Heart of Louisiana: 'Miracle' at Grand Coteau

Published: Nov. 8, 2012 at 10:53 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 8:45 PM CST
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Photo from z28scrambler, licensed under Creative Commons license
Photo from z28scrambler, licensed under Creative Commons license

Sister Lynne Lieux says, "I do believe it is the holiest place.  And I rarely meet someone who comes down the road to this school who doesn't say I have a sense of god's presence when I approach the campus."

The small farming town of Grand Coteau was built around religion.  The Sisters of Sacred Heart opened an all-girls school in 1821.  A decade later, the Jesuits moved in. Today the Academy of Sacred Heart is the religious order's oldest school in continuous operation in the world.

Sister Lynne says, "The school has for 191 years never closed its doors, not even in the Civil War when a battle happened very close and they could hear the guns roaring."

When Union forces took control of the area, their commander, General Nathaniel Banks, issued this order of protection for the academy.

Sister Lynne says, "In fact he said anyone who did harm would be punished by death.  And his reasoning was his daughter was at the Sacred Heart school in Manhattan with Madame Hardy, who was a graduate of this school and founded the schools on the East Coast."

But it was something else that happened here for years that astonished the religious and got the attention of the Vatican.

Sister Lynne, the school's headmistress, says, "I believe it was a miracle… And we all know the story. We're all taught the story."

In 1866, a young woman named Mary Wilson joined the Society of Sacred Heart.  She became ill and was moved to the convent at Grand Coteau.  Here, her condition worsened.

Mary's journal reads, "I felt getting weaker and my sufferings were so intolerable that it seemed to me that it was impossible to bear them long…. I endured the pangs of death, my body being all drawn up with pain. My hands and feet were cramped and as cold as death. At each attempt to utter a word, blood would gush from my mouth."

Mary's fellow sisters began playing to John Berchmans, a 17th century Jesuit seminarian who was recently beatified by the church. They held a card with Berchmans' image and prayed for relief.

Mary's journal reads, "And one of my mothers invoked blessed Berchmans, incessantly placing his dear image in my mouth."

Mary was given the last rites.  A priest and a doctor knew death was near. Mary wrote that she prayed silently to Berchmans as his blessed image was placed on her mouth. Then Mary heard a voice and saw a man holding a cup standing next to her bed.

Mary's journal reads, "I heard a voice whispering, open your mouth. I did so as well as I could. I felt someone put their finger on my tongue and immediately I was relieved.  I closed my eyes and asked, is it blessed Berchmans?  He answered yes , I come by the order of God."

All signs of Mary's illness instantly vanished. She sat up in bed.  The pain was gone. The sores in her mouth were healed.  The Catholic Church confirmed it was a miracle, the final miracle needed for John Berchmans to be canonized a saint.

A shrine to Saint John Berchmans is in the convent's old infirmary.  And it stands at the very spot where the miracle happened.

Sister Lynne says, "This shrine is known to be the only shrine on the site of an actual miracle in the United States."

It includes a crucifix that belonged to St. Berchmans. But Mary Wilson's connection to Berchmans isn't over.

Sister Lynne says, "About eight months later, John Berchmans appears to her a second time.  And this time, he says I'm taking you to God.  And she dies shortly after.  I wonder if we don't see miracles today and we say to ourselves, oh that person went in remission, because then they die later on. But the fact that they go into remission is really a miracle too sometimes."

In a small cemetery behind the academy are the graves of more than 100 religious of the Sacred Heart. Here you also find the final resting place of Mary Wilson, inscribed with the French word for miracle.

Sister Lynne says, "I believe in miracles. I pray daily to my favorite saints in intercede on behalf of this school, to intercede on behalf of me sometimes. You can't be here and not experience God."

The Academy of Sacred Heart welcomes visitors to the shrine of St. John Berchmans, and there is a small museum that shows the history of the Academy of Sacred Heart.  It's best to call ahead because the shrine and museum are located in a building that is still used for classes.

For more information, go online to http://www.sshcoteau.org/academy/prospective-families/history.