Monday, 5 July 2010

The Servant of God Mother Marie Celeste of the Will of God, O.SS.R. (1875-1922)

Sister Marie Celeste, Marie Jeanne van Eeckhoudt, who was born on August 7th, 1875, at Brussels, was the youngest child of John Baptist van Eeckhoudt and Katherine Kebers—both belonging to old and highly respected bourgeois families who had rendered public and important services to their country.

Mathilde and Jules welcomed their little sister to the old house in the Rue Haute and there they passed a very happy, if, to modern ideas, a somewhat dull childhood. To Madame van Eeckhoudt life was but a round of duties to be faithfully accomplished, but Jean Baptist, who had aspired in early youth to make art his profession, was more genial and pleasure-loving, and nothing gave him more joy than to provide little amusements for his children.

Marie was the delight of her mother’s heart but she was not on that account spoilt, and an incesant war was waged by the good woman against the fits of temper or sulks in which the little girl cometimes indulged, in spite of her otherwise gentle and winsome nature which made her the sunbeam of the old house, and cherished by all who came in contact with her.

The maternal grandmother was, perhaps, the person who brought most joy into the children’s life and, being quite unlike her daughter, understood their childish ways and needs—for instance, that Jules must be allowed “plenty of space to kick his feet about, even in the parlour.”

Marie profited well by her mother’s advice and example, and very early began to make real efforts to overcome her impetuosity and over-sensitiveness, and it says much for her amiability and sweetness of character that her brother and sister loved her devotedly and showed no jealousy of the partiality shown by their mother. Indeed, from the first they were slaves to the little Marie, whose word was law. As her sister remarked naively, “When Marie says ‘I will’ the thing has to be done.”

One of the great factors in the successful training of her children was that Madame van Eeckhoudt asked nothing of them that she did not do herself. Long before others were up in the morning she was on her way to an early Mass, and only on her return did she wake her little ones and bid them go and make the offering of their day during the great Sacrifice. She taught them also her own love of prayer, and to this day the elder sister tells us that she still repeats the first prayer they learned kneeling before the statue or picture of the Child Jesus—“Little Jesus, crowned with flowers, come into my heart and stay there.”

The year before Marie’s First Communion she went to the Convent kept by the Sisters of Charity in the Rue de Ponigon. Here she won the esteem and affection of mistresses and companions alike, who all noticed the remarkable sense of duty already developed in her. The first and most ardent in the games at recreation, the moment the bell rang Marie left all to take up whatever duty was assigned to her, and to mend a stocking or learn a task seemed to be the absorbing interest. Study never had any attraction for her, but she passed with honours the examinations for domestic economy and freehand drawing. Music was her one passion and she possessed a really beautiful voice.

We have no details of her First Communion which she made, according to the Belgian custom, in her parish church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle on Passion Sunday, April 11th, 1886. Later on she used to say “O that was indeed a day of heaven for me.” One of the priests of the parish said to her mother, “Your little Marie is a saint. When I saw her coming back from the Holy Table I could not take my eyes off her, for I have never seen such an expression on the face of a child. It was that of an angel adoring the Divine Majesty.” It was, perhaps, at that moment that Our Lord was calling His little child to follow Him more closely.

Financial worries brought much more anxiety and sorrow to the household in Marie’s twelfth year, but prayer overcame the difficulties and once more joy reigned there till, in 1894, Madame van Eeckhoudt died after a painful operation for cancer. Her husband sank under the sorrow that made his house desolate and the home was broken up. Jules entered another firm, Marie went to learn business with two of her aunts who had a flourishing drapery business, while Mathilde stayed to help her father, who, however, never recovered the shock of his great loss and died in 1899. Mathilde married, and Marie now declared her resolve to be a nun.

She experienced much opposition from her aunts who had come to lean almost entirely on her in their business. After much suffering, prayer triumphed and Marie entered the home of her choice—the Convent of the Redemptoristines at Malines. Her director had been a Redemptorist, famous for his holiness and judicious direction; this, and the report of the sanctity of more than one of the sisters at Malines induced Marie to decide on her entrance there. She had already cut herself adrift from the world by her manner of dressing and life of retirement, and on February 18th, 1900, she bade it a final farewell.

The Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, of which Marie desired to become a member, was founded at Scala in the Kingdom of Naples in 1731. A number of young ladies had assembled there in hopes of reviving within the walls of a once fervent and flourishing monastery the religious life which had become extinct. Among their number was the Vereable Maria Celeste Crostorosa to whom Our Lord revealed the rules of the new Order which He wished established there, and also the fact that a young Neopolitan priest, Don Alfonso Maria de Liguori, was to be the founder, not only of the order of nuns, but of a congregation of Missionary Priests, now known the world over as the Redemptorists, esteemed for their zeal for souls and their fervour as religious. The convents of Scala, and that founded at St. Agatha of the Goths by St. Alphonsus when he was named Bishop of that see, languished for nearly a century, continually harassed by the regalist Government and at times threatened with total extinction.

But God was watching over them and in 1830 a call came from far-off Vienna for a foundation of the Sisters. St. Clement Hofbauer, C.SS.R., had been succeeded as Superior by the Venerable Joseph Passerat, and he it was who brought about the foundation. From Vienna new foundations were made in Austria, and later on the Order spread to Belgium, France, Holland, Spain, England, Ireland and North and South America. Foundations continue to be made and there are now 25 houses of the Order and close on 1,000 nuns.

The Rule, though strict, does not make impossible demands on the modern constitutions. The religious rise at 4 or 4.30, according to the season, and the climates in which they live. Matins and Lauds, followed by Meditation, Prime, Terce and Mass, fill the time before breakfast. Then follow the little Hours of the Divine Office, manual work, the Examen and a short spell of free time before the bell summons the nuns to their early dinner, after which they enjoy an hour’s recreation. Three hours’ strict silence is prescribed from 12.30 till after Vespers in memory of Our Lord’s agony on the Cross. This time is divided between work, spiritual reading and the second half-hour’s Meditation appointed for each day. Work in the cells, Benediction, Compline, the third half-hour’s meditation and half an hour’s free time come before Supper, after which there is another recreation. Night prayers bring to an end a well-filled day and all retire to rest at 9 o’clock. The Postulancy lasts one year for both Choir and Lay Sisters, and the Novitiate one year for Choir and two years for the Lay Sisters, the perpetual vows being made by both three years after the temporary profession.

Marie found life in the Convent far more soul-satisfying than she had ever dreamed of, and she told her director that on this side she had no difficulties, but exteriorly many things were very hard for her. Obedience did not come easily to one accustomed to decide everything for herself, and to be taught the convent ways of sweeping, dusting, etc., must have been a sore trial to an accomplished housewife. She who had been looked up to and consulted by all whom she loved, now found herself among total strangers, and one of a band of novices all much younger than herself. Twenty-six seemed a venerable age to some of them, who could not resist teazing the “Angel of the Novitiate,” as they called her, about her old-maidish ways. She had much real suffering also to endure from the jealousy of one companion, who later on had to leave the convent on account of mental trouble.

In spite of all drawbacks, however, Marie was really loved by her fellow-novices, and one and all agreed that her virtue was very real and above the ordinary.

A companion who knew her well tells us that they sometimes tested the genuineness of her holiness in somewhat drastic fashion. She recalls an occasion when on seeing Marie hurrying in order to be in time for recreation, and knowing her horror of unpunctuality, she got in front of her and on each step of the stairs paused to say, “Jesus meek an humble of heart make my heart like unto Thine.” The prayer was evidently successful as far as Marie was concerned, for when they arrived at the top “she said nothing and was only a little red.” Sometime, however, the old imperious manner would assert itself, and then no one deplored the sally more than the novice herself, whose almost excessive humility was not a little trying to others, especially to the object of the outburst. In fact they begged of the Novice Mistress to tell Sister Marie Celeste to apologize once for her fault and then to have done with it.

On February 12th, 1901, Marie was clothed in the red and blue habit, and on April 23rd, 1902, made her Profession, and a year later joined the Community. Her fervour, far from diminishing, seemed to increase each day, and with it her love of humiliation which God saw fit to indulge to the full. Without any fault on her part, Sister Marie Celeste fell under the displeasure of her Superior and sisters, and for some years lived a very hidden and retired life, having no important charge in the Community though well fitted to be entrusted with them.

She had chosen for her name Sister Marie Celeste of the Will of God, and to that alone she looked. Sorrow or joy, digrace or applause, were one to her so long as they were hall-marked with the seal of the Divine Will. During these years God was preparing His servant for the work He meant to entrust to her. They were her Nazareth where she learned submission and meekness in order that she might be fitted to govern others.

In one of her notebooks she has left us a sketch of what her life’s programme was during this time. “I wish to be a Redemptoristine all for God, even to the sacrifice of my blood, my comfort, my health, my judgment, my will, my affections, my self-love. I wish to belong entirely to the Order, my Mother, by my love and devotedness for her welfare and her glory; by my submission to my superiors and my love for my sisters; by my ardent zeal for souls, especially the most abandoned. What matter how great the sacrifices I shall have to make to attain this end?
I am here to do Thy Will, my God, dispose of me as You will.
I am here to work—strengthen me.
I am here to suffer—console me. Fiat.
Yes, O my God—Fiat to everything that I shall receive.
Fiat to everything I shall suffer.
Fiat to everything that I dread.”
Again we find these words: “You will become a great saint if you hold to nothing, if you love abandonment, if you suffer in silence, if you accept all that God sends you, if you desire nothing but the Will of God.”

Those who lived with her bear witness to the fidelity with which she carried out this rule of life, and when the instrument had been perfected by the refining fire of suffering and trial for the work it was to do, the Divine Will was made manifest.

The voice of God came to her in a call for voluneteers willing to devote themselves to the building-up of the Monastery at Scala in Italy, the cradle of the Order. The venerable old building was not inhabited by but three or four sisters, the remnants of a former generation, as for many years, the Government, besides seizing all their property, had forbidden the entrance of novices, thus dooming religious orders to gradual extinction. The house itself had been bought by the Redemptorist Fathers of the Bavarian province and they were able to admit Belgians to the Community.

Father Strybol, C.SS.R., was entrusted with the work of obtaining funds and sisters to form the new Community, and knowing the holiness and capabilty of his former penitent, asked the Holy See to nominate her Superior, in spite of her being below the canonical age for that office. In October, 1910, Sister Marie Celeste and four companions from the houses of Malines and Louvain started on their journey southwards.

In Rome they were most graciously received by the Holy Father Pius X, who laughingly exclaimed on seeing the red habits, “How is this, my Sister? The good St. Alphonsus has, I see, created you all Cardinals!” On dismissing them he said, “You are about to undertake a great work, and you will only succeed if you fill youselves more and more with the spirit of St. Alphonsus. Go forward with the resolution of making holy observance flourish in your monastery, and prepare yourselves with courage for the sacrifices that all great works demand.” A further consolation awaited the travellers in the permission to visit Pagani, where their holy Founder had lived and died, and where they were privileged to enter the enclosure of the Monastery and pray in his former cell.

An enthusiastic welcome, including the ringing of bells, bands and throwing of flowers, etc., in true Italian style, awaited the Belgian sisters, who were escorted into the church by all the dignitaries of the town, and the Te Deum was intoned. After various complimentary addresses the sisters were at last allowed to enter their enclosure, and their new life at Scala had begun.

The many trials inseparable from a new foundation awaited the new-comers, poverty, discomfort, and a hundred and one small trials were added to the more real and painful ones caused by the peculiar circumstances under which they came to Scala. Differences of character, language and customs made the task of grafting the strict Belgian observance of rule on the happy-go-lucky ways that had of necessity prevailed at the old Monastery an almost superhuman task, and Sister Marie Celeste needed a more than ordinary virtue and courage to carry through the work. Trials of all sorts met her at every turn, both from within the Community and from without, but in spite of it all we constantly find in her letters the words “I am very happy here” and “I think it is our great poverty that makes us so happy.”

Less than a year after their arrival in Italy, Cardinal van Rossum, C.SS.R., Protector of the Order, was able to write: “With the assistance, often clearly manifested, of the good God, everything has been smoothed out. The Community is now fairly settled and in excellent order. Regular observance is in full vigour, and not once has the Divine Office been interrupted. Charity and union reign in the Convent, where we find only peace and the love of God, of the religious life and perfection; happiness, contentment and spiritual joy are met on all sides and cause the poverty, the sacrifices great and small, which present themselves at every moment, to be supported with great generosity.”

In 1913 Sister Marie Celeste was re-elected as Superior for another three years, at the end of which, according to Canon law, she laid down the burden of her charge and returned to the Community as a simple subject. The three years that followed were marked by many and great trials, coming, as they did, from those of her “own household.” But they were years precious beyond all others in so much as they raised her to an heroic degree of virtue and perfection.

In 1919 Mother Mary Philomena was elected Superior. It was she who was destined by God to be the comfort and solace of Sister Marie Celeste during the last years on earth, and to work for her glorification after death.

Ere this date the terrible malady that was to prove fatal to her had declared itself, but the heroic sister kept it a secret till a few days after the elections, when the cancer became an open wound and she was obliged to declare her state.
Twice Sister Marie Celeste was obliged to leave her beloved enclosure to undergo painful operations, both of which she insisted on bearing without anæsthetics. The sisters who nursed her during her stays at the hospital never tired of repeating that never had they seen such holiness.

The sister faced death as she had done every other event of her life. It was but another expression of the Will of God in her regard, and her Superioress tells us that she “awaited it with indescribable calm and holy confidence.”

Her sufferings increased each day and gradually she had to relinquish one cherished religious observance after another. The Archbishop of Amalfi released her from her charge as Mistress of Novices, and in March, 1922, she was obliged to retire to the infirmary. On Easter Sunday she ardently desired to go to the Choir to hear Mass and receive Holy Communion, but the effort was too much and she never again left her sick-room.

Now that Sister Marie Celeste was out of the Community and, as it were, removed from any danger for her ever-increasing humility, God seemed to lift somewhat the cloud that had hidden her extraordinary virtue from the eyes of all but a few privileged ones. Those who had seen the least heroism in the life of their sister were not just those to whom the reality of her holiness shone brightest, and it was with difficulty that they could be kept from the bedside of the dying religious where each one sought edification, and where, perhaps, some also wished to atone for any lack of charity or cordiality on their part. For each one she had a smile, a word of comfort or help. A former novice of hers tells us that to her dying day she shall never forget the way in which Sister Marie Celeste said to her, “Dear Sister, never again think of anything except how to become a saint.” With the gates of eternity ajar that was her value of life.

Her patience and gratitude for the smallest service were touching, and it was indeed evident that she had now obtained complete mastery over the first movements of her soul, and, in spite of the daily increase in her sufferings, a more perfect serenity and peace surrounded her.

She received the last Sacrament on May 15th, and a day or two later was consoled by a visit from the holy Archbishop of Amalfi, Mgr. Marini. Later on he wrote to Sister Mary Philomena: “I visited Sister Marie Celeste of the Will of God twice during her long illness, and I was amazed at the serenity with which she bore her sufferings. I seemed to see her as a joyful victim. I said to her, ‘You are on Calvary, suffering like the Divine Victim,’ and she answered only with a smile. I recommended myself and all those dear to me, and my diocese to her prayers, and after blessing her I went away greatly consoled. I was persuaded that I had assisted at the agony of a Saint.

"Her death was but the epilogue of her life, during which she had given proofs of such admirable virtues of which I was myself a witness. Blessed is the Monastery of Scala, a perpetual nursery of chosen souls, which by the observance of the rule given by the incomparable Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori, raise themselves to the highest perfection.”

How lofty the perfection was in the case of Sister Marie Celeste we may judge by the fact that her director at Scala, a holy and learned Franciscan, allowed her in 1919 to make the vow to do always what she thought to be the most perfect. Seeing her ever-increasing love of God and fervour in His service, he allowed her next year to add the vow of “Total abandonment to the Will of God,” and again later that of being a “Victim holocaust,” and even that of imitating the Humility of Our Lord.

Nor did he hesitate to say to her, “I tell you, on the part of God, that you are to become a great saint, but you must annihilate yourself, forget yourself completely. Take your heart in both hands and hold it tight; never mind if it suffers. You have to sigh, to agonize; desire to love the agony, cherish sufferings of all sorts—become a living holocaust.”

This good father called his penitent “Paolina,” for he wished her to imitate the ardent love of the great Apostle, and he did not hesitate to show her “what great things she had to suffer” of her spouse.

Though far advanced in the ways of prayer, Sister Marie Celeste looked on herself as ignorant of the first steps, and said “If I thought God would ever raise my state of prayer beyond the quite ordinary I should beg Him not to do so.” It was by these ways of humility and suffering that God led His servant, letting her light appear only to those who guided in her ascent to Him, and, later on, to the whole Community.

It was on the eve of Pentecost, June 3rd, 1922, that the “call of the Bridegroom” came for Sister Marie Celeste. Without a struggle or sigh, surrounded by her sisters and in the arms of her beloved Superioress she performed the last act on earth of submission to God’s Will for her. She was nearly 47 years of age. The funeral took place next day at 6 o’clock in the evening, when the whole population of Scala accompanied the holy sister to what they thought was to be her last resting-place—but God had other designs.

Writing shortly before his own saintly death in 1923, Father Strybol, C.SS.R., said to Mother Mary Philomena, “When I was giving the retreat to your sisters in Bruges I often recalled to their minds the memory of this saintly one (Sister Marie Celeste) and the example of her virtues, and I always added that if any day I was told that miracles were being worked at her tomb I should not be the least surprised; and that I hoped that before I died I should have the consolation of knowing that the process of her cause had been begun, so that I might bear testimony for her.” The latter part of the holy father’s wish was not granted, but his words were prophetic, for almost immediately after the death of Sister Marie Celeste requests from all sides were made for souvenirs of her, and accounts of more or less miraculous graces granted through her intercession were rumoured.

In January, 1925, permission was obtained to remove the body from the public cemetery and bury it within the enclosure. The return of Sister Marie Celeste to her beloved monastery was a veritable triumphal procession. Ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries, priests and lay-folk from all the surrounding villages came in throngs to accompany the coffin. It was with difficulty that it was carried from the church into the enclosure, so great was the enthusiasm of the crowds that wished to touch and venerate it. When it was opened the Reverend Mother and Sisters gazed with emotion on the incorrupt features of their deceased sister, and they were reluctant to allow the coffin to be closed and interred in their own little “God’s acre.”

Shortly after her death Sister Marie Celeste appeared to several of the Sisters at Scala, and one of the eldest and most matter-of-fact of the Community declared that on June 3rd, 1923, the first anniversary of her death, she came to her and quieted her concerning some doubts and fears that had been causing her much mental suffering. She said “Sister Marie Celeste, are you in Heaven?” Then with a transport of joy Sister Marie Celeste said “Yes,” but it was such a “yes” it seemed with exultation, joy, love, gratitude personified. It will, I think, echo in my heart till I die.

One of the lay-sisters was suffering, in 1922, from a violent inflammation in her arm, and could neither dress herself nor do any kind of work. She began a novena to Sister Marie Celeste and on the seventh day the inflammation and swelling suddenly disappeared, leaving no trace and never again reappearing.

The Reverend Mother of the hospital at Rosano wrote quite recently (1927): “I should be glad to have some more pictures of Sister Marie Celeste, as the one I had I gave to a little boy of six. This poor child was attacked by appendicitis and brought to our hospital. His case was very grave and became worse and worse. At last I had the idea of trying what Sister Marie Celeste would do. I placed her picture on the child and we immediately saw that he was cured. His parents were fully convinced that a miracle had been worked in their favour.”

In this short sketch it would take too long to recount all the spiritual and corporal cures wrought around Scala at the intercession of the holy Sister; but she is not confining her favours to her adopted country. Many favours have been obtained by prayer to her in England and Ireland, and news has come from far-off Australia and Canada of really marvellous recoveries. One must suffice, and we give it in the words of the priest who witnessed it:

“Last August (1927) there was at _____ a postulant lay-brother. He was second cook and a model of piety, charity and regular observance. The local doctor declared that he had appendicitis and he went into the hospital at N_____, conducted by the Sisters of _____. He was operated on by one of the leading surgeons of Sydney and for a week everything seemed to go well. However, a very bad change came and the doctors declared that a second operation was necessary. The second operation was performed and the doctor found things so serious that he had not much hope of his recovery. About two days after the operation all hope was apparently gone, and the Sisters sent a message that he should be annointed. I went to the hospital and the Sisters told me that there was no hope—he had every sympton of peritonitis setting in, and they did not think he could live longer than forty-eight hours. I offered to remain all night with him, but the Sister answered that it would be the next night that he would die. I administered the Holy Sacraments to him; he received them with the greatest devotion. He was not, however, able to receive Holy Viaticum on account of continual vomiting, but I gave him the last blessing.

"Having given him the last blessing, it ran into my head that Sister Marie Celeste might cure him. I told him about her and asked him to say three times after me, ‘Sister Marie Cleste, if it is God’s Holy Will, cure me.’ This he did, and I left him in peace. The Sister promised she would ring up at once if any change for the worse came. Next day Father Rector and myself went to the hospital and were surprised to hear from the Sister, ‘You had hardly gone when the vomiting ceased. I have every hope of him now; it is simply wonderful! I look upon it as a miracle.’ Brother N_____ is restored to health, and, please God, will be a holy and useful brother. Please send me a little picture of Sister Marie Celeste for him: he told me himself that he believed she had cured him.”

At the end of 1927 the Postulator of the Redemptorist causes obtained permission for the body of Sister Marie Celeste to be again removed and placed in the Choir of the Nuns at Scala. There she rests, awaiting, as we hope and pray, the decison of Holy Church which will allow public honour to be paid to this faithful servant of God. †

Prayer to obtain the Beatification of the Servant of God,
Sister Marie Celeste of the Will of God, O.SS.R.

Most Holy Redeemer, as Thou hast deigned to grant so many favours through the intercession of Thy Servant, Sister Marie Celeste of the Will of God, we trust that Thou hast already crowned her in Heaven. We beseech Thee, therefore, if it be for Thy greater honour and the sanctification of souls, to glorify her speedily on earth by the voice of Thy Holy Church. Amen.

(Right: A little girl, cured miraculously by Mother Marie Celeste is dressed like her in fulfilment of a vow.)

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