North American Sanctity: Blessed Mother Marie-Léonie Paradis

To her sisters, Mother Marie-Léonie Paradis wrote, “Think of the favor God will deign to give as you collaborate in the beautiful work of education.”

Welcome to "North American Sanctity," a new series on holy men and women, boys and girls, saints and those on the road to sainthood, from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Some will be familiar, others less so; but all are inspiring!

By Kimberly Bruce

Many of the women religious who built up the Catholic Church in Canada – and were later raised to the altars of sainthood – were born in France, making the perilous journey across the Atlantic to plant the seeds of faith in the hostile territory known as “New France.”

But Blessed Mother Marie-Léonie Paradis (feast day: May 4), founder of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Holy Family, was born in Canada, in the province of Québec. 

“She always had her arms open and her heart was transparent,” noted her bishop, the Most Rev. Paul LaRocque (1846-1926) of Sherbrooke, Québec. “She was always ready with a hearty, open laugh, welcoming each person as if they were God Himself.” 

Teaching duties
Marie was born Virginie Alodie on May 12, 1840 in L’Acadie, Québec, the only daughter among six children. Marie was greatly influenced by a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who was a family friend, who told Marie about a women’s congregation called the Marianites of Holy Cross.

Intrigued by this order, as the sisters’ charism was one of serving priests and men religious, Marie entered its novitiate at age 14 and took the name Sr. Marie of Sainte Léonie.

Working as a teacher within the order until at age 22, she was sent south to New York to work in an orphanage. She was later moved to Indiana to teach French and needlework to the community’s novices. 

In 1874, after a move back to Canada, Sr. Marie-Léonie began directing novices and postulants at Memramcook College in New Brunswick. It was here Sr. Marie found her calling in the service of poor women from the Acadian ethnic group.

A new religious order
After beginning a sewing workshop for these women, 14 chose to become religious sisters and became recognized by the Holy Cross Fathers. Sister Marie-Léonie, however, would have to wait 20 years, despite her persistence, for this community of sisters to be formally recognized as their own religious order. 

Finally, on January 26, 1896, Bishop LaRocque gave his approval, and the Little Sisters of the Holy Family became officially founded under their superior, Mother Marie-Léonie.

Mother Marie-Léonie declared that this new community “was founded to give poor, uneducated young girls the advantages of religious life.” To her sisters, she wrote, “Think of the favor God will deign to give as you collaborate in the beautiful work of education.” 

Mother Marie-Léonie also had a great burden upon her heart for priests and felt particularly drawn to aiding them in their work within colleges. “It seems to me that priests need auxiliaries in their apostolic work and no one seems to be aware of this,” she wrote. “This thought haunts me without let-up and strangely upsets me.”

Supporting priests
Saint Faustina was also keenly aware of the work and travails of priests. Speaking of one, she wrote:

I marvel at how many humiliations and sufferings that priest accepts in this whole matter. I see this at particular times, and I support him with my unworthy prayers. Only God can give one such courage; otherwise one would give up. But I see with joy that all these adversities contribute to God’s greater glory. The Lord has few such souls. O infinite eternity, you will make manifest the efforts of heroic souls, because the earth rewards their efforts with hatred and ingratitude. Such souls do not have friends; they are solitary. And in this solitude, they gain strength; they draw their strength from God alone. With humility, but also with courage, they stand firmly in the face of all the storms that beat upon them. Like high-towering oaks, they are unmoved. And in this there is just this one secret: that it’s from God that they draw this strength, and everything whatsoever they have need of, they have for themselves and for others. They not only carry their own burden, but also know how to take on, and are capable of taking on, the burdens of others. They are pillars of light along God’s ways; they live in light themselves and shed light upon others. They themselves live on the heights, and know how to show the way to lesser ones and help them attain those heights (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 838.)

Mother Marie-Léonie didn’t think priests were without their faults, as they are human, but she urged her sisters to “redouble your courage and generosity in the service of God in the person of his ministers and in their works.” She further stated, “Our mission in the Church is to help the priest on the temporal and spiritual planes.” 

Great advice
What great advice! We, too, should be cognizant of all that our priests do and have a sensitivity to the heavy burdens they carry. How can we, as individual members of our parishes, help them by our various gifts and talents? How can we aid them in serving those in need in our communities? And we must always remember to pray for our priests regularly.

After all her works in the service of others and to priests in Canada and in the United States, Mother Marie-Léonie died on May 3, 1912, age of 72. She is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Sherbrooke. 

Members of her Congregation today work in more than 200 education and evangelization institutions across Canada, the U.S., Italy, Brazil, Haiti, Chile, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Mother Marie-Léonie was beatified in Montreal on September 11, 1984, by Pope St. John Paul II during his visit to Canada. Last January, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to her intercession, involving the 1986 cure of a Canadian newborn from “prolonged perinatal asphyxia with multi-organ failure and encephalopathy.”

Blessed Mother Marie-Léonie Paradis, pray for us!

Next in the series: Blessed Sister Mirian Teresa Demjanovich, May 8.
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