St. Catherine Laboure, The Miraculous Medal, and Me
She worked at a bar. Men made inappropriate comments and gestures at her. In 1830s Paris, Catherine wanted to be a nun but her father disapproved, so she was sent off to work in her brother’s pub as a distraction. In her spare time Catherine visited the Sisters of Charity, housed in a side street convent, to volunteer and to serve the poor. On her first visit, while waiting in the parlor of that convent, she saw him. A large portrait hung on the wall of an old priest; she immediately recognized the face as one she had seen in a dream years ago. In her dream, she was assisting him at mass; he kept holding her gaze, making her feel uncomfortable. She eventually ran from the church, and stopped at the home of an infirm. The old priest was there also, and he said to her “You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me.” In the convent parlor she calmly asked a sister servant the name of the priest in the portrait, to which she replied: “Why my child, that is our Holy Founder, St. Vincent de Paul!”
Catherine eventually joined this order; a strong and thriving community of sisters dedicated to serving the many poor people in Paris. (Picture post-revolution Les Miserables as the setting.) She took their costume-like habit, which to modern eyes looks more like a funny, white, winged newspaper-hat. The Sisters of Charity had such a visually and affectually strong presence in Europe at that time that even the Muslims had a tenderness towards them, calling them “the swallows of heaven.”
Then, the visions started. First of St. Vincent’s heart in varying colors— which is no small matter, that a saint loved her, chose her, and gave her his heart. Secondly, a mysterious and seemingly political vision of Christ the King. And finally, the great visions of Our Lady.
At the age of 9, Catherine lost her earthly mother. When she thought no one was looking, she pulled a chair up to where she could reach the family statue of Mary. She threw her arms around the statue, and exclaimed “Now you will be my mother!”
As a sister in the convent, Catherine told her patron St. Vincent of her strong desire to see the Blessed Virgin with her own eyes. One night, she was awakened by a small child, who led her to the chapel. “It was lit up like Midnight Mass” Catherine recalled, and the child stopped in front of a director’s chair used for conferences. Instinctively, Catherine knelt. She waited, then heard the sound of swishing silk as a lady approached and sat in the chair, and the child instructed, “This is the Blessed Virgin.”
Of all the privileged humans to see Our Lady, from Juan Diego to Bernadette, Catherine is the only one known to have touched her. She knelt beside her chair and put her hands and head in her lap, and poured her heart out with tears of a little girl. Our Lady listened, and offered words of wisdom and strength for all that Catherine would have to undergo, and warnings of the future of the world, and France in particular.
“Come to the foot of the altar. There graces will be shed upon all, great and little, who ask for them. Graces will be especially shed upon those who ask for them.”
The next time Catherine saw Our Lady, it was during her daytime prayers. Mary was in the sanctuary, shining like the morning rising, and Catherine stayed on her knees noting every detail in bliss. Her robe was silk, and white like the dawn. She wore a long white veil with a lovely lace head wrap beneath it. She held in her hands a golden ball which she offered to God; suddenly, her hands were resplendent with rings set with precious stones that shone brilliantly, and the lights coming from them fell upon a white globe at her feet.
“The ball which you see represents the whole world… and each person in particular.” As she spoke the rays became blinding.
“These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems from which rays do not fall are the graces for which souls forget to ask.”
Catherine saw the words “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Mary instructed her to have a medal formed, showing her what the back side was to look like, with 12 stars bordering the hearts of Jesus and Mary, and an “M” with a bar and a cross, and she told her this:
“All who wear it will receive great graces, they should wear it around the neck. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.”
Do you wear a miraculous medal? You should.
Even while Catherine maintained anonymity for most of her life, the medal came to be, and gained tremendous popularity throughout Europe and around the world. Originally called “The Medal of the Immaculate Conception”, it soon came to be known as “The Miraculous Medal” due to the astounding number of miracles reported from it’s devotees.
The story of Catherine Laboure is such a great one, and it at least tells us a few very important things. Firstly, that our relationships with the saints are REAL. I’ve heard it said that saints have a habit of choosing us. In recent years I have felt that a certain saint was revealing to me his desire to be my patron, and reading the story of St. Catherine Laboure, I’ve come to believe it’s not all in my head. Whether it’s finding a holy card in a random place, having a dream, seeing his or her name on a street sign, these heavenly patrons are longing to tell us that they want our friendship and communion, and like our earthly friends, certain people just “click” with one another.
Secondly, we need to ASK for grace! Catherine was known to say to her sisters “Ask, ask, ask! In all things you must ask!” Mary has extraordinary graces ready to distribute to us, for every necessity, but if we don’t ask for them, many will remain in those gems on her fingers from which the rays do not fall. As you want your children to come to you, she wants us to come to her.
Thirdly, and I say this half jokingly, because I know it may be superficial of me to care, but this is just another example of how Mary has great style. As women, we love pretty clothes, jewelry, make-up, and hairstyles. And despite her profound humility, Mary is a woman who isn’t afraid to overwhelm us with her beauty in each apparition. I just love that in this apparition she is wearing rings of dazzling gems, (three on each finger!). Always modest, but always stunning, and this time even slightly funky: Mary has a rockin’ style.
Many saints have promoted the Miraculous Medal, but there is one story I’ve read that my children always ask me to retell. St. John Vianney, the beloved French country priest and famous confessor, was hearing a young woman’s confession. At some point during the confession St. John Vianney, who had the gift of reading souls, said to her:
“You were at a dance last night. There was a handsome man present with lots of young women around him, you wanted to dance with him so badly, but he never asked you to dance, and you were disappointed.” Surprised, she answered,
“That man was the devil. And he couldn’t come anywhere close to you because you were wearing the miraculous medal.”
Does this story mean that by wearing the Miraculous Medal we will be automatically immune to the devil, temptations, and sin? No. But it does mean that it will offer us more protection from these things than we will ever be aware of.
* * *
My own mother always wore a Miraculous Medal. When I was six, she dropped me off at summer camp, and lovingly placed her medal around my neck for for me to wear during my two weeks away from home. At some point during my adventures, I left it on a rock by the lake, and when I went back to look for it it was gone. Nevertheless, it was my first taste of Our Lady’s protection, which at the time felt more of an extension of my own mother’s love.
I grew up in rural Vermont before cable TV and before the internet. Dirt roads, honey houses, lakeside fires, hanging out on railroad tracks, lots of long, quiet, days, and I shared most of them with my absolute best friend, Triona Wilder Marno Ferree, also known as: Tree. She had flaming red hair, a temper to match it, more freckles than we could count (we tried!), and a passionate love for two things: horses, and me. I remember my parents coming to pick me up from her house after a sleepover and as we pulled away I watched Tree standing on her front porch with a face as flaming red as her hair, screaming in protest at my departure. She was ferociously loyal, and I can’t remember not being her friend.
Tree’s family was interesting, artistic, earthy, and… not Catholic. Not even Christian. Her dad laughed at “ignorant” Catholic superstitions, but let her come to Mass with us if she was around on a Sunday, and let her wear my Miraculous Medal, which she never took off. In sixth grade, her parents divorced. Her mom moved to Colorado and Tree went with her, while her dad and sister stayed behind.
In Colorado she found a third passion: snowboarding. One day she had a terrible snowboarding accident, and in the busyness of the emergency room, the Miraculous Medal went missing. Somehow, either by the generosity of her parents, or by her own rummaging through family belongings, she found a replacement. It was handmade by her Catholic great-aunt; it was large, artsy, silver; it was stunning. It was the prettiest medal, religious or not, that I have ever seen, and she wore it with pride. She wore it all through highschool, and into college. In every picture it is around her neck, lovely as she was.
Years passed and our paths began to separate more and more. Our visits were less and less frequent, but she was one of those people in which no time ever seemed to have gone by, despite the different paths we were on. In college I met Justin (my husband), and couldn’t wait to bring him home to meet my family. He was flying into the inconvenient airport of Boston, and no one in my family could lend me a car to pick him up. I called up my old friend Tree, who was back in our home state, and without hesitating, she jumped in her gas guzzling pickup and came to the rescue, driving a total of 12 hours with me to complete the errand. She was so good. And she would still do anything for me.
Justin and I got married young, and she was a bridesmaid in the wedding. I wonder now how uncomfortable she may have felt in the mix of all my close, bubbly, college friends that were high on Jesus; perhaps she felt like an outsider, but more likely she was just happy for me, because she was good like that.
When we opened the gifts after the wedding, hers was in a small box. I cried when I saw her great-aunt’s shining Miraculous Medal, on a silver chain, accompanied by the children’s book Best Friends, by Steven Kellogg.
I immediately called her crying in disbelief that she would give me what I knew was her greatest treasure. She laughed, and said,
“You know, it’s funny. My mom found the medal you gave me when we were kids in the pocket of an old corduroy coat, and that one means even more to me. This way, I’ll always wear the one you gave me, and you can always wear the one I gave you.”
Two weeks later, she was in a horrible car accident. She was hit by a semi-truck and died on the spot. My parents came over to my house, my father calmly delivered the news and my mother, red face with streaming tears, couldn’t look at me. Tree’s body was cremated, and the funeral service was in a Unitarian church. Through that whole, grueling time, I had in my heart the secret that perhaps only I knew: she was wearing a Miraculous Medal when she died.
I can’t remember when the first dream happened. But I saw her. I saw her canoeing, away from me and through a swampy forest. And that was all. In the second dream, she came to me. I hugged her so tightly, and I stammered
“Tree!! How are you!? Where are you!?” She let me hug her, and she answered:
“I haven’t seen Him yet, but she doesn’t leave my side. She doesn’t say anything, she just looks at me and smiles.”
I awoke to a pillow wet with tears. I understood that she was in Purgatory, and that Mary was taking care of her.
You can imagine that her Miraculous Medal became my most treasured possession. It was my turn to wear it always, in every photograph, every day and every night. Six babies played with it while nursing, and I never took it off. I intended to give it to my eldest daughter, Triona Mary Wilder (Tree) when she got married, if I could hold on to it that long. (Triona is short for Caitriona, the Irish form of Catherine, and I found out this year that my daughter’s birthday, July 27, is Catherine Laboure’s canonization day.)
My last dream of Tree came when I was home visiting my parents. That day I had driven by Triona’s old house. It was much smaller than I remembered, the paint was badly chipping, the gardens unkempt, and in the back yard I saw the old tree fort her dad had made, but instead of sturdy wood and a shiny slide, I saw a dilapidated, rotting, hazardous resemblance of our childhood hideaway. It was hard to believe it had been over 20 years since we whiled away the days in its privacy. In my dream that night, I saw her as a child, swinging, swinging, head back, laughing, and swinging, on that rotted, dilapidated, structure. She didn’t know, or seem to care, that it would have been condemned long ago, and that a normal child would not attempt playing on it. Another pillow wet with tears.
I lost the medal last summer. I was at a winery with some friends, and realized that it, along with some other pendants, had fallen on the ground when the chain broke from around my neck. We scoured the property and found all the missing pendants except the Miraculous Medal. It was Justin’s birthday, and he was the one who had the hardest time giving up, but eventually we got in the van and pulled away, my heart strangely at peace with the loss of my precious treasure. After all, 14 years is a long time for someone as scatterbrained as me to keep anything. I always tell my children to pay attention to dates, that God loves to use dates to show us heavenly connections. I always thought that Tree died on a no-nothing day in the church calendar, and was slightly disappointed. This year I realized, (I don’t know why it took me so long!) that the date of her death, August 14, is the eve of the feast of the Assumption. Pretty dang perfect.
I dare to hope that the loss of the medal, and the dream of Tree swinging, although strange and slightly dark, meant she made it to Heaven. In that last dream I tasted her, tasted the immortal world, and the sense of childhood joy that is regained in the next life. Regardless of where she is right now, I feel confident that she is in the care of Our Lady. Looking back, I think of Tree as one of the few people I’ve known who really knew how to love selflessly. How lucky for me that I got to be the object of that love; her devotion and fidelity to me was and is nothing short of a witness of Jesus Christ.
What did I do with the loss of Tree’s medal? I bought a nice vintage replacement on Ebay and had it blessed; zero attachment to it of course. My daughter woke up in the night with a bad dream, and in the spirit of my own mother, I placed it around her neck. My second replacement was a large, golden, medal I found second-hand. A friend was having a difficult pregnancy, and I passed it on. My best friend from college told me she didn’t own one, and my third replacement was sent airmail to Indiana. Now, I have fun with it. I buy the best quality and best looking miraculous medal I can find, (because everything Catholic should be beautiful!) and wear it until someone comments on it. That person, I’ve decided, is meant to be the owner, and I have jokingly and generously titled myself, “Hope Schneir: Ambassador of the Miraculous Medal.” Hopefully St. Catherine Laboure approves, good thing for me she is probably desperate enough to let me have the job.
So, if I ever get the chance to meet you, dear reader, and you are not wearing a Miraculous Medal, I hope you will be so bold as to compliment the one that I am wearing. And it will be my privilege to place it around your neck.
—Hope. For further reading on St. Catherine Laboure, I recommend St. Catherine Laboure of the Miraculous Medal by Fr. Joseph I. Dirvin.
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