It was 1933 when the body of Catherine Labouré, a Catholic nun, was exhumed, 56 years after her death. When they opened her coffin, officials expected to find a skeleton. But in the case of Sister Catherine Labouré, they were in for a dramatic surprise.
Catherine Labouré was born in May 2, 1806, in the unremarkable village of Fain-lès-Moutiers, set within the rolling French countryside of eastern central France. Her father Pierre was a farmer, while her mother Madeleine gave birth to 11 surviving children, of whom Catherine was the ninth.
Catherine was just nine when her mother died in 1815 – the very year that Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, ending the emperor’s reign. And Catherine proved to be a remarkable child. Upon the death of her mother, she is said to have kissed a statue of the Virgin Mary and said, “Now you will be my mother.”
In any event, with Madeleine gone, Pierre’s sister offered to take Catherine and her sister Marie Antoinette. The two siblings therefore relocated to the home of their aunt in the village of Saint-Rémy, just a few miles from Fain-lès-Moutiers. As a child, Catherine was said to have been exceptionally religious.
And when the pious Catherine returned to her father’s house in January 1818 at the age of 11, within a few weeks she had taken her first communion at the nearby Moutiers-Saint Jean church. The day of her first communion was the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.
That day is also remembered by the followers of Saint Vincent de Paul as the birth of the Vincentian movement, a religious order devoted to helping the poor. And as we shall see, this religious organization was to have a deep significance during Catherine’s adult life.
While still a young woman, Catherine decided to join the Daughters of Charity. This was – and still is – an order of nuns dedicated to nursing which had been founded by Saint Vincent de Paul. Catherine is said to have been prompted to join the order following a dream about its founder.
Meanwhile, in April 1830, Saint Vincent de Paul’s earthly remains had been taken to a church dedicated to him in Paris. And Catherine, now 23, visited the church on three consecutive evenings. What’s more, when she returned to her convent each evening, she apparently had extraordinary visions in the chapel there.
The chapel at Rue de Bac held a relic of Saint Vincent: a bone from the saint’s right arm. And above the shrine that housed the relic, Catherine saw what she believed to be the saint’s heart. The heart furthermore seemingly revealed itself in three distinct colors: red, crimson and white.
Catherine felt that she understood the meaning of this otherworldly apparition. She believed it meant that the Vincentian order would flourish. She also believed it signified that France would see a change in its political order with a new government coming to power. Perhaps unwilling to dabble in national politics, however, the convent chaplain counseled Catherine to forget about her strange visions.
More visions were to come to Catherine on July 19, 1830, however. Significantly, this date was the day before the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. First, then, Catherine woke up to hear a child’s voice telling her that she must make her way to the convent chapel.
When Catherine then entered the chapel, it was the Virgin Mary’s voice that she heard. According to Dirvin and Joseph’s 1958 book, Saint Catherine Labouré of the Miraculous Medal, Mary said, “God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear. You will have the grace to do what is necessary… Times are evil in France and in the world.”
A few months later, in November 1830, Catherine recorded that she had been visited by a vision of Mary again. Mary purportedly appeared in an oval frame, stood on a representation of the Earth and with shafts of light emanating from her hands. The frame, Catherine claimed, revolved to show 12 stars and a cross with the letter “M” beneath it, and the image also included the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
As this seemingly miraculous vision appeared, Mary again supposedly addressed Catherine. The nun’s biographer, Father Joseph Dirvin, later rendered Mary’s words, writing that she said, “Have a Medal struck after this model. 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.”
The story goes that Mary subsequently told Catherine to take the design of the medallions to her father confessor. Then in 1832 the design of the medal was approved, and a goldsmith, Adrien Vachette, was tasked with creating the medallion. A renowned craftsman, Vachette set to work at his Paris workshop on Place Dauphine. The medal furthermore came to be known as the Miraculous Medal of the Our Lady of Graces, and Vachette would create two million of them.
After these momentous happenings while Sister Catherine was just in her twenties, she spent the remainder of her life tending to the sick and the elderly. She later died on the very last day of 1876 at the age of 70. Yet although she was recognized for creating the design of the Miraculous Medal, it was what happened after her death that made her such an important figure for Roman Catholics.
Catherine’s mortal remains were buried a few days after her death in a vault beneath the chapel in Reuilly. What’s more, there they would remain until her body was exhumed in 1933 for beatification – the first step towards sainthood. Her coffin was subsequently taken back to the convent at the Rue de Bac in Paris.
Once the casket was at Rue de Bac, its lid was then removed. Witnesses to the event included the Archbishop of Paris, doctors and government officials. And when Catherine’s cadaver was revealed, it was found to be “incorrupt” – a term with a very specific meaning for the faithful of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Indeed, when the coffin was opened, it was discovered that Catherine’s remains had not decayed. It was said, in fact, that she looked exactly as she had done on the day of her funeral. The faithful therefore believed that Catherine’s body had been preserved thanks to her piety.
Catherine was granted sainthood by Pope Pius XII in July 1947. And her incorrupt body today lies in a glass case at Rue de Bac in what is now called the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Meanwhile, Saint Catherine’s Feast Day is celebrated on November 28 each year.