XVII. Death and Glory
With the end of the Commune, a peace descended upon France. For the time, at least, the nation seemed to want to forget the past. Under the personal religious impetus of Marshall MacMahon, national pilgrimages set out for the sacred shrines of the land: Chartres, Paray-le-monial, and Lourdes. and work on Sacre Coeur, the basilica of reparation, high above Paris on the hill of Montmartre, was begun. Catherine had predicted a resurgence of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: this was a tangible beginning. The Miraculous Medal was as familiar in the daily life of the people as the commonest household utensil. Literally hundreds of millions of Medals had been stamped and diffused in the forty years since our Lady had given it. An English bishop had written in 1855
Except for the Holy Cross, no other Christian symbol was ever so widely multiplied, or was ever the instrument of so many marvelous results….
These years of external peace were the sunset years for Catherine Laboure. Life at Enghien went back smoothly and quickly to its accustomed round, and it was as if there had been no wars or revolutions. Religious houses are run by an ancient rule, and the greatest cataclysms are mere interruptions of its flow. Catherine’s soul had a new peace within it, for the terrible events foretold by the Mother of God were over and done with. She could not but have felt relieved at the knowledge, for anticipation of the worst, anticipation based as hers was on certainty, must have been a cross, which she had borne silently for forty years. Back in 1830, Father Aladel had asked her:
“Will you and I be alive when these terrible things come to pass?” And she had answered in a phrase of simplicity reminiscent of Jeanne d’Arc before the judges:
“If we are not, others will be.”
On the surface, it would seem there was nothing more for Catherine to do but to die. There were many things to do. There were many more nights and days of caring for her old men, of answering the door, of feeding the chickens and the cows; many more Masses to be heard and prayers to be said; unlike other saints, Catherine seems not to have yearned for death. It is one of the appealing things about her, because it is something she shares with the common run of men: no one is in a hurry to die. She looked forward to death with a happy equanimity when she knew it was on the way, but she never strained at the bonds of flesh. Such a straining was not in harmony with her practical common sense and peasant patience. She would wait calmly until God was ready.
Old age was telling on her. The arthritis of the knees she had contracted, kneeling on the cold flags of the chapel in Fain, was becoming more general. She hobbled about with greater difficulty than before, and the tall, strong figure had grown bent. She refused to take notice, however. Every morning she walked the long path between Enghien and Reuilly, and invariably was the first in chapel for morning prayers. Even snow did not deter her; she floundered through it somehow, before anyone appeared to shovel a path. She worked as hard as the youngest Sister in the house, and asked no quarter. If there was a floor to be scrubbed, Catherine went down on her poor old swollen knees and scrubbed it, despite the pleas of other Sisters to let them do it for her. In chapel, she still knelt without any support, as she had always done. During her last retreat at the Motherhouse, only a few months before her death, she was offered a cushion to relieve the pain of kneeling for many hours throughout eight long days, but she refused it.
These last years are an excellent source for the student of her sanctity. Her secret lay in the fact that she did what she was supposed to do, as well as she could, and for God. It was as simple as that. There can be no doubt that she did not do a particular work as well at sixty-eight as she had done it at twenty-eight. She did it as well as she could—that was the point—and it was just as pleasing to God, for her heart and soul were in it, and He was both. God is the only master Who rewards effort rather than result.
Actually, her Superiors could see that she was unable to do what she formerly did, and little by little they relieved her. At first, it was in the form of extra assistants to help her care for the old men: Catherine had grown older and more crippled than some of her patients. Then they would take her away from the work for longer and longer periods, and put her to minding the door. In the portress’s lodge she had not so much moving about to do, and could sit at her sewing. She was a famous seamstress in the house, and could mend so finely and invisibly that everyone brought work to her. There was always a fresh pile to start on. In her last year, she was confined to the portress’s lodge exclusively.
The help given Catherine made for new problems in her life. Catherine was never lucky in her assistants. A lay helper was given her at this time who proved a sore trial indeed. She was actually a cast-off, for one Sister has stated quite frankly that “they could not employ her any place else, so they gave her to Sister Catherine.” This poor creature was mentally deranged, and of a personality so fearsome that the Sisters nicknamed her La Noire, “The Black One.” She was very cruel and ugly to Catherine, but the saint bore it all with patience. Things got so bad at times that the Sisters would threaten to go to Sister Dufes and have the woman removed from the house; but Catherine would not allow it. She knew that the poor woman could not support herself elsewhere, and so continued to suffer her.
Abuse from such a person was bad enough, but Catherine had also a tormentor among her own Sisters. The other Sisters found this one “entirely insupportable.” She had a nasty disposition and took fiendish delight in venting it upon Catherine. She made jokes at Catherine’s expense, and treated the saint as if she were stupid. Catherine seemed not to notice. Never did she answer back, although she would have had the support of the whole house. Sister Maurel has said, indeed, that Catherine “was humble enough to believe that she was truly stupid.”
By 1874, Catherine’s health had greatly deteriorated. They began to bleed her in both arms from time to time because she complained that she was smothering. Catherine seems to have had an asthmatic condition, and her heart was involved. Blood-letting was an old-fashioned remedy, much in vogue then. The Mother General decided, at this juncture, to relieve Catherine from her charge as custodian of the house of Enghien and of the old men. Sister Tanguy, who was thirty-seven at the time, was appointed Assistant-Superior of both Reuilly and Enghien and given special charge of Enghien. Catherine had been Assistant-Superior, in fact, for thirty-eight years, but she had never held the title.
It was a hard blow to Catherine. Not that she failed to realize that her powers were on the wane. No one, however, especially one of Catherine’s temperament, likes to give up; and the old have a particular aversion to being supplanted by the young. The blow was all the harder to Catherine, because Sister Tanguy was to be her successor. She had lived with Sister Tanguy for eleven years, and she did not particularly like her. Sister Tanguy was one of those women with an efficient mind and a sharp tongue. It is true that she did Catherine a great service in her copious and eulogistic testimony at the Beatification Inquiry, but she owed it to the saint for her treatment of Catherine when she was alive. Sister Levacher has stated in a blunt and detached manner:
“She [Catherine] had a great love for her Superiors. She loved perhaps less than the others our Sister Assistant, who was rather harsh of character, but she loved her sufficiently that you could say she practiced charity towards her.”
This is damning Sister Tanguy with faint praise indeed! It also shows that Catherine’s lack of warmth toward the Sister Assistant was apparent to the others. Nonetheless, Catherine did not let her human dislike get in the way of charity; we have the word of Sister Tanguy herself for it:
“There is a custom in our Community that, at night after the doors are locked, the keys are brought to the bedside of the Superior. At Enghien, they were left with Sister Catherine, who was the oldest in the house, for it was impossible to carry them across to Reuilly, where Sister Dufes slept.
“When I arrived to take over the house of Enghien, I overheard a conversation. Some Sisters were counseling Sister Catherine to hold on to the keys. Sister Catherine replied that they should be handed over to her who represented the Superior, and that she would hand them over.”
There is something humorous, and at the same time moving, in this very human scene of Catherine poised between the new Superior and the resentful Sisters. Of course, the Sisters were actually fomenting mutiny, and Catherine would have none of that. It is heartwarming, however, to know that Catherine was so close to her companions that they could even make the suggestion, knowing it would go no further. It is to be hoped, for their sakes, that Sister Tanguy did not know for sure the identity of the rebellious Sisters.
Catherine’s reaction to the new order of things, moreover, was not mere passive submission. She showed an active good will toward her successor. Even after the change had been effected, Sister Dufes kept Catherine in her accustomed place beside her at table; there was no point in pushing the tired old lady completely aside. Catherine, however, had too much self-respect and virtue to accept a place that was not rightfully hers. Casually, she asked the Sister who had charge of the dining room:
“Would you change my napkin, and give my place to Sister Assistant? It tires me to cross over to that side of the table.”
The distance involved was so negligible as to leave no doubt about Catherine’s motive, and the Sister was touched by the saint’s spirit of deference and humility.
Sister Dufes, who liked things cut and dried, was determined to have a statement from Catherine’s own lips, and so asked her bluntly whether she was upset at Sister Tanguy’s appointment.
“Have no fear,” Catherine answered, just as bluntly. “Our Superiors have spoken, and that should be sufficient for us to receive Sister Tanguy as an angel from heaven.”
Catherine spent most of her days in the portress’s lodge now, praying, sewing, chatting with the young Sisters who stopped to visit with her, never failing to give them some word of spiritual advice.
One day, Abbe Omer, who had charge of a chapel of convenience in the neighborhood called St. Ratagunde, knocked at the door of the lodge. In greeting the priest, Catherine addressed him as “M. le Cure” or pastor.
“You are mistaken, Sister,” he said, smiling. “Of what church am I pastor?”
“Of the Church of the Immaculate Conception.”
“No, no. I am chaplain of St. Ratagunde.”
“True,” the old lady’s eyes twinkled, “but you will be pastor of the Immaculate Conception.”
The naming of the chapel of St. Ratagunde was a sore point with Catherine. When the chapel was built in 1873, she greatly desired that it be dedicated to Our Lady conceived without sin. When it was not, she confided her disappointment to Sister Cosnard, but added:
“All the same, they will call it after the Immaculate Conception in the end.”
In 1877, after Catherine’s death, Cardinal Guilbert established the chapel as a parish church, gave it the title of the Immaculate Conception, and appointed Father Omer as its first pastor.
On another day, Catherine was besieged in her portress’s lodge by two clerics who came from Cardinal Richard, the Coadjutor of Paris, to determine once and for all whether she was the Sister of the Apparitions. Politely but firmly, she brushed them aside.
“I do not know what you are talking about, Messieurs,” she said. “It is the Sister Superior you want.” And she left them standing in the middle of the parlor completely baffled.
According to Father Chevalier, her last confessor, Catherine underwent an interrogation concerning the visions by the major Superiors of the Community in 1874, after Father Bore had succeeded Father Etienne as Superior General. The results were wholly unsatisfactory, for Catherine could remember nothing. It was but one more example of the supernatural loss of memory by which Heaven protected her secret. Lest there be any suspicion that it was otherwise—the natural forgetfulness of old age, for example—it must be stated emphatically and Glory that, in Catherine’s last years, there is no evidence whatever of senility. Quite the contrary. Her speech and mode of action were as sensible and clear-headed in her last days.
This was especially apparent in the way she handled the crisis precipitated in the last year of her life, like a surprise ending to a play. It concerned the making of the statue of “Our Lady of the Globe.” Forty-five years had passed, and the statue had not been made, despite Catherine’s dunning notes to Father Aladel and her periodic reminders in the confessional. Father Aladel was ten years dead, and Father Chinchon had taken his place as Catherine’s director. She must have told him of the statue but, like Father Aladel, he had done nothing. There seems to be more of an excuse for Father Chinchon’s failure to act: he may have felt that Father Aladel had very good reasons for not acting, reasons that Father Chinchon himself could not know. In such a situation, so many years after the visions, a sensible man can be allowed a certain sense of caution. There can be no doubt, either, that Catherine herself had grown used to things as they were, even as an invalid grows used to pain, for it was a question of pain: Catherine said frankly that the failure to make the statue was “the torment of my life.” At any rate in May of 1876, Catherine was spurred to action with dramatic suddenness.
There were two things which prompted her to act. The first was the unexpected transfer of Father Chinchon to other duties: after ten years, Catherine found herself suddenly bereft of her confessor. The second was a supernatural conviction that she would die before the end of the year. In a flash, she saw time running out, and trembled when she thought of appearing before Our Lady, with the mission entrusted to her not completed.
The day of decision must have been for her a day of terrible anguish. Where should she turn? To whom could she go? If she had not been able to prod Father Aladel to action in thirty-five years or Father Chinchon in ten, how could she succeed with a new confessor in a few months? In her anxiety, only one course was plain: Father Chinchon, no matter what his new duties, must continue as her confessor; and she must make him see that the statue had to be carved. There was only one person who could restore Father Chinchon to her, and that was the Superior General, Father Bore. She would go to him.
Of course it was a mad thing to do, and the plan was doomed to failure from the start. That Catherine, with her supreme common sense, should even attempt it, is sufficient index of how very upset she was. She was certainly not thinking straight. With all that, there is a heroism in the sight of this determined old lady, completely reckless of the consequences to herself, of the peril to her secret, marching right to the top, to the General himself, that brings a cheer to the lips.
Father Bore was a kindly man, and so he received her kindly. She was a faithful old servant of the poor who deserved his kindness. Besides, he remembered her as the Sister who, rumor said, had seen Our Blessed Lady. He had even questioned her himself, but had learned nothing. The interview might have gone smoothly enough, except for the fact that Catherine had not thought things out to the end; she had not seen that, in order for the statue to be made, drastic steps had to be taken. Someone besides Father Chinchon had to know her secret, someone who could do something about it—and who better than Father Bore himself? Due to age and her habitual guarding of the secret, however, Catherine had not seen that far, and so, in the presence of the Superior General, she failed completely. She was able only to falter out the request that Father Chinchon be restored to her as her confessor. She could say no more. No reason for the wild request. No hint of her true identity. Nothing.
Father Bore felt for her, but he could do nothing. He could not appoint a special confessor for one lone Sister. He saw she was upset. It was her age—the poor thing was in her dotage. What else could he think? Very gently, he refused her.
Catherine returned home in tears. Sister Dufes was shocked. She had never before seen Catherine in such a state. Naturally, some explanation was needed and, weeping all the while, Catherine told her Superior about her request and how Father Bore had turned it down. Sister Dufes was as much in the dark as ever; she knew only that Catherine was in great trouble and needed desperately to speak with Father Chinchon. Suddenly Catherine’s whole manner changed, as if she had hit upon a plan, and she spoke once more in her old decisive way.
“Since I have not much longer to live,” she told the astonished Superior, “I feel that the moment to speak out has come. But, as the Blessed Virgin told me to speak only to my confessor, I shall say nothing to you until I have asked Our Lady’s permission in prayer. If she tells me I may speak to you, I will do so; otherwise I will remain silent.”
The next morning, promptly at ten o’clock, Catherine most unusually sent for Sister Dufes to come to the parlor. Mary Immaculate had given Catherine leave to speak, to break the silence of forty-six years. The interview lasted for two hours, and so engrossed the Sisters that they remained standing the whole time without realizing the fact.
As Catherine recounted the whole story of her visions, minutely and with precision, Sister Dufes’s attitude toward her underwent a substantial change. It was Catherine’s moment of vindication in the eyes of her Superior, but she was too holy to relish the triumph. Poor Sister Dufes! The times when she had neglected, even worse, had reprimanded harshly this venerable confidante of Mary came crowding in to accuse her. At several points in the narrative she felt impelled to cast herself at Catherine’s feet, and only her basic good sense and strong will kept her from it. What amazed the Superior most of all, perhaps, was the ease with which Catherine spoke, she who was always so shy and spoke so little.
Then Catherine came to the point: The statue must be made, the statue depicting Our Lady in her first attitude, holding the golden ball in her hands and offering it to God. Sister Dufes was completely bewildered.
“But I have never heard tell of this detail,” she cried. “If you speak of such an attitude now, they will say you have grown foolish! ”
“It will not be the first time they have said that of me,” Catherine replied, “but until the moment I die, I shall insist that the Blessed Virgin appeared to me, holding a ball in her
“What became of the ball?” Sister Dufes asked.
“Oh, I do not know; I only know that suddenly I saw rays falling upon the globe on which Our Lady stood, and especially upon a spot where France was written.”
“How about the Medal? Is it necessary to change the design? ”
“Do not touch the Medal,” Catherine replied. “It is only necessary to erect an altar on the spot of the Apparition, as the Blessed Virgin asked, and to place above it her statue, with a ball in her hands.”
Sister Dufes was still doubtful. “They are not going to believe you,” she persisted. “Is there anyone who can confirm your story? ”
“Yes,” Catherine said, considering, “yes, there is someone: Sister Grand, who was secretary in the Motherhouse at the time, and who took notes of the Apparitions from Father Aladel’s dictation.”
Sister Dufes wrote at once to Sister Grand, and Sister Grand replied that all Catherine had said was true; she even included some rough sketches of the proposed statue which had been drawn at the time.
Whatever might be said of her, Sister Dufes was efficient. Within a few days, she had called in a sculptor named Froc Robert and work on the statue was begun. On at least one occasion she took Catherine with her to the sculptor’s studio, to inspect the progress of the work. Catherine had several criticisms to make. The artist’s curiosity was aroused, and he asked Sister Dufes in a low voice whether this was the Sister of the Apparitions, but he received no reply. Shortly before her death, Catherine saw the finished plaster model from which the statue would be carved. Her disappointment was keen.
“Ah,” she exclaimed, making a face, “the Blessed Virgin was much more beautiful than that!”
Sister Dufes lost her temper. “You weary me, Sister Catherine,” she scolded in her old accustomed way. “How can you expect anyone on earth to depict what you saw? Catherine’s mission was fulfilled. Now she could die in peace. As the summer wore on, she began to speak openly of her death. “I will not see the New Year,” she would say. Everyone scoffed, of course. How could she know the moment of death? She did know, but would not argue the point; she would merely smile and say: “You will see.”
On August 15, her niece Marie brought the children to see her. As they were leaving, Catherine pressed a package into Marie’s hand.
“It is a first Communion present for the little one,” she explained.
“But she will not make her first Communion until May,” Marie protested in astonishment.
“Put it away until then,” Catherine said placidly. “I shall not be here in May.”
She began to take to her bed with more and more frequency. It became necessary to bleed her from time to time, so that she could breathe more easily, and to apply leeches in the kidney area. Both these treatments were used in former days to relieve high blood pressure, as well as the breathlessness that comes with hardening of the arteries and the consequent weakening of the heart. All of Catherine’s symptoms would seem to point to some cardio-vascular failure, a condition not uncommon at her age—she was past seventy—and to the complications induced by chronic asthma.
Catherine was still able to go out occasionally, usually to the Motherhouse to attend the monthly conference. On one of these visits, while the other Sisters were at dinner, Catherine led Sister Dufes into the chapel and pointed out the exact spot of the Apparitions, where the altar and statue were to go.
Once, as she climbed into the omnibus to return home—it was a feast day of Our Lady—Catherine slipped and fell. She said nothing, but a few minutes later one of the Sisters noticed that she held her hand wrapped in a handkerchief. She undertook to tease her about it.
“What treasure have you there, Sister Catherine?”
“It is a bouquet from Our Lady,” Catherine said, smiling. “She sends me one like it on every one of her feasts.” Upon examination, it was discovered that she had broken her wrist.
Father Chevalier had succeeded Father Chinchon as confessor at Enghien, and now he asked Catherine to write out, once more, a full account of the visions. It is amazing how well this last account agrees, even to the use of the same words and phrases, with the earlier accounts of 1841 and 1856. She had told the story many times over: Father Chinchon related that every year, as the twenty-seventh of November drew near, she felt urged to tell again the details of the vision.
Two weeks before Christmas, Catherine became so ill that she retired to her room, never to leave it again. She was not confined to bed exclusively; she found it easier to breathe if she sat in a chair from time to time. It was the beginning of the end, but her sufferings were not to be wholly physical. A certain Sister was assigned to nurse her who had neither the aptitude nor the willingness for the task. She was so slipshod, even rough, in her treatment of Catherine, that several of the Sisters were outraged and spoke their minds to the saint. Catherine refused, as always, to make the least unkind comment.
“She is not a worker,” was all she would say; and there is a wry humor in the remark.
Catherine was not to leave the earth without one more encounter with the redoubtable Sister Tanguy. The Assistant entered the sickroom one afternoon while another Sister was visiting Catherine. With scarcely a word of greeting, she asked brusquely:
“Have you taken your medicine?”
Catherine replied in the affirmative, but Sister Tanguy was not satisfied. Lifting the bottle to the light, she said sharply:
“You’ve done nothing of the kind. There isn’t a bit more missing since the last time!” And she proceeded to administer a veritable tongue-lashing to Catherine, in the presence of the visitor. Her conduct was all the more inexcusable since she knew that Catherine was the Sister of the visions. Sister Dufes had told her, with Catherine’s permission. Throughout the scolding, Catherine remained silent. When, finally, Sister Tanguy finished and left the room, the saint could hold her tongue no longer. Turning to her visitor she said, again with that characteristic dryness:
“That one hasn’t been to see me all day, and see the way she is when she does come! ”
Every day, Catherine grew weaker. She continued to remind the Sisters that she would die before the year was out, but there were so few days left in the month that the Sisters could still not believe that she would die so soon.
One of them ventured to ask her whether she was afraid to die. Catherine answered, with genuine astonishment:
“Why should I be afraid? I am going to see Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin and St. Vincent.”
Another Sister asked Catherine to beg Our Lady and St. Vincent, when she saw them, to intercede with God in behalf of certain special intentions of the Sister’s. Catherine’s reply revealed an unexpected naivete and childlike humility.
“I should be glad to do what you ask, but I am not sure that I shall be able to speak the language of Heaven.”
When the Sister laughingly assured the old lady that she would have no difficulty in doing so, Catherine promised to look after the matter.
On December 21, Sister Thomas stopped by to see her. The saint repeated the prediction of her death and added:
“They will not need a hearse for me.” Sister Thomas was either a very guileless person, or something of a ghoul, for she gaped at the saint and asked in amazement:
“How, then, will they carry so large a body? ”
“I am going to stay with you at Reuilly,” Catherine replied
“Furthermore, there will be no need of ribbons for my coffin.” (She referred to the ornamental cords which, by custom, hung from the pall and were carried by the pall bearers.) There can be little doubt that Catherine had her reasons for giving Sister Thomas this particular bit of information. At Catherine’s funeral, Sister Thomas was actually designated to hold one of the ornamental ribbons. She went to take hold of it, thinking to herself that this was one prophecy of Catherine’s that would not come true, when one of the bearers pushed her back, saying with some roughness:
“Get back, Sister, you are in our way.” She had no other choice but to obey, and so, even in death, Catherine won her point.
A few days later, an incident took place which brought trouble many years later. The nurse asked Catherine what she would like for breakfast.
“Anything will do,” was the reply. Indeed, her stomach was so upset in the mornings that she could scarcely bear to take anything but a little bouillon.
“It would be easier for me if you would mention something in particular.”
“Very well, then, a soft-boiled egg.”
From this very innocent conversation a rumor arose through some pious busybody, perhaps the reluctant nurse herself, that Catherine had shown a lack of mortification in asking for special food on her deathbed. The rumor persisted for nearly fifty years, and even found its way into the formal Inquiry of her sanctity, where the “Devil’s Advocate” alleged it as a sign that her holiness was not always so heroic as it seemed.
The last day of the year came, December 31, 1876, and Catherine was no worse than usual. In the afternoon, in fact, she rallied sufficiently to sit on the side of the bed and chat with her niece Marie. Reaching for her old worn purse, she gave Marie the last of her original Miraculous Medals. When it was time to go Marie bent to kiss her and said that she would come to wish her a Happy New Year in the morning.
“You shall see me,” Catherine answered, “but I shall not see you, for I shall not be here.”
Shortly after six o’clock, she took a sudden weak spell. The Sisters were hurriedly summoned and the prayers for the dying begun. She sank so rapidly that there was no time to carry out one of her dearest wishes. She had wanted each of the little orphans of the house to recite an invocation from the Litany of Our Lady as she entered her last agony. At seven o’clock, with no struggle, with scarcely a sigh, Catherine Laboure died.
Her death brought no sadness to the house. Death is never sad in religious houses, but the death of Sister Catherine seemed to leave with her Sisters a spirit of positive joy. As they filed into the refectory for supper, Sister Dufes rose to speak to them:
“Now that Sister Catherine is dead,” she began, “there is no more cause for silence.” And she went on to read to them Catherine’s own accounts of her visions. The Sisters listened with wonder and a growing excitement, for, in spite of the guesses and suspicions of years, no one had known for sure that Sister Catherine was the Sister of the Medal. The excitement spread to the outside, as the news ran quickly through the city. Crowds began to converge on Reuilly the next morning, and clergy, religious, and laity alike, took their places in the line stretching along the sidewalk, patiently awaiting the privilege of passing by the coffin of a saint.
At the time of Catherine’s death, her old friend, Sister Sejole, had been in a coma for three weeks. It was shouted into her ear that Catherine had died, and, rousing from her stupor, she cried:
“Then I must get ready!” It was as if the two had made a pact.
A saint’s story does not end with death. This was the beginning for Catherine, the start of her glory. She who had lived so hidden a life belonged now to the whole world. The change had been marked the night before when, after they had washed the body, the Sisters brought in a photographer to take a picture of her as she lay in state. Someone with a rather peculiar imagination suggested that they photograph her also, dressed in the novice’s habit she had worn when she saw Our Lady, and this, too, was done. There was something incongruous in the sight of the peaceful old face, lying there, framed in the costume of youth.
The funeral was set for January 3, 1877, at 10 o’clock. Sister Dufes was in a ferment. She wanted desperately to keep Catherine at Reuilly, but there was no place to bury her. On the morning of January z, as the Superior rose for morning meditation at four o’clock, she distinctly heard a voice, which said:
“There is a vault beneath the chapel.”
Sister Dufes had forgotten entirely about this vault. It was actually a storeroom, cut out of the earth, and had been boarded up for years. Hurriedly, it was opened and found to be suitable for a grave. The permission of the Superior General to bury Catherine here was easily gotten; permission of the civil authorities might be more difficult to obtain. Sister Dufes took no chances. She went directly to the top, to the wife of the President, Mme MacMahon. This great lady made the necessary arrangements promptly, and with no difficulty.
On the morning of the funeral, a large number of the clergy came to follow Catherine’s body to the grave. Hardly had the funeral procession got under way when it was transformed into a march of joy and triumph. The funeral chants became songs of rejoicing. The requiem, the sad appeal for mercy, was forgotten. Impelled by the Spirit of God, the voices of the faithful trumpeted the Magnificat of Our Lady. “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” Then, “Ave Maris Stella”—”Hail, Star of the Sea!” And finally, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!” All sadness, all sorrow was gone like the mist of the morning. Amid shouts of gladness and acclaim, the humble Sister was laid to rest.
A few days later, the first cure took place. A child of ten, deprived from birth of the use of his limbs, was brought to Catherine’s tomb. In a scene strongly mindful of Christ’s healing of the paralytic at Capharnaum, the little boy was let down by ropes to the tomb in the chapel basement. Hardly had the child touched the stone when he stood erect and firm upon his feet. He was suddenly and wholly cured.
It was a distinct sign of God’s intention to glorify His servant. And yet, the work of God is not done hastily. In His own good time, He would reveal His further plans. And so, for the time, no thought was given to the introduction of Sister Catherine’s Cause of Beatification.
In 1895, it was decided to petition Rome for a feast day in honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. To this end, the documents recounting the Apparitions were sent to Cardinal Masella, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. The story impressed His Eminence deeply, especially the story of the little novice and the humble part she played as the bearer of Our Lady’s message to mankind. Filled with admiration for her virtue, he called upon Father Fiat, Superior General, and Mother Lamartinie, Superioress of the Sisters of Charity, to begin the process for Catherine’s Beatification.
The Superiors hesitated. It was the spirit of their rule to shrink from glory. Catherine herself had hidden from it all her long life. Did God wish otherwise now? “If you do not undertake it,” the Cardinal insisted, “I shall do it myself!” There was no longer any doubt or holding back. God had spoken in His official. In 1895 the Cause of the Servant of God, Sister Catherine Laboure, was introduced at Rome.
Rome does not hasten. Time counts for little with her, because her gaze is fixed upon eternity. In its bright, unending light she ponders all her problems. Catherine was with God just fifty years when her Cause came up for serious discussion.
Those fifty years had not been idle years. Necessary and exhaustive research into her sheltered life had occupied them But now all things were ready. The members of the Sacred Congregation of Rites were talking excitedly about “this amazing French nun” as they filed into the study of Cardinal Vanutelli on April 2, 1927. Enthusiastically they voted further, intensive consideration of the Cause.
Then, for some reason known only to God, things came to a standstill. Was it perhaps to bring forward two mighty champions for Catherine? Cardinal Ehrle, former director of the Vatican Library, and Father Ojetti, ex-secretary of the Commission of Canon Law, had both been removed from active participation in the sessions of the Congregation of Rites through illness. Now, hearing that the Cause of Catherine was in difficulty, they asked to return to the Congregation, and did in truth return, to the astonishment of everyone, even of the Pope. “The Cause of Sister Catherine Laboure,” they said, “is the Cause of the Immaculate Conception.”
Cardinal Ehrle, more than eighty years old and unable to walk, was carried to the Vatican for the general Congregation, and read a convincing and vigorous defense of the humble Sister.
Father Ojetti, confined to his home by an advanced paralysis, wrote to the Congregation: “I can use only my right hand and my pen, and it is my will to make them serve to uphold the Cause of the Immaculate Conception!”
The action of Divine Providence appeared still more forcibly in the intervention of Father Quentin, the realtor of the Historical Section of the Congregation of Rites. He was somewhat anxious. Only three days before the second preparatory Congregation, held on March 17, 1931, his attention was suddenly drawn to the canonical inquiry made in 1836, by order of the Archbishop of Paris, Msgr. de Quelen—a document of the first importance and an inexhaustible source of information about Sister Catherine. He worked night and day, preparing the results of this great “find,” overcame all opposition, and obtained by unanimous vote the triumph of the Cause of the Immaculate Conception. The day following this session, the Holy Father, rather unusually, ordered the continuation of the process. The decree on the Virtues of Sister Catherine was soon ready, and the Pope, in a moving discourse, traced a finished portrait of the Holy Sister.
The Beatification of Catherine Laboure, held in St. Peter’s on May 28, 1933, ranked in magnificence with those of Jeanne d’Arc and Therese of Lisieux, ceremonies which left a lasting memory in Rome.
The Church now ordered the exhumation of the body of the saint. It had lain, sealed in the vault beneath the chapel at Reuilly, for fifty-seven years. The coffin was carried to the rue du Bac, and there opened in the presence of Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris, and a number of civil officials and doctors. As the lid was lifted, a gasp of astonishment ran through the group. Catherine lay there, as fresh and serene as the day she was buried. Her skin had not darkened in the least; the eyes which had looked on Our Lady were as intensely blue as ever, and—most remarkable of all—her arms and legs were as supple as if she were merely asleep.
Fourteen years later, on July 27, 1947, Catherine Laboure was formally declared a saint and raised to the full honors of the altar. At the close of the magnificent rites, Pope Pius XII spoke words which might well be engraved as the epitaph of Catherine Laboure, for they were, in effect, the story of her life.
Favored though she was with visions and celestial delights, she did not advertise herself to seek worldly fame, but took herself merely for the handmaid of God and preferred to remain unknown and to be reputed as nothing. And thus, desiring only the glory of God and of His Mother, she went meekly about the ordinary, and even the unpleasant, tasks that were assigned to her in the bosom of her Religious family.
She was always willing and ready to give diligent attention to the sick, ministering to their bodies and their souls; to wait upon the old and the infirm without sparing herself; to act as portress, receiving all with a serene and modest countenance; to cook; to mend torn and tattered clothing; to carry out, in a word, all the duties laid upon her, even the unattractive and onerous ones. And while she worked away, never idle but always busy and cheerful, her heart never lost sight of heavenly things: indeed she saw God uninterruptedly in all things and all things in God.
Impelled by the urging of love, she hurried eagerly before the tabernacle as often as she could, or before the sacred image of her holy Mother, to pour out the desires of her heart and to make an offering of the fragrance of her prayers. Accordingly, it was evident that while she dwelt in earthly exile, in mind and heart she lived in Heaven and sought, before everything else, to mount with rapid steps to the highest perfection, and to spend all her powers in reaching it. She loved the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary with a special warmth of piety; and she was ever on the watch to influence, by word and example, as many other persons as she could to love Them.
And thus when she came to the end of her mortal life, she did not face death with fear but with gladness. Confident in God and the most holy Virgin, she took time to distribute, with a weak and tremulous hand, the last of her Miraculous Medals to those standing by, and then, content and smiling, she hastened away to heaven.
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