In our age of battered families, the Chilean teen Laura Vicuna serves as a model of self-giving. Beaten to death by her mother’s live-in mate, she offered her life for the mother’s conversion.
Laura, born in Santiago, Chile, was the daughter of a soldier in the Chilean army, a worthy citizen of a revolutionary country. Shortly after his wife Merced had borne his first child, Laura, he was obliged by an attempted revolution to flee with wife and child to a hiding place in the South. Merced gave birth to a second child, Julia, while in exile; but when Laura was still only two years old, the father died. The mother, with no means of self-support, went to Argentina hoping to find work in a border town as a cook or laundress.
That was how she happened to meet the prosperous landowner Manuel Mora. Mora offered to send her two girls to convent school, but only on condition that the widow Vicuna would be “his woman.” Merced was in a painful dilemma. For the sake of the children she yielded to Mora’s blackmail.
On the advice of a Salesian missionary, Merced, in due time, sent the children to a convent boarding school in another town. At this fine school, Laura blossomed into a bright and spirited child, mature beyond her years in spirituality and leadership. Only when she came home for her first vacation did she begin to realize what sort of life her mother was leading.
Her “stepfather,” when drunk, now began to show signs of affection for Laura herself. Merced told him to leave Laura alone, and Laura herself kept her distance from him. Merced visited the school when Laura, at ten, made her first Holy Communion. The girl noticed that her parent did not receive Communion and she sensed that Merced was unhappy. After that, her constant prayer was that her mother would come back to God and regain her cheerfulness. But the two never spoke about the matter.
The young girl was inspired by the missionary sisters who taught in her school. She told the bishop that she wanted to become a Salesian nun herself. The bishop smiled at the eleven-year-old. “Just wait a little longer, child,” he said. But her confessor was convinced that she had a true vocation. It would have to be kept a secret for the time being.
When Laura came home in the summer of 1901, her stepfather tried to seduce her. She fought him off and ran into hiding. When he asked her to dance with him at a fiesta, she refused, despite her mother’s urge that she accept the invitation. In a fury, Mora declared he would no longer continue to pay for the schooling of the girls. The nuns said they would teach the two girls for free.
About this time, Laura asked to be received as a postulant of the Salesian Sisters. Now, their rule would not permit them to accept her in public because of the matrimonial status of Merced, but she was allowed, it seems, to take private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She also asked her confessor’s permission to offer her life for the conversion of her mother. He consented.
During the winter of 1907, Laura fell ill at school. Her mother begged her to come home, and the nuns urged her to comply: “Your mother needs you more than you need her.” But Merced and her sick daughter quickly noticed that Manuel Mora now ignored the mother and had eyes only for Laura. Merced therefore left the Mora hacienda with her girls and moved into a cottage near the school.
On the night of January 14, 1908, Mora, drunk and out of control, rode to the cottage and demanded that the trio return to his hacienda. Laura refused and left the house. Merced yelled to her to run, but Mora pursued her, whipped her unmercifully, kicked her, and left her unconscious on the roadway and rode off.
Laura was taken care of by the Salesian sisters, but she survived only a week. During those last days, she finally revealed her secret to her mother. “Mama, I’m happy to offer my life for you. I asked our Lord for this.” Poor, weak Merced broke down. She begged forgiveness of her daughter and promised to change her way of life, and she did so after Laura’s death. Such heroic defense of virginity could only amaze the people of Argentina and Chile, and widespread devotion to the 13-year-old martyr quickly spread. Finally, Pope John Paul II beatified Laura on September 3, 1988, giving Catholic youth another example of the need of saying, “Not me, not now!”
–Father Robert F. McNamara