The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was raging at the time, pitting France against the House of Austria. When Swedish soldiers, many of them fanatical Lutherans fighting for the French, invaded Lorraine, they had no scruples about sacking churches and desecrating the Most Blessed Sacrament. After the Swedes, notoriously undisciplined French mercenary soldiers tore through Lorraine, completing the utter devastation of the country. One of these was a former suitor of Catherine de Bar. Donning masculine attire, Catherine and a companion, also disguised as a man, fled. A farmer hid them under bales of hay loaded on his cart. When Catherine’s pursuer, alerted to her escape, pierced the bales with his sword, not one thrust touched Catherine and her companion. They had prayed continuously to the Blessed Virgin to protect them.Share
By this time, the whole community of Annonciades was obliged to abandon the monastery of Bruyères. They elected 20 year old Mother Saint-Jean-l’Evangéliste superior of the group and, in search of safety and quiet, moved from one place to another until, in the end, they accepted the invitation of the Benedictines of Rambervillers to take refuge with them. These Benedictines had embraced the observance of Dom Didier de la Cour (1550-1623), founder of the reformed Congregation of Saints Vanne and Hydulphe. The Annonciades lived alongside the Benedictines for a year (1638-1639) during which Catherine de Bar discovered the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Profession as a Benedictine
After placing her five Annonciades in houses of their Order, Mother Saint-Jean was clothed in the Benedictine habit on 2 July 1639, receiving the name Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde. On the feast of the Translation of Saint Benedict, 11 July 1640, 25 year old Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde made her monastic profession. The Franciscan Friars Minor, charged with the oversight of the Annonciades, bitterly contested the validity of this Benedictine profession. Not until 1660 did a rescript of Pope Alexander VII settle the question by recognizing Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde as a proper Benedictine, owing no allegiance to the Friars Minor.
The Duchy of Lorraine, already ravaged by war, now fell to famine and plague. Saint Vincent de Paul, moved by so much suffering, sent a group of ten Lazarists to Lorraine to help the poorest of the poor. Learning of the plight of the itinerant Benedictines, Saint Vincent had them brought safely to Paris, where, on the evening of 29 August 1641, Mademoiselle Legras (Saint Louise de Marillac (August 12, 1591–March 15, 1660) received the exhausted travelers into her own home. The next day, Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde and her companion climbed to the summit of Montmartre where Lady Abbess de Beauvilliers was waiting to welcome them into the great Benedictine abbey that, at the time, covered la butte, close to the site of the present Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Normandy and Holy Gentlemen Friends
An opportunity to reconstitute her community in Normandy became the occasion for Catherine to meet some of the greatest spiritual figures of 17th century France’s mystical invasion: Saint John Eudes, Monsieur de Renty, and Monsieur de Bernières were among them. Normandy was, however, but another halt in the journey. In June 1643, Mother Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde, together with her companion, Bernardine de la Conception, returned to Paris, hoping to find there, a place that the whole community from Lorraine might finally call home.
Chrysostom of Saint Lô Makes His Prophecy
In Paris, Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde met the famous Father Chrysostom of Saint-Lô, provincial of the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular in France. Catherine wrote an account of her soul for Father Chrysostom. He was to be her spiritual guide until his death three years later in 1646. Father Chrysostom taught a contemplative prayer that was the pure abandonment of the soul to the action of the Divine Bridegroom. There was, however, nothing of the quietist about him; he enjoined Catherine to practise silence, withdrawal from the world, hiddenness, annihilation of self, abjection, obedience, and love of the cross. He imposed frightening practices of penance on Catherine: no more than three hours of sleep, the discipline, hair shirt, and a girdle of iron set about with points. Concerning Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde, Father Chrysostom made this astonishing prophecy: “God, by a most special providence, obliges you to honour the Blessed Sacrament with a particular devotion. It is in this sacrament that Our Lord Jesus Christ lives and shall live until the consummation of the ages in a life that is all hidden.” Father Chrysostom authorized Catherine to receive Holy Communion daily, something extremely rare at the time. (Read more.)