Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Blessed Mary of Providence:
Purgatory Finds a Foundress

"You love the fire of God and you light it in others."
A Chinese Helper's views on her Superior's spirituality.

The above quote coupled with Fighting Irish Thomas' version of her as "a French nineteenth century version of Mother Teresa" gives you an adequate synopsis of Blessed Mary of Providence in twenty words or less. But I get the distinct impression that there is a plentitude of poor souls in purgatory who would not want me to stop there.

Eugenie Smet was born on March 25, 1825, the third of six children to relatively prosperous parents of Lille, France. While testimonies speak of her precocious feelings for the suffering souls in purgatory from an early age, her parents did their best to keep her shielded from the purgatorial sufferings of the poor in her own town. As the combination of dire poverty and the exploitation of the industrial revolution meant more children died than were born in 1840's France, Eugenie was safely tucked away in a religious boarding school. While her natural skills of leadership were not entirely wasted at the time (when the priests asked the girls to collect money for the missions in China, Smet raised so much she received a personal letter of thanks from the pope), she still longed to help the poor souls—and this too would soon come to pass.

Back home, she began to attend daily Mass and did her best to personally change the world. She began to bring fruit from her father's vineyard to the local poor (she promised her dad she would only give the fruit the wind had blown to the ground, but when the trees began to become prematurely bare, her dad knew the Holy Spirit's "wind" was involved) and started posting "No Swearing Here" signs in the local cafes (at least she didn't try the taverns). But her original dream never died; Eugenie saw there was a religious order dedicated to every goal except relieving the suffering of the souls of purgatory, and although she felt compelled to be the one to remedy this, she told God she would need five signs before she would believe He wanted her for its foundress. Well, Eugenie not only got her five signs (which included approval from the archbishop, an unknown priest approaching her with exactly the same aims, and a letter written by the pope), plus one she hadn't bargained for . . . The Cure d'Ars [St. John Vianney] upon hearing of her vision, wrote that "I approve of your calling to religious life, and your community cannot fail to succeed."

Despite Vianney's confidence, the community fared badly at first. Her local priest Abbe Largentier, thought her a bit daffy, and her initial fundraising efforts (who donates money for the souls in purgatory?) were a disaster. But just when her little band was about to disband, like an angel Abbe Gabriel appeared and came to their aide. This priest, who truly shared Smet's vision, gave the women religious names (Eugenie becoming Mary of Providence for her unwavering faith in Divine Providence) as well as naming the community The Helpers of the Holy Souls. Gabriel (along with the prayers of John Vianney) also helped Mary secure a place for the girls and together they defined the Helpers' goals—"that through constant prayer and the practice of the works of mercy, to relieve and deliver the souls who are completing expiation before being admitted to heaven."

Mary and the Helpers had already received five hundred francs from a donor asking only prayers for her dead relatives, but "the practice of the works of mercy" part wasn't yet clear. But when a woman knocked at their door, and asked "if one of the ladies could look after a poor woman in the neighborhood," suddenly Mary of Providence heard the voice of Divine Providence speaking to her spirit.

"This is how you will love me," the voice said, and instantly her eyes were opened. The world right outside the door, the world of alcoholics, prostitutes, poverty and the homeless would be their mission, and helping the poor souls on earth would be, along with prayer, their primary way of aiding the poor souls in purgatory. And with this revelation, the Congregation of The Helpers of the Holy Souls took off, just as St. John Vianney had predicted.

While Blessed Mary of Providence hasn't officially joined the Cure d'Ars—as well as Catherine Laboure, Bernadette Soubirous, and Therese of Liseux—on the great list of nineteenth century French saints, I think her sanctity was assured when she had to endure a painful cancer for four years (a disease that should have killed her in one) before her death in 1871. These years did allow her to see the society succeed not only in France but in China, the country she had raised so much money for so long ago. Not only were they the only congregation to remain in China when the communists forced all foreign missionaries out, the Helpers have now spread to twenty-five countries on four continents, not to mention delivering countless souls from purgatory in the process.

Blessed Mary of Providence pray for us—as we pray for your elevation to sainthood.

1 comment :

Mike Humphrey said...

Hi Tom,

We have a web site whose presence was inspired by Blessed Mary of Providence and the original mission of the Order she founded in 1856.

You can find us at:
http://www.HelpersOfTheHolySouls.com

We are looking for good picture of her that we could use on our site.

I was hoping you may have something better then we have.

Mike @ AskACatholic.com
E-mail
mike.humphrey@rcn.com