XVI. The Commune and Communists
On May 1, 1860, Catherine celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her vows. There was no great to-do over the event, for she was not an important personage in the eyes of men, but there would be the little intimate celebration in the bosom of her Sisters, with the feast-day dinner and the presentation of holy cards and homely gifts. She was fifty-four years old now, a senior Sister in the house, revered and respected by all the rest. At recreation, she took her place by the side of the Superior, intent on her sewing, saying very little unless she were spoken to. Once, one of the Sisters teased her about her quietness.
“Sister Catherine, you sit sewing and say nothing.”
“Why should I say anything,” Catherine replied, smiling, “I know nothing.”
Catherine took advantage of her age, now, to admonish the younger Sisters gently, in the way of teaching them lessons of holiness.
“My little ones,” she would say, “do not murmur, do not seek to turn aside from the orders of our Superiors, for they represent God.”
The same spirit of faith she exercised toward Superiors, she exercised as well toward public events. “Let us allow the good God to work,” was her credo. “He knows better than we what is needed.”
Catherine was shocked one day to notice a young Sister saying her beads, while she carefully examined the pictures on the wall. As gently as she could, but with the Laboure firmness, she reminded the Sister that she should always say her beads with fervor. Lack of fervor in saying the chaplet, according to Catherine, was one of the things Our Lady had complained of. Catherine herself always said her beads with great reverence, pronouncing the words slowly.
“Be calm, do not be so disturbed,” was her advice to one of the children of the house. It was advice she herself followed faithfully. Not that she was never upset, indeed extremely so, at times; but she always took immediate steps to repress any agitation of soul. “Come to the foot of the altar,” Our Lady had said. In taking this invitation literally to heart, Catherine always found solace and peace for her soul.
In 1860, Sister Jeanne Dufes was appointed Superior of the houses of Reuilly and Enghien. Her arrival marked the last phase of Catherine’s life, a period of sixteen years during which Catherine’s soul was to receive its final, rigorous purification—a purification to which Sister Dufes contributed often—and during which the threads of Catherine’s life were to be gathered together and neatly tied before her holy and peaceful death.
Sister Dufes was born on May 24, 1823, in the little village of St. Victor de Malcap, not far from Nimes. She entered the community in 1839, and was, thus, only thirty-seven years old when she was placed over Catherine Laboure in 1860.
Sister Dufes was to prove the perfect wheel upon which every last vestige of self-love and self-will in Catherine—and traces of both remained until the end—was to be broken. From their first encounter, these two women felt a natural antipathy to each other. The basis of it lay in the fact that they were very much alike. Both were practical, competent women of irascible temperament. Sister Dufes put it very well when she said, quite humbly:
“There is this difference between Sister Catherine and myself that, while we are both very quick, she conquers her quickness at once, but with me it is hard and long.” Should Catherine bristle when crossed by the little difficulties of the common life, Sister Dufes would say, in the peasant idiom: “C’est la soupe au lait,” which means roughly: “She is as hot, or quick-tempered, as milk-soup”; but would immediately add, rather wistfully:
“I do not know how she is able on the instant to capture such absolute calm.”
Sister Dufes has testified that, from the time she entered the Community, she had heard of Sister Catherine Laboure, and that some connected her with the Apparitions of 1830. When Father Etienne appointed her as Superior in 1860, he told her: “I am sending you into the house of Sister Catherine Laboure, where she leads a hidden life.” It could very well be that the vague adulation of Sister Catherine in certain quarters had unconsciously prejudiced Sister Dufes against her, so that, when she was appointed as Catherine’s Superior, she was determined to keep the saint in her place.
Whatever the reason, Sister Dufes neglected Catherine from the first. It was a new experience for Catherine, who, as custodian of the aged inmates of Enghien, had been virtual Superior of that house. Sister Dufes’s neglect became even more apparent when Sister Tanguy was appointed Assistant Superior and took over the Enghien house in 1874. In the intervening years Catherine remained in charge of Enghien but Sister Dufes showed small interest and smaller appreciation of what she did.
Sister Desmoulins, who was a close friend of Sister Dufes testified on this point:
“I recall that her [Catherine’s] last Superior, Sister Dufes, told me: ‘It is a unique thing, that I never felt drawn to avail myself of Sister Catherine. I never asked a service of her. I liked her well enough, but I left her in her corner.’”
Sister Desmoulins went on to proffer an explanation:
“Sister Dufes and I came to the conclusion that Sister Catherine must have asked of God that she be treated so, and that God had granted this request as He granted her others.
“Sister Dufes had great intelligence, spirit of organization and exceptional savoir faire. She was accustomed to make the fullest use of all her subjects, even the mediocre ones.
“It is impossible, therefore, that, without the express will of God of which she was a worthy instrument, she should do as the former Superiors and leave Sister Catherine in the works she had always performed, when without a doubt she was capable of rendering more important services to the Community.
It may very well be as Sister Desmoulins said, that God had ordered things so. At the same time, both she and Sister Dufes would seem to be too quick to shift the blame for the latter’s neglect of Catherine on to God. It must be remembered that all this was hindsight, manufactured after Catherine’s death when everyone was acclaiming her.
As a matter of fact, Catherine’s capabilities were quite obvious to the other Sisters of the house. one Sister has stated bluntly, in referring to Catherine’s talent for housekeeping: “She was even more competent than our Superior.” Even complete strangers were impressed by Catherine. A visiting Sister, meeting her for the first time, was so struck by her dignity and simplicity that the thought came to her, significantly enough, that Sister Catherine was perhaps not in her rightful place and was capable of filling a higher position in the Community. This Sister even asked the saint whether she was bored with what she was doing. Catherine answered:
“One is never bored with doing the Will of God.”
The major Superiors, who saw Catherine only from time to time, seemed to have had a truer picture of her than Sister Dufes had. Mother Devos, then Mother General of the Community, summoned Catherine one day in 1870, and told her that she was being considered for a Superior’s post. Catherine became very upset at the news, and protested her unworthiness and lack of ability. At length, her protestations prevailed, and Catherine finished the story by saying:
“And she sent me back to Enghien,” in a tone that implied: “And she did the proper thing! ”
It was bad enough for Sister Dufes to neglect Catherine, but she took to reprimanding her beyond her deserts, and, what is against the spirit of the rule, in the presence of others.
“She was sometimes reprimanded by the Superior, severely, and for things of trivial importance,” Sister Cosnard testified. “I felt bound to tell Sister Dufes my astonishment at seeing her scold a venerable Sister so vehemently for the smallest things.
“‘Let me be,’ she replied, ‘I feel compelled to do it.’
“On the occasion I refer to, Sister Catherine knelt at the feet of Sister Dufes, humbly and without saying a word.”
Sister Cosnard added that, at the time, she was struck by Sister Dufes’s asserting that she felt compelled to give these reprimands. It would seem that Sister Dufes herself recognized the injustice of them, and the theory that Heaven forcer her to these severe measures for the good of Catherine’s soul cannot be discounted. At the same time, the question may be justly raised, how much may be attributed to the Will of God, and how much to Sister Dufes’s temper. Sister Charvier bolstered the testimony of Sister Cosnards.
“I must say that Catherine’s Superior humiliated her more than once; we were sure that she received these mortifications of self-love in silence and that she never showed anything but respect and devotion to this Superior [Sister Dufes] .
“Several times I observed Sister Catherine, after having been humiliated before several of us, go to the chapel, then return to knock at the door of the Sister Superior, and ask some permission or other.
“‘Sister,’ she would say in a very pleasant tone, ‘would you be good enough to grant me such a permission?’
“I felt that she did this to show the Sister Superior that she bore no grudge because of the reprimand she had received. I was always edified.”
At the first inquiry into Catherine’s virtues, Sister Dufes had forgotten her treatment of Catherine, for she testified that she had never had the least occasion to reprimand her.
During recreation one day a young Sister expressed an opinion which Catherine contradicted.
“I notice that you hold your own opinion most emphatically,” the Superior said to her, laughingly.
Immediately Catherine got painfully to her knees and begged pardon before all.
“I am nothing but a haughty woman,” she said.
The sight of this old Sister humiliating herself brought tears to the eyes of her companions.
At the Wednesday conference, when it was the custom for each Sister to accuse herself of some fault in the little chapter ceremony common to all religious communities, Catherine almost always accused herself of the same thing:
“I accuse myself of having failed several times to make acts of the Presence of God.” According to the rule, the Sisters were to recite a set prayer each hour at the striking of the clock. It was her occasional failure to do this that Catherine confessed.
In 1863, a terrible fire broke out in the paper and paint factory which was next door to the Reuilly orphanage. The contents of the building were, of course, highly combustible and huge flames shot into the air. The Sisters’ house was in great danger; flames actually licked at the roof, and it seemed impossible that the house should escape. The Sisters and children milled around in confusion. Catherine alone was calm.
“Don’t be frightened,” she said, “it will stop.”
In spite of all human prevision, the Sisters’ house was spared.
Across the sea, America was in the throes of the terrible Civil War, and, hearing of the carnage made all the more frightful because brother was killing brother, Catherine must have realized more and more the devastating truth of Mary’s prophecy that “The whole world will be in sadness.”
The year 1865 brought a profound change in Catherine’s life, with the sudden death of Father Aladel.
On Sunday, April 23, Father Aladel gave his last conference to the Sisters at rue du Bac. It was a conference strangely prophetic, in the light of what was to happen. He chose his text from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews, Chapter XIII, verse 7: “Remember your superiors who spoke to you the word of God.” The very next sentence in the text reads: “Consider how they ended their lives, and imitate their faith.” Actually, the priest spoke not of himself, but of the Blessed Virgin and St. Vincent. The conference itself was a summing up of the glorious events which had cast their greatness over his own life, for he spoke at length of the visions of the heart of St. Vincent and of the promises Our Lady had made, both to the Community and to individuals.
He finished in these words:
“Everything has been given us by Mary Immaculate. To her we owe our vocation, our progress, our perseverance. Every good has come to us with her love, and on our last day when, after the Consummatum Est of our final sufferings, our soul shall quit the body which held it captive, if our blessed father St. Vincent finds in us a great spirit of faith, a great charity, a tender love for the Immaculate Virgin, he will present us to her, and Mary Immaculate, leading us to Jesus, the divine Spouse of pure and devout souls, will give us the diadem of a glorious immortality.”
At the end of this last conference, the director’s voice grew so weak that his final words were lost to his hearers. The next day, he was at his desk as usual. Toward evening, disquieting news reached Paris. Father Etienne, in Dax to bless a monument to St. Vincent, had been stricken and was in critical condition. The news was a sore blow to Father Aladel, for, aside from the universal veneration he shared with the Community for a beloved Superior General, Father Etienne was his closest personal friend. His pain was the deeper because the General was hundreds of miles away and Father Aladel could not hope to go to his side. From certain words that escaped him, later reported by the Mother General of the Sisters, who was with him when the news came, it would seem that on the spot Father Aladel offered his own life to God in exchange for the life of his friend. It was a curious repetition of history. Vincent de Paul had fallen gravely ill some twenty years before his death, and a young confrere, M. Dufour by name, had offered his life for the saint’s and God had accepted the bargain. He was to accept this one also.
The next morning, Father Aladel rose with the Community at four o’clock, dressed, and was leaving his room to go to the Community meditation, when he suffered a stroke and fell to the floor, unconscious. He died that afternoon at two o’clock. It was April 2 5, 1865, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Translation of St. Vincent’s relics and of the first miraculous vision of Catherine Laboure. Father Etienne passed through the crisis of his illness and recovered to rule the Community for nine more years.
Father Aladel’s funeral was held on Thursday. Father Meugniot, Catherine’s nephew, relates a curious incident that took place, respecting his aunt.
“It was at the burial of Father Aladel, during the first years of my vocation as a missioner. I had the office of thurifer. At the cemetery, in turning around to carry out a certain function, my gaze fell on Sister Catherine who was in the first row with her Superior. I was struck by the radiance of her face. I could not understand it. Reflecting today upon the circumstances of this death [Father Aladel’s], upon the thoughts which must have occupied Sister Catherine at this moment, I cannot doubt that her show of happiness was the result of recalling the rapport she had had with the venerable dead.”
Catherine’s rapport with Father Aladel had not always been a relationship of joy. Often it had been stormy and painful. Nevertheless, out of it had come major fulfillment: the spread of devotion to the Miraculous Medal, the Children of Mary, the reform of the Double Family of St. Vincent, Catherine’s own growth in sanctity. She had every reason to be happy that this co-worker in the things of Mary had come to his reward. She had not heard the last conference of this good priest, but surely a conference so prophetic had been spoken of and had come to her ears. She would have no difficulty in seeing in her mind’s eye the soul of her director conducted by St. Vincent to Our Lady and to the throne of Jesus Christ: she and Father Aladel had spoken of these three great Personages many times. Was her knowledge of his beatitude more sure than that? Several days after the death of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Vincent de Paul, who had been her director, saw the soul of the saint join that of St. Francis de Sales and the two of them absorbed into the bosom of God. Was the radiance of Catherine’s face an outward sign of some interior certainty such as this? Did she actually see her director in glory?
In 1865, also, Catherine made a prediction concerning her beloved old men.
“We shall leave Enghien,” she said one day to Sister Cosnard.
“Who told you that?” asked the Sister in astonishment.
Catherine made no direct reply, but her face lighted up, and gazing into space, she continued:
“Yes, I see a grand chateau, and written over the doorway the words ‘Hospice d’Enghien.’” She repeated it several times. She went on to say that the chateau was situated near running water, and that the old men would be transferred there, and would be dressed in uniforms.
It all came about as she said—in 1896, twenty years after her death. The Orleans family, who were the patrons of Enghien, decided to turn over their ancestral home to their old servants, who had resided for many years at Enghien. The chateau was grand and impressive and sat in a beautiful landscape on the banks of the Loire. When the old men and the Sisters were moved there in 1896, it was decided that henceforth the men should dress in blue uniforms. Over the door was placed the inscription Hospice d’Enghien-Orleans, just as Catherine had seen it. What distinguishes this supernatural knowledge of Catherine’s from the other visions and prophecies is the fact that, in this case, she saw a future event. The letters she read to Sister Cosnard in 1865 were not erected until 1896.
Politically, conditions in France were extremely restless and the pot that would boil over in the miserable events of 1870-71—and Catherine Laboure would be in the thick of them—was already on the stove. At the close of 1848, Louis Napoleon had been elected President of the Second Republic. He had nailed down his position by the incredible coup d’etat of December 1851, in which the French people, by plebiscite, gave into his hand the drafting of a constitution. A second coup d’etat in December 1852, made him, again by popular vote, Emperor of the Second French Empire. The honeymoon lasted until 1860: peace reigned and the prestige and popularity of Napoleon III waxed strong. Then the people began to see through this astute politician. The next ten years were years of one desperate gamble after another on the part of Louis Napoleon to regain his popularity and establish a firm Bonaparte dynasty. Unfortunately for him, they were also years when Prussia was on the rise, and Prince Otto von Bismarck had dreams of empire himself. In the last years of the decade the ambitions of both were at stake. The fight came in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and Louis Napoleon lost.
It was a humiliating day for France when the German troops occupied Paris and King Wilhelm of Prussia was declared German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles. The city had gone through a long siege and the people had frozen and starved by turns and sometimes both together. True to tradition, the Sisters of Charity had nursed and fed them and given them blankets to shut out the cold. The Houses of Reuilly and Enghien had done their share.
The Third French Republic, which had taken over after the fall of Louis Napoleon in September 1870, had a shaky hold at best on the reins of government. Divided inwardly, it was forced to fight an outward enemy in the vicious revolution which exploded on March 18, and which called itself the Commune of Paris. The men of the Commune were the dregs, not only of France, but of Italy, Germany, Russia, and America. Paris had become the rendezvous of all wickedness. While many historians hold that these men were not Communists, as we know the word today—pointing out that communes were the names given to the districts of Paris—there can be little doubt that Karl Marx, Pierre Proudhon, and other anarchists had tremendous influence over this mob. Carleton Hayes, the eminent historian, has testified that half the mob were direct descendants of the bourgeois Radicals of 1793, while the other was divided equally among the followers of Marx and the Anarchist disciples of Proudhon. M. Bourgoin, in an official finding of the Third French Republic commission, instituted after the uprising had been put down, stated: “It appears to me that three elements impeded the national defense from the very beginning and finally prepared the events of March 18. These three elements were the Masonic Lodges of Paris, the Socialists, known as Positivists, and the International.” It is also significant that Marx had been in France during the Revolution of 1830 and 1848, to study these uprisings at first hand. As a matter of fact, the revolutionists were popularly known as “Reds” (Les Rouges), from the red sash they wore as a badge, and it is stated in the Annales de la Congregation de la Mission for 1871 that Paris was “in the grip of a secret society known as the International.”
Whatever the differences of ideology among the parties that united in this violent and lawless Commune of 1871, there can be no doubt that the spirit of communism permeated the union. Catherine Laboure was thus the first saint in modern times to be caught up in a Communist rebellion.
The sympathies of the French people were not anti-Catholic in 1871 any more than they had been in 1848, but the ideologies of the group behind the Commune included hatred of religion. Before the terrible weeks were over, the churches of Paris would be desecrated, profanation of things sacred would be a commonplace, the clergy would be arrested by the dozen, and thirty priests, including the Archbishop would die.
This time the houses of Reuilly and Enghien were plunged into the maelstrom. That they emerged unscathed was due to the personal protection of the Mother of God, a protection she had promised forty years before.
On a day shortly after the outbreak of the Commune, the Sisters were at recreation in the community room. Sister Catherine, who sat in her accustomed place beside Sister Dufes, turned to the Superior and said:
“I had a dream last night.”
“What was it?” Sister Dufes asked.
“I dreamed that the Blessed Virgin came to the Community room, looking for you. You were not here. She then went to your cell, but you were not there either. She seated herself in your chair, and said to me: ‘Tell Sister Dufes that she will have to leave, but that I will guard her house. She will go to the Midi with Sister Claire, and she will return on May 31.'”
The effect of this news was something less than sensational: no one paid any attention to it, least of all Sister Dufes, and, having accorded Sister Catherine the hearing that common politeness demanded, everyone returned to her own conversation.
Meeting Sister Dufes by chance the next day, Catherine ventured to say to her:
“Do not pay too much attention to what I told you yesterday, Sister. It was a dream.”
“Don’t worry, Sister Catherine,” the Superior replied, airily, “I never gave it a second thought.”
Scarcely two weeks later, on Good Friday, April 7, the Sisters of Reuilly and Enghien came to grips with the Commune. Two gendarmes, loyal to the government and cut off from their companions, thought to hide out in a detachment of national guardsmen who had espoused the cause of the Revolution and had set up a medical supply station in the rue de Reuilly, not far from the Sisters’ house. An informer, learning their identity, went to headquarters to denounce them. The frightened men fled to the Sisters for protection. Hot on their trail, a detachment of Communists demanded entrance to the orphanage, and even laid violent hands on Sister Dufes when she blocked their path. There had not been time to hid the gendarmes, so they were easily taken.
The forceful character of Sister Dufes now showed itself in an admirable courage. Knowing that the poor gendarmes would be summarily shot, she followed their captors to the medical station and pleaded for their lives, pointing out that they had done nothing against the interests of the people, but had only cared for the sick and wounded. Her defense was telling, for the Communist chief released the men in her custody, after she had promised to be responsible for them.
Two days later, on Easter Sunday, repenting of their good deed, the Communists were back at Reuilly, an aroused mob at their heels, demanding the return of the prisoners. Sister Dufes refused to hand them over, and a violent scene ensued. In the midst of the shouting and recriminations, one of the Sisters of the house recognized in the crowd a man of the neighborhood whom she had fed, together with his family, during the months when the Germans had besieged the city. The tongue-lashing she gave the man for his ingratitude did nothing to soothe the heated tempers of the Communists. They finally forced their way into the house and made a thorough search for the men. This time, however, the delaying tactics of the Sisters had given the gendarmes time to hide. One of them had taken refuge among Catherine’s old men and climbed into a bed in the dormitory. By a stroke of miraculous luck, the searchers passed him by with scarcely a glance. Father Chinchon, successor to Father Aladel as confessor to the house, had returned to the Motherhouse not long before the Communists arrived, but his companion, a subdeacon, had been left behind. With true feminine ingenuity, the Sisters had provided him with an old pair of trousers and a blouse, and a cap to cover his tonsure; a large loaf of bread which they thrust under his arm was the crowning touch, and thus disguised as a workingman come to the Sisters for food for his family, the young cleric passed through the mob.
Thoroughly enraged at not finding their quarry, the Communists turned on the Sisters, and their chief ordered Sister Dufes seized as a hostage. Immediately the forty Sisters of the house, Catherine among them, surrounded their Superior.
“We shall go with her,” they said. The chief had not been prepared for this; it was one thing to take a lone Sister into custody; to take forty of them was quite another matter. Throwing up his hands in exasperation, he cried:
“What shall I do with these frightened swallows!” referring to their huge headdresses, which fluttered and bobbed in the gleam of the torches. If they were frightened—and they would scarcely have been human if they were not—their words and actions did not show it. In an attempt to recover his prestige as he led his band of cut-throats away, the Communist chief called back:
“You will hear more of me tomorrow.”
The encounter had lasted several hours, and it was now ten o’clock at night. Fearing the Communists might return the next day to carry out their threat against the Superior, the Sisters prevailed on Sister Dufes to leave for Versailles the next morning at 11 o’clock. She took Sister Tanguy with her. Throughout the next week, Sister Dufes worried over the welfare of the Sisters left behind. At length she sent Sister Tanguy back to Paris, requesting that Sister Claire be sent in her stead. When Sister Claire arrived she and the Sister Superior went into temporary exile in the Midi, exactly as Catherine had said she would in her account of the dream of Our Lady. The strangest thing about these troubled days was that no one remembered Catherine’s prophecy.
The days of harassment were not over for the Sisters of Reuilly and Enghien. Two women arrived one day, dispatched by the Communists to “replace the Sisters.” The revolutionaries were evidently having their little joke: how could two women replace forty? After a carefully polite argument, the women left and were not seen again. It was a bit of comic relief, but the poor Sisters were not in the mood for jokes.
On the evening of April 23, Father Mailly, from the Vincentian Motherhouse, went to see how the Sisters were faring. He discovered that Catherine and her companions in the Hospice d’Enghien had been separated from the Sisters of Reuilly and had not had Mass or Communion for two weeks. He heard their confessions and promised to return and say Mass for them the next morning. The deprivation of these essentials of Catholic life must have been a sore trial to the Sisters and have caused a special anguish in the soul of one so holy as Catherine. Father Mailly came back the next morning, disguised as an itinerant painter, with his cassock concealed in a package under his arm, and the Sisters possessed their Blessed Lord once more. He had barely left when a band of Communists arrived “to search the house,” an annoyance they had inflicted upon the Sisters with regularity since the departure of Sister Dufes. On these occasions, it was Catherine who had to meet and expostulate with the revolutionaries. In the absence of the Superior, the responsibility of the house was hers. On one occasion she was actually taken into custody and subjected to an interrogation at Communist headquarters. She answered firmly and calmly. Throughout all these trying days, in fact, she never departed in the least from her customary calm, and the Sisters clung to her as their tower of strength. Though all others had forgotten, she knew that Our Lady was guarding the house, so that nothing could happen to any of them. Catherine even pursued her apostolate of the Medal among the Communists, and many of them, seeing the Medals she had given their companions, asked for medals themselves.
When the Communists came on April 24, the Sisters were engaged in dispensing food and clothing which the people of England had sent for the relief of the poor. More than two hundred women were queued up in the street outside the house. The Communists decided to commandeer the supplies for their own uses.
“You must tell the women what you are doing, sir,” warned the Sisters, “for they will tear out our eyes if they are forced to go home empty-handed.”
The words were hardly spoken when the women, sensing what was taking place, advanced on the Communists in a menacing mob, shouting curses and threats. The chief hurriedly summoned the national guard billeted nearby, but the guardsmen lived in the neighborhood and were unwilling to antagonize their friends and acquaintances. Admitting defeat, the Communists returned the supplies, and watched in amazement as the Sisters quickly restored order and went on with their work of mercy.
Not many days after, the Communists returned, this time to stay. They occupied the first floor of the house and ordered the Sisters upstairs. Before complying, the Sisters hurriedly removed the ciborium from the Tabernacle and took it with them. Several days and nights of horror followed. The nerves of the Sisters grew taut with fear as the hours slowly went by. Downstairs they could hear the Communists stomping about in their hobnailed boots, barking orders, quarreling with one another, laughing uproariously. From outside came the ceaseless boom of cannon and rattle of gunfire, now near, now farther away, as the struggle for control of the capital surged back and forth. The nights were worst of all, for the men took to drinking, and their voices became louder and rougher, and all sorts of obscene language and filthy humor assailed the ears of the poor Sisters. Catherine’s serene courage never wavered and she spent the long hours calming the others, leading them in prayer, reminding them that God and Our Lady would protect them. The one great fear in the minds of all the Sisters was that, during their drinking bouts, the Communists would remember the women upstairs and break in to force themselves upon them. The night came when it seemed this fear would be realized. The revolutionists had drunk more than usual and were particularly loud and raucous. At length there was a muffled shout, and a noisy scramble for the stairs leading to the room where the Sisters were huddled together. Hurriedly the good women distributed the Sacred Hosts among themselves and consumed them, so that the Blessed Sacrament, at least, would not be profaned. Then they turned to meet the rabble.
The leader hammered loudly on the door, demanding that it be opened. At the sight of the Sisters, standing calm and unflinching in their path, the Communists fell silent. The blue eyes that had looked on the Mother of God blazed at them, and their own drunken gaze faltered. With an oath, and an amazing about-face, the leader turned on his companions.
“These ladies are under my protection,” he cried. “I will throw myself across this doorway; to reach them you will have to kill me first! ” The heroics were not needed. The announcement was excuse enough for the shamefaced men to retreat, and they fell all over themselves getting down the stairs.
The Sisters were safe for the moment, but they well knew that they might not be so fortunate the next time. Therefore they resolved to quit the house. Next morning they took their leave, traveling in small groups so as not to attract undue attention. Sister Catherine and Sister Tanguy were the last to go. It is not clear what became of the children and the old men during the few weeks the Sisters were gone. Apparently the Communists had provided for them in some rude way before the Sisters were imprisoned in the house. Certainly the Sisters, and Catherine least of all, would not have abandoned them. The two Sisters, the old and the young—Catherine was sixty-five, Sister Tanguy thirty-four—gathered together a few belongings and started for the door. They were not to leave, however, without a final insult. The Communist sentry demanded that they open their parcels. Kicking Catherine’s few clothes about with his foot, the guard uncovered a little circlet of gilt metal. It was the crown from Our Lady’s statue in the chapel. In removing it, Catherine had promised the Mother of God that she would return to crown her before the Month of May was gone. Satisfied that the trinket was of no value, the guard ordered the Sisters to gather up their scattered effects and be off. Catherine’s control was magnificent. She might have felt justified in giving vent to her natural feelings in order to rebuke wickedness, but, although the gorge of anger must have risen fiercely in her, she held her tongue.
An omnibus took the refugees out of the city. On all sides they were insulted. Stones were hurled at the bus when roving bands of rebels caught sight of the white cornettes. Mothers even taught their children to call them coarse names.
It was dark when the weary travelers reached Saint-Denis, the burial place of the old Kings of France. The Superior of the Sisters’ house there, rather stuffily in a time of such crisis, held to the rule that only one traveling Sister could be received, and offered Sister Catherine hospitality, as the older. Catherine, with her large charity and common sense, would not forsake her companion, and the two of them went on further to Boulainvilliers, where Sister Mettavent took them in.
From Boulainvilliers Catherine wrote a long letter to Sister Dufes—the length of the letter was a feat in itself for Catherine, who wrote so laboriously—reminding her again that the Sisters would be back at Reuilly and Enghien by May 31.
At this moment, Father Chinchon, who had gone to Dax to prepare the Vincentian seminarians for a return to Paris once hostilities ceased, was reading a prophecy to the young men, made by a Sister of Charity forty years before. According to this prophecy, he told them, the church’s troubles were not over yet: “Monseigneur Darboy, the Archbishop of Paris, will die a violent death.”
Back in Paris, the entire prophecy was coming to a final, flaring fulfillment. On Ascension Thursday, May 18, a mob broke into the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, so intimately connected with the Miraculous Medal, and perpetrated terrible sacrileges. Even the graves were pried open. The remains of the saintly Father Desgenette were scattered over the pavement, and his head paraded around on a pike. When Catherine heard this sickening news, her brow darkened and her lips tightened in the familiar way:
“They have touched Our Lady,” she said. “They will go no farther.” Did Catherine mean by these words, an oblique reference to the preservation of the Motherhouses of the Vincentian Fathers and the Sisters of Charity, which were not far from Notre-Dame-des-Victoires? Twelve years before, St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure of Ars, predicting the horrors of the Commune had said to a Vincentian lay brother: “They will wish to destroy both your houses, but they will not have the time.
On May 21, the Republican troops, under the command of Marshal MacMahon, broke through and penetrated into the city. The days of the Commune were numbered. The Communists did not give up easily, however. In bitter retaliation for the break-through, they executed the hostages held in the prison of La Rouquette: two secular priests, two Jesuits, one layman, and Monseigneur Darboy himself. The martyred Archbishop has been accused of being too subservient to the wishes of Louis Napoleon, and it must be admitted that there are grounds for the accusation. Whatever went before, in these days of stress he showed himself a hero. Refusing to flee when his people were in agony, he suffered a cruel imprisonment, during which every indignity was heaped upon his person, and he met his death with a calm and holy courage.
With the death of Monseigneur Darboy and those of the other seventy hostages: secular priests, religious priests, and laymen—all killed between May 24-26—the depths of Our Lady’s prophecy were plumbed. These deaths marked also the end of the Commune. When passions had died down, the Third French Republic was proclaimed and Marshal MacMahon elected its first President.
Sister Dufes began the journey home, stopping on the way to collect Sister Catherine and Sister Tanguy. They arrived in Paris on May 30, and after Sister Mauche, who was to become Mother General of the Community in 1910, had pronounced her vows at Mass on the morning of May 31, Sister Catherine carried out the little crowning ceremony she had promised the Mother of God.
“I told you, my good Mother, that I should return to crown you on the thirty-first of May,” she said, with great satisfaction and love.
Another of Catherine’s prophecies had been fulfilled, without attracting particular notice. How many others have shared the same fate? In 1856, for instance, she wrote to Father Aladel that a month would be set aside to honor St. Joseph. This was done by Pius IX in 1864. At the end of one of her accounts, Catherine made an especially fascinating prophecy: “Oh, how wonderful it will be to hear, ‘Mary is Queen of the Universe….’ It will be a time of peace, joy and good fortune that will last long; she will be carried as a banner and she will make a tour of the world.” Are these words being fulfilled in our day? Do they refer to the universal acceptance of the Miraculous Medal? to the constant references of Pius XII to Mary as, “Queen of the World”? to the recent tour of the Pilgrim Virgin? to the “battle” standard of the Legion of Mary which carries the Miraculous Medal? If so, our age shall see “the time of peace, joy and good fortune that will last long.” It is a reassuring thought.