John Murray PP tells us the story of Eve Lavallière, an accomplished actress and high flyer, who changed her whole way of life when a parish priest invited her to Mass and gave her a book about Mary Magdalen.
The story of Eve Lavallière is a story of grace triumphing over sin and circumstances. It is a story of hope for anyone whose life seems to be a mess which is out of control. Eve (her real name was Eugenie Marie Fenoglio) was to become in time a great actress on the French stage but her family beginnings were far from happy.
Born in 1866 in Toulon in France, Eve experienced a turbulent childhood, mainly due to her father. He was a tailor but also an alcoholic and frequently unfaithful to his wife. Often he would beat her, and his rages would terrorize the household. Eve’s mother would then take her daughter and son away to relatives but would always return when her husband begged them to do so.
Respite came when she was sent to a boarding school and there, she received kindness and understanding. There were also moments of spiritual joy, especially when she made her first Holy Communion. It was an anticipation of things to come. The signs too, of her future career also began to make themselves known. Often she would organize her friends into a theatre group and she herself would write little plays and songs for them and even design the costumes and sets.
However real tragic drama was to occur all too soon in the family setting. Her mother finally decided to leave her husband for good, taking her children with her. One day her husband visited them, and in a moment of violent rage, shot his wife dead and then killed himself. Eve then went from relative to relative, seeking security and support. By this time she had abandoned the faith of her childhood and even at times felt full of despair and close to suicide herself.
Eve then fell into the welcoming arms of a stranger who recognized her theatrical talents and invited her to join a theatre group.
The sudden death of one of the leading actresses of the theatre became the opportunity for Eve and she did not disappoint. Her voice was exceptional and she was able to use it to convey every sort of emotion – from silence to violence, from authority to disgust.
Listening to Eve conveyed the audience into the very heart of the tragedy or comedy whichever she was playing. Even the great contemporary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, told her, ‘What you do is innate: you create – you do not copy the characters. You give birth to them from within yourself. It is very beautiful.’
At this time Eve also became the mistress of a local marquis. He changed her name to Eve Lavallière (she often wore a tie which was at that time known as the ‘Lavallière tie’) to avoid detection from her family. Ironically, this had been the name of a mistress of King Louis XIV who ended her days as a penitential Carmelite nun! Gifts and luxuries were now the order of the day and Eve was lavished with many as she held court in one of the most fashionable restaurants in Paris after the show.
Out of control
Despite the fame, the money and the popular acclaim Eve’s life continued to spiral out of control. She left the marquis only to fall in love with a theatrical director with whom she had a child. However, this man was far from faithful and had several other women friends. Eve herself was also enjoying liaisons with a variety of men who rewarded her sexual favours. She also enjoyed the attentions of the critics who considered her musical comedy to be lively and witty.
In her time she was as famous in France as many of the Hollywood actresses are today. She was the ‘Belle Dame’ of the Paris stage; often she acted before the kings and queens of Europe as they visited the capital. Yet offstage Eve was miserable. Three times she decided to kill herself, each time deciding against it at the last moment.
Then one summer she was on holiday in a French village. She met the local parish priest who invited her to Mass. At this stage she was well enough known in France for the priest to know the sort of person she had become. She attended but later told the priest that she had made a pact with the Devil in exchange for twenty more years of youthfulness. The priest was outraged and immediately told her to repent. It was a moment of grace for suddenly Eve realized that if the Devil existed, so must God and she ought to follow God instead.
The priest gave her a book about Mary Magdalene which she read with genuine contrition, covering the pages with her tears. At the entry to the chapel at Chanceaux one can read engraved on the stone, ‘In this church Eve Lavallière converted and received Communion on 19 June 1917, brought back to God by Fr. Chesteigner.’
After returning to the sacraments, Eve insisted on leaving the theatre as well and began seriously to consider joining the Carmelite order. To prove her sincerity she began to give up using make-up and hair dye but her attempts to enter the order were blocked. The nuns were afraid the publicity would be too disruptive.
She returned to Paris and sold all her wealth and gave the money to the poor. Then she settled into a small country village and devoted herself to prayer and joined the third order of St. Francis. She also became part of a lay mission team which nursed Arab children from Tunisia.
It is possible for a person to become a saint in a short time. It was as if Eve was making up for lost time. In contrast to the decades of fame and promiscuity, she quickly entered into another world of prayer and silence, of service and charity.
However this period resulted in her contracting a fever peculiar to the north African region and she spent the next eighteen months struggling with its symptoms. Her beautiful features were destroyed, though her large eyes still continued to shine with light. Eve offered this to God in reparation for her previous sins.
Weakened by her exertions, Eve died in 1929. She was quietly buried at the base of the wall of the church in the town where she was born. Gone were the adoring audiences; only a few relatives were present. Part of a prayer
which she had written had indeed been realized: ‘O my Redeemer, give me especially holy humility.’
This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.