Victoire Larmenier, or Mother St. Basil, as I first came to know of her when a child at Nazareth House in Johannesburg, was known to us children as “the holy nun from France who started Naz”. As children we knew of her as a very special person who had a great love for poor children and who spent a lot of her time praying in front of the Pieta. As children we were very impressed with the life-size Pieta in the church and it was always associated with Mother St. Basil. It was only when I came to Hammersmith for the first time in 2003 that I became more aware of the figure of Victoire Larmenier as venerated by the sisters and those close to the Congregation.
Later on, during my time as chaplain at Hammersmith I would participate with reverence in the celebrations of her feast day, the 16th of June. Central to this was the veneration of her physical heart preserved in the chapel. For me this was a veneration of the great love of Victoire and a seeking of her prayers that we may too be as big-hearted and selfless in our care of those to whom we ministered. It is a telling irony that she suffered from an enlarged heart. The spiritual heart of Victoire was reflected in her physical heart. I would also regularly spend a few moments at her grave next to the chapel, asking for her prayers, and asking that through her example and prayers that I might give of myself as courageously and selflessly as she did to the needs of those in whom she saw the suffering Christ.
I remember a moment when proofreading her biography in preparation for publication I felt a tremendous closeness to Victoire and a deep sense of her presence. Reading about all the difficulties and the obstacles she faced, about the different decisions she made in her early years, I felt deeply connected to her and to the fact that my own life and the good that has been in it (and please God, comes of it) depended entirely on those God-inspired choices she made with such faith and courage so long ago in France and in London. This was a profound moment that moved me deeply as I gave thanks to God for the person and life of Victoire and the active presence of God in her life. I was moved by the deep mystery of God’s love at work in so many ways, and in such a complex and multi-layered fashion throughout history, and how this effects each of us personally, and how we each have a tremendous responsibility to each other in a solidarity that transcends place and time. I felt very closely then the bond of God’s love uniting me to Victoire.
The virtues of her life that stand out for me, and which I admire most about her, are her courageous faith and practical love. These are not merely elements of her life and spirituality, but for me they mark the very heart of her life and spirituality. Her spiritual vision and the fruits that emerged from this are embedded in her unfailing trust in divine providence, which is a constant faith in the face of doubt and obstacles. She held firmly to her belief in God’s presence and His will at every moment of her courageous journey. She believed that God wanted this work and sought confirmation at every step in the fruitful outcomes in situations where there seemed to be only setbacks and opposition. She believed and lived into the truth that if God wills it, then He will provide the means for it. And He certainly did. For me this reveals an intimate closeness to God nurtured in a deep prayer life. Such a determined vision translated into practical realities in the midst of poverty and despair in Victorian London (and later, beyond London), and the bureaucratic resistance of those less inspired, signifies a profound trust in the spiritual sense that gave rise to the vision. This courageous faith of Victoire speaks volumes to me of her closeness to God and her unwavering faith that all things are possible for God when we trust Him completely.
Victoire had a deep devotion to the sufferings of Our Lord, and to Him crucified. She must have had a keen sense of how Christ continues to suffer in the young and the old, and this not in an abstract way, but in the very real sufferings of these marginalised ones in Victorian London. We know well the social poverty and despair of that time and how those on the edges of society were simply abandoned to fend for themselves. Victoire looked around her and could not but be moved by the desperate lack of concern and care for the poor of London. Her love for Christ, for the sufferings of Christ, and His continuing suffering of the wretched in the streets moved her to minister to them in a real and practical way. Nazareth House and its ministry became a concrete expression of God’s love in the midst of the hardship, hunger, and abandonment of West London. Looking at the photos and reading the chronicles of those early days reveals the extent of the relief that Victoire and her sisters brought to the people of Hammersmith and its surrounds in those days. A striking example of this are the photos showing the people, hundreds each day, gathering for soup and bread in the grounds of Naz and waiting out on Hammersmith Road in long queues. Victoire and the sisters worked hard and suffered themselves so that the unloved and uncared for could at least feel the love and care of God in the presence of the Church ministering to their needs. For me this is the mark of a genuine love of God and His people – practical love for those in whom Christ continues to suffer in this world. She did not seek her own comfort or recognition or to establish a legacy, but to live into the will of God as revealed to her in the plight of the young, the aged, and the poor of London.
If I were to sum up Victoire’s life, I would say that she lived and shows us how to live the words of St. Paul, “All that matters is faith expressed in love” (Galatians 5:6b).
friar Terence Bateman OFM Conv