Chile - Argentina, 1891 - 1904
Willing Young Victim for Love
(Courtesy of Ann Ball - www.annball.com)
Beaten and bruised, the young girl was dying of severe internal injuries. Her mother and the Salesian sisters stood by her bedside, praying and keeping watch with her. It was time to tell her secret. As her mother leaned close, Laura whispered, "Mama, I'm dying, but I'm happy to offer my life for you. I asked Our Lord for this."
Stunned, Mercedes Vicuna fell to her knees sobbing. She realized what her daughter meant, and begged Laura's forgiveness as well as the forgiveness of God. She promised to begin her life again.
Laura Vicuna was born in Santiago, Chile, on April 5 of 1891. Her father was a soldier who belonged to a noble Chilean family. Mercedes was a simple country girl, and his family never fully accepted his marriage to a wife whom they felt was beneath his station. A revolution and civil war had broken out the previous January, and Senor Vicuna carried his wife Mercedes and his infant daughter into political exile in the Andes mountains.
The baby's health was poor and neighbors feared she would die or be handicapped. However, by the time she was eighteen months old, she was thriving.
Shortly before Laura's third birthday and after the birth of her baby sister Julia, Senor Vicuna died, leaving his widow to care for the children. Mercedes took the girls to the frontier town of Las Lajas, where she hoped to find work as a cook and laundry woman. Here she met Manuel Mora, owner of a large hacienda, or ranch. Senor Mora offered to be her protector, and his financial support would pay tuition for the girls at the newly formed missionary school run by the Salesian sisters (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians). In return for his help and protection, Mercedes became his mistress.
When Laura was eight, Mercedes, on the advice of one of the Salesian missionary priests, took both girls to board at the school in Junin. Life at the school was very pleasant. Laura said, "..I certainly was happy to go to Junin. I think the Infant Jesus was glad, and gave me this feeling of joy, so much alive and so new to me."
Sister Angela, the superior, took Laura to show her the school chapel. "As soon as Laura entered, she looked at `Jesus's little house' as she called the tabernacle, and when she was told that Jesus lived there she blew him a kiss and promised to come back often."
Here Laura learned about God and His love, and learned to repay this love with love for her fellow students and the sisters. Laura was a leader in sports, and a friend to all. She helped the younger children with their daily tasks, such as making their beds, and with their personal chores, such as combing their hair or mending their clothes. She acted as peacemaker for the children's quarrels. When her little sister Julia was naughty, Laura gently corrected her. Laura was looked up to by all. She was serious and wise beyond her age. She had a mature understanding of prayer, and because she was a natural leader, she seemed to build up a joyful spirit of piety in all her fellow students. "Wherever I am, at school, at play, or anywhere else, the thought of God accompanies me, helps me, and consoles me," she said.
On her first summer vacation at home, Laura began to realize the type of life her mother was leading. In addition, Senor Mora was often drunk. At these times he would attempt to embrace and kiss Laura, who was repelled by his advances and his whiskey-laden breath. Laura's mother demanded that he leave the child alone, which he did except when he was drunk. At these times Laura made every effort to keep out of his way.
Laura made her First Communion when she was ten. This was a decisive moment in her life, and she wrote in her notebook "O my God, I want to love You and serve You all my life. I give you my soul, my heart, my whole self."
Mercedes came to Junin for the festive occasion, but Laura noticed that her mother did not receive the Sacrament. She seemed to realize that her mother was not happy. One of her constant prayers before the tabernacle became, "Jesus, I wish that Mama would know You better and be happy."
In December of that same year, Laura was enrolled in the Sodality of the Children of Mary The medal of the sodality which she wore constantly was not just a symbol but, it seemed to her, like a protective shield.
Laura was fascinated by the devotion of the sisters. They had courageously left their home countries to dedicate their lives to the service of God in the missions of Patagonia. Laura secretly hoped one day to follow their example and become a sister herself. She said, "I want to do all I can to make God known and loved." She prayed, "My God, I want to love and serve You all my life."
When Laura was eleven, Bishop John Cagliero made a visit to the school. Laura asked him if she could become a Salesian sister. Laughingly, he replied, "Just wait a little longer, child." But Laura did not want to wait. Repeatedly she asked her confessor to pray and ask God if it was His Will for her to become a Salesian. This understanding priest agreed that she did, in truth, have a religious vocation, but it remained their secret. She wrote, "My God, give me a life of loving service, of mortification, of sacrifice."
In the summer of 1901, Laura again returned to the ranch for summer vacation. Senor Mora seemed more than ever to be becoming quite interested in her, fawning and fussing over her. Through prayer and vigilance she determined to protect her purity. "Lord, do not let me offend You," she prayed.
One day, the moment she had feared finally arrived; she was caught alone with Senor Mora. He began to make improper advances, and she struggled ferociously, finally breaking away and running outdoors. She knew, however, that he would not give up, and at a fiesta a few days later, he approached her and asked her for a dance. Laura flatly refused in spite of Senor Mora's threats and her mother's entreaties. Laura spent that night hiding outside in the dark, while Senor Mora vented his anger on her hapless mother. For revenge, he refused to continue paying Laura's tuition at school, but the sisters heard of the matter and offered to accept the girls free. Embarrassed at this charitable offer, Mercedes sent only Laura back to school, keeping Julia at home with herself.
At Easter, 1902, Laura was confirmed by Bishop Cagliero. She realized that she had not offered the supreme sacrifice for her mother, and begged her confessor, Father Crestanello, to be allowed to offer her life to God for her mother's conversion. After talking with Laura, the priest realized that he was dealing with a soul who had been given great spiritual gifts, and he gave her permission to make the offering.
During the winter of 1903, Laura became ill. Her mother begged her to come home with her, and the superior told Laura, "Your mother needs you more than you need her. You must go."
At the ranch, Laura's health steadily worsened, instead of improving with the better climate and good care. She felt that her offering had been accepted, and did not believe she would ever get well.
At first, Senor Mora stayed out on the range most of the time. But when he returned, Laura noticed that he had cooled towards her mother, and especially when drunk, he looked at Laura with a strange desire. Mercedes also noticed his attitude, and in spite of his threats, she packed up with the girls and rented a small place in Junin.
The night of January 14, 1904, Senor Mora, drunk with whiskey, anger, and lust, rode into town and announced his intention of spending the night at the cottage where Mercedes and the girls were staying. Whip in hand, he demanded that Mercedes accede to his wishes and that his "family" return the following day to the ranch with him.
Weak and pale, Laura resolutely announced, "If he stays, I will go." She did not wait for an answer, but walked out the door. Senor Mora was furious. He followed her outside, and Mercedes screamed for Laura to run. Laura attempted to run for safety to the sisters' residence, but Senor Mora caught her in the street. He whipped her and kicked her as she lay in the street crying for help. When some men ran out of nearby houses, Mora picked the girl up and tried to put her across his horse. Then realizing the danger, he tossed her back into the street and rode away.
Laura had been beaten unconscious by her mother's lover. She lingered for a week, as her mother and the sisters kept watch over her. Father Crestanello, her confessor, came and heard Laura's confession and gave her absolution. He had questions, but Laura simply told him that she forgave her attacker and bore him no ill will.
On January 21, Laura and her younger sister were alone. Laura earnestly made a request of her sister who wrote down from memory the words Laura said to her. "Be good to Mama, don't give her trouble; respect her always. Don't ever leave her, even if later on you will have a family of your own. Don't look down upon the poor, but be kind to them. Love Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin. Pray every day to your guardian angel to keep you from sin. Don't forget, Julia, we will be together in Heaven."
The next morning, a Salesian missionary brought Laura communion and gave her the last rites.
When Laura and her mother were alone, Laura revealed her secret. Laura passed quietly from this world, happy with her mother's promise to repent. After Laura's death at about six o'clock on the evening of January 22, 1904, Mercedes went to the chapel to make her confession. Through the witness of her courageous daughter, she returned to the practice of the Faith.
When Pope John Paul II beatified Laura on September 3, 1988, he called her the "Eucharistic flower of Junin de Los Andes, whose life was a poem of purity, sacrifice, and filial love."
(Courtesy of Ann Ball - www.annball.com)