XIII. Three Old Men of Enghien
About a year before pronouncing her vows, Catherine had been removed from the kitchen and given charge of the laundry and clothes room. The change was not necessarily a reflection on her ability as a cook. In religious life, such changes are a matter of course, made at times for the sake of variety, at times to fill a vacancy, at times to make room for someone else, and, it must be confessed, at times for no conceivable reason at all.
There is but one tale told of these months in the laundry. Seeing a Sister emerge soaking wet from her duty at the wash tub, Catherine went immediately to the Superior and saw to it that the Sister got warm flannel to wear, so as not to catch cold. It is heartwarming to know that the Sister remembered this little act of kindness for sixty years, and came forward to recount it to the Beatification Commission in 1895.
The incident serves to show the balanced judgment of the saint. No one had a deeper spirit of poverty than she; indeed, with herself, she carried poverty to the extreme of rigor. After her death, the Sister Servant was amazed and humiliated at the few belongings, the absolute minimum of Catherine’s possessions, and kept saying over and over to herself in reproach: “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” Catherine herself expressed her accurate concept of religious poverty more than once, in speaking to the young Sisters.
“It is necessary to preserve things, and not to abuse them. They are not really ours, for we have nothing of our own, but we must manage with the greatest care, for we have an account to render to God.”
This, without a doubt, would be the principle she observed in distributing clothes and caring for them, as it was with everything else. But she struck the proper balance in that she was generous with what was needed. She never stinted; she never deprived others in the name of poverty. Her common sense was truly remarkable.
In 1836, Sister Catherine Laboure was thirty years old. Now she took up a pattern of life that was to change very little throughout forty years: she was given charge of the old men who had come to Enghien to end their days. The little farm attached to the house was also given into her keeping; it was a charge she enjoyed, for it reminded her of home and she found relaxation in feeding the chickens and milking the cows.
As mentioned before, the Hospice d’Enghien was administered by the Superior of the House of Reuilly. Since Reuilly was the distance of a long city block from Enghien, the Sister who had charge of the old men inmates of Enghien virtually ruled the house. She directed the daily duties of the Sisters working there; she had custody of all the keys of the house; she took her place beside the Sister Servant in chapel, at meals, and at recreation. She was, without the title, Assistant Superior of both houses.
It speaks volumes for the capability of Catherine Laboure that she was assigned to this important post at the age of thirty.
No one who has never cared for old people can fully appreciate the difficulty of the task. When people grow old, the powers of the body break down and, often as well, the powers of the mind. It is this latter affliction that causes people to say that the old are like children. But it is not so. There is a vast difference between the thoughts and actions of children whose minds have not yet developed and the thoughts and actions of adults whose once vigorous and crowded minds have failed. The failure to realize this difference and, as a consequence, to treat old people as children, has caused many a deep hurt and resentment in the old. To care for the aged with true understanding, therefore, demands not only great patience and indulgence, but especially great delicacy. Not to treat them as adults, allowance being made for their sickness of mind or body, is to alienate them, perhaps forever.
Sister Catherine’s task was made doubly hard by the fact that her charges were all men. The only man she had ever known with any degree of intimacy was her father, and he had been in the full vigor of his powers. With her native shrewdness, it could not have taken her long to realize that men were much easier to understand than women, that they were on the whole simpler, more honest and direct. At the start, however, they were a new species to Catherine. Besides, not all of her charges were of the good moral fibre of Pierre Laboure. The only requirement for entry into the Hospice d’Enghien was that the men should have served the Bourbon family for a requisite number of years; it was inevitable that there would be a quorum of villains among them. Catherine had met the type at her brother’s bistro in Paris; now it was her duty to care for them and do her best to reform them.
The strange Sister who had asked Catherine whether she was bored with her work among her old men had a keen appreciation of the nature of the work. Catherine’s day changed very little over forty years; only the faces of her charges changed as new inmates came to take the places of those who had died. Her order of day was substantially the same in 1876 as it was in 1836. The story of how she cared for her beloved old men is, exteriorly, the story of her life: serving their meals, mending their clothes, supervising their recreations, providing them with snuff and smoking tobacco, bringing them into line when they broke her wise regulations, nursing them in their illnesses, watching at their deathbeds. Select any year of the forty, and the results are plain to see: her old men were perfectly cared for in body and soul. Catherine was completely devoted to them, even jealously so. She was rarely off duty, and then only for the good of her own soul.
When the Sisters of a neighboring house in the Faubourg Saint Antoine would invite the Sisters of Reuilly and Enghien to the plays enacted by the children of the house, Catherine would always send her regrets.
“These festivals are good for the young Sisters,” she would say, “but I have to care for my old men.”
She refused every such invitation. But, when it was her turn to go to the rue du Bac for a conference, that was a different matter; she was never known to cede her turn to anyone.
In the matter of food for her old fellows, Catherine was a stickler. She insisted that it be the best the Hospice could provide, and that there be plenty of it. Once, on her feast day, she received a touching compliment, the more touching because the old fellow who delivered it slyly timed it for a moment when Sister Tanguy, at the time Catherine’s immediate, and rather waspish, superior was present. As the meal ended, the old veteran selected by his comrades for the honor arose with all the courtliness he could muster, and said:
“Sister Catherine, you are very good to us, and at table you always ask us: ‘Have you had enough?'”
A short speech, but complete, with very practical proof for what he had to say! Catherine must have been embarrassed at this unexpected eulogy, but she would not have been human had she not felt a warm glow of pleasure.
A Sister remembered watching Catherine gather peaches in the garden one day. Remarking on the ripeness of the fruit, the Sister asked if she might have some.
“No, Sister,” Catherine said firmly. “I’m sorry, but these are for the old men. Later, if there are any left, you may have what you want.” Relating the incident, the Sister would add wryly that none were left.
With Catherine, even religious exercises must give way to the service of her old men. Sister Jeanne Maurel, whose task it was to carry the trays to the sick, grew very angry at the kitchen Sister one morning. It was a “last straw” occasion, for the kitchen Sister was one of those people who are never on time for anything and she had kept Sister Maurel late for Mass habitually by her leisurely methods at the stove. Sister Maurel was in fine fettle, grumbling away to herself, when she finally reached the sick ward.
“Sister,” Catherine admonished her, “you must give everything to God, and never complain.”
Nor did she let it go at that, but made poor Sister Maurel promise to follow her advice. At first glance, it might seem strange for a saint to place work before so holy a thing as the Mass; but Catherine was following the lead of St. Vincent himself, who constantly told his Sisters that they must forego any religious exercise, even the Holy Sacrifice, if the sick or the poor needed them. In such cases, St. Vincent would say, “You are leaving God for God.”
That Catherine’s unflagging devotion paid off is proven by the fact that the old men were never known to complain. This is truly remarkable when we consider the many different personalities she served and the usual cantankerousness of old people; it is even more remarkable when we remember that Catherine’s old men were used to the comforts and fine food of great houses.
It must not be thought, however, that Catherine was overindulgent toward her charges. When they stepped out of line, she had her own methods of correction, and they were right in character: eminently practical and so simple and direct as to provoke a smile. Her cure for drunkenness is a case in point. The old fellows had a day out each week, and, of course, there was always that hard core of high livers who would head straight for their favorite bar. Now Catherine had nothing against drink: she was born in the heart of the Burgundian vineyards. In fact, as a European, Catherine would be hard put to understand the uneasiness of Americans, still scarred with the excesses of Prohibition, toward what she accepted as part of God’s everyday gifts. There was a long period in her religious life when she did not touch wine, but this was from a sense of uniformity rather than distaste: by a somewhat distorted sense of caution, wine was allowed at first only to the sick Sisters, then later to the teachers and the older Sisters; but Catherine would not touch it until its use was extended to all. Drunkenness, however, was another matter entirely and, once in a while, some of Catherine’s more reprobate charges would stagger home tipsy. Punishment was inexorable and swift. The culprit was put right to bed; and there is something intensely human in the picture of this holy Sister struggling up the stairs with a drunken old man, and the old fellow splitting the air with a few raucous bars of a tavern ballad or a couple of well-used oaths. Once the offender was safely in bed, Catherine would carry off his clothes and hide them, and there he would stay for three whole days—and there would be no day out for him the next week!
On one occasion, a couple of the Sisters, fairly outraged at a long-time offender who had come home in a particularly obnoxious condition, reproached Catherine for not having been more severe with him.
“I can’t help it,” Catherine answered simply. “I keep seeing Christ in him.” This was Christianity in its perfection, but it was also, as the Sisters came to realize later, wholly sensible: there is nothing to be gained by expostulating with a drunken man, and Catherine knew it. The unhappy fellow got his tongue-lashing the next morning.
The occasional drunkenness of her charges, however, was, in a sense, the least of Catherine’s worries. There were certain of them who were impure, and it is a soberly attested fact that Catherine had the supernatural gift of discerning which ones they were. “That man is not good,” she would observe with great delicacy, pointing him out to her Superior.
It was an act of utmost heroism for Catherine to look after these unhappy victims of vice. She herself was the soul of chastity. Her sister Tonine had graphically described Catherine’s innocence as a young girl by saying that “she did not know evil.” Sister Sejole had said that she “had never known a young girl more pure or candid.” And several of the Sisters with whom she lived concluded upon reflection that it was Catherine’s shining chastity that led Our Lady to grant her the apparitions of the Medal. This last is a singular judgment, for it suggests that there was something arresting, something almost visible, about the chastity of Catherine Laboure. She was, after all, an old lady when these Sisters who made the judgment knew her, and chastity is the common ornament of nuns; surely there is question of an extraordinary depth of purity in her when people were especially struck by the chastity of an old nun. Catherine’s purity was evident in the clear and honest glance of her eye and the shining brightness of her face. It can be imagined with what repugnance this pure woman went to care for men whom she knew to be dirty and foul in mind and body.
Her repugnance was so great that it swept over her in waves of disgust and, try as she might, even with her great strength of will and self-control, she could not prevent it from showing in her face. It was only prayer and her magnificent faith that enabled her to withstand the first shock of revulsion and to recognize, even behind the mask of sin, Christ in the sinner. It is the measure of her sanctity that she ministered to the impure as tenderly as to the others.
The other spiritual problem Catherine had with her charges was attendance at Sunday Mass. It was not the problem that secret sins of impurity were because, while her old men shared the disinclination of many French males to attend Mass, they were more or less trapped into attendance by the fact of living in a Catholic institution. Sister Catherine saw to it that they were at Mass every Sunday, at any rate, and some of them, whether from native piety or the discovery that going to Mass was not so humiliating or distasteful as they had imagined, actually went during the week.
Of course, there was the usual quota of rebels who held out against the most eloquent exhortations to virtue or the practice of religion. Against these Catherine used the ultimate weapons of prayer and charity. In such capable hands as hers these weapons were absolutely invincible, and even the most hardened sinner was eventually brought humbly to heel.
She had a quaint spiritual medicine for some of the most rebellious. She would prepare some drink, a glass of milk or wine, and before handing it to the sinner steep in it a copy of the Memorare. It was a simple, childlike act of faith and devotion, one perhaps that she had learned in the Christian household at Fain, like the act of swallowing the tiny piece of St. Vincent’s surplice on the night of the first vision of Our Lady.
One old fellow in particular was a challenge to Catherine. He was wicked in the literal sense of the word, believing in nothing and loud and shocking in his disbelief, cantankerous and disagreeable. He was the scandal of the house. Even the dedicated Sisters would expostulate with Catherine (as if she could help it! ):
“Sister Catherine, how wicked your old devil Marcel is!”
Catherine’s eyes would fill with tears and she would reply only: “Pray for him.” It was what she did most fervently—that, and turning upon him the full force of her attention and charm. She won him over and he died in the grace of God. They all did, even the most abandoned of them. During the long span of forty years not one of Sister Catherine’s old men died without the Last Sacraments of the Church.
Nor did Catherine’s sense of responsibility to her charges end with their deaths. She had Masses offered for the repose of their souls, and the offerings for these Masses came from her own personal resources. By the vow of poverty, Sisters of Charity may possess money of their own and use it, with permission, for pious works. This was one of the ways Catherine used the money given her by her family.
It is one thing to care for old men, however faithfully and meticulously, solely from duty; it is quite another to supplement duty with the true love of a woman’s heart and the true sublimity of Christian charity. This latter was Catherine’s way. Many, even among her daily companions, have stopped at the cold, reserved outer shell of Catherine Laboure, and failed to penetrate to the inner fire. Not so her old men; they knew her and loved her. Not so her family, especially those like her sister Tonine or her nephew and niece, Father Meugniot and Mme Duhamel, who knew her best. She took knowing, did Catherine, but it was worth the effort. Certain of her nephews and nieces enjoyed visiting their Aunt Marie Louise better than their Aunt Catherine, because Marie Louise was easier to know, livelier and more appealing, especially to children. Indeed, Catherine’s love of family was so controlled that it has gone largely unnoticed, and yet it showed itself in such deep concern for her family’s welfare that one is led to suspect her tenderness toward her family as the source of her tenderness toward her old men.
Love of home and family was deep in her. It showed itself in the long hard years of caring for her father at Fain, in the sense of outrage that made her accuse Marie Louise of not easing their father’s last days. It showed itself in the things about her father she chose to remember: not the harshness, but the solid piety and the shrewd lessons of life he taught her. And who is to deny that she found it easier to be patient with the truculence of some obstinate old fellow because she saw in his features the face of her father? Or that her fingers were quicker to soothe because she felt beneath them, not the fevered wrinkled brow of a dying old man but, in retrospect, the smoother brow of her invalid brother Auguste.
When Catherine left the world, she did not cut herself off from her family. She was no monster of mortification, coldly turning from the warm human relationships God had given her. She never saw her father again, because he was hundreds of miles away in Fain; but her brothers were in Paris—Hubert, Jacques, Antoine, Charles, Joseph, and Pierre—and she saw them and their families as often as time and travel would permit. If they were sick and could not come to visit her, she went to visit them.
In 1858, Tonine moved with her family to Paris and took a house in the Boulevard Pereire, not far from the Hospice d’Enghien, and the old intimacy with Catherine was renewed. After her father and brother Auguste died, Tonine was finally free to marry Claude Meugniot, in 1838, and they settled in the village of Vizerny. Here were born their children, Marie and Philippe, who were to be closest to Catherine of all her nephews and nieces.
At the age of fourteen Philippe began to read Latin with the village cure and his Aunt Catherine wrote immediately to ask him whether he intended to become a priest. Her action was not prompted by the exaggerated zeal for family vocation characteristic of certain religious, but by true prophetic sight. The boy replied that he was thinking of the priesthood, but could promise nothing. His reply, vague as it was, prompted Catherine to action: she brought Philippe to Paris and personally conveyed him to the College of Montdidier, conducted by the Vincentian Fathers. Philippe spent several years there preparing for the secular clergy, and his aunt hovered over his vocation anxiously, asking him at every opportunity whether he meant to persevere. Philippe himself says that her anxiety was dictated not by zeal for his vocation alone, but also by a sense of justice, for Catherine and one of her companions had undertaken to pay for his schooling and she impressed upon him constantly that such money was not to be wasted.
The boy saw his aunt frequently during his vacations and on one of these occasions Catherine decided to speak to him about entering the Community of St. Vincent. Once more it was not a question of catering to a selfish wish on her part, but a true vein of prophecy. She had been showing Philippe a piece of the cassock of Jean Gabriel Perboyre, the Vincentian priest who had been martyred in China in 1840. Suddenly she said to Philippe:
“If you wish to enter the Community, our priests will receive you.” She went on immediately, smiling as if it were all an elaborate joke:
“They might even make you a superior and then you would be more free.” Surprising bait for a saint to dangle before a young man, but Catherine knew whereof she spoke. She went on to tell of Father Perboyre and his life in China, almost as if changing the subject, but it was actually a preface to her final suggestion:
“You, too, might go to China.”
Without any further pressure from his aunt, Philippe did enter the Vincentian Fathers and his life after ordination fell out exactly as Catherine had suggested it might: he was appointed Superior when quite young and later served as procurator of the foreign missions in Hong Kong.
This was but one of the many casual prophecies Catherine made in her lifetime, so casual that they went unnoticed, not only at the time they were uttered, but even after they had been fulfilled.
Catherine also came to the aid of Philippe’s sister Marie. Marie had married Eugene Duhamel and borne him two little girls. One day M. Duhamel walked out, never to be heard from again until word of his death reached the deserted wife. Catherine used her influence to have the little girls educated at the House of Reuilly under her watchful eye.
Indeed, over the years, Catherine had enough family troubles to occupy all her prayers. There was Marie Louise and her flight from religion. There was one of her brothers—we do not know which one—who did not practice his religion. Catherine arranged for a niece, Leonie Laboure, to keep an eye on him so that, should he fall ill, he would not die without the Sacraments. There was her brother-in-law, Tonine’s husband, who was also indifferent to his faith. Catherine kept after him herself, visiting him often—he was a chronic invalid—and each time urging him to make his peace with God.
“I pray for you,” she would remind him, “but you must pray also.” He was a cavalier sort of person for, after Catherine had gone, he would say to his family:
“Zoe wishes to convert me, but she hasn’t managed it yet.” Then he would add, with a chuckle: “A fine girl, all the same.”
There came a time when the doctors gave him up, and he surrendered to the prayers and pleading of his sister-in-law. God and Catherine had a little joke at his expense, however. After receiving the Sacraments, he suddenly grew better:
“Somebody has won me a year’s delay,” he said. He must have known who. He continued faithful to his conversion and died peacefully, with the Sacraments, just a year later.
Tonine herself lingered for fifteen months with a painful illness before her death. Catherine was a frequent visitor, and constantly sustained her sister, helping her to bear her sufferings and to keep up her flagging spirit. Life had not been overly kind to poor Tonine. Once she said to Catherine:
“Had I known what would happen to me, I would have been a religious like you.”
“Each to her own vocation,” Catherine replied. “You would not, then, have had the consolation of giving a son to God.”
At the end, Tonine fell into a coma, lasting several days, during which time she neither spoke nor recognized anyone. One day Catherine came, and putting everyone out of the room, closeted herself with this dearest sister and companion. A long time passed. When Catherine finally emerged she summoned her niece, Mme Duhamel, and her children.
“Go to your mother,” she said, “she wants to speak to you.” Without another word, Catherine left the house. Rushing to Tonine’s bedside, her daughter and grandchildren were amazed to find her wide awake and smiling. Completely alert, she gave them her final instructions, and died the next morning, serene and happy.
Aimee Laboure, widow of Catherine’s brother Jacques, testified in 1907 that she and her husband would go to visit Catherine two or three times a year during the twenty years of their marriage. “When I went to see her, she always received me cordially,” the sister-in-law said, “reproaching me for not coming more often, and never failing to exhort me to fulfill my religious duties. She especially interested herself in the salvation of my husband, who could not go to see her as often as I, because of his work. When my husband grew gravely ill, she came to see him, made sure he had received the Last Sacraments, and gave him the Miraculous Medal, which she herself put around his neck.”
This short testimony gives the pattern of Catherine’s relations with her family: cordiality, warmth, human love, constant thought for the things of God—and the Miraculous Medal. There is something especially warm and moving in the picture of this humble Sister, who gave the Medal to the world, hanging it around the neck of her own brother.