Shrine of Saint John Berchmans
Few spots in America have been so unpredictably involved in sacred history as a tiny town situated on what was, some two thousand years ago, the west bank of the Mississippi, not far from where it flows into the Gulf. It is called Grand Coteau, from its situation on a sloping ridge or “coteau” – not a lofty ridge, but a long one. Though a superhighway runs near Grand Coteau, it is still somewhat off the beaten track.
However, what gives Grand Coteau a unique place in the history of holiness is the Convent of the Sacred Heart – the very oldest house in continuous existence in the entire Society of the Sacred Heart. It is associated with several notably holy persons: two of them canonized and one (so far as we may humanly judge) likely someday to be declared a saint.
Saint Philippine Duchesne was instrumental in having the convent established in 1821, and she visited the convent in 1822 and 1829.
But even more dramatic, and perhaps even more significant in American Church history, is the little known case of the apparitions of Saint John Berchmans and the miracle, worked through his intercession, which led to his canonization. It happened in 1866, just two years after the end of the Civil War, and the site of the miracle is still visited by pilgrims in the main building of the convent.
Today the holy spot is appropriately transformed into a chapel – a very simple, unadorned chapel worthy of the modest saint to whom it is dedicated. John Berchmans, most unassuming of saints, was a Fleming, born in Diest (what is now Belgium) March 13, 1599. An ideal youth, he felt the special call to serve God as a Jesuit.
The miracle at Grand Coteau
Mary Wilson, the beneficiary of the miracle, was born in New London, Canada, September 20, 1846. Becoming interested in Catholicism, she asked for further instruction, and was received into the Church on May 2, 1862. Four years later, she entered the novitiate of the Society of the Sacred Heart as a postulant. Her health was poor, but it was thought that the gentler climate of South Louisiana could be a remedy. She arrived there on September 20, 1866, and was to receive the habit of the Society on October 20 of that year. However, her health continued to grow worse, and on October 19, she was confined to the convent’s infirmary.
We have, in her solemn attestation, a detailed account of the events before the miracle, and since her own words are personal and warm, it would be better to quote them directly.
“On the 19th of October I was obliged to report to the infirmary, and I did not leave it until the 15th of December, the day after the one on which God was pleased to manifest His Power and Mercy in my behalf. During all this time I was dangerously ill, vomiting blood two and three times a day, with constant fever and violent headaches the greater part of the time; and still the pain in my side continued.”
“I do not think I had eaten an ounce of food for about forty days. During that time I had taken nothing but a little coffee or tea, which for a week before I recovered I could no longer take. And for two weeks no medicine had been administered. The doctor said it was useless to torture me more. So, he stopped giving me any. The last two days I was unable to take even a drop of water.”
“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. At each attempt to utter a word, the blood would gush from my mouth.”
“Being unable to speak, I said in my heart: “Lord, Thou Who seest how I suffer, if it be for your honor and glory and the salvation of my soul, I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health. Otherwise give me patience to the end. I am resigned.” Then, placing the image of Blessed Berchmans on my mouth, I said: “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.”
“I can say without scruple of fear of offending God: I heard a voice whisper, “Open your mouth.” I did so as well as I could. I felt someone, as if 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 had not yet opened my eyes. I did not know who was by my bedside. I turned round and said aloud: But, Mother Moran, I am well!”
“Then, standing by my bedside, I saw a figure, He held in his hands a cup, and there were some lights near him, at this beautiful sight I was afraid. I closed my eyes and asked: “Is it Blessed Berchmans? He answered: Yes, I come by the order of God. Your sufferings are over. Fear not!”
“For the glory of Blessed John Berchmans, whose name be ever blessed! I deem it my duty to declare here, that from the moment of the cure I never experienced the slightest return of my former ailments. My flesh and strength returned instantaneously, I was able to follow all the exercises of community life from that moment. So that, after two months of cruel suffering and great attenuation of bodily strength from the want of food, I was in an instant restored to perfect health without a moment’s convalescence and could eat of everything indiscriminately, I who for thirty-eight days previous could not support a drop of water.”
“The doctor called to see me that evening, and what was his surprise to see me meet him at the door. He was so overcome that he almost fainted, and Mother, perceiving it, said: ‘It is you, doctor, who needs a chair!’
Doctor examined the condition of my mouth and tongue, testified to their being well and that my appearance was that of a person in perfect health. The good doctor next inquired if I had eaten anything, and when the waiter containing remnants of my dinner was brought to him, he expressed anew his surprise, and once more declared that no human means could have ever produced such an effect.
Dr. Millard’s sworn statement of February 4, 1867, reads as follows: “Not being able to discover any marks of convalescence, but an immediate return to health from a most severe and painful illness, I am unable to explain the transition by any ordinary natural laws.”
The miracle of Grand Coteau has the same flavor as those of the Gospels and of the Church’s history. It is a stunning reminder that God wants us to pray always and insistently. Perhaps even more, the miracle reminds us, who may be prone to be neglectful of the saints, that God continues to work through human agencies, after their death as during life.
Prayer to St. John Berchmans
John, our brother, you already enjoy the face-to-face vision of God. Please remember us to Him as we struggle here on earth to attain the joy you now possess.
Text courtesy of the Schools of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.