Saint Catherine Laboure's Life

Saint Catherine Laboure (1806-1876) and the Miraculous Medal

In the early nineteenth century, through Mary's intervention, heaven showered France—whose religious life was reborn laboriously from the ashes—with grace that spread out to the whole world.

Orphaned at age 9, Catherine took refuge in Mary

Catherine Laboure, a peasant girl, was chosen from the depths of her convent of the Daughters of Charity, on the Rue du Bac, in Paris, to be the Mother of God's secret messenger. ...

One day, little 9 year-old Catherine, perched on a stool to reach the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Although she thought she was alone, one of the servants on the wealthy Laboure farm was watching, Catherine wrapped her arms around the statue and hugged it to her heart with love. Her mother had recently passed away and Catherine instinctively took refuge in Mary, the One of whom Christ himself said to Saint John on Golgotha: "Behold your mother."

In 1806, the year of Catherine's birth, the future Holy Cure d'Ars was twenty years old. The worst of the Great Revolution of 1789 was over. I say "great" Revolution, not in reference to its ideal that ultimately proved essentially petty bourgeois, but because of the humanly irreversible moral and religious consequences it caused to the country. ...

At 12 Catherine ran the largest farm in her village

When Marie Louise, Catherine's older sister, decided to join the Daughters of Charity, Catherine was only 12 years-old and her older brothers had almost all left the farm. So she brought her little sister along to witness, and rustling up all her courage, she said firmly to her father: "Between the two of us, we'll take over running the farm." This was no small responsibility! ... At the age of her First Communion, Catherine ran the largest farm in her village in Burgundy. She was also expected to ensure both the farm workers' meals, care for the animals and all other household tasks. Catherine already knew how to be organized and she proved to be a real leader.

Since her First Communion, she walked every morning to the 5 o'clock a.m. Mass in a nearby village. ... The Laboure family was the most cultivated in their town and Catherine's older brothers and sisters had all gone to school. But her father Pierre, since the death of his wife, no longer had enough time to take care of the little ones. So at eighteen, Catherine could neither read nor write. An aunt was moved by Catherine's illiteracy, especially since the girl was obviously intelligent, and invited her niece to her home near Paris, after winning the father's permission. Catherine began to receive an education in the boarding school run by her aunt. This stay was hard on the young peasant girl, who was older and simpler than the young "fancy" youths that surrounded her. The experience was nevertheless crucial for Catherine's future, because during those months she visited the monastery of the Daughters of Charity and she discovered the identity of the unknown priest she saw in a dream: Father Vincent de Paul.

At 24, Catherine finally entered the Daughters of Charity on the Rue du Bac

This sign gave her entire life a new direction ... but she was not yet 21. So she had to return to Burgundy and confront her father, who felt that he had already given a daughter to God, and one was enough. Despite her respect for her father's will, Catherine categorically rejected all the suitors that he tried to force upon her, hoping to marry her off at any price. The call of God, the Father of all fatherhood, strummed louder within her. She did not have the vocation to marry and she knew it. Furious, and in order to change his daughter's ideas, Mr. Laboure sent her to Paris to work as a waitress in the restaurant of one of his sons. The latter soon realized that his sister's natural gaiety of character had disappeared, and although her cooking was excellent, Catherine's morale was hardly holding up. So he helped her overcome various obstacles and on April 21, 1830, at 24 years of age, Catherine entered the Daughters of Charity in Paris on the Rue du Bac.

What did the new postulant look like? Physically, she was tall with wide hips. Her features had a virile strength about them. She was an imposing person, although her blue eyes and the sweetness that emanated from them revealed in contrast a fountain of maternal tenderness...

It was during the year and a half of her noviciate, between 1830 and 1831, that Sister Catherine received the revelation of her mission in a series of three apparitions of the Blessed Virgin... 

During her noviciate, at each consecration, Sister Catherine saw Christ present in the Sacred Host, without anyone around her ever suspecting a thing—except her confessor, who ordered her to "chase away those imaginative ideas." Catherine obeyed.

"This very night I will see the Blessed Virgin."

At least, Catherine tried to obey, but with difficulty, because soon, heaven opened again during the Vigil of the feast of Saint Vincent of Paul on July 18, 1830: "I was in bed thinking that that very night I would see my Good Mother. I had been hoping to see her for so long."

Was this new desire too pretentious of Sister Catherine? For the hard hearted perhaps, but not for the Mother of God, who came in person, on the exact same evening, to visit the one who believed in her maternal heart. Catherine was awakened by an angel, who led her to the chapel all illuminated for the occasion (probably by other angels), and there, in the middle of the night, for nearly an hour and a half, the Virgin Mary talked with Catherine, who knelt down before her, letting her hands rest on the Virgin's knees ...

"My child, God wants you to give you a mission," said Mary. "You'll be inspired in your prayers, so be attentive." ... "Come to the foot of the altar. Here, graces will be spread over all those who ask with confidence and fervor." ...

On November 27, 1830, the Virgin appeared a second time: she opened her arms and beautiful rays of light came out of her hands. "These rays symbolize the graces that Mary obtains for people," a voice said. To people who ask ... because, during the third and last apparition in December of that year, Mary explained why some of the rays from her fingers remain dull-looking.

"These are the graces that people forget to ask me for." ...

A month later, on January 30, 1831, Catherine took her vows and the habit of the Daughters of Charity. Only her confessor knew about her secret, because the Blessed Virgin asked Catherine to remain anonymous until her death. Mary also requested the striking of a medal representing the second vision and bearing these words: "O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you."

First made in 1882, the number of miracles (cures, healing and conversions) with these medals multiplied over the years. The Holy Curé of Ars himself placed his parish under the patronage of the Medal of Mary that soon was called the Miraculous Medal. A terrible epidemic of cholera broke out in Paris: the Daughters of Charity distributed thousands of medals in the streets. In Italy, the "Virgin of the Medal" converted Alphonse Ratisbonne. Throughout the entire world, millions of medals were distributed in less than ten years after the apparitions.

Indeed from the heart of the little chapel in Paris, and by the fervent desire of a young hidden nun, a flood of grace spread over the five continents. During that time, Catherine lived in the hospice of Reuilly near Paris. She served as a nurse, cook, farmhand, and visitor of the poor. Who would have ever thought of looking there to find the one whose prayer was in the process of obtaining the awakening of the faith and missionary zeal in France? Although Sister Catherine spent her life in absolute discretion-milking more than 100,000 quarts of milk with her own hands, hoeing gardens, washing and feeding thousands of patients-vocations rose by the hundreds at the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, as well as among the Vincentian missionaries. A revival was born.

"They sacked the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, but they won't go any further."

In March 1848, during the armed conflicts, Sister Catherine took over managing the hospice, since most of the sisters were forced to flee. She went all the way to the barricades to distribute the Medal of the Virgin. During searches and raids by insurgents, she supported the courage of the sisters and miraculously, by the protection of Mary whom she continuously invoked—Catherine kept the entire community intact. When she learned that the insurgents had sacked Notre Dame des Victoires, she said: "They sacked Notre Dame, but they won't go any further." In the spring, in fact, the rebellion ended.

A humble and radiant life

Sister Catherine was never rewarded by titles or any honorary positions in her community, whatever may have been her responsibilities. She was asked to go under the orders of sisters much younger and less experienced than herself, nuns who received titles for the same functions she herself had performed. But these considerations were beneath her character: Catherine approved and always supported the enthusiasm and the refreshing dynamism of the young arrivals. And they looked up to her for her radiant wisdom.

Catherine Laboure died on December 31, 1876, after living the enormous vocation of love of her country, but also of universal love. During the half-century she spent hidden in the convent, Christian France that had been petrified by lukewarm faith, ignorance and successive resignations was warmed up by the sheer profusion of God's tenderness: "Where sin abounds, grace is in abundance."

The Virgin Mary is the main patroness of France. She is remembered to this day thanks to Catherine Laboure's ardent desire. Sister Catherine was canonized July 27, 1947, by Pius XII. 

Geneviève Esquier