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Eve Lavalliere, Friend of St. Mary Magdalene

Posted by Theology of Home on
Eve Lavalliere, Friend of St. Mary Magdalene

By Denise Trull

Saturday is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. She has been the patroness of so many women down through the ages who came to her for help and prayers. Her following has been large, faithful, and true. Today I would like to share the story of one of her spiritual daughters, a woman closer to our own times, whose life rings with a conversion as rare and powerful as the Magdalene’s. 

The beautiful actress Eve Lavalliere was the toast of the town in Parisian society and “reigned as the undisputed Queen of the light comedy stage" from 1901- 1917. She was a creative and talented actress with a great power to fascinate with her wit and charm. She was enigmatic and full of life, and eventually she became -- if not a canonized saint quite yet -- a most heroic soul filled with great holiness.

I found her quite by mistake when I was flipping through the pages of a book: Modern Saints, Their Lives and Faces (Book Two), by author Ann Ball. There were pictures of nuns in habits, as you might expect. There were priests, brothers, missionaries and then at the turn of a page, this beautiful, pensive face smiling quietly up at me. I sat down and read her life as soon as I saw that face. 

She was born Eugenie Feneglio on April 1, 1866. She was the only daughter among the children born to a working class family. Her father was a violent and moody alcoholic who often beat her mother. Eve and her brother grew up in fear.  Her mother would often escape with the children but would inevitably return to him. 

Eugenie was providentially sent to a boarding school run by nuns. Away from the family, she was able to find stability and love in this convent of pleasant and cheerful nuns. She was able to receive her First Communion, a day on which she "felt a rare and beautiful peace"...the only peace she would have for many years to come.

When she returned home after school, her mother found the strength to leave her husband once again. She and Eugenie set up shop as seamstresses and were quite content. But her father wheedled an invitation to come for dinner one day.  Her mom made him his favorite dinner. All was going well. He even gave Eugenie some money to throw down to a singer in the street. While at the window, she heard a loud explosion and when she returned to the room, her mother was dead on the floor and her father pointed the gun at Eugenie. He changed his mind suddenly and turned the gun on himself. Here she was, this 17-year-old girl who witnessed the horrific death of her parents. 

Eugenie suffered loneliness and depression the rest of her life because of her father. As an orphan living with relatives, she seriously considered suicide one night walking home from work. She was just about to jump into a river near the town, but a kind, mysterious gentleman passing by at that moment convinced her to come and dine with him. He also made sure she had safe lodgings for the night before he traveled on. This gentleman saw something in her expressive face and manners, and suggested she look into acting, and he offered to get her an interview.

From that point on, she rose quickly to stardom. She had furs, jewels, beautiful apartments, many lovers. She was wined and dined and adored by the public. She transformed herself into the witty, enigmatic, and fascinating Eve Lavalliere on the outside.  But in her own words (which left me crying in my living room chair as I read them), "I never enjoy myself anywhere. I always withdraw into myself wherever I am, except when I am on stage." 

She found love, of a sort, with a man named Samuel and they had a child together named Jeanne. Though he loved her, Samuel was unfaithful with many other women. Her daughter Jeanne grew to hate her mother and was spoiled and petted by her father. This broke Eve’s heart but she never stopped trying to win Jeanne’s love.

Just before she was to embark on an American tour, Eve providentially went to rest in a little town in the French countryside. Enter one Fr. Chesteigner, a simple parish priest who cared about her soul. He noticed she wasn't coming to Mass, and he visited her. He also gave her a book about Mary Magdalene, which she read with great interest. She was suddenly flooded with memories of her First Communion and came back to the faith of her youth, making her confession to this kind, kind priest. Mary Magdalene was to be her great friend from then on. 

From the moment of her conversion she was destined to suffer. She tried to enter a Carmelite Monastery, but none of the nuns would take her because of her past.  Once again, she had to carry the cross of loneliness.  She was delicate of health but made a vow of poverty as a third order Franciscan. She became ill while nursing with a charitable group in Africa. Being sent back to France, she finally had the courage to give up her last attachment: make-up and hair color.  She developed peritonitis and had painful stomach problems. Her daughter, who had become a drug addict, gave her mother cocaine, not to help her, but to get her hooked so she could get the money to pay for her own habit. 

In the end, Eve’s teeth all fell out, her hair became thin, and her eyes, blinded by disease, had to be sewn shut. She courageously overcame her dependency on cocaine as well. Eve was humbly able to say that since all her senses had sinned, it was so good that they suffered to redeem themselves. 

Here was this beautiful, sensitive woman, battered by hate, used by lustful men, abandoned by her daughter, carrying the heavy cross of loneliness, who rose up and returned to the Father, a Father who did love her. Much like St. Mary Magdalene, she poured the aromatic nard of her suffering onto the feet of Jesus, her great beauty and charm and wit dissolving into an even more beautiful sacrifice of humility.

I cannot help but rejoice today that Eve and St. Mary Magdalene are embracing in heaven together, these two women who have loved much.   

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