “The heart of St. Vincent is somewhat consoled because he has obtained from God, through the intercession of Mary, that his two families should not perish in the midst of these sorrows, and that God would make use of them to reanimate the Faith.”
It was indeed a grueling experience for this young girl, only a few days in the novitiate. While it is a great grace to be admitted to the secrets of the saints—and Catherine recognized this grace, for she tells us that she had “consolation” from the visions—at the same time, it is a grace that does not enter easily, but rips and tears the human heart with pain. Witness the pain of the saints who have seen or heard the secrets of Heaven, who have been torn and buffeted and contradicted, from St. John the Apostle and St. Paul, the two greatest of all seers, through St. Margaret Mary, St. Bernadette, to the children of Fatima of our own day. Catherine Laboure was no exception.
“Each time that I returned from St. Lazare,” she cries out, “I had such great pain! ”
It is a cry of courage, for Catherine understood that, although she suffered pain, nevertheless, this oppression of her heart was a divine favor, and brought her consolation, too. She may have been a novice according to the rules of her order; she was certainly no novice in the ways of the spiritual life.
Catherine’s calling as a seer, a prophet, had begun. In a few short months, history was to vindicate her forebodings of a change in government. Of her prophecies concerning the Communities of St. Vincent, her confessor, Father Jean Marie Aladel, was to speak in a conference delivered two days before his death in 1865.
“It was on the eve of the great happenings of 1830: great sorrows menaced us; our blessed Father feared for our two families, if one in Heaven can still be said to fear. He wished, at least, to rekindle fervor, to see an increase in the prayers which, each day, ascend to the throne of mercy. The saddened heart of St. Vincent appeared under a sombre aspect, it took on a hue which was not of life. But, at the close of the novena, it appeared the color of vermilion, a reflection of celestial happiness surrounded it, and he gave assurance that his prayers had been heard. The Most Holy Virgin had turned aside the evils which would have befallen us; it is to her, that is, to the August Mary, that the Company is indebted for the new graces of preservation, and the special blessings which follow Daughters of Charity worthy of their beautiful name and faithful to their holy and sublime vocation.”
Father Aladel could not see a hundred years further into the future how the Sisters of Charity flourish, 43,000 strong, and fill the earth to the “uttermost bounds” predicted by Sister Laboure. He could not see the Double Family of St. Vincent, surviving two world wars and the persecution of Nazi and Communist alike, continuing and expanding their many works, dying out in one place, springing up in another. He could not see the hospitals and orphanages, schools and seminaries, mission compounds and parishes, dotting the countries of North and South America. He had seen much, but he could not see all Catherine had seen in the heart of St. Vincent.
Perhaps still prophetic of even more fruitful days for his families, the heart of St. Vincent de Paul rests today, in an exquisite reliquary of crystal and gold, on almost the exact spot where Catherine saw it in vision. Like the saint’s body, this precious heart had been spirited away during the troubles of the French Revolution, and turned up unaccountably in Lyon, more than a hundred years ago, hidden in a recess cut out of the pages of a large book. Until the year 1947, it was enshrined in the Cathedral of Lyon, where Frederic Ozanam, that man “after St. Vincent’s heart,” saw and venerated it in his lifetime. In 1947, Mother Blanchot, then Mother-General of the Sisters of Charity, went to Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyon, and begged him to allow the Sisters to enshrine the heart of their Father in the chapel where it had appeared to Catherine Laboure for the duration of the festivities in honor of her canonization. The Cardinal graciously granted her request.
Whether or not Mother Blanchot had a longer range plan in mind when she first approached the Cardinal, once the heart of the Founder was safely at home in the Sister’s chapel, she brought to bear on the prelate her earnest entreaties that the Sisters be allowed to keep their borrowed treasure. The Cardinal was in sympathy with her request, nor could he gainsay the good Mother’s argument that the heart of Vincent de Paul rightly belonged among his daughters, on the spot where it appeared to one of them. Braving the outcry of his own flock, the prelate finally consented—one more man to have been beaten by a woman. And who is to say whether the woman was Mother Blanchot, or Catherine Laboure?
There can be no doubt that the visions of the heart of St. Vincent were a prelude to the great apparitions of Our Lady. They hinted at what Mary was to predict and promise more fully, they foretold what Mary was to confirm: God’s protection of the Double Family of St. Vincent in times of national disaster. Indeed, in a few short months, it would be St. Vincent who would obtain for Catherine the grace of seeing the Blessed Virgin.