RICHARD, MARIE-LOUISE (Brault), b. 15 March 1856 in Montreal, daughter of Joseph Richard, a butcher, and Malvina-Susanne Thomas; m. there 1 Aug. 1877 Calixte Brault, and they had 11 children; d. 14 March 1910 at the Hôtel-Dieu, Montreal.
The second in a family of 15, Marie-Louise Richard was five years old when she began attending the Académie de la Visitation, which was operated by the nuns of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. She entered the Pensionnat Mont-Sainte-Marie as a boarder in 1863, but transferred three years later to the Pensionnat de Longue-Pointe, run by the Sisters of Charity of Providence, where she stayed for only a year. In September 1867 she was sent to the Pensionnat Notre-Dame-des-Anges in Saint-Laurent, founded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Seven Dolours. A devout girl, Marie-Louise dreamed of dedicating herself to God; she read a great deal, especially books on spirituality, and was particularly devoted to St Teresa of Avila, whom she wished to imitate. Unfortunately, because of illness – for several years she had suffered from frequent pulmonary haemorrhages – she had to leave the boarding-school at the age of 15. She went home and was well enough to enter the Carmelite monastery in 1875. Her health deteriorated again, however, and she had to leave after three months.
Back at home once more, Marie-Louise helped her mother with the daily chores. She soon made the acquaintance of Calixte Brault, a notary. He was an earnest man who was a good Christian, and they were married in the church of Sainte-Brigide on 1 Aug. 1877. After a honeymoon trip to the shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, they took up residence on Rue Amherst, not far from her parents. On 1 August of the following year she gave birth to their first child. Between 1880 and 1895 they would have ten more, two of whom would die in infancy. In 1882 the Braults moved to Pointe-Claire, where Calixte practised as a notary.
Marie-Louise’s life would have been much like that of other women of her time and circumstances but for some unusual occurrences. Three years after moving to Pointe-Claire, she experienced what her biographer, Sulpician Louis Bouhier, describes as “a divine possession.” From that moment, she divested herself of finery, sold her jewels, and wore only a plain black dress; she went out wrapped in a long cloak, with a small black veil covering her face. As she set about her work, she lived in constant communication with God, to whom she offered herself as a sacrifice for the salvation of others. Her deep faith was manifest in her great charity and unfailing generosity. In 1897 strange phenomena began to occur. According to her husband, they heard footsteps on the veranda, carriages driving around the house, explosions, shouts, and howling, although there was no one outside; chairs overturned with a crash and objects moved by themselves. In the autumn of 1898 the parish priest of Pointe-Claire, François-Xavier Laberge, who had been Mme Brault’s spiritual adviser since 1886, was called to the scene; he saw a crucifix travel through two rooms and fall at his feet. He reported these events to Archbishop Paul Bruchési* of Montreal, who ordered him to recite the prayers for exorcism. Calm seemed to be restored, but not for long. Dr Albéric Lesage, the Braults’ son-in-law, kept a journal from 23 Nov. 1899 to 7 Dec. 1902, in which he made almost daily entries about what he saw: kitchen utensils, books, and candlesticks moved about the house; chairs, knives, bottles, and other objects struck Mme Brault, while the other members of the family were untouched. It was also in 1899 that Lesage first noticed on her forehead a crown of five wounds. Dr Louis-Daniel Mignault, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the Université Laval in Montreal, came and corroborated this testimony: “She had on her forehead a line of deep wounds, from which blood issued. . . . She had similar wounds on [her] hands, feet, and side. These wounds became deeper during Lent.”
Not only did Mme Brault endure constant harassments and bear stigmata, but she ate almost nothing and yet lost no weight. She never slept more than an hour at night. She frequently went into a state of ecstasy, which might last a few moments or several hours. She was also credited with having the power of clairvoyance, which enabled her to announce events that had just happened somewhere else; her accounts would prove accurate.
The case of Mme Brault, which can be linked with that of more famous bearers of stigmata such as St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila, was treated with great caution by the Catholic hierarchy. Archbishop Bruchési, in a letter of 2 March 1902 to Laberge, advised him to be on his guard. On 18 March he also warned Mme Brault, “In all these allegedly supernatural phenomena with which you say your existence is filled there is complete illusion, if not something even more unpleasant.” The church’s reservations are shared by specialists in mental illness. Studies, of which there would be a great many in the 20th century, on people subject to strange physical occurrences all conclude that they are experienced by individuals who are abnormally suggestible and that they are in fact symptoms of hysteria. In the opinion of the Sulpician Bouhier, who knew Mme Brault well during the last eight years of her life, she was not at all hysterical or subject to hallucinations. “Endowed with solid common sense, a clear and sound mind, a simple and upright soul, . . . she was incapable of hypocrisy, trickery, or lies,” he recorded.
Depending on which phenomena are considered, the case of Marie-Louise Brault is open to two interpretations. On the one hand, there is the pathological basis upon which her personal experience seems to have unfolded: pulmonary haemorrhaging in adolescence which prevented her from realizing the desire to dedicate herself to God, “divine possession” indicating exceptional sensitivity, the stigmata, and an extreme reduction of food intake verging on anorexia, among other things. Without a more thorough analysis of the case, it is impossible from the point of view of psychology to rule out any connection with hysterical neurosis. The phenomena under consideration are found among mystics as well as among the hysterical. As far as spirituality is concerned, it is not surprising that identification with the suffering Christ should be carried to the extent of taking Christ’s wounds on bodily in the form of stigmata; one must still ask, however, whether her experience can be described as a case of “mystical sublimation” of the symptoms present in hysterical neurosis. Mme Brault’s spiritual evolution may have enabled her to transform episodes of physical exaltation into creative energy rather than into a narcissistic spectacle. Was it “effective hysteria” or “hysterical neurosis,” as Antoine Vergote puts it, “truth” or “imagination,” as Teresa of Avila asked herself, the “soul’s search” or “possession”: here lies the real question. On the other hand, there is the parapsychological basis upon which Mme Brault’s spiritual development unfolded: psychokinesis, hearing voices, clairvoyance, precognition. Research done on such phenomena since the early 20th century makes it increasingly difficult to give them a religious interpretation. The fact that in her case they always seemed to occur in her presence would support the view held by Hans Bender, of the parapsychology laboratory at Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. He maintains that phenomena considered strange may be produced by an unconscious process still imperfectly understood which operates in the apparent victim. A number of researchers in parapsychology have attempted to explain this process by the Heisenberg principle, which holds that the observer influences the occurrence being observed. The phenomenon of the subject’s consciousness and the system of the physical world are said, then, to interact. It might be admitted, therefore, that certain personalities could, through their psyche, alter objects in the objective world – hence the term psychokinesis. Whatever one makes of the attempts to explain these strange events, it has become difficult in contemporary culture to fall back on these explanations as support for the “greater” or “lesser” maturity of Mme Brault’s spiritual progress. Spirituality now seems to be more a “way” to silence than a product of strange phenomena. Quite apart from the postmodern interpretation that may be put on it, Mme Brault’s spirituality was, without any doubt, shaped by that of the ultramontanism of her era, which was based on the acceptance of and search for suffering and on a demonstrative piety.
This biography owes a great deal to the work of the Sulpician Louis Bouhier, Une mystique canadienne: vie extraordinaire de madame Brault, 1856–1910; ses lettres (Montréal, 1941), which includes 80 letters written by Mme Brault to her spiritual adviser between 1895 and 1910.
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Saint-Joachim (Pointe-Claire), 16 mars 1910. ANQ-M, CE1-15, 1er août 1877; CE1-51, 16 mars 1856. Arch. du Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice (Montréal), Fonds Louis Bouhier. René Biot, L’énigme des stigmatisés (Paris, 1955). Herbert Thurston, Les phénomènes physiques du mysticisme, Marcelle Weill, trad. (Paris, 1961). Antoine Vergote, Dette et désir: deux axes chrétiens de la dérive pathologique (Paris, 1978).