(Written by Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, Archivist. Based on Vie de la Mère Pauline Perdrau, Religieuse du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus (anonymous, no date; written between 1895 and 1908)
Pauline Perdrau, RSCJ, was the painter of Mater Admirabilis. She was also the author of memoirs of life with Sophie and Joséphine Gœtz, Les Loisirs de l’Abbaye. She led a truly fascinating life! She was born in Angers, France, April 20, 1815, child of Dr. Perdrau and Anne-Victoire Foucher. Her one brother, Joseph, was born five years later. He later became a priest at the same time that Pauline entered the Society. Their mother was a lifelong friend of Sophie, who had confided to her a question about a religious vocation. Sophie assured her that her call was to married life. In later years, Anne-Marie came often to make retreats with Sophie at Boulevard des Invalides.
In childhood, Pauline befriended a ferocious neighborhood dog named Dragon, who terrorized everyone else. When she did something deserving of punishment, she made him think she was in danger and hid behind him so anyone who tried to lay hands on her was growled away. Once when so young that she stood on her father’s lap at a school Nativity play, she got so engrossed in the adamant refusal of innkeepers to take in Mary and Joseph that she screamed out that her parents would take them in.
She knew early on that she had a religious vocation. She was also clearly talented artistically and began drawing everything around her. The family moved to Paris, and Pauline’s talent became widely known. She was invited in 1839 to do the official portrait of Archbishop de Quelen, who was resident at the Hotel Biron, Rue de Varenne, at the invitation of Eugénie de Gramont. During sittings, he assured her that her vocation was to the Sacred Heart. She had a ring made and engraved: “Pauline Perdrau à Jésus-Christ en 1843,” intending this as her commitment to enter religious life that year. But her brother was in seminary and her mother did not want to part with her, although she did allow Pauline to travel to Italy with friends for cultural education. While there, she spent some time with the Poor Clares in Assisi. (Because of this, Sophie learned about them and they came to meet her two years later at Spoleto; this meeting is recounted in Les Loisirs.) She also visited Loreto, believed to contain the house from Nazareth in which the Annunciation took place. Pauline received there a gift of imaginative prayer, putting herself in the home at Nazareth, etc. – before she knew about that way of praying from the Exercises. In Rome, she wrote to her mother for permission to enter, but no! Joseph was home from seminary recovering from illness, and she was told to come back home to Angers. After a delay of eight months, her mother finally gave permission for her to enter, but insisted on one year of postulancy in Rome with permission to go out every day to museums to copy great art. Sophie agreed!
Pauline officially entered at Rue de Varenne, April 9, 1844, then went briefly to Conflans to meet Sophie. By April 20 she was at the Trinità under the direction of the superior, Josephine de Coriolis. Pauline was planning to do a large painting at the Trinità of the Holy Family on the way to Egypt. Instead, the image arose strongly in her imagination of Mary as a young girl in the Temple, based on a popular story from an apocryphal gospel. This happened twice. The first time, Mother de Coriolis assured her that this was just a distraction. The second time, she thought it was a good opportunity to test the virtue of the postulant and firmly said no. One evening during community recreation in an upstairs corridor at the Trinità, the superior was called to a necessary visit in the parlor. One of the community remarked: “If only Our Lady herself could come to take her place.” Pauline stared at the empty niche in front of which the superior had been sitting. For the third time, the image of Mary alone came strongly to Pauline. When she told Mother de Coriolis, she was told to go on and do it, but it would be done badly!
The proposed painting of Our Lady at the Trinità would have to be a fresco, for which Pauline was not trained. She had with her a worker who had some training with frescoes and taught her as they went. Painting must be done on fresh plaster, before it dries, which means working five to six hours a day on the piece where the plaster has just been applied. They began on June 1, 1844. On June 22, the day she did the head, she was able to paint for thirteen hours without stopping, both she and the plaster remaining fresh. The painting was finished July 1; it was garish in color, as new frescoes are. The wise worker advised covering it with a curtain for some weeks until the paint dried. The fresh paint also sent a disagreeable odor through the house. Pauline had made a small peephole in the curtain so she could check regularly to see how it was developing. One afternoon, Pauline removed the curtain and showed the results to an astonished community. The Children of Mary of the school came the same day, the first children of the Sacred Heart to visit the Madonna of the Lily, as she was then called. That evening, the community gathered to sing the Magnificat around the image. The superior, who had been out to Santa Rufina that day, did not appear, a painful trial for Pauline.
The story of Mater now diverges from that of Pauline. It includes a Polish nun, Mother Makrina, abbess of the Basilian nuns of Minsk, on visit to the Trinità for an extended period, who was actually the first to suggest the title Mater Admirabilis; a priest who was to bless the image but was found in the sacristy with head in hands saying that Mary did not want him to do it; and finally Pius IX who succeeded in blessing the painting under the title Mater Admirabilis. But all this is another story.
Meanwhile, Pauline was having adventures in her study of art in Rome about which she later loved to tell, like incurring automatic excommunication for entering a forbidden male cloister and getting locked into a museum at closing time. Toward the end of the year, she was sent back to Assisi to the Poor Clares in the mountains for a rest. Sophie was at the Trinità at the time and sent with her piles of gifts of all kinds for the Assisi nuns, who considered Sophie Our Mother General. Back at the Trinità, Pauline received the habit April 25, 1845. On June 10, Sophie set out for France with Mothers de Limminghe and Cahier, one of the sisters and Pauline, who was never again to return to Rome and her Mater. The adventures of the journey are told in the first chapters of Les Loisirs.
In France, Pauline was sent to Conflans to join the novices there under the direction of Mother Desmarquest. The news of the Mater sensation in Rome, including a healing miracle attributed to her, had not reached Conflans until a passing missionary priest, invited to address the community and school, enlarged on it, saying that the portrait was done by a holy religious who had died “in the odor of sanctity.” A test in humility for the novice! Pauline remained at Conflans for the rest of her novitiate except for a few months during the second year at Rue de Varenne in Paris. She was there when Sophie attended her dying friend Eugénie de Gramont on December 19, 1846. She remembered Sophie saying repeatedly to Eugénie: “All is forgiven.” Pauline made her first vows April 23, 1847 at Conflans, the first to be received by the new mistress of novices, Josephine Gœtz.
Immediately after making her vows, Pauline was sent back to Rue de Varenne as what we would call middle school teacher. She was a total failure. She could not hold the students; Mother Cahier said she couldn’t spell, and Sophie told her not to let the students see her handwriting, lest they try to imitate it. Hers was an artistic temperament, with little use for such things as rules and discipline. With help, she eventually caught on to the other side of boarding school life. During this time, her father died a holy death, and her priest brother Joseph came to visit several times, as well as numerous others who had seen Mater in Rome and were curious about the painter. The time came for probation, but nothing was said until Sophie remarked to her one day that it was about time. Then nothing for several weeks, until a message came to Pauline in the middle of the day that the carriage was there to take her to probation at Conflans! She left everything and went. She made her profession there February 2, 1853. Sophie was too ill to attend; Mother Desmarquest received her vows.
Returned to Rue de Varenne, she became surveillante of the junior school, the Petit Pensionnat, with 60-80 junior boarders in her charge. Here she came into her element and was loved by all. Pauline was not only an artist but a great storyteller. On Sunday evenings, the Petit Pensionnat gathered round for Les Soirées de la Mère Perdrau in which she would regale them with stories from her time in Italy. These were the years, from 1853 to 1865, recounted in Les Loisirs, of her frequent encounters with Sophie, who lived in the adjoining motherhouse on Boulevard des Invalides, and who had a special love for the Petit Pensionnat. All eyes were fixed on the green door that separated the two properties, for Sophie frequently came over or sent for the children to come to her. During these years Pauline painted Mater several times again. The one for the motherhouse in 1859 was installed in a beautiful niche and blessed by Pauline’s brother, the Abbé Perdrau.