– Marco Carvalho
On 13th October, Switzerland will inscribe a new name in the increasingly large legion of Catholic saints. Beatified by John Paul II in 1995, Marguerite Bays – a seamstress who lived and died in the small French-speaking village of Siviriez, in the canton of Fribourg – will be officially raised to the altars, in a celebration presided by Pope Francis. It is the third person of Swiss nationality to be canonized after Saint Nicholas of Flüe and Saint Maria Bernarda Bütler. O Clarim spoke with father Martial Python, parish priest of the Swiss city of Romont and the new saint’s biographer.
Marguerite Bays was known, while she was still alive, for her great faith and great sense of compassion. Yet, her name is still little known outside Switzerland. Who was and what did Marguerite Bays do to deserve the greatest honor of them all, being raised to the altars?
We have, indeed, to consider two different times in the life of Marguerite Bays. The first one stems from her birth, from her childhood. It is a phase in which her contemporaries speak of a playful girl who was in love both with prayer and silence. Then in her youth, although she was a pretty girl, Marguerite felt the call to give her life to the Lord by embracing chastity. Her contemporaries told her she should enter the convent. “No!” she answered with great security, “I will deliver myself to God otherwise.”
She decided she would remain with her family. She lived with the families of her two brothers Jean and Claude, with her brother Joseph, who remained single, and with Mariette, who returned home after a failed marriage. The Bays owned a small agricultural estate for their livelihood, but they lived in a very precarious situation. However, they didn’t experience misery. Her family, which was not always in harmony with the doctrine of the Church, will in fact be her first place of sanctification. Each and everyone in the family will make their own spiritual awakening through Marguerite’s spiritual experience. She didn’t adopt a moralizing stance. On the contrary: her radiance was enough to drive those that were around her to God.
Marguerite helped to support her family with her work as a seamstress. She would go from farm to farm to look for something to sew. She transformed her profession into her own vocation. She was known by a nickname. She was called “The Seamstress of La Pierra.” Through her work, which she performed with great skill, she become a confidant to many. Everyone could open their heart to her. Many said that, after they met with Marguerite, a real new spring of life arose.
Marguerite was celebrated by the fact that she did not judge people. People could easily establish a great confidence in herself.
On the other hand, Marguerite was very active in her parish. She was engaged in most of the existing pastoral movements and she even created new ones with the consent of the local priest. She cared a great deal for the poor in the region, especially the orphans and children from socially and morally weakened families. Sometimes, as a seamstress, she would sew their clothes or dressed them in new attires. Often, these same children called her godmother or even mother.
She accompanied the dying, particularly those that didn’t want the presence of a priest in their last rites. We must not forget that Switzerland was right in the middle of the anticlerical period. Marguerite, by her great sense of humanity and her depth of soul, gave – only by touching them – these people peace and serenity.
In 1854, Marguerite was afflicted with cancer of the intestines. On December 8 of that same year, in Rome, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of Mary in her Immaculate Conception. According to her contemporaries, Marguerite’s life was hanging by a thread. She was at the end of her life. During the Thanksgiving Mass at her parish, while she was bedridden and dying, she was miraculously cured, to the amazement of the villagers. Soon after, she received the stigmata.
Marguerite Bays showed some signs of sanctity while she was still alive. Could the stigmata she bore be seen as a sign of affinity and closeness to God?
The experience of stigmatization marks the beginning of the second phase of Marguerite’s life. However, I think it is important to understand the scope of the stigmata. We need to look at literature, philosophy or music, so we can understand how relevant the stigmata are for a Catholic. In literature, we have always had great writers, but some of them are giants: Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Molière. Similarly, there are giants in fields such as philosophy or music, namely Aristotle, Plato, Mozart or Bach.
Holiness has its great ones, but it also has its giants, which are precisely the stigmatized. Why? Because the stigmatized are those who have practiced love and charity to such a degree that they have become the mirror of God. The stigmata is nothing more than the seal of God. It was said of Saint Francis of Assisi that he was the “alter Christus,” in the sense that, due to his stigmata, he was another Christ on earth.
Stigmatization is an experience of the Holy Spirit which means that charisma emerges precisely from it. That is why Marguerite was endowed with the gift of counsel, discernment and prophecy. Many people came to her for help. They came from all over Switzerland, but also from across the border: Belgium, Poland, etc. At the time, the then bishop Marius Marilley was worried about the large number of visitors. He was very little inclined to mysticism and he feared being ridiculed by the civil authorities, which were back then tinged with anti-clericalism. He made a medical inquiry to analyze the stigmata and the mystical phenomena that accompanied them: once every Friday, Marguerite relived the Passion. The doctor couldn’t do anything but to bring himself to recognize the mystical nature of the facts.
Marguerite entered into eternal bliss precisely after such ana experience on Friday, June 27, 1879 in the octave of the Sacred Heart, exactly at 3 pm.
It takes at least two miracles for a canonization process to be launched. What miracles are we talking about? What sort of graces are being attributed to Blessed Marguerite Bays?
Since she died there have been many miracles performed by God, through Marguerite’s intercession. Of these, two have been proposed: one for the beatification process and the other one for canonization. The miracle related to the beatification process concerns a young man, who survived a fall in the mountains. Experts have demonstrated the divine character in this intervention. The Vatican, for its part, created a counter-expertise that could only confirm the results of the first process. The second miracle, the one that confirmed Marguerite Bays as a saint, was centered in a small girl who fell from a tractor. The big wheel of the vehicle passed over her whole body. The girl came out unscathed, although the marks of the wheels were printed on her clothes and left some slight bruises on the girls body, thus confirming that the wheel has indeed passed over her. Helpless, her grandfather, in the face of the accident, immediately invoked Marguerite. He was always certain that there has been a divine intervention through Marguerite’s intercession.
How is Marguerite Bays presence felt today in Siviriez and Romont? Is Siviriez already a place of pilgrimage?
Marguerite is very present in our hearts. She is very popular. Having died on June 27th, on the 27th of every month, between 300 to 500 people come to participate in the liturgies that take place all over the day and that have their climax with a Eucharist celebrated at 8 pm. On a regular basis, pilgrims come in groups or alone to gather in the places where she spent most of her time , as well as in front of their shrine where Marguerite rests. These pilgrims come from Switzerland, but also from elsewhere, especially in the good season.
The cult of Marguerite … When did it develop? Right after her death, in 1879?
The grave where she was buried, in the Siviriez cemetery, was preserved, although she was exhumed in 1929. The epitaph on the tombstone, which had been erected by those who knew her, is very expressive: “She lived doing good. Her memory will remain blessed. Dear and tender godmother, do not forget those you have left on Earth.”
In fact, immediately after her death, many came to pray at her grave, as from Heaven she could continue to do good on earth. Since her beatification, fervor never stopped growing. Three years ago I was called to Montreal to give a talk on Marguerite, because her fame and the books that have been written about her took her across the border. I gave other conferences in Brussels, in Belgium, and in Banneux and Lisieux, in France. I was very touched by the interest shown. Recently I was called to talk about her in an open table at a gathering of members of the movement Communion and Liberation. In the event, that took place in Pila, in the Aosta Valley, brought together more than 300 people.
Marguerite Bays is only the third person in Switzerland to be raised to the altars. What effect can her canonization have on the Catholic community in Switzerland?
In my opinion, it can only be of great good for the spiritual life of the country. All her life, Marguerite, as a Franciscan layman, constantly translated into action – into a human act – the love of God. Christ was none other than her radiant companion of life.
And for the region of Romont, is it a pride to have a saint among your children?
It’s a great joy. Through Marguerite’s canonization, the Church recognizes the holiness of people who may not have done an extraordinary thing, such as some founding saints, but who have simply lived through everyday life in a humanizing way.
What can we find in Siviriez related to Marguerite’s life?
There is her house. The house where she lived was preserved. Many pilgrims love to come and take refuge in her house, a place where we can breathe tranquility nowadays. There is also the chapel of Notre-Dame du Bois, where the Virgin Mary has shown herself to her, not to mention the church where she rests and the Abbey of La Fille-Dieu, where Mother Abbesse Lutgarde Menétrey lived. She was Marguerite’s goddaughter. She was a great mystic too, who had visions and celestial revelations. There was a great spiritual friendship between Lutgarde and Marguerite. This Mother Abbess was responsible for the reform of the Cistercian order of the Daughter-God, by transforming it in the Trappist Order of the Strict Observance. It may be possible that one day this nun will also be raised to the altars.
As for Marguerite, in many families, her memory remains very present. There are still some who have some ties of kinship with her, as also for Mother Lutgarde who comes from Chavannes-Les-Forts, a village next to the one where Marguerite lived. On the other hand, the life of Marguerite Bays is part of the catechesis program of all the children of the Glâne region who are preparing for the first communion.