Continuation of the Story of
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
Catherine Laboure was born on May 2, 1806 in the tiny village of Fain-les-moutiers, France, not far from Dijon. Her father, Pierre Laboure, owned the largest farm in the village and was an educated man, having studied for the priesthood in his youth. Her mother, Madeleine Louise Gontard, was a former school mis¬tress, whose family was well respected.
Catherine was the ninth of eleven children and during her adolescence her younger sister Marie Antoinette, or “Tonine”, was her close companion.While Tonine was the friend and confidante of her childhood and adolescence, Catherine's mother was the source of her sanctity and spiritual devotion, for Madame Laboure took pains to instill in her a special love of God and to lead her in the ways of holiness.
Sadly her beloved mother died when Catherine was only nine years old. In the midst of her terrible grief at her mother's passing, Catherine turned to Our Lady. Climbing up on a chair, she reached for a statue of the Blessed Virgin that stood high on a shelf in her mother's bed¬room, clasped it to her breast, and said aloud:"Now, dear Blessed Mother, you will be my mother."
The fact that Catherine meant what she said is very evident from the deepening of her spiritual life and ever increasing devotion to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. During the next two years, she and Tonine lived with a kindly aunt, Marguerite Jeanror, her father's sister, in the nearby village of Saint-Remy. Catherine was pleased to discover that Saint Remy had a resident priest, which is something that her hometown did not have, and for the first time in her life Catherine was given an organized course of instruction in Catholic doctrine and guidance in cultivating the spiritual virtues.
It was the only formal education she was ever to receive, a strange and mysterious thing, for she came of educated parents and her brothers and sisters all had more advanced schooling in varying degrees. And so it is hard not to see here design of heaven to keep Catherine ignorant, so that the divine origin of her visions might be the more apparent.
At Saint Remy, Catherine began to prepare for her first Communion and to withdraw more and more from the playful life of childhood into a solemnity beyond her years. "She had no interest in games," was the way Tonine put it; and again: "From the time of her first Communion, she became entirely mystic."
Eventually Catherine’s father asked her and Tonine to come home, and he turned over to Catherine the running of his household. It was a tremendous task because in addition to her father, there were three brothers and a sister still at home for Catherine to care for, and one of these, the youngest, was an invalid, who required constant nursing. Also, there were fourteen hired men, whose dinner must be carried to them in the fields. And in addition to the cooking and cleaning there was the laundry and sewing. All of this meant for very long days, going late to bed and early to rise for little Catherine, who was at this time only a young teenager.
Amidst all her housework she made time for her spiritual life. Each morning Catherine walked some six miles in the predawn darkness to Mass. Throughout the day she managed to slip away to the village chapel across the lane from her home; there her favorite devotion was to kneel in prayer before a old painting of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Her First Known Mystical Experience
At the age of eighteen Catherine had her first mystical experience. It was in the form of a dream, wherein she found herself assisting at the Mass of an old priest, who was a stranger to her. At the end of Mass he turned and beckoned to her, but she fled in fright. Then, in her dream, Catherine went to visit a sick neighbor, only to encounter the same venerable priest. As she turned to flee from him the second time, he called after her:
"You do well to visit the sick, my child. You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me. Remember that God has plans for you."
Catherine was not to know the meaning of this dream until four years later.
In the meantime she began to clear the way toward a religious vocation by training Tonine to take over the household. Catherine refused at least three proposals of marriage, only to meet with a flat "no" from her father when she asked his permission to enter religion. In fact he took steps to prevent her from becoming a nun by sending her to Paris to serve as a waitress in her brother's cafe, with the thought that the allurements of the city might distract her from her religious intentions. After a year of living in the city, Catherine was disappointed with this type of life, and with the help of her brothers and sisters she went to study at a “finishing” school conducted by a sister-in-law at Chatillon.
Her call to religious life
Unfortunately Catherine was forced to endure the ridicule of her schoolmates, for her ignorance and lack of education was truly apparent. In spite of private tutoring from her sister-in-law, Catherine learned very slowly, for she really had no interest in the world or its learning. This town of Chatillon, however, was to remain blessed in her memory, for in this ancient town she found her vocation, for it was in the visitor's parlor of the Hospital de Saint-Sauveur in Chatillon that Catherine recognized the old priest of her dream in a portrait of St. Vincent de Paul and knew then that God meant her to be a Sister of Charity [St Vincent de Paul was the founder of the Sisters of Charity.]
Although Catherine's calling was now crystal-clear, nevertheless, she had serious obstacles to overcome before she would be free to follow that calling. First, there was her father. By this time, Catherine was twenty-three years old and did not need her father's permission to enter religion, but obedience was the soul of her spiritual life, and she felt that her obedience would not be perfect, should she not have his blessing. Her sister-in-law, Jeanne Laboure, came to her assistance. Jeanne was a favorite with Catherine’s father and she knew how to bend him to her will.
Soon he gave in and sent Catherine the blessing she so desperately wanted, but, in doing so, he thrust one final arrow into her heart. He refused her the dowry customarily required of those entering the Convent. It was a foolish thing to do, for it only served to humiliate the daughter who had served him so well, and to reveal his own lack of charity. Once again here Catherine showed her virtue by never uttering a word of criticism or complaint--in fact, all her life she spoke of her father in the most glowing terms. Jeanne and her husband, Catherine's brother Hubert, supplied the dowry and the trousseau Catherine would need for her novitiate.
The Virgin Mary appears to Catherine for the first time
Soon the great apparitions of Our Lady began. Catherine has given us three complete accounts of them, written in her own hand at three distinct periods of her life. These accounts have such an indefinable charm, compounded of the accuracy of the eyewitness, the simplicity of the peasant, the eye for details of the woman, that it would be foolish not to let Catherine tell her marvelous story in her own words:
"On the eve of the feast of St. Vincent, good Mother Martha spoke to us of devotion to the saints, and to the Blessed Virgin in particular. It gave me so great a desire to see her that I went to bed with the thought that I would see my good Mother that very night-it was a desire I had long cherished.
"We had been given a piece of a surplice of St. Vincent's. I tore my piece in half, swallowed it, and fell asleep, confident that St. Vincent would obtain for me the grace of seeing the Blessed Virgin.
"At eleven-thirty, I heard someone calling my name: " 'Sister, Sister, Sister!'
"Wide awake, I looked in the direction of the voice. Drawing the bed-curtains, I saw a child clothed in white, some four or five years old, who said to me:
" 'Come to the chapel; get up quickly and come to the chapel: the Blessed Virgin is waiting for you there.'
"At once the thought struck me: Someone will hear me.
"The child answered:
" 'Do not be afraid. It is eleven-thirty; everyone is asleep. Come, I am waiting for you.'
"He followed me, or rather I followed him; he kept to my left, and was surrounded with rays of light. Wherever we went, the lights were lit, a fact which astonished me very much. But my surprise was greatest at the threshold of the chapel: the door opened of itself, the child scarcely having touched it with the tip of his finger. It was the height of everything, to see that all the torches and tapers were burning-it reminded me of midnight Mass. I did not see the Blessed Virgin. The child led me into the sanctuary, to the side of M. le Directeur's chair. There he remained the whole time.
"Since the time seemed long, I looked to see whether the watchers were passing by the tribunes. [Sisters who remained on duty at night.] Finally the hour came; the child announced it to me, saying:
" 'Here is the Blessed Virgin; here she is.'
"I heard a noise like the rustling of a silk dress, which came from the direction of the tribune near the picture of St. Joseph; a lady was seating herself in a chair on the altar steps at the Gospel side--just like St. Anne, only it was not the face of St. Anne.' [Catherine is referring here to a picture of St. Anne seated in a chair, which hung in the sanctuary; Our Lady's attitude reminded her of this picture]
"I doubted whether it was the Blessed Virgin. Again the child, who stood by, the whole time, said to me:
" 'This is the Blessed Virgin.'
"It would be impossible for me to describe what I felt at that moment, or what passed within me, for it seemed to me that I could not possibly look upon the Blessed Virgin.
"It was then that the child spoke, no longer as a child, but as a grown man, and in the strongest terms." [Catherine explained elsewhere that the child suddenly assumed a man's voice and sternly admonished her for doubting that it was really the Blessed Virgin.]
"Looking upon the Blessed Virgin, I flung myself toward her, and falling upon my knees on the altar steps, I rested my hands in her lap. There a moment passed, the sweetest of my life. I could not say what I felt. The Blessed Virgin told me how I must conduct myself with my director, and added several things that I must not tell. As to what I should do in time of trouble, she pointed with her left hand to the foot of the altar, and told me to come there and to open up my heart, assuring me that I would receive all the consolation I needed.
"I asked her the meaning of everything I had seen, and she deigned to explain it to me. I could not say how long I stayed with her. When she left, it was as if she faded away, becoming a shadow which moved toward the tribune, the way she had come.
I got up from the steps of the altar and saw that the child was where I had left him. He said:
" 'she is gone .. .'
"We went back the same way, always surrounded with light, the child still keeping to the left. I believe that this child was my guardian angel, who showed himself that he might take me to see the Blessed Virgin, for I had often prayed to him to obtain this favor for me. He was dressed in white, and shone with a mysterious light that was more resplendent than light itself; he appeared to be four or five years old.
Having returned to my bed, I heard two o'clock strike. I slept no more that night."
Catherine appended to this over-all account the actual words spoken by Our Lady during this interview. With her usual precision, she entitled it: July Conversation with the Most Blessed Virgin, from 11:30 in the evening of the 18th until 1:30 in the morning of the 19th, St. Vincent's de Paul’s feast day.
"My child, the good God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will have much to suffer, but you will rise above these sufferings by reflecting that what you do is for the glory of God. You will know what the good God wants. You will be tormented until you have told him who is charged with directing you. You will be contradicted but, do not fear, you will have grace. Tell with confidence all that passes within you; tell it with simplicity. Have confidence. Do not be afraid.
"You will see certain things; give an account of what you see and hear. You will be inspired in your prayers: give an account of what I tell you and of what you will understand in your prayers.
"The times are very evil. Sorrows will befall France; the throne will be overturned. The whole world will be plunged into every kind of misery. (In saying this, the Blessed Virgin appeared very distressed.) But come to the foot of the altar. There graces will be shed upon all, great and small, who ask for them. Especially will graces be shed upon those who ask for them.
"My child, I particularly love to shed graces upon your Community; I love it very much. It pains me that there are great abuses in regularity, that the rules are not observed, that there is much relaxation in the two Communities.' [The Vincentian Fathers form a Double Family with the Sisters of Charity; both have the same superior general. When Our Lady visited St. Catherine, the Communities of St. Vincent were passing through the painful days of reorganization that followed the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.]