St. Catherine Laboure, The Miraculous Medal, and Me

My own mother always wore a Miraculous Medal. When I was six, she dropped me off at summer camp, and lovingly placed her medal around my neck for me to wear during my two weeks away from home. At some point during my adventures, I left it on a rock by the lake, and when I went back to look for it, it was gone. Nevertheless, it was my first taste of Our Lady’s protection, which at the time felt more like of an extension of my own mother’s love.

I grew up in rural Vermont before cable TV and before the internet. Dirt roads, honey houses, lakeside fires, hanging out on railroad tracks, lots of long, quiet, days, and I shared most of them with my absolute best friend, Triona Wilder Marno-Ferree, also known as Tree. She had flaming red hair, a temper to match, more freckles than we could count (we tried!), and a passionate love for two things: horses, and me. I remember my parents coming to pick me up from her house after a sleepover and as we pulled away I watched Tree standing on her front porch with a face as flaming red as her hair, screaming in protest at my departure. She was ferociously loyal, and I can’t remember not being her friend.

Tree’s family was interesting, artistic, earthy, and . . . not Catholic. Not even Christian. Her dad laughed at “ignorant” Catholic superstitions, but let her come to Mass with us if she was around on a Sunday, and let her wear my Miraculous Medal, which she never took off. In sixth grade, her parents divorced. Her mom moved to Colorado and Tree went with her, while her dad and sister stayed behind.

In Colorado she found a third passion: snowboarding. One day she had a terrible snowboarding accident, and in the bustle of the emergency room, the Miraculous Medal went missing. Somehow, either by the generosity of her parents, or by her own rummaging through family belongings, she found a replacement. It was handmade by her Catholic great-aunt; it was large, artisan, silver; it was stunning. It was the prettiest medal, religious or not, that I had ever seen, and she wore it with pride. She wore it all through high-school, and into college. In every picture it was around her neck, lovely as she was.

Years passed and our paths began to separate more and more. Our visits were less and less frequent, but she was one of those people with whom no time ever seemed to have gone by, despite the different paths we were on. In college I met Justin (my husband), and couldn’t wait to bring him home to meet my family. He was flying into the inconvenient airport of Boston, and no one in my family could lend me a car to pick him up. I called up my old friend Tree, who was back in our home state, and without hesitating, she jumped in her gas guzzling pickup and came to the rescue, driving a total of 12 hours with me to complete the errand. She was so good. And she would still do anything for me.

Justin and I got married young, and Tree was a bridesmaid in the wedding. I wonder now how uncomfortable she may have felt in the mix of all my close, bubbly, college friends high on Jesus; perhaps she felt like an outsider, but more likely she was just happy for me, because she was good like that.

When we opened the gifts after the wedding, hers was in a small box. I wept when I saw her great-aunt’s shining Miraculous Medal, on a silver chain, accompanied by the children’s book Best Friends, by Steven Kellogg.

I immediately called her, crying in disbelief that she would give me what I knew was her greatest treasure. Tree laughed, and said, “You know, it’s funny. My mom found the medal you gave me when we were kids. It was in the pocket of an old corduroy coat, and that one means even more to me. This way, I’ll always wear the one you gave me, and you can always wear the one I gave you.”

Two weeks later, she was in a horrible car accident. She was hit by a semi-truck and died on the spot. My parents came over to my house, my father calmly delivered the news and my mother, red face with streaming tears, couldn’t look at me. Tree’s body was cremated, and the funeral service was in a Unitarian church. Through that whole, grueling time, I had in my heart the secret that perhaps only I knew: she was wearing a Miraculous Medal when she died.

I can’t remember when the first dream happened. But I saw her. I saw her canoeing, away from me and through a swampy forest. And that was all.

In the second dream, she came to me. I hugged her so tightly, and I stammered, “Tree!! How are you!? Where are you!?” She let me hug her, and she answered:

“I haven’t seen Him yet, but she doesn’t leave my side. She doesn’t say anything, she just looks at me and smiles.”

I woke to a pillow wet with tears. I understood that she was in Purgatory, and that Mary was taking care of her.

You can imagine that her Miraculous Medal became my most treasured possession. It was my turn to wear it always, in every photograph, every day and every night. Six babies played with it while nursing, and I never took it off. I intended to give it to my eldest daughter, Triona Mary Wilder (Tree) when she got married, if I could hold on to it that long. (Triona is short for Caitriona, the Irish form of Catherine, and I found out this year that my daughter’s birthday, July 27, is Catherine Labouré’s canonization day.)

My last dream of Tree came when I was home visiting my parents. That day I had driven by Triona’s old house. It was much smaller than I remembered, the paint was badly chipping, the gardens unkempt, and in the back yard I saw the old tree fort her dad had made, but instead of sturdy wood and a shiny slide, I saw a dilapidated, rotting, hazardous resemblance of our childhood hideaway. It was hard to believe it had been over 20 years since we whiled away the days in its privacy.

In my dream that night, I saw her as a child, swinging, swinging, head back, laughing, and swinging, on that rotted, dilapidated structure. She didn’t know, or seem to care, that it would have been condemned long ago, and that a normal child would not attempt playing on it. Another pillow wet with tears.

I lost the medal last summer. I was at a winery with some friends, and realized that it, along with some other pendants, had fallen on the ground when the chain broke from around my neck. We scoured the property and found all the missing pendants except the Miraculous Medal. It was Justin’s birthday, and he was the one who had the hardest time giving up, but eventually we got in the van and pulled away, my heart strangely at peace with the loss of my precious treasure. After all, 14 years is a long time for someone as scatterbrained as me to keep anything.

I always tell my children to pay attention to dates, that God loves to use dates to show us heavenly connections. I always thought that Tree died on a no-nothing day in the church calendar, and was slightly disappointed. This year I realized (I don’t know why it took me so long) that the date of her death, August 14, is the eve of the feast of the Assumption. Pretty dang perfect.

I dare to hope that the loss of the medal, and the dream of Tree swinging, although strange and slightly dark, meant she made it to Heaven. In that last dream I tasted her, tasted the immortal world and the sense of childhood joy that is regained in the next life. Regardless of where she is right now, I feel confident that she is in the care of Our Lady. Looking back, I think of Tree as one of the few people I’ve known who really knew how to love selflessly. How lucky for me that I got to be the object of that love; her devotion and fidelity to me was and is nothing short of a witness of Jesus Christ.

What did I do with the loss of Tree’s medal? I bought a nice vintage replacement on Ebay and had it blessed; zero attachment to it of course. My daughter woke up in the night with a bad dream, and in the spirit of my own mother, I placed it around her neck. My second replacement was a large, golden, medal I found second-hand. A friend was having a difficult pregnancy, and I passed it on. My best friend from college told me she didn’t own one, and my third replacement was sent airmail to Indiana. Now, I have fun with it. I buy the best quality and best looking Miraculous Medal I can find, (because everything Catholic should be beautiful!) and wear it until someone comments on it. That person, I’ve decided, is meant to be the owner, and I have jokingly and generously titled myself, “Hope Schneir: Ambassador of the Miraculous Medal.” Hopefully St. Catherine Labouré approves. Good thing for me she is probably desperate enough to let me have the job.

So, if I ever get the chance to meet you, dear reader, and you are not wearing a Miraculous Medal, I hope you will be so bold as to compliment the one that I am wearing. And it will be my privilege to place it around your neck.

image: Farragutful [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Hope Schneir, an alumna of Franciscan University of Steubenville, spends her days as wife, mother of eight, writer, and musician. She and her husband have recorded four albums with their folk band Hope and Justin, and she writes for the paper-and-ink journal Soul Gardening.

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