Berchman, a native of Belgium, studied to become a Jesuit priest but died in 1621, before he could be ordained. In 1865, the year before Mary's illness, Pope Pius XI approved his beatification, the first step toward recognition as a saint. That brought Berchmans into the public eye, and perhaps stirred a special devotion from young Mary, who feared that her illness would keep her from becoming a nun of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Mary was born in Canada in 1846 and was reared a Presbyterian. She took a trip to St. Louis as a teenager and met friends who introduced her to Catholicism. She was received into the church in 1862 and four years later, though not in good health, started her studies to become a nun. The Sacred Heart Sisters sent her to Louisiana in September 1866, thinking the gentler climate here might help her.
“On the 19th of October I was obligated to repair to the infirmary, and I did not leave it until the 15th of December, the day after . . . God was pleased to manifest His Power and Mercy in my behalf,” Mary wrote in an account of her cure. “During all this time I was dangerously ill.”
She was given the last rites of the church on November 7, and by December 8, she wrote,
“I was worse than I had ever been before. . . . My sufferings were so intolerable that it seemed to me that it was impossible to bear them long,”
That was when one of the nuns brought her a picture of Berchmans and said the sisters of the convent were going to begin a novena, a series of prayers repeated on nine successive days, to him.
On the third day of the novena, Mary wrote, “my illness seemed to assume a more alarming aspect, and for five days, I suffered intensely.. . . I endured the pangs of death. My body was drawn up with pain, my hands and feet were cramped and as cold as death. All my sickness had turned to inflammation of the stomach and throat. . . . My tongue was raw and swollen. I was not able to speak for two days.”
Her caretakers tried to make her eat something until, finally, “The doctor said it was useless to torture me more,” she wrote.
In desperation, she put a picture of Berchmans on her mouth and prayed, “If it be true that you can work miracles, I wish you would do something for me, If not, I will not believe in you.”
That was when the miracle happened.
“I heard a whisper, ‘Open your mouth.’ I did so as well as I could. I felt someone. . . put their finger on my tongue, and immediately I was relieved. I then heard a voice say in a distinct and loud tone: ‘Sister, you will get the desired habit. Be faithful. Have confidence. Fear not.’
“ I sat up in bed. I felt no pain,” she wrote. “I was afraid it was an illusion and that my cure was not real. I turned over in my bed, without pain. I then exclaimed: ‘It is true. Blessed Berchmans has cured me.’”
When the Mother Superior came to see her a quarter of an hour later, she was astounded when Mary happily wished her a good morning.
“I told her that I was cured. . . . At six o'clock that evening I walked across the infirmary. . . . Next morning for breakfast I ate some chicken and toast and drank a cup of coffee. At twelve o'clock I ate a hearty dinner, and at half past twelve I finally received the desired permission to get up and dress.”
Sworn statements by two doctors, James G. Campbell and Edward Millard, who examined Mary Wilson before and after her cure are in the archives at Grand Coteau. Dr. Millard wrote on Feb. 4, 1867: “I am unable to explain the transition by any ordinary natural laws.” Jesuit priests from St. Charles College testified the cure was real, abrupt, and complete.
Twenty years later, in 1888, Pope Leo XIII accepted the Miracle of Grand Coteau as authentic and canonized John Berchmans as a saint.
Mary Wilson did not know this. On Jan. 27, 1867, she had another vision of the young seminarian. He told her that she would die before the end of her novitiate. That prediction came true the following August.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.