A Merciful Daughter
The story of Blessed Laura Vicuña
Our Sunday Visitor has published a series of eight books for the Jubilee of Mercy. Promulgated by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the volumes are the official catechetical resources for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began on 8 December 2015 and runs until 20 November 2016. Pope Francis will be speaking on these themes in his weekly catechesis throughout the year. The themes of the books — which all centre on mercy and are subtitled: “Pastoral Resources for Living the Jubilee Year” — cover the Psalms, the saints, the parables, the Fathers of the Church, the teachings of the Popes, the Sacrament of Confession and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Published here is the story of the life of Blessed Laura Vicuña which was taken from the book The Saints in Mercy. Biographical information was taken from the book: Miela Fagiolo. Laurita delle Ande (Milan: Paoline Editoriale Libri, 2004).
There is a singular type of mercy that can be exercised toward adults only by “the little saints”: mercy toward their own parents! Little Laura Vicuña (1891-1904), a saint only 12 years of age, is a special example.
Laura was originally from Santiago, Chile; however, due to political persecution, her family was forced to flee to an area near tne border with Argentina. When her father died prematurely, her mother, Mercedes, found herself in a hostile land with no means of supporting herself or her family.
There she met a wealthy landowner named Don Manuel Mora. Known for his violent and quarrelsome temper, he was also a gambler and proud of his horses and women, which he flaunted in front of his friends. They called him el gaucho malo (“the bad cowboy”), as he treated his herdsmen and women alike as slaves. Before driving off his last mistress, he first branded her with a red-hot iron used on farm animals as he shouted, “So everyone will know you are mine!” And now he had his eye on Dona Mercedes who was still young and certainly more elegant than the women he was used to keeping around.
He offered her hospitality in his estancia (“residence”), and the poor woman accepted. In part, she wanted to ensure housing and an education for her girls; in part, she was smitten by the adventurer’s perverse charm. It was understood that Don Manuel would put the two girls, still very young, in a nearby boarding school run by Salesian sisters, for which he gladly agreed to make the annual payment of 30 pesos. The amount was not a problem for him at all, since he often left that much on gambling tables, plus he wanted to keep the woman.
In school, Laura was good and studious, and she demonstrated that she had “a strong and sweet character." She knew how to be quiet when necessary, to willfully obey, to be accessible and generous to her companions, and to be quick to forgive.
However, as she grew interiorly, she was pained when she came to understand her poor mother’s situation. When the nuns spoke to the children about the beauty of Christian marriage, Laura’s mind and heart were opened as she realized how her mother had fallen into ruin and lost herself in an attempt to guarantee worldly comforts for her daughters. She suddenly understood where all the material goods came from: the money that supported her education; the many gifts her mother brought her, including the perfumes and bath items Laura enjoyed giving to her friends; and the elegant silk mantillas her mother flaunted when she arrived at the school. The pain was so great that Laura actually fainted in class.
For her first summer vacation, which began in Argentina on 1 January, Laura had to return to the farm. She became even more distressed at the situation as she realized just how foreign that large and wealthy mansion was. Honestly, it frightened her. She realized that prayer was not welcome there when her mother urged the girls not to let Mora see them pray. Don Manuel himself shouted that he “did not want little saints” in his house! She also understood why her mother would no longer pray with her children: she was ashamed at being the mistress of an adventurer.
When Laura was finally able to go back to her poor boarding school — her “paradise” — the nun realized she was suffering from an inner pain that nothing and no one could heal. But she also had a goal that she focused on with all her innocent hope: the Eucharist. And her hope was so intense that the sisters allowed her to move up the day of her first Communion even though she was only 10 years old. They later recounted: “When the little girl received the news that she had so desired, a darkness came over her face and she wept. ‘Are you crying, Laura?’ the headmistress affectionately asked her... ‘Are you not happy?’ ‘Oh, yes, I am happy,’ stammered the little girl as she wiped away the tears that streamed down her checks, ‘but I am thinking of my mother. My poor mother!’”
Laura noticed that Doña Mercedes had not been receiving the sacraments for some time. She foresaw the further pain that would occur on that great day when her mother could not receive Communion with her! And when the little girl met Jesus for the first time in the Eucharist, her mother stood apart suffering, with her head held low and a strange intensity in her eyes and heart. From that day on, as a simple, good, and docile student, Laura sought only holiness. She seemed to understand that she would encounter more decisive trials in the future.
At the end of 1901, it was again time for vacation, which, according to custom, had to be spent with the family. For young Laura, this was “the terrible holiday.” Doña Mercedes’ situation had now become even more difficult: Don Manuel not only had no intention of marrying her, he often mistreated her to remind her that she was just a servant. Yet there were also rumors that he was paying for her daughters’ tuition simply to groom a new and younger lover for himself: Laura was growing up and was now beautiful. Even though she was not quite 11 years old, the master did things in a hurry and was impatient. He began to look for any excuse to be alone with the girl.
The time came for the great feast of the shearing of the flocks and the branding of the new animals. Don Manuel expected a dance with Laura, and he counted on her naivety and his skills as a seducer. However, she refused him. And when she did so again several more times throughout the evening, Mora became irritated and demanded that Doña Mercedes oblige her daughter to acquiesce. When he still did not get what he wanted, he ordered Laura’s mother to be tied to a post — where he usually attached his mare — and whipped her. Laura’s heart was crushed as she saw the extent to which her mother was enslaved.
Then little Laura felt herself violently snatched up and thrown out in the freezing cold of the Andean night. She was forced to spend the night in the dog shelter while her soul was filled with horror. She soon returned to her boarding school impoverished, since the master now refused to pay for her schooling.
At this point, with that compelling mindset that sometimes only children possess and inasmuch as, only God understands, Laura made the decision to literally “give” her life. It took place 1902, a few months after the terrible night just recounted.
Laura listened carefully as the priest read the words of Jesus in the parable of the Good Shepherd at church: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). Certainly, she did not believe she was the merciful Shepherd, or that her mother belonged to her as her lost sheep. Yet she arrived at the logical conclusion all the same: she would give her life for her mother.
She ran to her confessor and asked permission to offer her life to the Sacred Heart for her mother. When she received permission, she fell before the tabernacle and made her offering. She lived peacefully heedful of offering Jesus and Mary all the tenderness she had: loving attention to the other children she assisted in order to support herself and humble obedience to the teachers.
It was clear that the little girl had an authentic interior mystical life. During the canonical process, the headmistress of the school recalled Laura’s “innocent expressions”: “I think God himself will preserve within me the memory of his Divine Presence, because no matter what I do and wherever I am, I feel that he follows me like a Father helping me and comforting me.” Neither does the following expression, as reported by her confessor, seem like something a 10-year-old girl would say: “Whether praying or working, for me it is the same thing. It is the same thing to work or play, pray or sleep. By doing what they command me to do, I do what God wants me to do, and this is what I want to do. This is my best prayer.”
On 24 May 1903 — the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians — the children were involved in the recreation of a beautiful living painting. Laura read a poem that touched all those present and was then placed very close to the statue of the Madonna. Her mother attended the sacred performance. As Laura descended from the stage, she confided to her teacher: “While my head was resting on the hand of my heavenly Mother, I renewed the offering of my life in an even more fervent way. I did so while watching my poor mother who was in front of me. I will be heard, you will see; my heart tells me so.”
On 16 July 1903, during a particularly cold and rainy winter, a terrible flood devastated the entire school, and the girls had to be brought to safety on a makeshift boat. Laura’s health had already been declining for a long time, but she came out of that wretched ordeal worse, with chest pain that grew ever stronger. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, but she astonished everyone with her serenity. When people asked her how she felt, she invariably replied, a little better, thank you!’ But her favorite ejaculatory prayer was always the same: “Virgin of Carmel, take me to heaven.” It seemed she was looking forward to the fulfillment of a promise.
Given the worrisome state of her health, she had to be brought back to the farm where Don Manuel Mora greeted her coldly and with sarcasm. After a few months, Laura’s health worsened so much that Doña Mercedes decided to take her away from that wretched place. She rented a poor hut made of straw and mud consisting of just two rooms. However, it was only a short distance from her beloved school, so Laura could resume going to class, though sporadically, and finish the year and reconnect with her dear friends. Mora initially allowed her to do so. But in January 1904, as the summer holidays began, a storm was brewing.
Don Manuel Mora was furious when he showed up at the miserable hovel to drag “his women” away with the pretense of spending the night there. Laura got up from her bed feverishly and shivering in her night camisole: “If he stays, I’m going back to the boarding school,” she said intrepidly, and she began to walk off with difficulty. Then the “gentleman” exploded in contempt, as he pounced on the poor defenseless girl, dragged her by the hair and laid into her with insults and violent blows. Only the intervention of the local people managed to free her from his clutches. For Laura, this was the coup de grâce, and everyone sensed that the end was now just a matter of days.
On 22 January, she received extreme unction. Then she asked to speak secretly with her confessor for the last time. She needed to request one final special permission. And while she was in the presence of the priest, the little girl decided to reveal her painful secret to her mother: “Mother,” she said, “I am dying. I personally asked Jesus for this.... For almost two years, I have offered my life for you, for your conversion, so that you might return to him. Will you not give me the joy of seeing you repent before I die?” Meanwhile, her mother was weeping as she knelt at her child’s bedside. The revelation struck her at the core of her soul, even if she had already suspected Laura’s secret for some time, he was only able to tell her daughter: “I swear to you that I will do what you ask of me.... I am repentant, and God is the witness of my promise.” She kept her promise. Indeed, she resisted all Mora’s pressures and persecutions for years, and over time she was able to make a decent living for herself.
Laura knew she had fulfilled her mission. On the evening of 22 January 1904, at the sound of the Angelus, she died while kissing her crucifix over and over and saying: “Thank you Jesus, thank you Mary! Now I can die happy.” Her companions and all the townspeople rushed to her. And they all said, “A little saint has died!” At the funeral, they saw that Laura’s mother approached the sacraments, penitent and trembling. They understood. And those who knew all the tribulations the little girl had been through called upon “Laura, virgin and martyr,” while her mother, recalling what her daughter had suffered, nodded through her tears: “Yes, virgin. And martyr for me.”
Weekly Edition in English
26 February 2016, page 15
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