Shrine of Saint John Berchmans
The spiritual history of the Academy of the Sacred Heart is rich and deep. Saint Philippine Duchesne, RSCJ, was instrumental in the convent's founding and visited the school in both 1822 and 1829. Venerable Cornelia Connelly, of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, taught music and lived on the grounds in the 1840s. And in 1866, John Berchmans, a young Jesuit born in Belgium in 1599, appeared to a dying novice of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, Mary Wilson. This apparition followed by her miraculous recovery led to the canonization of John Berchmans in 1888. The infirmary, the site of the miracle, was transformed into the Shrine of St. John Berchmans. It is now, and has been for over 150 years, a place of peace, quiet devotion, and pilgrimage.
Backstory and Context
Mary Wilson was born in New London, Canada in 1846. She converted to Catholicism when she was 16 years old, and later entered the novitiate of the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1866. Her poor health led to her relocation to the convent in Grand Coteau and its milder climate. However, her health quickly deteriorated and she was soon confined to the infirmary. What follows is Mary Wilson's personal attestation:
“On the 19th of October I was obliged to report to the infirmary, and I did not leave it until the 15th of December, the day after the one on which God was pleased to manifest His Power and Mercy in my behalf. During all this time I was dangerously ill, vomiting blood two and three times a day, with constant fever and violent headaches the greater part of the time; and still the pain in my side continued.
“I do not think I had eaten an ounce of food for about forty days. During that time I had taken nothing but a little coffee or tea, which for a week before I recovered I could no longer take. And for two weeks no medicine had been administered. The doctor said it was useless to torture me more. So, he stopped giving me any. The last two days I was unable to take even a drop of water.
“I endured the pangs of death. My body was drawn up with pain; my hands and feet were cramped and as cold as death. All my sickness had turned to inflammation of the stomach and throat. My tongue was raw and swollen. I was not able to speak for two days. At each attempt to utter a word, the blood would gush from my mouth.
“Being unable to speak, I said in my heart: ‘Lord, Thou Who seest how I suffer, if it be for your honor and glory and the salvation of my soul, I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health. Otherwise give me patience to the end. I am resigned.’ Then, placing the image of Blessed Berchmans on my mouth, I said: ‘if it be true that you can work miracles, I wish you would do something for me. If not, I will not believe in you.’
“I can say without scruple of fear of offending God: I heard a voice whisper, ‘Open your mouth.’ I did so as well as I could. I felt someone, as if put their finger on my tongue, and immediately I was relieved. I then heard a voice say in a distinct and loud tone: ‘Sister, you will get the desired habit. Be faithful. Have confidence. Fear not.’
“I had not yet opened my eyes. I did not know who was by my bedside. I turned round and said aloud: But, Mother Moran, I am well!
“Then, standing by my bedside, I saw a figure, He held in his hands a cup, and there were some lights near him, at this beautiful sight I was afraid. I closed my eyes and asked: ‘Is it Blessed Berchmans?’ He answered: ‘Yes, I come by the order of God. Your sufferings are over. Fear not!’
“For the glory of Blessed John Berchmans, whose name be ever blessed! I deem it my duty to declare here, that from the moment of the cure I never experienced the slightest return of my former ailments. My flesh and strength returned instantaneously, I was able to follow all the exercises of community life from that moment. So that, after two months of cruel suffering and great attenuation of bodily strength from the want of food, I was in an instant restored to perfect health without a moment’s convalescence and could eat of everything indiscriminately, I who for thirty-eight days previous could not support a drop of water.
“The doctor called to see me that evening, and what was his surprise to see me meet him at the door. He was so overcome that he almost fainted, and Mother, perceiving it, said: ‘It is you, doctor, who needs a chair!’
“Doctor examined the condition of my mouth and tongue, testified to their being well and that my appearance was that of a person in perfect health. The good doctor next inquired if I had eaten anything, and when the waiter containing remnants of my dinner was brought to him, he expressed anew his surprise, and once more declared that no human means could have ever produced such an effect.”
Dr. Millard’s sworn statement of February 4, 1867, reads as follows: “Not being able to discover any marks of convalescence, but an immediate return to health from a most severe and painful illness, I am unable to explain the transition by any ordinary natural laws.”
Saint John Berchmans was canonized in 1888.