Catherine was born Zoe Labouré in 1806, a girl from the countryside of Burgundy, the 8th in a family of 10 children. Her mother died when Zoe was 9 years old, and she decided to replace the mother she had lost with our Heavenly Mother, Mary. This act of faith would be a foundational event in her privileged relationship with “Heaven.”
In 1818 Zoe made her First Communion in the church of Moutiers-Saint-Jean and became “all mystical”, as her little sister Tonine put it. From the age of 12 Catherine was her father’s main helper on the farm. She never learnt how to read or write. She worked tirelessly, which gave her great endurance in later life. Each day she spent a long time in prayer. Before beginning her day she found a way to attend Mass in the church at Moutiers-Saint-Jean. At the age of 13 she was as much a “contemplative” as she was “mistress of the house.”
When she was around 15 or 16 years old, Zoe had a strange dream, whose meaning becomes clear only at a later time. She was visited by St Vincent de Paul who spoke to her and invited her to follow him. When she was about 18 years old she told her father she wanted to enter the Daughters of Charity, an order which St Vincent had co-founded with St Louise de Marillac. He refused and hoped to change her mind by sending her to Paris to work as a cook and waitress in her brother’s restaurant.
When she was 22 years old her father finally let her pursue her vocation. In April of 1830 she entered the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity on rue du Bac, Paris. She greatly admired St Vincent de Paul and drew strength, patience and enlightenment from prayer. Smiling and cheerful, the new Sister Catherine focused on others and on day to day service.
Catherine soon received personal visions (of the heart of St Vincent and of Our Lord in the Eucharist) and then two apparitions of Mary. On 27 November 1830, Catherine reported to her spiritual director that the Blessed Mother returned during evening meditations, appearing herself inside an oval frame, standing upon a globe, wearing many rings of different colours, most of which shone rays of light over the globe. Around the margin of the frame appeared the words “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” As Catherine watched, the frame seemed to rotate, showing a circle of twelve stars, a large letter M surmounted by a cross, and the stylized Sacred Heart of Jesus and Sacred Heart of Mary underneath. Asked why some of her rings did not shed light, Mary reportedly replied “Those are the graces for which people forget to ask.” Catherine then heard Mary ask her to take these images to her father confessor, telling him that they should be put on medallions. “All who wear them will receive great graces.”
After two years of investigation and observation of Catherine’s normal daily behavior, her director took the information about the medal to his archbishop without revealing Catherine’s identity. The request was approved and medallions began to be produced. They proved to be exceedingly popular.
At the end of January 1831 Catherine was sent to serve the elderly in the hospice of Enghien, as well as the poor of that neighborhood, those who were afflicted, saddened, the marginalized. During 46 years of untiring service she was a haven of peace for all, looking after the elderly with great generosity, especially those who were the most disagreeable. She gave equal attention to the sick. She saw the face of Christ in each one. She was a “visionary” but above all a “believer” which was shown heroically in unexpected and difficult situations, notably during the French Revolution.
Catherine lived her remaining years as an ordinary sister, well-liked by patients and her community. Just before her death in 1876, she revealed that she was the sister to whom the Blessed Mother had given the images for the Medal. Few people knew that Catherine was the one who brought the Miraculous Medal to the world.
Exhumed in 1933, her body was found incorrupt, and it now lies in a glass coffin at the side altar of 140 Rue du Bac, Paris, where the Blessed Mother had appeared to her. She was canonized on 27 July 1947 by Pope Pius XII. Catherine appears as the first witness to a new type of holiness, without glory or human triumph, that the Holy Spirit began to bring for modern times.