Meet Marie Rose Ferron, America’s First Stigmatist

My favorite photo of Rose. If I use one on the book cover, this likely will be it.

If you’ve been following this blog in the last few months, you may remember me mentioning that I’m writing a biography of Marie Rose Ferron, a little-known Catholic mystic who, though born in Canada, lived most of her life in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In fact, I’m going to be visiting the foundation promoting her cause for canonization in June, including viewing their archives, visiting her grave and interviewing experts about her.

I mention her today because in the Catholic Church, someday this will be her feast day. (The date you die is considered your feast day when you become a saint. May 11 is the 82nd anniversary of her death. May 24 would have been her 116 birthday.)

Childhood
The first documented case of stigmata – a holy person bearing wounds of Christ in their bodies – in the United States was Marie Rose Ferron, known by many as “Little Rose.” She was born on May 24, 1902, in St. Germain de Grantham in Quebec, Canada, into a pious Catholic family who moved to Fall River, Massachusetts, when Rose was three. Rose was the 10th of 15 children, all of whom were dedicated to one of the mysteries of the rosary by their mother. Prophetically, Rose was dedicated to the crucifixion of Christ.

She was a very religious child, who had occasional visions of Jesus and saints from a young age. Her family was large and poor, so at the age of 12, she left school to work as a caregiver to local children. About a year later, Rose became seriously ill and her right hand and left foot were left paralyzed. Rose also suffered from a stomach or intestinal disease that made it difficult, and then impossible, for her to digest or keep down solid food. In addition, she had tetanus, which resulted in lockjaw, and made eating nearly impossible.

By 1925, when her family moved to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Rose was nearly bedbound. She had to be secured to her bed, which was only a board without a mattress, with strips of linen; otherwise, her body would contort and roll up like a hoop. The doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong with her, even though she was in great pain. Seeking to find meaning in her sad life, she turned to Father Gauthier, who taught her the value of redemptive suffering. This led to her offering herself up as a “victim soul” to expiate the sins of others.

The Sentinellist Affair
Around the same time, the diocese into which Rose moved was embroiled in a great controversy that would come to be known as the Sentinellist Affair. In short, Bishop Hickey was raising funds for a new school through a voluntary drive, but he warned it would be turned into a parish tax if people didn’t contribute willingly. The French Canadians of his diocese felt that they shouldn’t be taxed and that the Irish Catholic bishop was plotting to destroy their French-speaking schools and cultural identity in order to “Americanize” them by forcing them into his English-speaking schools. The difference of opinion became so great that the French Canadians took the bishop to court and he excommunicated them.

Bishop Hickey had heard of Rose and her growing reputation for sanctity and so appealed to her to offer her sufferings up to Jesus for the souls of those who were excommunicated and for the good of his diocese. She did so, and all eventually returned to the Church. This was the beginning of Rose’s saintly reputation in the community.

Rose as Mystic

A photo taken just after Rose’s death, showing the Crown of Thorns stigmata.

In addition to her physical sufferings, Rose experienced many mystical phenomenon, including ecstasy, stigmata, the ability to receive Communion without swallowing, bilocation, the ability to discern blessed objects and consecrated hosts, to tell who was a priest vs. a lay person, to read consciences, and to survive for long periods of time without eating solid food. She often took on the pains and illnesses of others, from childbirth to alcoholism, in order to spare others and benefit their souls.

At the end of 1926, Rose received the stigmata, beginning with wounds of the scourging on her arms. During Lent 1927, the marks of the hands and feet appeared. In January 1928 the stigmata of the crown of thorns (which was to become nearly permanent and very clear according to witnesses and photography) appeared and during Lent of 1929 she received the stigmata of the heart. In August of the same year she began to cry tears of blood like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and each Friday took on the countenance of the Holy Face. Other wounds appeared only when she suffered Christ’s passion for three hours on Fridays, such as that of the shoulder (from carrying the cross), one on her lower neck and one that bisected her forehead. Rose’s wounds would appear on late Thursday, remain until approximately 3 p.m. on Friday, and disappear completely by Saturday, as if they had never been and without a trace of infection.

Longing to live the life of a religious, but far too ill to join a convent, for many years Rose was a lay member of the Franciscans and also affiliated with the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. On December 8, 1928, with the permission of Bishop Hickey, Rose took part in a ceremony of consecration in which she took a private vow of perpetual virginity as the first Sister of Reparation of the Sacred Wounds of Jesus. This did not make her a nun, but rather a consecrated lay person. Unfortunately, she did not live to see her order formally revived and approved in the mid-1950s and continue into the 21st century.

Victim of Reparation
By August 1931, fearful of the all the attention the stigmata brought to her and of developing pride, Rose prayed that her wounds would be removed. Jesus made all of them invisible, except for the crown of thorns. Rose still suffered from them; she felt blood rush to them and they caused her great pain, even more, she said, than when they were visible.

Around this time, rumors began to circulate that Rose’s wounds were never real and that all of her sufferings were a hoax. People began to call her a fraud and even close family friends publically turned against her. Believing these false accusations, Rose’s new spiritual director, Father Joseph Baril, told her that her spiritual life was built on a false foundation and that his task was to destroy it and rebuild it properly. So great was his zeal that even Rose began to question her own experiences and wonder if she had been deceived by an illusion.

Death of “Little Rose”

Rose’s grave in Precious Blood cemetary

Once when Rose was in ecstasy, she asked Jesus how much longer it would be before she could join him in heaven. The answer was seven more years, indicating that she would die at the age of 33. By April of 1936, just a month before her 34th birthday, it appeared Rose’s prediction was going to come true. She fainted when she tried to speak, was unable to even drink water, and the pain in her head was so great she would lose consciousness when she heard loud noises. Soon she was blind and deaf. She received last rites on May 2 and died on May 11.

Nearly 15,000 people viewed her remains and more than 4,000 people attended her funeral. In 1947, her grave was opened and her body was found to be incorrupt, a sign of sanctity often attributed to saints and other holy people in the Catholic Church.

Cause for Canonization
But Rose’s story does not end with her death. Almost immediately, friends, family, neighbors and those who had been devoted to Rose during her life began calling for a cause for canonization to be opened, which is the first step in a person becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. Led by Rose’s spiritual director, Father Boyer, a cult quickly formed around Rose. In 1941, Father Boyer published She Wears a Crown of Thorns, the first biography of Rose, and continued to actively promote Rose’s cause until his death in 1959.

To date, there have been two inquiries into Rose’s life for the purpose of deciding whether or not there is sufficient evidence to open a cause for canonization in Rome. The first was in the late 1950s and was led by Bishop Russell McVinney of Providence, Rhode Island. The second was conducted a few years later by Father William McKitchen. This one ended in 1963 with a decree against her case, rendering it effectively closed. The details of the diocese’s findings have never been made public and nor have they given any reason for the negative outcome, leaving Rose’s admirers confused and often outraged.

But that has not stopped those who believe her case has been grossly mishandled. According to Father John Baptist Palm, who worked for Rose’s cause for 50 years, the negative opinion of Rose by members of the clergy appears to stem from the testimony of four people among hundreds. In addition, according to Monsignor Arthur Geoghegan, testimonies in favor of Rose disappeared from the chancery files, and in 1951, a Father O’Brien destroyed all the papers about Rose after being told by the bishop Rose was a fraud. Later, when the second investigation was opened and Father Palm presented the 200 positive testimonies he had collected to Father William McKitchen, leader of the investigation, Father McKitchen refused to even look at them.

Spreading the Word About Rose

Purchased from Adobe Stock

In spite of the 1963 decree, various groups have kept Rose’s cause alive over the years through in-home prayer groups, pamphlets and the now defunct “Little Rose Magazine.” Devotion to Rose is particularly strong in Asia, where she is said to have appeared many times.

From the 1950s through his death in 2009, one of Rose’s strongest advocates was Father John Baptist Palm, who wrote several books regarding Rose and her cause and compiled over 2,000 pages of testimony by people who had known Rose. In 1971, he sent this information to the Holy See, as well as the bishops of North America, but with no resulting change.

In the Internet age, Rose’s supporters are finding new ways to spread the word about her and connect with one another. There is an online apostolate at http://www.marieroseferron.com and there are several lengthy articles about Rose at http://www.mysticsofthechurch.com, in addition to numerous blog posts, social media and articles that tell her story or detail healings in her name.

In 2015, the Rose Ferron Foundation of Rhode Island was founded with the intention of preserving the contents of a chapel built by Rose Myette, Rose’s cousin and caregiver, under Rose’s guidance. But since then, the foundation has expanded into actively working for Rose’s cause for canonization.

Learn more
In case you want to learn more about Rose (and don’t want to wait for my book and/or future blog posts from me), here are some links that contain good information about her:

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Celtic Echoes in the Visions of Hildegard of Bigen

For the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a class on medieval female mystics at a local retreat center. While none of these saints lived near the time that I study, the earliest one, St. Hildegard of Bigen (1098-1179) had a very nature-centered theology that struck me as being in tune with the theology of the Celts.

I wanted to explore that a little here, knowing that it may just be me reading things in where they don’t belong, based on my area of study. Then again, there well could be some echoes of an older belief system present in Hildegard’s visions (remember that the Celts at one time lived in Austria and parts of Germany and France before being driven to the British Isles). Food for thought if nothing else.

Image is public domain from Wikimedia commons

A Little Background on Hildegard
Hildegard was born in Germany and began having visions at the age of five. She was given to the church the tender age of eight as an anchoress, an extreme type of cloistered nun who lived walled up in two rooms for the rest of her life. Anchoresses had only two windows, a small one to the outside, which usually didn’t afford much of a view, and another that faced into the church to which their cells were attached (sometimes this was the only window), through which they could view Mass, receive their food and speak with pilgrims who often came for their blessing.

Hildegard lived with another anchoress, Jutta, for 30 years, eventually being joined by two other young girls. When Jutta died, she received permission to allow them to live as regular cloistered nuns. She eventually founded her own convent, which became known for it’s beautiful singing, which was done at Hildegard’s direction. She was herself an accomplished singer and songwriter, penning an opera on the virtues, as well as more than 70 songs, plus books on science, cosmology, healing herbs and two theology books. Her writings weren’t translated into English until 1982. She was named a Doctor of the Church (only the fourth woman to receive that title) in 2012.

If you want a great historical fiction book on Hildegard, read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations. It’s an excellent book, and from what I learned in this class, highly accurate.

Hildegard’s Visions and Spirituality
Hildegard did not draw the illustrations of her visions. She dictated them and it is believed that one of her fellow sisters, or maybe a monk from the abbey, drew them based on her descriptions. The four elements were very common in all of her visions, as was a sense of balance between light and dark, night and day, winter and summer, which is consistent with a Celtic worldview.

The Cosmic Tree By Hildegard von Bingen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In one of her visions, called the Cosmic Tree, she saw nature, the seasons and the interdependence of man and nature reflected in a circular pattern. The outermost ring of fire represents God. The water and air of the next layer represent healing. Then we have earth, represented by the trees. Interestingly, both the trees and the division of the inner circle reflect the seasons, much like Celtic drawings of the Tree of Life.

Hildegard is quoted as having written, “humans are dependent on creation and creation is dependent on humans.” Also, “The high and the low, all of creation God gives to humankind to use. But if the privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.”

The Cosmic Egg
The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Another famous vision of hers is The Cosmic Egg. Personally, I see a strong image of the universe here. The orange star at the top is supposed to represent Christ. The outer ring of fire is God holding the cosmos together. The blue is said to be the zeal of God. (I see the night sky in it.) The moon and sun are in this sky. In the innermost circle is a wave (we weren’t told what that represents). She is quoted as saying, “The universe is created, nurtured and held in the womb of God,” which is what I see in this image. While this doesn’t have a direct Celtic connection, I see a bit of the Druid concern with the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun in their religion reflected here.

Hildegard’s Trinity, with Jesus in the center Photo: Public Domain)

In another vision, she saw Christ as a blue man surrounded by two rings of light, the outer circle being the Father and the orange ring of  fire being the Spirit. I see a strong resemblance to Celtic mandalas in this image, the repeating concentric circles giving it a labyrinth-like feel. The blue man also reminded me of the Hindu god Vishnu. (Some people say that the Druidic religion has many echoes of Indian beliefs, as well as their system of justice. That’s a complex topic that I may or may not tackle someday. Read The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis if you want to know more.) But blue is also generally accepted as a divine color in many religions, including Catholicism and Hindu.

Hildegard also referred to God in terms of the Divine feminine and was known for her skill with herbs, two things the Celts would have regarded her highly for.

Our instructor noted that many native religions around the world held nature in high regard and had symbolism similar to that found in Hildegard’s visions. One of the things that made Hildegard so special is that what she taught from her visions was in direct opposition to the Catholic teachings of her time. In fact, her messages are still applicable to us today, a thousand years later.

What do you think? Could there have been some lingering Celtic connection or do I just have Celts on the brain? What do you see in these images? Have you heard of Hildegard? What do you think of her?