St. Catherine Labouré: Messenger of Grace and Friend to the Elderly
How a cholera epidemic and charity illustrate the enduring legacy of the Miraculous Medal.
In 1832, Catherine Labouré, a capable farm woman from a small village in France, had just become a novice with the Sisters of Charity in Paris when a cholera epidemic erupted in the city on March 26. As detailed by Father René Laurentin in his biography Catherine Labouré, the deadly disease had originated in Russia, was carried into Poland, and then spread throughout France, igniting panic. Paris was the epicenter. Physicians rushed to the nation’s capital to learn about medical treatments, but only succeeded in becoming carriers of the contagion themselves and spreading it back in their own provinces.
According to an article at ThoughtCo. by Robert McNamara, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832,” those infected often died within hours, and by mid-April, more than 13,000 people had died.
Amid the crisis, Catherine continued her assignment in the kitchen and as the keeper of the henhouse in Enghien, a hospice for elderly men. Taciturn by nature, she was inconspicuous as she went about her duties, but kept a glorious secret of hope that would soon be revealed in the form of a medal. The small sacramental, known as the Miraculous Medal, is now the most popular Catholic medal in the world and had been requested two years previously by the Virgin Mary to Catherine in the chapel at Rue de Bac. This year marks the 190th anniversary of Mary’s extraordinary visitations, the first on July 18.
According to details described by Father Laurentin in his book, Mary was seated in a chair to the side of the altar and said, “My child, the good Lord wants to entrust you with a mission” in the first visit. Catherine, awakened that night and led by her guardian angel into the illuminated chapel, knelt in rapt attention before Mary’s radiant beauty, her hands resting in childlike familiarity upon Mary’s knees. “You will have much to suffer,” Mary continued, “but you will have grace. Do not fear. The whole world will be turned upside down by misfortunes of all kinds. But come to the foot of the altar. There, graces will be poured out on all those, small or great, who ask for them with confidence.”
Four months later, Catherine’s mission was clarified while praying in the chapel. There, Mary again appeared to her, standing on a globe that symbolized the world. Opening her arms wide, rays of light poured forth from brilliant gems on her fingers, encompassing the globe, and the words of a prayer appeared, framing her figure: O, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
“Have a medal struck after this model,” Mary said. “Graces will abound for all who wear it with confidence. The rays symbolize the graces that I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems from which rays do not fall are graces for which souls forget to ask.”
Father Laurentin also explains how Mary also directed Catherine to make everything known to her confessor, Father Jean Marie Aladel, with whom she wished Catherine to collaborate in designing the medal. At first skeptical of Catherine’s visions, Father Aladel at last relented and oversaw the production and first distribution of the medal in Paris in 1832, just as the second wave of the epidemic began. Miraculous cures were immediately reported, and people marveled, learning about the medal’s origin; but many wondered about the unknown identity of the Sister of Charity to whom Mary had appeared. “Was it you?” members of Catherine’s community asked her, inspired by her prayerfulness. Preferring anonymity, however, Catherine evaded admission, and for the rest of her life, she offered herself in hidden service to the elderly.
She exemplified generosity, even in the smallest things. According to an episode described by Father Laurentin in his book, one day, while gathering ripe peaches from the garden, she was approached by another sister, who eyed the fruit, and asked, “May I have one?” “No, I’m sorry,” Catherine replied. “These are for the elderly men. But if there are any left, you may have what you want.” The inquiring sister later admitted there were none left. In another episode described by Father Joseph I. Dirvin in his book St. Catherine Labouré, one day, while attending to the elderly in the infirmary, Catherine turned as a sister, carrying a tray of food for a patient, entered the room, complaining that she had again missed Mass on account of the slow-moving cook in the kitchen. Catherine reminded her of the primacy of charity, and said, “You must give everything to God. Remember, you are leaving God for God.”
According to Father Dirvin, it was for God that Catherine was selfless, yielding the sufferings of her own soul to the needs and sufferings of the elderly. She smiled, offering kindness and humor, and returned equanimity for hostility, even in the most challenging moments. One day, upon hearing a contemptuous outburst from a particularly troubled man named Marcel, Catherine’s assistant cried out to her, “How wicked your old devil is!” But Catherine, quelling passion, looked up as tears filled her eyes, and said, “Pray for him.” In a victory of grace, near the end of his life, Marcel experienced a sudden change of heart and died reconciled to God.
Catherine understood that God's grace is available for all. Because of that, she handed out Miraculous Medals to both believers and nonbelievers and reminded them of Mary’s promise to pour out abundant graces “upon those who ask.” But only, Catherine reiterated, if you ask!
With confidence, then, let us ask, praying for an outpouring of graces upon all those suffering during the current pandemic, especially the sick and the elderly. Although a simple prayer, it is full of hope: O, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
Jennifer Sokol writes from Shoreline, Washington.