Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity - Biographical Sketch
The Early Years
On Sunday morning, July 18, 1880, Elizabeth was born at the military camp of Avor in the district of Farges-en-Septaine (Cher), France, where her father, Captain Joseph Catez, of the 8th Squadron of the Equipment and Maintenance Corps, was stationed.
The birth was a difficult one. The two physicians present had already warned the captain that he would lose his first child. The mother suffered greatly for thirty-six hours. But at the end of the Eucharist that Captain Chaboisseau was celebrating for their intentions, little Elizabeth arrived in this world. The child was in good health, “very beautiful, very lively,” Mme. Catez would recall. On July 22nd, the feast of St. Mary Magadalene (which would delight the future contemplative), she was baptized.
The parents were no longer young. Joseph Catez was born May 29, 1832, in Aire-sur-la-Lys (Pas-de-Calais), the fourth of seven children of André Cattez [sic] and Fideline Hoel. They were poor; the father was a simple farmhand who could neither read nor write. He died at the age of forty-six when Joseph was eight. The mother died in 1876 at the age of seventy-five.
Joseph, his expression clear and candid, had to make his way in life with the energy and perseverance that will characterize his daughter. At twenty-one he enlisted in the army as a volunteer. For almost nine years he participated in the Algerian campaign, and later in the War of 1870 in which he was taken a prisoner in Sedan. Made a lieutenant in 1872 and captain in 1875, he was stationed at Lunel (Hérault) when he married on September 3, 1879, Marie Rolland, daughter of the retired Commandant Raymond Rolland of the 7th Regiment of Hussards, who at that time was living in Saint Hilaire (Aude).
Elizabeth’s place of origin on her father’s side was the Northern region of France. Her mother’s family came from the Southern region and from Lorraine. Her grandfather Rolland was born in Pexiora (Aude) in 1811; he entered as a volunteer in the army and in 1842 married Josephine Klein of Lunéville where he was then stationed. It was there that Marie, their only daughter, was born on August 30, 1846. After retiring, M. Rolland settled again as an inspector in his native region.
Marie was a sensitive girl, gifted with an amiability that would win her many friends. Her first fiancé died during the War of 1870. It was a long and deep sorrow. Her diary, part of which remains, shows that she then devoted herself to a serious Christian life, entertained perhaps for a time the idea of a religious vocation, and also suffered periodically from an anguished conscience—rather Jansenistic, say some witnesses.
“A Real Devil”
The Catez remained at the camp of Avor about nine months. Little Elizabeth heard the sound of the bugles, saw the soldiers and the horses. It was there that her father was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
From May 10, 1881, Captain Catez’ company was stationed at Auxonne (Côte-d’Or). In a series of letters Mme. Catez speaks of her Elizabeth, the little Burgundian of twenty-one months, “She is a real devil; she is crawling and needs a fresh pair of pants every day.” She is also “a big chatterbox”! Such are the earliest reports of the future saint. But there are some which have a more mystical quality. “She went up at the Offertory and kissed the Crucifix; she was throwing kisses to it before she got there.” “She not only prays” for her sick grandmother “but she is teaching her doll how to pray; she has just very devoutly made her kneel.” We see Elizabeth with her famous Jeanette in photos of this period as a little girl who knows what she wants!
A little while after the death of his wife on May 9, 1882, grandfather Rolland came to live with the Catez family. A new change of garrison brought them to Dijon around November 1, 1882. They moved into the Billiet villa on Rue Lamartine near the railroad station at the edge of the countryside. Their friends, the Guémards, were their neighbors. There Marguerite was born on February 20, 1883.
As much as Guite was gentle, so much was Sabeth, the little captain, unruly! But she had a good heart and loved her parents very much. Guite recalled her sister’s childhood: she was “very lively, even quick-tempered; she went into rages that were quite terrible; she was a real little devil.” Her ardor and her sensitivity did not yet know how to orientate themselves. Her mother speaks of her “furious eyes.” Her little friend of a few years later, Marie-Louise Hallo, also the daughter of a military man, recalls her “flashing eyes.” But then it was in the context of fervor and warmth.
In the Catez family harmony reigned. Note this phrase from a letter (April 28, 1885) of Mme. Catez to her “good Joseph,” perhaps already suffering from heart trouble, who was traveling in the North: “Do not forget my advice; take care of yourself; do not drink too much beer or smoke too many cigars; take care of your health and think of us.” Five imperatives in two lines! The wife, who could easily expatiate in her letters also knew how to summarize. Do we perhaps detect between these lines the anxious and domineering temperament of Mme. Catez (the same temperament which can be discerned in Elizabeth’s Diary) and the lively and sociable side of the Captain, joined to his sense of duty and loyalty?
The letter continues: “The little ones are more or less well-behaved; Elizabeth often thinks and speaks of you; she is counting the days,” as witness the few words she wrote to her “little papa” (L 2 and 3). On June 2, 1885, Captain Catez retired.
If up to now little Sabeth had known the tears of rage and those of repentance when she had annoyed her mother—tears which sprang only from the eyes—soon she would know her first true sorrows and the tears that well up from the heart.
On January 24, 1887, Raymond Rolland died. He was so skilled, they tell us, in “the art of being a grandfather.” Eight months later Elizabeth suffered a new grief, and how much more painful! On Sunday morning, October 2, M. Catez, who had already had several heart attacks, died rather suddenly.
The three funeral orations do not have much significance. More revealing is the fact that the official organ of the diocese, the Semaine religieuse of Dijon did not hesitate to give the full text of Captain Chézelle’s speech on this “excellent Christian” who, according to the writer, was “a very close friend of the Archpriest of the cathedral” although M. Catez had not lived in Dijon for very long. Le Bien public printed Captain Lafourcade’s speech.
As her pension was now reduced, Mme. Catez had to leave the house on Rue Lamartine. She moved with her daughters and a young domestic servant into the second floor of a house, which no longer exists, on Rue Prieur-de-la-Côte-d’Or, on the other side of town.1 From her window the little Elizabeth could see an unfamiliar building in a garden: Carmel.
The sudden disappearance of two loved ones and the uprooting from Rue Lamartine must have left the child with a keen sense of the fragility of life, and must have bound her even closer to her mother and Guite. The “trio” (this will be her expression later) were very close but not closed in on themselves. There were faithful friends, new relationships with those who lived near their house on Rue Prieur, and annual trips to visit relatives and friends. There was no lack of horizons for the little Sabeth who, in Dijon, lived near the big Park and the countryside.
Without being rich, Mme. Catez was sufficiently well off to assure the education of her children. Around the age of seven, Elizabeth received her first private lessons in French from Mlle. Grémaux. Probably in order to prepare her for a career as a piano teacher, her mother enrolled her in the Conservatory of Dijon when she was eight. The usual subjects were studied at infrequent intervals, but music held by far the first place: there was the work at the Conservatory; there were courses in common and private lessons, then at home long hours of daily practice.
The death of her father might have tempered the vivacity of the child but, despite that, life resumed its normal course. And so did the “rages.” Indeed, Mlle. Grémaux recalled the “iron will” of her little pupil and her already striking recollection in church (for it was Elizabeth’s nature always to go to the depths of things), but that should not cause us to disregard her faults. Guite recalled that her sister’s rages were sometimes so violent “that they threatened to send her as a boarder to the Good Shepherd [a house of correction that was nearby], and they prepared her little bag.”
But Sabeth was also very upright, and when she realized that one must not be a burden to others, she quickly took herself in hand. Witnesses say that her first confession, at the age of seven, visibly engaged her in the struggle against her caprices.
And then, there were so many beautiful qualities in this lovable, generous, and straight-forward heart! Letters 4 and 5 witness, not without a mischievous tone, to her good resolutions and in particular to her efforts not “to get angry.” There we also read this sentence of a little girl of nine-and-a-half: “. . . since I hope that I will soon have the happiness of making my first communion, I will be even better behaved for I will pray to God to make me better still” (L 5).