I still remember the day my second-grade teacher passed out saints cards. We were all given different ones, so as you might expect of seven- and eight-year-olds, trading commenced immediately.
The noise level in the classroom quickly escalated as my classmates found saints whose names they shared. I sifted through my pile of cards carefully, but I was sure there wouldn’t be a Laura. I’d never heard of one anyway. I was surprised and excited, then, when a friend plopped one down on my desk.
Blessed Laura Vicuña. The biography on the back of her card could have said anything, and I still would have loved her. This I know for certain, because I forgot everything about Laura’s life nearly as soon as I finished reading about it. The card itself was special to me, however—as was the idea of someone in heaven bearing my name—and I held onto it for the rest of that year.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I revisited her life story more attentively. Though a young saint, Laura is a great witness to the courage that comes from faith in Christ.
My Whole Self. Laura was born in Chile on April 5, 1891, just three months after the outbreak of a civil war. Her parents worried for their safety—a relative was a prominent figure in the conflict—and left Chile for a quieter home in the Andes mountains. A second daughter was born there, but Señor Vicuña died within three years of the family’s move. Grieving and without income, Laura’s mother, Mercedes, took her girls to a frontier town in Argentina, where she hoped to find work as a cook or maid. There she met Manuel Mora, a hard-drinking, domineering ranch owner. He agreed to take in the little family if Mercedes became his mistress. She consented. Such arrangements were not unusual in the area, and as a widow ranking low on the social ladder, she saw few other ways to support her children.
When Laura was eight, Mercedes persuaded Mora to pay for her daughters to attend a boarding school run by the Salesian sisters. There, Laura developed a deep love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament—“Jesus’ little house,” she called the tabernacle. Two years later, when she made her First Holy Communion, she confided in her journal: “O my God, I want to love you and serve you all my life. I give you my soul, my heart, my whole self.”
Laura admired the Salesian sisters who oversaw her academic and spiritual development, and she wanted to become one of them. She asked the bishop for permission to take their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but he laughed it off. She was too young, he said—and indeed, it was an unusual request for an eleven-year-old. Laura’s confessor, though, saw her desire endure and deepen. He came to agree that she had discerned her vocation correctly and allowed her to commit herself to the vows privately until she was old enough to enter the Salesian community.
No Greater Love. Alongside the joy of her spiritual growth, however, Laura was experiencing real problems on her visits home. What she learned at school about the beauty of the Sacrament of Matrimony opened her eyes to the truth about Mercedes’ relationship with Mora. Young though she was, Laura was distressed that their lifestyle went against God’s plan. To make matters worse, Mora was an alcoholic and was often abusive when he drank. Then, as Laura reached adolescence, he began making sexual advances toward her.
Laura did all she could to elude Mora and reject his attentions. Determined to protect her purity, she often prayed for strength and courage. But fearful as she was for herself, Laura was most concerned about her mother. Her prayer before the little tabernacle at school became “Jesus, I wish that Mama would know you better and be happy.”
Laura was affected deeply by Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Perhaps this is what motivated her to make a decision during the Easter season of 1902. By this time, she had several years’ experience of seeing how miserable her mother was. More worried about her than ever, Laura determined that only the ultimate sacrifice would do: she asked Jesus to accept her young life as an offering for her mother’s salvation. Of course, she told Mercedes nothing of this request.
May I Have This Joy? While at school in the winter of 1903, Laura fell ill. She returned home to her mother’s care but failed to improve. Seeing Laura’s health decline and Mora’s lustful overtures increase, Mercedes became so worried that she took her daughters and moved to a small apartment. Perhaps she thought the new situation would improve Laura’s health or Mora’s behavior.
Unfortunately, both continued to worsen. One day Mora visited the family and informed them that he would be staying the night. Laura was horrified, and declared that she would leave if he stayed. Then she ran out of the house with all the strength she had left. Mora followed and caught her in the street. Enraged, he beat her severely, whipping and kicking her until neighbors stepped in.
Laura held on for a little over a week, but she knew it was the end. Her confessor came to hear her confession and give her the last rites. Afterwards, alone with her mother, the girl revealed her secret: “Mama, I offer my life for you. I asked our Lord for this. Before I die, may I have the joy of seeing you repent?” Sobbing and stunned by the unexpected revelation—and by the depth of her daughter’s love for her—Mercedes promised that she would. She received the Sacrament of Penance that very week.
Though we don’t know much about Mercedes’ life from then on, it seems that she made a full and lasting conversion and found a way to break free of Mora and live with dignity. Through her daughter, Mercedes came to know the love of Christ and found the courage to make a new start.
A Relevant Patron. Laura Vicuña died on January 22, 1904, just a few months shy of her thirteenth birthday. Pope John Paul II beatified her on September 3, 1988, and called her life “a poem of purity, sacrifice, and filial love.”
It’s a “poem” that makes Laura a relevant and hopeful patron saint for women who have been abused or victimized. And their numbers are many. An estimated one in four women experiences domestic abuse at some point in her life. Each year alone, approximately 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by a partner.
Laura’s example is powerful because vulnerable and helpless as she was in her society, she found a way to rise above her circumstances. By staying close to the Lord through prayer, she found the courage and means to fight back. Anything but passive or cowardly, Laura stood up to her abuser. Following Christ’s example, she chose to give her life so that Mercedes could escape her terrible domestic situation and find true freedom. The doorway to healing, Laura shows us, can often be found within our own perspective, if not always in our circumstances.
Lady of Victory. Long before my teacher passed out those saints cards, I found out that my name, “Laura,” means “laurel crowned,” or “lady of victory.” My elementary-school self felt I deserved the moniker at times—by winning an argument or getting the highest grade in the class. But Laura Vicuña shows us what the name can mean in light of the victory that the peace of Christ brings.
Victory? Some people might hear Laura’s story and see only submission: submission to abuse, to illness, to death. But look more closely, and Laura’s quiet endurance reveals heroic courage. Laura pursued God even when she was ridiculed; she pursued purity even when threatened physically; she pursued love even to the point of death. In union with Jesus, who gave her courage, her suffering—as senseless and horrible as it was—had great redemptive value.
Our world is full of pain, and we don’t need to look further than our own lives to see it. Jesus is waiting for us to bring our suffering to his feet—to make an offering of it for our good and the good of others. Laura Vicuña did this humbly and courageously, and now she rejoices in heaven with him. Lady of Victory, indeed!
Laura Mitchell writes from Northern Virginia.