Fifty Divine Eccentric Artists, Martyrs, Stigmatists, and Unsung Saints
To read yourself or give to friends: fifty short essays on notable Catholics, across the ages! Two criteria: the subject can’t (yet) have been canonized, and he or she has to be dead.
Some are hardly known. Jacqueline de Decker, for example, wore a neck brace, drove a red convertible, and hung out with prostitutes in her native Belgium. She also offered herself as a victim soul to help Mother Teresa.
Some should be better known: Mother Antonia Brenner, a Beverly Hills socialite, went off to live in La Mesa, a notorious Mexican prison, and spent the rest of her life ministering to the inmates. Jacques Fesch, a movie-star handsome French murderer, was condemned to death and wrote a stirring conversion memoir—Notes from the Scaffold—before being guillotined.
There are medieval nuns, a Carmelite dishwasher monk, and modern day martyrs.
There are artists: novelists Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, film-maker Robert Bresson, actor Sir Alec Guinness (a daily communicant; who knew?).
There are divine eccentrics: Bartolo Longo, ex-Satanist priest. Marthe Robin, who supposedly never slept, survived for 40 years on the Eucharist, and received the stigmata each Friday.
“Here comes everybody,” as James Joyce quipped of the Church.
Glory be to God.
Here’s a sampling.
JACQUELINE DE DECKER
Jacqueline de Decker (1913-2009), also known as Mother Teresa’s “Spiritual Powerhouse,” suffered all her adult life from chronic physical pain.
British journalist Kathryn Spink has written beautifully of de Decker and her work in, among other places, I Need Souls Like You: Sharing in the Work of Mother Teresa Through Prayer and Suffering.
De Decker was born in 1913 to a wealthy Belgian family. She made her way to India and, in 1947, walked halfway across the country to meet Mother Teresa. Hoping to work with the Missionaries of Charity, instead she was forced back to Antwerp by a chronic, debilitating illness that affected the spine.
De Decker’s dream seemed to be smashed. She was devastated.
But in the fall of 1952, she received a letter from Mother Teresa that read in part:
‘Today I am going to propose something to you. You have been longing to be a missionary. Why not become spiritually bound to our society which you love so dearly? While we work in the slums, you share in the prayers and the work with your suffering and your prayers. The work here is tremendous and needs workers, it is true, but I also need souls like yours to pray and suffer. ‘
From among the ranks of fellow patients, de Decker found many people, each of whom was willing to become a “Sick and Suffering Co-Worker” and a link with an individual Missionary of Charity. In turn, Mother Teresa pledged to pray for them.
“By the time I met Jacqueline de Decker her torso was rigidly encased in a corset and her neck was restricted by a surgical collar,” Spink writes on her website. “Yet from her home in Antwerp she managed not only to co-ordinate the Link for the sick and suffering, but also to look after the welfare of some 2,000 prostitutes.”
On several occasions, Spink accompanied de Decker as she “careened” around Antwerp’s red light district in a specially-adapted car tending to ‘her girls.’
The experience, Spink observed, brought her “into contact with people suffering from every conceivable illness from elephantiasis to chronic depression. And yet from most, if not all, of these encounters I came away in some unexpected way uplifted.”
Mother Teresa came to call de Decker her ‘sick and suffering self.’ “By 1980,” Spink notes, “Jacqueline had undergone thirty-four operations for her illness, which was never given an official medical label. She called it GGD, or ‘God-Given Disease’–her recognition that emptiness, ‘failure,’ and weakness were the means by which God used her.”
De Decker died on April 3, 2009.
“Love demands sacrifice,” wrote Mother Teresa. “But if we love until it hurts, God will give us His peace and joy…Suffering in itself is nothing; but suffering joined with Christ’s Passion is a wonderful gift.”
De Decker’s radical apostolate of prayer and self-offering is a model for all of us. Let’s pray that our own “God-given diseases” lead us to more compassion, more kindness. Let’s especially pray that they link us more closely to the rest of the world.
Jan Tyranowski (1900-1947), Catholic layman and student of Discalced Carmelite spirituality, served a crucial role as spiritual advisor to the young Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II.
An eccentric figure with white blond hair and a distinctive, high-pitched voice, Tyranowski lived with his mother and several cats across the street from the Wojtylas in Poland. He made his way as a tailor, remained voluntarily celibate, and cultivated an intense prayer life, often aggressively trying to recruit the young people of the neighborhood to participate in his “Living Rosary.”
In February, 1940, Wojtyla was 20. Tyranowski was 40. The two met at a meeting in a local parish hall. Immediately the future Pope was drawn by Tyranowski’s mystical fervor.
Well-meaning friends, including the future priest Mieczyslaw Malinski tried to warn off the young Wojtyla, insinuating that Tynaowski had spent time in mental institutions and psych wards. But where others saw pathology, the man who would become Pope John Paul II saw passion.
“Tyranowski has gone through a major life-changing conversion,” Wojtyla observed. “Look at what is inside him, not his outward experience. Yes, he speaks in a slightly odd, affected manner, but look beyond that. He is a man who lives truly close to God.”
A year after they met, Wojtyla’s father died. Shattered by the blow, young Karol spent more and more time with Tyranowski—whose spiritual guidance was crucial. The two endlessly discussed Scripture as well as the mystical writers Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Biographer Tad Szulc tells the story of the friendship more fully in Pope John Paul II. Szulc emphasizes Tyranowski’s strangeness, including his tendency to speak in clerical platitudes and to use archaic language that at first grated on Wojtyla. Tyranowski could be so pushy and aggressive that Wojtyla’s friend Malinski at first thought the tailor might be a Gestapo agent.
But after Tyranowski’s death, Wojtyla penned a tribute styling him “an apostle” and as “someone really saintly.”
His gift was to touch upon and draw out the depths in men’s souls: “The plenitude of inner life,” as he called it.
“I must decrease; He must increase,” observed John the Baptist, a truth Tyranowski, bending over his needle and thread, must have known well. A lifelong loner, he would have heard and felt deeply the taunts of the neighborhood children. An eccentric with a profound mystical bent, he would have been very much aware of his existential exile. A reader of men’s souls, he seemed to have sensed that his friend, the future Pope, was destined for greatnes.s and gladly to have taken last place himself.
The economy of the world rewards numbers, efficiency, flash. God’s economy is pearl buried in a field, a seed sowed in secret, the servant who lays down his life so that a friend’s tree might bear fruit.
As Pope John Paul II noted: “Tyranowski was truly one of those unknown saints, hidden among others like a marvelous light at the bottom of life at a depth where night usually reigns.”
MOTHER ANTONIA BRENNER
Mother Antonia Brenner (1926-2013), former Beverly Hills socialite and foundress of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, ministered to and lived with the inmates at La Mesa, a notorious maximum-security prison in Tijuana, Mexico.
Born Mary Clark in Los Angeles, Brenner was the middle of three children. Her mother died giving birth to the fourth child. Her father ran a successful office supply business.
A marriage at 19 ended quickly in divorce. Her second marriage, to Carl Brenner, lasted 25 years and yielded seven children.
While married and living in Beverly Hills, California, Brenner was active in charity work. In the 1960s, a priest invited her to visit La Mesa. She began distributing aspirin, toilet paper, and prescription eyeglasses to thieves, rapists and murderers.
After her second divorce, she moved to San Diego which made visiting the prison easier. When her youngest child, Antony, reached adolescence, she made the wrenching decision to cede custody to Brenner, gave away her belongings, and in 1977 moved to Tijuana in order to be near the inmates.
In her early years of volunteering at La Mesa, Brenner took informal vows and sewed her own habit. According to the website, of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, “After a year, her service to prisoners came to the attention of Bishop Juan Jesus Posadas of Tijuana and Bishop Leo Maher of neighboring San Diego. She was officially welcomed and blessed by both Bishops: Bishop Maher made her an auxiliary to him while Bishop Posadas made her an auxiliary Mercedarian, an order which has a special devotion to prisoners. At age fifty, she had become a sister.”
Around the same time, she moved into the prison, taking a cell in the women’s section.
In a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Brenner said, “Something happened to me when I saw men behind bars. … When I left, I thought a lot about the men. When it was cold, I wondered if the men were warm; when it was raining, if they had shelter. I wondered if they had medicine and how their families were doing…You know, when I returned to the prison to live, I felt as if I’d come home.”
Petite, indefatigable, in her black and white habit, she lived in a 10 by 10 cell as one of the inmates. She ate the same prison fare and with the members of her flock, lined up for morning roll call.
Around 1997, she founded the Eudist Servants of the Elevnth Hour for older women with a desire to serve the poor. In 2003 the Bishop of Tijuana formally approved the community.
“Pleasure depends on where you are, who you are with, what you are eating,” she once observed. “Happiness is different. Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years. I have been upset, angry. I have been sad. But never depressed. I have a reason for my being.”
She was known to the prison inmates as “La Mama.” A 2005 biography by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan is called. “Prison Angel.”
Mother Antonia died of natural causes at 86 in her Tijuana home.
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