Part 1: The Child Laura "Carmen" Vicuña, Entrusted to the Queen of Saints
The aristocracy of Santiago had a particular devotion to Our Lady of Carmen. Even the army considered her its patron. Possibly because of this, on that 24th May 1891, Fr. Bernardo Aranguiz, when baptizing the child, added the symbolic name of "Carmen" to her first name "Laura". The tender bud now open to the life of grace, was in this way entrusted to the maternal care of the Queen of Saints. The baptismal register records that Laura Carmen was the daughter of Joseph Dominic Vicuña and Mercedes Pino.
He was an officer in the army. He belonged to a distinguished family, perhaps to one of the lesser branches, but he was always proud of his famous name of Spanish origin. His wife, Mercedes, was Chilean, high-spirited and very beautiful. There was a touch of nobility about her. Although the daughter of ordinary farming people, she had a knowledge of music and sewing. Here begins the tragic history of this family. In fact at the Baptism only the godfather, Wenceslaus Calderon, and the godmother Rosaria Rojas were present, no one else. The Vicuña family had disowned Joseph because he had married beneath him.
As far as they were concerned, Mercedes Pino did not exist. Notwithstanding this, her joy was very great as she held in her arms the little one to whom the priest had said: "Receive the white garment and carry it without stain to the tribunal of God, to gain eternal life...". Indeed, in spite of her unfortunate desiny, Mercedes guarded her child's 'stole of innocence' as if it were a most precious coat of arms.
Chile was going through days of dramatic change. The President of the Republic, Joseph Emanuel Balmaceda, who was supported by the Vicuñas of the conservative party, had to abdicate because he was unable to break with the rigid position of the old regime. In a desperate effort to avoid civil war, he proposed as candidate fro the Presidency a Vicuña, Claudio, but it was already too late. The revolution broke out because of the action taken by the navy.
Santiago was experiencing days of martyrdom, through steel, fire, and bloodshed. Joseph and Mercedes, living in the city center near the Church frequented by the nobility, quickly became aware of the danger.
Laura, born on the 5th of April, could be baptized only fifty days after her birth, on account of the war which raged relentlessly. With the fall of President Balmaceda, there erupted a violent reaction against his supporters, among the first of whom were the Vicuñas.
On August 28th the rebels entered Santiago and mowing down hundreds of victims, they seized power.
One eyewitness who remembers those days says, "It was sufficient to be called a Vicuña or a Balmaceda to be persecuted to the death." Having first been disowned by his family, Joseph is now on the run, rejected by the fatherland which he had passionately and loyally served. Mercedes follows him into exile. Laura rests close to her heart and would never know the desolation of those frightening months and months of fleeing from one countryside to another with few belongings, just the bare essentials.
Nights in the open, endless days on horseback over impossible roads, always searching for a way to the south, as far as Temuco, over 500 kilometers beyond Santiago. As the road lengthened under the footsteps of the refugees, Joseph, a loving and tender husband and father, lost the will to soldier on, but a spark of the old hope was rekindled as he entered the provincial town of Cautin, Temuco. It consisted of little hovels, and was the haven of those persecuted for their politics, of those condemned by the civil courts, of those exiled, as they waited for a turn of the tide which might relaunch them to power...
Laura Carmen, already eighteen months old, became seriously ill at Temuco. The anxiety of Mercedes and Joseph grew. Life was hard and poor and the climate was severe.
1893 dawned and saw the birth of a little sister for Laura, Julia Amanda. The joy experienced for this gift of life was short-lived. In Santiago the new government (non-conciliatory in approach), had got to power and the leader of the insurrection, George Montt, was nominated President of the Republic. Joseph, cut off from the life and happenings in the capital, alone and hopeless, felt like dying. He was a good, gentle type of man, dignified in bearing, and rather small in stature. This was how Mercedes later described him to Laura. He died of pneumonia within a few days.
Part 2: Laura's Mother, Mercedes
Emanuel Urrutia López, still alive in 1955 and a witness during the process for the beatification of little Laura, gives us this description of Mercedes Pino: "She was born like myself in Collipullí, in the province of Bìo-Bìo, so I knew her from her infancy. She was a self-possessed young lady who knew how to get on in life." But now, on account of this recent misfortune, her life again began to show the signs of tragedy. For love of Laura and Julia, the young widow -- barely twenty-eight years old -- began to spend long hours sewing. She took up dressmaking again. Then with the savings, she bought a shop, a haberdashery store, like those generally found in centers scattered in the deserts and out-of-the-way places. She was courageous and strong. She took in hand the tiller of her tattered boat and steered it through very difficult waters, careful of her two little ones, whom she tenderly protected. Laura reminded her, each time more clearly, of the features and gentle character of her lost husband. Julia instead reflected the liveliness of her own temperament. To go back to Santiago was out of the question. She did not search out either the Vicuña family or her own relatives. She worked and smiled for her customers, but in her heart she wept. Temuco was for her a terribly sad place, a land of exile, full of violent memories.
One night -- we are already in 1899 -- unknown thieves broke into the store and cleared everything. Who would claim justice for a widow in that country of outlaws? No one! Mercedes, defenseless, saw snares and threats increasing all around her. So she decided to leave for ever that land which had increased her sorrow and had placed her in the way of such dangers.
During the fine season, caravans of emigrants passed from Temuco towards the Neuquén in Argentinian away the key, Mercedes set off with her two children towards a new future. She was full of hopeful optimism but without any definite goal, without anyone to lean on. Was it inexperience on her part which made her do such a thing?
It was being said that the Neuquén offered great wealth in the newly growing centers. These spread out along the valleys, where races (estancias) were being marked out, with lands stretching away as far as the eye could see. All she needed to do was cross the Cordilllera of the Andes. Mercedes set out in the southern summer of 1899, joining up with a caravan of business people. A few weeks previously, along those very same mountain roads there had passed another caravan, and Mercedes knew about it. Fr. Milanese, a courageous Salesian, had then reached Temuco in 1898 with two Sisters and a young aspirant. They had intended reaching Junin de los Andes by crossing the Cordillera, but the early and long drawn-out winter prevented them.
They remained for nine months at Temuco, where they zealously sowed the seed of the Gospel. They left in January 1899. The whole town had watched that departure consisting of horses, guides, mountaineering equipment and a conquest for the Lord in the person of a young girl of Temuco, Frances Mendoza, who had followed the Sisters, attracted by their ideal.
Perhaps Laura Carmen, already eight years old, had seen and got to know the Sisters. One was Italian, Sr. Angela Piai, and she was in charge. The other was Chilean with the lovely name of Rose Azócar. The aspirant was Carmel Opazo. Mercedes was going right into the very heart of the mountains in search of a more tranquil life and an easier one, but the storm clouds were already closing in on top of her.
The good God was preparing a haven for Laura, but for her mother a 'lightening conductor'! The haven was to be the Salesian College (children's school) of Junin de Los Andes, and the lightning conductor was non other than Laura herself.
However, while Fr. Milanese's caravan was heading southwest towards the lakes, Mercedes went northwest. She crossed the Andes, made a first stop at Norquin, one of the few cities of Neuquén area, also called 'the strange land of the Triangle'. It was territory only recently opened up, and to it came those seeking adventure, speculators of every kind, traders avid for a quick haul of money, evaders and deserters of every race and nation.
The missionaries used to say: "Were it not for some women and girls who had a Christian education in Chilean schools, and served as a beacon in the middle of such moral darkness, Norquin would be a place of perdition." The Christian sense of the family had been lost and when this happens, everything collapses.
The undaunted Mercedes immediately senses the gamble, the risk of finding herself alone in this strange, unknown land, and without anyone to support her. She set off again, in search of better fortune at Las Lajas, towards the south. It seems that there she made friends with some people who were reputed to be more trustworthy and honest in their dealings, and whom Laura, later on, recalls with affection. However, the hard, uncertain life forced Mercedes to move a third time. Towards the end of 1899 we find her near Junín de Los Andes.
Understandably, from the human point of view, after so much effort, after such journeys, after pain and loneliness, Mercedes felt the need of support, of a shoulder to lean on...
Part 3: The Falcon's Haunt
The winter of 1899 was a severe one for southern Patagonia and the Neuquén area. Las Lajas was situated on the banks of the forceful waters of the Neuquén from which, in fact, the region gets its name. Torrential rains and heavy snows along the whole chain of the Andes resulted in swollen rivers whose angry waters left destruction in their wake.
This deluge of water from a love and below is a vivid image of Mercedes's own state. In a desperate effort to get on top of misfortune, she clung to a man, who in her eyes seemed to be a raft in the swirling vortex of her own insecure life. How did she get to know him? We do not know. He was a certain Manuel Mora, a South American cowboy (gaucho) of ill repute.
He came from Chos-Malal where he had served prison sentences for crimes unknown. he frequently had recourse to the dagger and the revolver. He stopped off at Las Lajas and 'swooped down' like a condor, a bird of prey, on the victim. he had belonged to a well-off family of Buenos Aires and had obtained from the Governor a permit to work a fine stretch of land along the folds of Chapel -- the chain of mountains which encloses the panorama towards the Andes.
He was a perverse individual, but capable and ruthless. He had built up two ranches (estancias) for raising cattle in a short time. Then he invited his two brothers to join him, to share his wealth and to accumulate more.
When Mercedes came to know him he was about forty; a good-looking, handsome man. On horseback, elegantly dressed, armed with a long dagger which had a silver hilt, he appeared superior to everyone else. He treated the natives like slaves, as he did the servants, horsemen, and shepherds, and used the whip on men and dogs alike.
This self-made lord knew how to be chivalrous and charming when he wanted to. Mercedes clung to him as though he were her anchor of salvation. She thought he would be the protector for herself and the children, so she followed him.
Perhaps she thought she could rebuild a home life. She dreamed of wedding bells, but she was deluding herself. In those out-of-the-way places, unfortunately similar cases were not infrequent at the time. Manuel Mora, intact, had no intention of marrying her.
Another woman, Tomasa Catala, had been his mistress at the Quilquihué ranch and she had been subjected to outrageous treatment. When Mora was tired of her, he tied her to one of the horses' posts. Then branding her flesh with the red hot iron used to mark his herds, he drove her away! These were the hands into which Mercedes was about to fall.
The wealthy ranch owner smiled in the direction of the widow as he crossed the threshold of the ranch. Finding again a home, perhaps Mercedes smiled too. Did Lura smile? No, it seems unlikely. Julia yes, for she was still very small. Anyone witnessing this step would pity the woman's fate and would fear for the two little girls, still so innocent.
All over the Neuquén area the world had spread that the FMA (abbreviation for the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, popularly known today as the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco) were opening a school at Junín de Los Andes, to provide for the education of young girls. Certainly Mercedes remembered the Sisters she had seen at Temuco. She would have known something about them. She wanted to put Laura and Julia into their care. Manuel Mora was willing to pay the monthly fee. He also paid for their clothes which were even elegant; they lacked nothing. For a short while the two children stayed at the Quilquihué ranch, "Quilquihué" meaning the 'home of the falcon'. Only a few days, yes, but already the alarm sounded for Laura. She was nine years old, but was a precocious child. She was fair skinned with dark eyes, and chestnut wavy hair.
Her deportment was that of a well-educated child. The ups and downs of her early years had brought Laura to a maturity extraordinary for her age. Innocent as the angels, she sensed, as though by an innate perception, that her mother's situation was anything, but healthy. Mora, the "condor" was already meditating how one day he would 'sink his claws' into that innocence too. In the meantime he willingly paid the fees for the school.
Part 4: Junín de Los Andes
The renowned Salesian missionary of South America, Mosignor Cagliero, having considered the location of Junín de Los Andes from his vantage point on horseback, drew up a plan of action. He proposed to Fr. Milanese that they open schools there to meet the needs of both boys and girls.
Junín was a border town. 780 meters above sea level in the folds of the Cordillera. This town had continued to expand through many difficulties and changes of climate from 1879 onwards. The following extract from the Salesian Bulletin of September 1899 gives a vivid description: “The building of these two schools cost us much fatigue and heartache, more easily imagined than described. The great distances, the means of transport which consisted solely of beasts of burden, the roadways which were almost impassible, the extreme poverty of the place and the hardships of the times, all these of themselves speak of the huge difficulties we had to overcome.
The river Chimehuin added a picturesque touch to the little city, and its abundant waters fertilized the surroundings. However, it also presented a danger, because its sudden floods made it treacherous.
That little center, then assumed great importance in the missionary’s eyes as he directed his thoughts towards the many inhabitants scattered on the high plains and in the surrounding valleys: natives and settlers, without schools or church, without help of any kind. And this area covered a radius of more than 100 km.
Monsignor Cagliero planned to make Junín de Los Andes a base from which to transmit civil and Christian values, a base much more important for Argentina than the military one set up there to guard the last outpost of the Aracauni who had fled into the mountains.
Within the raids of those 100 km were the two ranches of Manuel Mora. Mercedes traveled on horseback the 20 km separating Quilquihué from Junín, she introduced herself to Sr. Angela Piai and asked for two places for her daughters. She spoke little, and the Superior, Sr. Angela, did not ask questions. The lady had on an elegant silk cape and looked young and full of life. She gave the particulars necessary for the register as follows: Julia Amanda, six years; Laura Carmen, nine years, both Chilean; Parents: Dominic and Mercedes Pino, Chileans.
At that time almost all the houses in Junín were made of wood and rough bricks and the school of Mary Help of Christians was not different. It was among the poorest of mountain dwellings with a zinc roof, narrow doors and low windows. It was in the form of right-angle and had a garden and well in the center and an uncultivated vegetable garden facing the open country. In the house everything was primitive. The sofa on which Mercedes sat was none other than the trunk they brought from Chile covered with a cloth. In the whole house there was only one table which served every possible need and this meant that it was continually being moved about. They also had a chair and some benches, and that was the sum total of the furniture they possessed.
A ‘school’ with a difference one could say! From this ‘border refuge’, as someone called it, a transformation was taking place. It was becoming a ‘center of virtue’ because the Sisters who had come from far away, lived solely to love and served God in their neighbor. Junín de Los Andes with its solitude, silently draped in the virgin-green of the conifers, with the magic spectacle of its white, snow-covered peaks, seemed to be given added splendor and importance by that poor and somewhat drab building which was the school — a splendor and glory far superior to that of the marble constructions and enchanting squares of the grandest metropolis. Young Sr. Azócar wrote: “I began to consider myself as in an earthly paradise in that solitude, because of the peace and tranquility I enjoyed there.”
And she reveals the source of her peace as she adds: “Spiritual help was more available than the School in Chile. They lacked nothing a religious needed to be faithful to her sacred commitment.” The Salesians had the boys’ school; it was beside the girls’ one, and so spiritual assistance was not lacking. The FMA (Salesian Sisters) arrived in Junín carrying with them their priceless possessions — the Crucifix and Don Bosco’s motto: “Give me souls.”
Laura sensed this charity, rooted in the Gospel, from the moment she first entered the College. At Junín there were plenty of opportunities to practice a spirit of sacrifice. For example, the washing was done int he waters of Chimehuin; the bread was kneaded and baked at home once a week; the vegetables often consisted of wild grass taken from the fields.
Poverty, extreme poverty! However, as Sr. Azócar shrewdly noted: “The rooms were painted bright green and that cheered our hearts!” Then, with her missionary enthusiasm, she continues: “What consoled us most of all was to see how, little by little, the people of Junín, originally so far from God, gradually moved towards Him, through their frequenting the Church and being won by kindness and persuasion.”
Part 5: The Wonderful Discovery
Laura and Julia had arrived at the school on January 21st. It was summer and holiday time. Why did Mercedes not wait for the beginning of the school year before parting with her daughters? Her heart was broken, but she had to do it. The ranch at Quilquihué, the ‘falcon’s haunt’, would never be home for them. Those two children were always the center of her life; the living heritage of Dominic Vicuña to whom she was devoted and whose memory could not have been for her in her situation, anything but a bitter reproof. He would have had them educated in a manner worthy of their ancestors. So it was better that they left Quilquihué immediately.
Julia, or Amandina as she was called in the school, burst into tears as she clung to her mother’s dress. Laura too seemed sad and thoughtful, but for other reason. She threw her arms around her mother, assuring her that she would take care of her little sister. When the moment of parting was over, Laura felt happy as her inner feelings of anguish quietened, and so she set out to face a new life.
Fr. Crestanello assures us: “She was overjoyed.” And he tells how Mercedes was amazed at her reactions when she knew that she was going to the school.
Laura then confessed to the priest that she could not explain the reason for this deep joy which took over like a fountain of clear water. “It's true, however, that I was happy,” she used to say. “Baby Jesus must have been pleased with my mother’s decision.” Mercedes, therefore, must have given God a place in the hearts of her children.
“Laura was happy because Jesus would be pleased.” This is something to be said for Laura’s mother in such a difficult position. Sr. Azócar assures us that Laura could read and write a little and could say some prayers. She had very little religious knowledge, but she had plenty of what could lead her to understand the Divine.
Her Innocent heart was ready to discover God, that most fascinating of all discoveries. We could compare her first days at the college to an ‘overture’. One breathed in the poor college of Junín an air of Gospel love, an atmosphere of fervent piety and serene joy, all of which is the result of the family spirit which is typically Salesian.
Being holiday time, the days passed happily, and the rhythm was not too regular. There were only the Superior and Sr. Azócar in the house, and Laura followed them everywhere and chatted spontaneously with them. She noticed their patience with Julia who was moody and at times capricious. She admired their serenity and peace, and was drawn by their pleasant ways, since she found them always available and approachable.
Soon she learned to live according to a timetable, to look after herself and her personal belongings as well as those of her sister. But above all she learned to follow the Salesian Sisters into Chapel for prayer. It was there that she made the marvelous discovery of a personal God, who is above all Father; of the Son, God made man, a victim of love for man and put to death because of sin. On her knees in the plain little room, which served as the Chapel and housed the Blessed Sacrament, the innocent child repeated the prayers she knew and those she was learning.
The Superior says that “from her first days in the school, they noticed Laura a sense of judgement well beyond her age and a real inclination to piety. her devotion, for a child, was serious without affectation or exaggeration of any kind.”
February and March passed by quickly and the scholar began on April 1st. Laura listened to the reading of the school rules: “Remember that we are created to love and serve God our Creator and that knowledge and all the wealth of the world are nothing without the fear of God.”
So there was a serious meaning to life. Santiago, Temuco, Norquin, Las Lajas were only stepping stones along the way to this discovery. And she also heard: “Try to practice virtue from your earliest years because to wait for old age is to put yourself in very grave danger of being eternally lost.” Eternally lost! Because of Sin!
And immediately her thoughts flew to her mother, to Quilquihué. What had the child seen at the ranch? A pure soul is capable of deep intuition. It can distinguish between what is opportune and what should not be done. It reacts instinctively to evil.
Laura would not have been able to put into words the very big change she had seen taking place from the time her father was alive in Temuco. Yet in a confused way, she understood that her mother had gone far away from God. Alongside the first wonderful discovery, the terrifying fact of eternal perdition pierced her soul like a dagger.
Love for Laura, meant a desire for the loved one’s peace with God, the priceless gift called grace! The crucifix from the altar spoke to her more clearly every day, of cruel martyrdom and she did not realize yet that Junín was going to be for her the mountain of sacrifice!
Part 6: God in First Place
In the little School of Junín, they taught a variety of subjects, both academic and practical. There was reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as domestic science, home-management and the first elements of civic education. The students, fourteen boarders and seventeen day-students, were all girls “who found it easier to handle the horse’s reins than the pen and the needle.” They came from the Cordillera, from as far as six hundred miles away. Used to the free life of the vast open spaces, they opened up and grew strong, almost like wild plants, usually docile and inclined to piety, but self-centered and inconstant.
They were taught singing too, for its refining influence, and so that they would be able to perform in Church and at the little family celebrations. But above all Christian formation was given first place in the education of these girls, on whom depended the first announcing of God’s message in the Neuquén. Laura drank deeply at the spring of religious knowledge. Sr. Azócar was her teacher since the child had been admitted to a course for the older girls. It would correspond to our second or third class in the elementary school.
(Check back each day to read the rest of her story. To be continued...)
Part 7: A crown of Three Stars
Part 8: Nothing is Ready-made
Part 9: The Condor and the Dove
Part 10: The Consequences
Part 11: Drop by Drop
Part 12: The Best Advice
Part 13: A Beautiful Girl
Part 14: Hand in Hand
Part 15: The Flooding
Part 16: The Bitter Chalice
Part 17: Somewhere to Die
Part 18: Manuel Mora
Part 19: Alone
Part 20: Friendships
Part 21: "I am Dying for You"
Part 22: Afterwards
Part 23: The Flight
Part 24: Testimonies
Part 25: In Her Words