Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
One of the blessings of teaching at Niagara University, founded by the Vincentian Fathers, is that one is surrounded by buildings named after saints—and not surprisingly, more often than not, these saints are Vincentians.
Niagara’s central building is “Saint Vincent’s Hall” after the founder of the Lazarists (yet another name for the Vincentians), Saint Vincent de Paul. I’ve written about him here. The nearby De Marillac Hall is named after St. Louise de Marillac, his co-foundress of the Daughters of Charity.
St. Francis Regis Clet
But there are other buildings on campus whose namesakes are not as well-known. For example, Clet Hall was named for Saint Francis Regis Clet (pronounced “Clay”), who was born in Grenoble, France, in 1748. Early on he was noticed for both his holiness and his erudition. For a time he taught Moral Theology at the Annency Seminary, where he was later promoted to Rector. After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789—which ushered in a wave of anti-Catholicism that was almost unprecedented—he became the Director of Novices in Paris itself.
But Fr. Clet always remembered that he was a member of the Congregation of the Mission, with the key word being “Mission.” Thus he sought and was granted permission to travel to China—that most impenetrable of anti-Christian countries—to bring the Good News.
Fr. Clet adopted the dress and mien of the locals, going so far as to grow a “Fu-Manchu” beard-and-moustache in order to embed himself in his adopted Chinese culture—a culture he lived in for three decades. From 1790-1820—nearly a full generation—Fr. Clet worked unceasingly to bring the Christian message to China.
However, his faith was to be tested—and re-tested. For the entire final decade of his life he was jailed as a subversive and underwent torments that make even The Roman Martyrology strain at the ingenuity of man’s cruelty to this missionary. Finally, on Feb. 18, 1820, after ten years of starvation, beatings, and various tortures, Fr. Francis Regis Clet was strangled to death. Pope Saint John Paul II raised him to the altars during the Jubilee Year on Oct. 1, 2000.
St. Catherine Labouré
Also on Niagara’s campus is Laboure Hall, named after Saint Catherine Labouré (1806-1876), who was known the world over for her visions and the “Miraculous Medal.”
It’s been said that, until the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, no sacramental since the Holy Rosary itself had had such an immediate and far-reaching impact on the Church—and none had ever been diffused in such incredible numbers, with tens of millions of medal wearers all over the world.
St. Catherine was born Zoé Labouré in Fain-lès-Moútiers, France, in 1806. The eighth of ten children, she was never formally educated, and never learned to read and write. After the death of her mother, she helped her father keep house and home together, but felt called to the religious life. To dissuade her, her father sent her to Paris to become a waitress, but this had no effect, so Monsieur Labouré allowed Zoe to join the Sisters of Charity, where she took the name “Catherine.”
The date that will always be attached to St. Catherine Labouré is that of Sept. 23, 1830, four days before the relics of St. Vincent de Paul were translated from the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the Vincentian Church on the Rue de Sèvres. It was then that St. Catherine experienced the first of her visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the most famous of which features Mary standing on top of globe, crushing the serpent’s head, with the phrase, “O Mary, Conceived without Sin, Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee.” The reverse of this image featured a large “M” surmounted by a cross, above the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary and surrounded by twelve stars. A voice seemed to tell her that a medal should be struck with these images and, with the approval of her confessor, M. Aladel, and the Archbishop of Paris, the first “Miraculous Medal” was minted.
It spread immediately and everywhere, while, meanwhile St. Catherine Labouré slunk into self-imposed obscurity. She minded the chickens, kept the door (as portress), and lived what was otherwise an “uneventful” rest of her life. She spoke to almost no one aside from her superior and her confessor.
Her death in 1876 unleashed a torrent of heartfelt Parisian emotion for the silent, self-effacing nun who had given France and the world the Miraculous Medal. She was canonized in 1947.
St. John Gabriel Perboyre
Another building named for a Vincentian Saint is Perboyre Hall, after St. John Gabriel Perboyre, (1802-1840). Like St. Francis Regis Clet, St. John was a Frenchman who became a missionary to China. He followed both his brother, Louis, and his Uncle, Jacques, into the Congregation of the Mission.
His brother Louis died en route to evangelize the Chinese and St. John vowed to take his place, making good on his promised by landing at Macau in 1835. His mission, which was to last five years, was fraught with ill-health, rough travel, the insuperable difficulty of learning Chinese, and an outbreak of unprecedented persecution against Christians.
After a half-decade of ministering to the poorest Chinese in rural villages—St. John always kept in mind that St. Vincent de Paul worked with the poorest of the poor—St. John was arrested, tortured, and ultimately strangled to death while tied to a cross on Sept. 11, 1840.
Finally, there is Our Lady of the Angels Chapel—the very chapel where two classmates, Ven. Nelson H. Baker and Ven. Michael McGivney (the founder of the Knights of Columbus)—prayed. Though they are not members of the Vincentians, they are alumni who are perhaps en route to canonization as I wrote of here.