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For All Nails #62: Sunday Morning Coffee

From The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, 10th edition, by the Rev. William George Rutler. (The first edition was in 1869; the current chief editor is His Eminence George Cardinal Francis, Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland, NC, CNA.)

March 30

Marie-Madeleine of the Annunciation (Danielle Richard) (1847-1910)

Danielle Rose Marie Richard was born on the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin, March 25, 1847 to Louis and ZÈlie Richard of Trois RiviËres, Quebec. All accounts indicate that hers was a model and faith-filled household. Of her four sisters, FranÁoise, Claire, Marie-Antoinette and Jeanne, all but Claire became nuns. (FranÁoise and Jeanne joined her own Ministering Sisters of St. Mary Magdalene, both eventually in fact succeeding to the post of Superior after Danielle's death in 1910.) Generally regarded by her classmates as being both the most pious and the most scholarly among them, she attracted great attention at age 13 by saving a choking school-teacher with a primitive version of what is now commonly called the "coup de Danielle" in Quebec and better known in the English-speaking world as the "Richard maneuver".

She showed an early aptitude for things scientific and particularly medical. Encouraged by her father, a prosperous and well-regarded doctor in Trois RiviËres, she became one of the thirteen founding students of the Ursuline-run Academie de Ste. Clothilde in Montre·l (the first institution of higher learning for women in the confederation) and was graduated in 1868. Emulating the sisters that had taught her, she was admitted to the Ursuline Order in 1870 as Sister Marie-Madeleine of the Annunciation. After serving, somewhat informally, as an adjunct to the growing science department of the Academie, she took instruction (at the request of her superiors) in medicine at the summer courses offered by the University of New Orleans, a Catholic institution operated by the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

That University did not at that time admit women, but a number of religious of both sexes were allowed to receive instruction during the long summer break when most students were on holiday. On her return to Montreal it was intended that she serve under the Academie's medical specialist, Dr. Charles Dupin. His untimely death a week before her arrival (the first death in the massive cholera epidemic of June and July of 1873) thrust her into the position of Professor of Medicine.

The Ursulines were officially a teaching order and the Academie had begun primarily as a college of arts and letters, but Sister Marie-Madeleine and the growing science faculty put themselves at the disposal of the city in order to combat the spread of the deadly disease. Marie-Madeleine's youngest sister Jeanne, who was admitted into the Ursulines that summer as Sister Marie Cosmas-Damian, testified later in life that Marie-Madeleine's inspiration came from a dream in which the Virgin and St. Luke, patron of physicians, told her to save the city. Initially, the Mairie was skeptical of how much the faculty, consisting of the then-twenty-six-year-old Marie-Madeleine, two elderly nuns and a lay assistant, could do to help matters, but by early July of 1873, nothing their experts could do could stem the flood of the cholera. The city fathers turned to the young nun.

Leading a crusade that touched on both physical and spiritual health, Marie-Madeleine almost single-handedly stemmed the epidemic with a variety of advanced public-health measures as well as promotion of the saying of the rosary. By late August of that year, the cholera was under control and Marie-Madeleine had gained an army of admirers, both lay and clerical. One rather astonishing consequence of the nearly-miraculous delivery of the city from the cholera epidemic was the eventual construction of a basilica to Our Lady of the Assumption outside the city. This was the life work of Blessed Alfred Bessette, a Holy Cross brother who had met the saint at New Orleans and later had been posted to the College of Notre Dame at Montre·l. As he himself was struck down with cholera, the basilica -- which he never saw completed -- became a massive ex-voto in honor of his recovery.

Marie-Madeleine's work during the epidemic was impeded somewhat by the initial skepticism of the bishop of Montre·l, Monsignor Francis Lequeu. Women nurses had seen widespread service only since the establishment of the North American Nursing Society by Florence King and Mary Barton during the Rocky Mountain War, and the unprecedented commanding role played by the young sister gave rise to even more resistance.

Nonetheless, Marie-Madeleine continued at her post, acting as an informal advisor to the civic sanitary board she had helped to establish in Montre·l. It was at about this time, seeing that the Academie was attracting more and more young female students with an interest in the sciences, that she developed the idea of a new order to both nurse the sick and specifically to train lay women for nursing and even possibly service as physicians. The group of nuns, priests and laymen that had by now grown up around her became known as the "Danielloises" and would become the nucleus for her new foundation.

In 1876, after a long series of refusals from the hierarchy, and with the full support of the head of her order in Quebec City, she was finally granted permission to establish the Ministering Sisters of St. Mary Magdalene, with thirteen sisters from the Ursuline convent in Montre·l. Her titanic efforts, hampered by her chronic bouts of ill health, led to several episodes of exhaustion.

In 1888 the grey-habited Ministering Sisters, now also informally called "Danielloises", opened the Women's Medical College of St. Agatha in her home city of Trois RiviËres, after unsuccessfully trying to establish foundations in Montre·l and Quebec. It would take four years for the confederation authorities to properly accredit the school. Marie-Madeleine's order, however, had grown in numbers from thirteen sisters to almost forty, while the scientific community had taken an interest in Sister Superior Marie-Madeleine after her discovery, in 1879, of the cholera-causing "comma bacterium". She herself, in her humility, made no effort to identify herself with this discovery, which nonetheless has earned her great renown as a scientist. The order has continued to this day to utilize her work to further improve sanitation and public health around the world.

Marie-Madeleine of the Annunciation died of tuberculosis on March 30, 1910, five days after her sixty-third birthday, at the order's hospital in Quebec City. Her funeral in Trois RiviËres was attended by almost three thousand mourners. The investigation into her cause, opened by the order, was begun in 1925 and accelerated under the Quebecois Pope Urban IX, who beatified her in 1947. She was canonized in 1962 at an outdoor ceremony in St. Peter's Square,and in 1968 she was declared patron saint of doctors. The order is also currently promoting the cause of her parents and of Jeanne, Sister Marie Cosmas-Damian, all three of whom have been declared Venerable.

At the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Trois RiviËres, a statue of the saint carries in one hand a rosary and in the other a book on which amicroscope rests. On the base are carved her famous words: "Faith and Science are witnesses to the face of the God Who calls us to praise Him with the work of both the prayer-book and the stethoscope."


Montreal, Associated Confederation of Quebec

23 September 1973

Carmen Valenzuela was, at this moment, quiet and thoughtful. She had rarely had time to be quiet and thoughtful these past three weeks, since she had arrived and started her first term of medical school. She'd become, it seemed, one of those always friendly, always voluble people she'd despised in high school -- either rushing to a class or a practical, getting to know another one of her fellow students, or negotiating her way through a new city in a mostly new language.

It seemed to be working so far, but she treasured the rare times she could share with herself without being "turned on" for someone else. Mass this morning had been one of those times, and now she could take another here on the sidewalk of St. Laurent at the corner of Gallivan. In front of her was the Parc Jeanne-Mance, surrounding the Hotel-Dieu where she worked. Behind them was the mass of Mont-Royal, with the great cross on top commemorating Champlain, the stone fortresses of McGill and the Royal Hospital crowding the cliffs, and the office towers of the new downtown between the mountain and the cathedral FN1.

But now it was nearly ten! She turned to the Cafe Soleil de la Plate and grabbed an empty table with two stools.

"Quelqu'chose a boire, mad'selle?"

"Un moment... ah! Voici mon amie. Deux argentines, s'il vous plait, grandes. Paula! Over here!"

The waiter left as Paula Yastrzemski took the empty chair and plopped her text, Histologie, on the table. That book was over Carmen's head -- one of Paula's two second-year courses. Carmen was having enough trouble with Biochimie, given that her chimie organique had been last year in another country in yet another language. On the other hand, Carmen was in a second-year anatomy practical -- the school so far seemed to have considerable respect for her experience as a field medic.

"I've ordered your argentine. Have you figured out why they call it that? The coffee comes from Victoria, the milk from a few miles away."

"Didn't they invent the steamed milk business in the Argentine?"

"I thought it was an Italian thing -- but back home they started calling a cafe con leche a sirena a few years ago."

"Sirena? Something about fire waggons?"

"No, it means mermaid, like French sirene. It's the trademark of this chain of shops from Alaska with all different kinds of coffee. Very trendy -- I like the cafe russo with a shot of vodka in it. But anyway, the two guys who started La Sirena were Italians from Novidessa, I'm pretty sure. Not Argentines. And they don't grow coffee in the Argentine either -- ours comes from New Granada. What do you call one of these in Massachusetts?"

"I don't think Hadley FN2 has ever seen anything like it. You can have coffee black, or with cream, and that's about it. We're not very imaginative, unless you like Polish food -- sausage, dumplings, stuffed cabbage -- I'll probably write a paper on how bad it is when we do nutrition."

"I'm not sure beans, rice, and tortillas are much better, but I'll bet chili peppers are good for you. Are you homesick?"

"No, I think I'd rather be here. I love my family, and I love my home town, and I liked Shays FN3 but it's time for me to leave the nest finally. Meet different kinds of people, learn new things. You?"

"I was never very happy with Las Cruces FN4, that's why I joined the Army. It was the only way a girl could get to go out and do something real. Here we are at a school where women make all the decisions, and it's Catholic! Back home "Catholic" meant what the Padre wanted and that was that. Was that just a Mexican thing? What about the CNA, what was your church like?"

"Well, the priests do pretty much run things, though the Daughters of Our Lady of Czestokowa don't get pushed around. Women doing things? It was Father Stanislas who said I should go to Shays and study so I could come here and be a doctor, I can't argue with that. Things are separate, though, married women join the Daughters and men join the Knights of Columbus like my dad--"

"Your father is a Caballero de Cristobal Colon?" Carmen tried to keep her voice neutral but didn't entirely succeed.

"Yes, of course -- oh! I know what you're thinking -- the original order split up in 1915 or so, something about slavery. My dad said once that the Mexican Knights aren't very nice..."

"In Las Cruces they were just small-town bullies. We have no negros or indigenas to speak of, so they mostly sit around and talk about what they would do if there were any. But about ten years ago a Jewish shopkeeper moved in to town and they drove him out -- broken store windows and like that. In Chiapas, though, they kill people -- they're almost as bad as the Hijos de Santa Anna. I take it your dad's group isn't like that?"

"How horrible! No, they get a little drunk at meetings, but mostly they organize kielbasa suppers to raise money for the church, sponsor the kids'cricket league -- one time they got together to rebuild someone's tobacco barn when it burned down just before the harvest. And they like Negroes just fine -- they had a benefit to bring in a priest who spoke Creole for the farm workers from Hayti. I thought it was getting better for Negroes in Mexico."

"Mostly because there are hardly any left, except up in Lagote Amargo with the Saints FN5. They're legally equal, but plenty of people don't like them, like the Caballeros, and the law can't protect them. The smart negros came over to this side of the line a long time ago."

"Someday, maybe, we'll all live together in peace like Jesus told us to. Wasn't that an amazing story Father Patrick told us in his homily? I thought he was talking right to me!"

In fact, Carmen thought, Father Patrick Cournoyer had more likely been speaking directly to her. She wondered if he had planned in advance to talk about Sister Marie-Claire, intrepid director of a Soeurs de Marie-Madeleine clinic in one of the war zones of West Africa. She had stood up to a warlord who wanted the clinic's service to be exclusive to his forces -- she had been a hero, but at a great cost. The clinic had been shut down and some of the workers killed. God sometimes posed impossible choices, Father Patrick had said, where no alternative was right, and in his compassion he understood. Was that his planned homily before her confession this morning? She thought back to it -- she'd started by trying out her French...

"Benisse-moi, mon Pere, parce que je suis pecheuse. Il y a cinq ans que je me suis confesse..."

"Bien sur, ma fille, mais peut-etre tu preferes continuer en anglais?"

"Merci, thank you, Father. I'm getting better all the time, but English is still easier. How should I start?" She loved Father Patrick's voice in English, the mix of Montreal Irish lilt and Quebec sing-song. He was theoretically anonymous behind the screen, but the school had only one full-time priest and there was no mistaking his voice anyway...

"What about the past week or two?"

"Tuesday I went out for a drink instead of studying my biochemistry. And I've been having impure thoughts about the boy at the coffee shop." In Las Cruces, she thought, that would be the end of it. Tell the priest a few sins, let him prescribe a few penances, sort of like a chemist's shop. No one seemed to care about her, or what God thought of her, just the sins and the penances.

"Have you been getting enough of your work done?"

"Yes, I think so, Father."

"Did you act on your impure thoughts?"

"No, Father."

"I think God will forgive these sins."

"Father?" It was a silly problem, but maybe he'd understand.

"Yes, my daughter?"

"I'm worried... that I'm being too insincere, that I'm being someone I'm not."

"How do you mean?" "Since I've been here, I feel like I've been turned on all the time, whenever I talk to someone I'm charming them, making them like me."

"Should they like you?"

"I think so."

"I think so too. You're a beautiful, smart young woman, made in God's image, here to dedicate your life to a noble cause. Have you always felt that you were "turned on", and putting on some sort of act?"

"Well, before it was a different act, I think. Back in the Army you never let anyone get close to you, and at school last year I sort of stayed in the same shell, I think, just getting my work done."

"Do you like the people you've met here?"

"Oh, they're wonderful, Father, good and kind and friendly?"

"Might it be that you're acting differently because of the people around you? That you feel more of God's love coming through you because you are in a community that is full of God's love?"

"I -- I'd have to think about that. Maybe."

"Good. Now you mentioned five years since you last confessed?"

"Yes, Father. I... I think I lost my faith about then, and I joined the Army where there weren't many chaplains, and then last year in Mexico City I just didn't..."

"God understands, my daughter, and welcomes you back with the love of his Son for all mankind. Confession is required once every year, but the most important effect of it is the relief of the burden on your own soul. There's no need to list all the sins you might have committed in all those years, unless they were mortal sins. Have you committed apostasy, denying the name of God?"

"No, Father, I always knew that I was a Christian, and a Catholic of some sort."

"Fornication?"

"No, Father. I had plenty of impure thoughts about Jack FN6, my last lieutenant, though. We stole a few kisses, but we knew it couldn't last, so we didn't do anything I'm ashamed of now."

"Murder?"

"Can we come back to that one?" Despite her tension Carmen found herself stifling an involuntary giggle, imagining the raised eyebrow behind the screen.

"You haven't murdered anyone?"

"Well, no, but my companions did." Here it came. After so long, why should it seem almost easy to finally say it? "In the Army, on the CNA border. We caught three infiltrators, one of them wounded. Our unit -- my lieutenant shot one of them, and had a man torture the wounded one, and wouldn't let me treat him. I didn't see the rest of it, but I know they killed all three."

"Do you think you could have stopped them?"

"I don't know! I didn't try! Is that a sin of omission, Father?"

"God only calls upon us to do what we can, my daughter. What would have happened if you had called out, do you think? If you'd blocked their weapons with your body?"

"Uh. I don't think they would have killed me, they would have dragged me away. And then probably done it anyway -- I think they had made up their minds. But I don't know! Maybe they would have brought them back, though we hardly ever do with banditos. I know once they started they weren't about to leave any witnesses..."

"Did you ever report this to your superiors? I know a bit about God's law, but not about man's military law in Mexico."

"Oh, the command knew! They had to! That lieutenant probably said in his report that they killed them, just in action instead of as prisoners. I didn't see what they did with the bodies. I thought and thought about it, but I couldn't see it doing any good -- I'm sure the Army would cover it up. I just asked for a transfer to a different unit. But before, if I'd tried to stop him, maybe..."

"I think that's enough for now, my daughter. I understand that your heart is heavy, and that is right. But the peace of God passes all understanding, and can lift the burden from your heart, in time. I hope we'll talk again soon... Ego te absolvo, filia mea, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancti--"

"Carmen?"

"Huh?"

"Carmen? You were miles away there..."

"Oh, I was just thinking of some old times for a second, back in the Army. Are you done with the coffee? Let's see if I can help you with that anatomy assignment -- we had some good tricks to remember all the names of those nerves..."


David Mix Barrington (with thanks to Matt Alderman for writing the hagiography of Ste. Danielle and helping with IOW Catholicism).


(Forward to How Many Germans Does It Take . . ..)

(Forward to How I Spent My Summer Vacation.)

(Return to For All Nails.)

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