St. Julie - 50 Years A Saint


St. Peter Basilica, The Vatican, June 22, 1969

This is a story not before told in one place.

Its parts have for decades resided in obscurity: in three paragraphs of the 1952 internal communications of a religious congregation; in sworn affidavits of people long since deceased; in the archived tomes of the Holy See.

Some accounts match, some differ.

Some are in Portuguese, some English. Some are reported in the weeks following, some from a vantage point of thirty years hence.

But at its root the story is this...

On a mild night in the village of Mata Virgem, twenty-seven miles from the Brazilian town

of Campos Novos, a father—a farmer and most likely a beekeeper—is struggling to help his son into a truck. The son—Otacilio Ribeiro da Silva, 29 years old, married, also a farmer—is shaking with pain. The date: September 29, 1950.

The two drive to the town’s hospital. Sister Maria Bardona, a Coesfeld Sister of Notre Dame, meets them at the door. Of the son, she said later, “He looked as if he would be gone if he closed his eyes.”

The hospital’s superior arrives, Sister Mary Ludvine. Upon seeing the son she calls both a priest and a doctor. The doctor’s name is Janh Martins Ribeiro (no relation to the family). Dr. Ribeiro orders immediate surgery. Otacilio’s body is so contorted with pain he is unable to lie down. An anesthetic is administered. As it takes hold, Dr. Ribeiro says to the Sisters, “Call his father for it is quite certain he will not see him again alive.”

The operation begins. A terrible tumor comes into view. In the words of Sister Mary Ludvine: “It was hard as a stone and of a dark red color, and filled the entire abdomen…The doctor tried to loosen the tumor to remove it, but from no side could it be moved. Almost without knowing what to do, he tried over and over to make the tumor yield, and worked at it for a long time. But it was impossible.”

“He is condemned,” said the doctor. “There is no hope.” 

The Sisters move Otacilio, still unconscious, to another room. Sister Ludvine asks what further medical measures should be undertaken. “Sister, Sister,” the doctor says, “…he will not live another hour.”

Sister Ludvine, Sister Bardona, and a third Sister, Sister Maria Adelaide, begin to pray. Otacilio’s father sits by the bedside. The night moves on.

Stop now. Go back an even further thirty-one years and into another hemisphere. It’s November 20, 1919 in Namur, Belgium. Monsieur Homer Rhodius, long ill with renal disease, lies on his deathbed. He receives the Last Sacraments and falls into a deep coma. His attending physicians give him less than a day, and exit, whereupon the family, with no other recourse, begins to pray. They begin a fervent novena and place upon Monsieur Rhodius a relic of the then Blessed Julie Billiart, presumably supplied by Sister Marie-Ludovica, his daughter and a Sister of the Namur branch of the Sisters of Notre Dame. After two days, Monsieur Rhodius wakes up. On the fourth day, he is able to take nourishment. Within a month he returns to work. No sign of his malady ever returns.

Perhaps the Coesfeld Sisters of Notre Dame – a generation and an ocean removed, speaking a different language, praying through the night in Campos Novos – recall this miracle. But if they do, no mention is later made of it in the congregation’s December 1952 Chimes newsletter, when Julie Billiart is still Blessed Julie, and when Sister Ludvine first writes, in a brief three paragraphs, of the incident of Otacilio Ribeiro preceded by the comings and goings of the day, such as the number of calves and chickens prepared for the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

More likely is that the wee hours of September 30, 1950 are a crush of panic, disbelief and sadness displacing all else, the father now joined by the mother at their son’s bedside, the Sisters praying, the 29-year-old Otacilio supine and unresponsive. Finally, almost unexpectedly, first dawn shows through the window. Death has not appeared. The sun rises. Otacilio comes to.

Sister Ludvine explains what has transpired. She speaks of Blessed Julie and of their petitions. She attaches a picture of the foundress to the wall and places a relic over Otacilio’s incision. She invites Otacilio to join them in a novena, which he does.

"Sister, there is something so very unusual. I cannot explain it but it is quite different." — Otacilio

Still, even after three days of further life, the doctor says again there is no hope.

But then something happens.

On either the third evening or the fourth (Sister Ludvine, years later, could not remember), Otacilio calls out, “Sister, there is something so very unusual. I cannot explain it but it is quite different.”

“Otacilio,” says Sister Ludvine, making the sign of the cross on his forehead, “the dear God is good. He will be with you this night. Pray to your saint.” Then she leaves, leaving him alone.

The night passes. At five o’clock Sister Ludvine returns. She finds Otacilio sitting up in bed, smiling. “I could get up,” he says. Sister Ludvine, recovering from her shock, won’t allow it. They wait for the doctor. At nine the doctor comes in.

“What have you done to him?” he says. He examines the incision and abdomen. He says repeatedly, as much to himself as to others, “What has become of the growth? Where did the growth go?”

A week later Otacilio is released. His parents give the Sisters one and a half kilograms of wax for candles. Otacilio promises, “If the good Lord would give me one more daughter, she shall be called Julie.”

Two months later he returns, now on horseback. He swings out of the saddle, calling, “Sister, do you remember me yet?”  

With that, and with the 1952 mention in the Chimes newsletter, the story might end. But it doesn’t.


Coesfeld Sister of Notre Dame Mother Mary Verona

In 1952, Mother Mary Verona, an assistant mother general of the Coesfeld Sisters of Notre Dame, residing in Rome and in a free moment, thumbs through the December issue of her congregation’s newsletter. Mother Verona, knowing very well of the 1919 miracle of Monsieur Homer Rhodius, much involved in the decades-long effort to canonize Blessed Julie, well connected with the Church hierarchy, reads casually of the work of a Sister Bardona and a Sister Ludvine in the faraway town of Campos Novos. She reads of the fatted calves slaughtered for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and of the number of chickens prepared.

And Mother Verona reads those three paragraphs of the illness and recovery two years earlier of the farmer from the village of Mata Virgem.

At which point she stops.

In the three branches of Notre Dame tracing back to Julie Billiart—the Sisters from Namur in Belgium, the Coesfeld Sisters from Germany and the Dutch Sisters in Amersfoort—perhaps only a handful know the starts and stops, ups and downs, and the seemingly miraculous intercessions of Julie over the years, intercessions that for all their merit could not be proved to the standards of the Vatican and so count as the second miracle required for canonization.

But in this handful of Sisters is Mother Verona. And before her is a newsletter she has found time to read. And in this one particular newsletter is news from the far reaches of the congregation written two years after the fact.

Mother Verona immediately takes the newsletter to the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, whom she knows. The Congregation of Rites is the then Secretariat within the Church tasked with the causes of saints.

“They have written such a little bit about it,” she says to the Secretary, and which she recounts later. “Without date, without names,without anything.”

Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Mère Josepha de St. François

To which the Secretary, after reading the three paragraphs, says, “Ask the Sisters in Brazil to write a more complete report, and then we will see.”

The word goes out to Sister Ludvine in Brazil, who complies. Participants are interviewed, proceedings held, affidavits sworn. Documents flow back and forth between Rome and the Diocese of Lages, in which the purported second miracle is said to have occurred. The wheel of canonization, stalled after the 1919 miracle, begins again to creak forward.

It takes another four years, into 1958, for the miracle in Brazil to be authenticated. In 1959, Mère Josepha de St. François, Mother General of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, requests an audience with Pope John XXIII, hoping to move forward with the process of canonization. But the pope says to her: “Our good religious are all begging for the canonization of their foundresses. Let them sanctify themselves. That will give greater glory to God.”

Mère Josepha, in her own words, is “struck with consternation.” Nevertheless, and swallowing her disappointment, she drafts a note to the pope thanking him for his time. A few days later a return note arrives, coming through the pope’s secretary. “…the Sacred Congregation of Rites will be acquainted with your desire,” it says.

The wheel creaks slightly, then, in 1967, is quieted again. The miracle of Monsieur Homer Rhodius, dating back to 1919, is to be examined once more. There is the possibility of reversal. Sisters of Notre Dame on five continents await the outcome.


St. Julie Billiart's relatives 

More years pass. The pope is now Paul VI. It’s June 22, 1969, sunny and hot. In twenty-nine days men will land on the moon. (When the canonization process began, men had yet to fly.)

Mother Mary Verona is in St. Peter’s Basilica. With her are eight hundred Coesfeld Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort, and Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, including Mère Josepha.

Pope Paul VI greets
Sisters of Notre Dame

There, too, are relatives of Julie Billiart, bearing a striking resemblance. Media from the four corners of the world wield cameras and notepads. There are prelates in clerical garb, and men in coats and ties. Among the latter is the doctor Janh Martins Ribeiro.

Pope Paul VI enters. He formally declares Marie Rose Julie Billiart, of Cuvilly, France as the Church’s newest saint—Saint Julie. He offers Communion. Among those receiving it is a dark, mustachioed farmer from the village of Mata Virgem, twenty-seven miles from Campos Novos. Beside him is a girl of fourteen. Her name, too, is Julie.

Pope Paul VI and Otacilio Ribeiro