Although she was only twelve when she died, Laura Vicuna had grown to a maturity of faith well beyond her years. Fr John Murray sees her life as an inspiration.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul endeavoured to offer to the Church and the world at large models for Christian living: people we can imitate and learn from, as we try to make our own way through the maze and pitfalls of life. In an age of sexual licence, when often girls and young women can be at the mercy of sexual predators, the life of Laura Vicuna has something to say in our own day.
Laura was born in Santiago, Chile, on 5 April 1891. Soon after her birth, her father had to flee the country because of political upheavals, and when she was only three he himself passed away. Bereft of support, her mother, Mercedes, sadly entered into a relationship with a local ranch owner, one Manuel Mora.
He offered to pay for the care and schooling of her children at a Salesian boarding school, if Mercedes became his mistress. Laura attended the Salesian mission school with her sister, Julia. With a maturity beyond her years, Laura often helped the younger children with their tasks, and acted almost like a mother to them, combing their hair and mending their clothing.
Even then, Mora would try to molest her, especially when he was drunk. She made her First Holy Communion when she was ten, but was always afraid of Mora, because of his lewd desires on her. When she fought off his first assault, the ranch owner refused to pay for her school tuition, but despite that the sisters continued to educate her.
Offering up her life
Despite her young age, Laura was conscious that her mother was not living as God would want, and she had already decided to offer her life to God for her mother’s conversion. At this stage, her own health was delicate, and in the winter of 1902 Mercedes left the Mora’s hacienda in order to care for her ailing daughter.
At this time, they were living in Argentia. However, in January 1904, Mora arrived on their doorstep to demand that Laura surrender to his lusts. When she refused him, he whipped and kicked her, and then threw her brutally across the saddle of his horse to carry her back to his ranch. Aware that the local people were watching him, he dumped her body in a ditch and left. Laura lingered on until 22 January, when she died of severe internal injuries.
Just before she died, she told her mother that she had given her life to bring about a conversion in her. ‘Mama,’ she said. ‘I am dying, but I’m happy to offer my life for you. I asked our Lord for this.’ After Laura’s death, Mercedes made a good confession, left Mora, and became a devout Catholic again.
In September 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Laura, calling her a ‘Eucharistic flower… whose life was a poem of purity, sacrifice and filial love’. In many ways, her life parallels that of St. Maria Goretti, whose life and death may be better known to many people. She too fought off the advances of a young man with lustful desires.
Maria died but was able eventually to achieve the conversion of her murderer, and when she was later canonised in 1950, he was present at the ceremony.
Like Maria, Laura did not let the sordidness of Mora destroy her innocence, nor did she allow her heart to become embittered. Instead, she prayed for her mother and also for her lover. We can but hope that Mora too experienced the conversion which Laura prayed for her mother. Her life is a testimony to the words of St. Paul: ‘However much sin increased, grace was always
greater’ (Rom. 5:20).
This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.