22 January 2010

'A Poem of Purity: Blessed Laura Vicuña, patron of those who have been abused

Today is the feastday of Blessed Laura Vicuña, patron of victims of abuse. In the January-February 2008 issue of Misyon, the Columban online magazine in the Philippines that I edit, we published an article on this young girl by Fr John Murray, a parish priest in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The article first appeared in The Sacred Heart Messenger and was used with permission. As today is her feastday and since there are still so many young people, both boys and girls, being abused by adults, we are posting the article again. I also posted it on this blog a year ago.

This evening, as I began doing two years ago, I will celebrate Mass at Holy Family Home here in Bacolod where so many of the girls and young women there have suffered from abuse by adults. We link the feast of Blessed Laura with that of St Agnes, a girl of the same age, martyred in 304, whose feast was yesterday.

I first became aware of Blessed Laura while giving a retreat in a Salesian retreat house near Manila some years ago.

Although she was only twelve when she died, Laura Vicuña had grown to a maturity of faith well beyond her years. Fr John Murray sees the life of this young girl whose feast is 22 January as an inspiration.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II endeavored to offer to the Church and the world at large, models for Christian living: people we can imitate and learn from, as we try to make our own way through the maze and pitfalls of life. In an age of sexual license, when often girls and young women can be at the mercy of sexual predators, the life of Laura Vicuña has something to say in our own day.

Painful experiences

Laura was born in Santiago, Chile, on 5 April 1891.Soon after her birth, her father had to flee the country because of political upheavals, and when she was only three he himself passed away. Bereft of support, her mother, Mercedes, sadly entered into a relationship with a local ranch owner, one Manuel Mora.

He offered to pay for the care and schooling of her children at a Salesian boarding school, if Mercedes became his mistress. Laura attended the Salesian mission school with her sister, Julia. With a maturity beyond her years, Laura often helped the younger children with their tasks, and acted almost like a mother to them, combing their hair and mending their clothing.

Even then, Mora would try to molest her, especially when he was drunk. She made her First Holy Communion when she was ten, but was always afraid of Mora, because of his lewd desires on her. When she fought off his first assault, the ranch owner refused to pay for her school tuition, but despite that the Sisters continued to educate her.

Offering up her life

Despite her young age, Laura was conscious that her mother was not living as God would want, and she had already decided to offer her life to God for her mother’s conversion.

At this stage, her own health was delicate, and in the winter of 1902 Mercedes left the Mora’s hacienda in order to care for her ailing daughter.

At this time, they were living in Argentina.However, in January 1904, Mora arrived on their doorstep to demand that Laura surrender to his lusts. When she refused him, he whipped and kicked her, and then threw her brutally across the saddle of his horse to carry her back to his ranch. Aware that the local people were watching him, he dumped her body in a ditch and left. Laura lingered on until 22 January, when she died of severe internal injuries.

Just before she died, she told her mother that she had given her life to bring about a conversion in her. ‘Mama,’ she said. ‘I am dying, but I’m happy to offer my life for you. I asked our Lord for this’. After Laura’s death, Mercedes made a good confession, left Mora, and became a devout Catholic again.


In September 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Laura, calling her a ‘Eucharistic flower . . . whose life was a poem of purity, sacrifice and filial love’. In many ways, her life parallels that of St Maria Goretti, whose life and death may be better known to many people. She too fought off the advances of a young man with lustful desires.

Maria died but was able eventually to achieve the conversion of her murderer, and when she was later canonized in 1950, he was present at the ceremony. (Note: I saw a TV documentary on St Maria Goretti on EWTN recently and it stated that he wasn't present, though he was still alive at the time and living in a Capuchin friary in Italy as a member of the Capuchin Third Order.)

Like Maria, Laura did not let the sordidness of Mora destroy her innocence, nor did she allow her heart to become embittered. Instead, she prayed for her mother and also for her lover. We can but hope that Mora too experienced the conversion which Laura prayed for her mother. Her life is a testimony to the words of St Paul: ‘However much sin increased, grace was always greater’ (Rom 5:20).

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