Our beloved Foundress Mother Veronica
Mother Veronica of the Passion née Sophie Leeves, the daring woman who found the congregation of the Apostolic Carmel, was born as the second child of the family of five on 1 October 1823 in Constantinople. Being born to a respectable English family of Anglicans, later Sophie found her way to Catholicism. Her father Henry Leeves, was an Anglican Chaplain to the British ambassador at Constantinople, and he took extra care to create a very conducive religious atmosphere in which all his children would grow. Under his influence Sophie learned to love the poor and above all to have a deep faith in God and to love the Scriptures. Her mother, Marina Haultain, was the daughter of a colonel in the British army and had many of her relatives as soldiers and marines. It was from her that Sophie inherited the burning zeal, invincible courage, perseverance in the face of difficulties. Her English back ground nurtured by the Protestantism and sound education formed her into an audacious woman who followed her dreams and convictions persistently.
From her childhood Sophie was in search of truth. She found a great attraction to the Eucharistic presence in the Catholic Church way before she embraced the Catholicism and she used to fall on her knees for hours before the Blessed Sacrament when she happened to visit a Catholic church. She received her first sign of grace on Easter Tuesday 1840 when she heard in a sweat clear voice “Peace I leave you, my peace I give unto you not as the world gives do I give unto you”. She could not express the effect of the Divine harmony of this voice andfor a long time she cherished this experience in her heart.
In search of truth
The first blow to the family was the sudden death of Mr. Leeves, who was on a pilgrimage to Holy Land with his second daughter Mary Ann. She writes in her auto biography that his death was like the cross which began to settle down on the family. Shortly after the death of her father a young English Marine proposed to her and with her mother’s consent they were to marry in two years’ time. By this time Sophie had several conversations about Catholic faith and she found that she was drawn towards it. However, listening to the deep whisperings of her heart, she broke off her engagement to the marine officer against the will of her mother. Henceforth, her life was a constant journey uphill until she found true faith in the Catholic Church. On 2 February 1850 she and her sister Mary Ann were baptized by Father Seagrave S.J. Rector of the Gesu, in the Catholic church of Malta. A bitter rejection awaited her at home from her mother and from the respectable Protestant society. Yet, her determined determination not only lead her to Catholicism but also to embrace religious life in the following year. She entered the Congregation of St. Joseph of the Apparition at Syros, made her religious Profession on 14 September 1851 and took the name of Sister Mary Veronica of the Passion. Her early Years as a religious were marked with mystical graces and deep experiences in prayer which strengthened her already profound faith.
A Protestant Convert Religious
As a Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Veronica was assigned to teaching, first at Syros, and then at the free school in Athens, where she looked after the poor with great love. It was here that she discovered her special vocation with the sick, the rich and the poor alike, to whom she devoted herself day and night, in spite of her own weak health. “On several occasions”, she says, “the good God gave me the grace to be able to make some sick people receive the Sacraments who would have died deprived of the help of religion…” Later, she was sent as superior to found a house and an orphanage at Piraeus, in Greece and then transferred to Tremorel, a small village in Brittany, France, where besides being in charge of the Convent and the school, she was also a nurse and apothecary to the whole village and the neighbourhood, since no doctors within the radius of several miles were available. In Tremorel She took ill, spat blood and had a great deal of fatigue so that she had to be transferred after a year.
Call within a call
The Turning point of her life arrived when she was sent as a missionary to serve on the Indian soil. It was there that she heard her second call; Call to Carmel. In search of the meaning of the persistent voice she heard in the depth of her being “I want you in Carmel” she realized that there was a dire need of teaching sisters in the West coast of India. Father Marie Ephrem OCD., the local parish priest, and her spiritual director, helped her to discern her special vocation to found a Congregation of Third Order Regular of Active Carmelites for the Missions, especially for the evangelization and faith formation of young girls on the west coast of India through education and other apostolic ministries.However, she had to surmount several obstacles before she reached the goal. It was extremely difficult for her to leave her congregation which she loved and where she was loved. But surrendering to the Will of God she entered Carmel at Pau completed her Novitiate there in order to imbibe the spirit of Carmel. After a period of time in Pau, she left her beloved Carmel of Pau in search of a place to start her congregation. For six months she roamed from place to place without any success. Finally, after having faced unbelievable challenges, utter poverty, many hardships and untold sufferings, but with unshakable faith in God in her relentless search for his will, she founded the Apostolic Carmel at Bayonne, France on 16 July 1868, with the authorization of the Very Rev. Father Dominic OCD., the then Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites and with the approval and support of Mgr. La Croix, the Bishop of Bayonne.
In 1870 she sent the first three Apostolic Carmelite sisters to India to begin their mission, for which the congregation was initially established. She herself was desiring to join them, but her Spiritual Director, who was a bishop, Bishop Mari Ephram OCD kept her away from the Indian mission. God willed it that she remains in Bayonne and prepare some more sisters for the Indian mission. However, unfavourable circumstances obliged Mother Veronica to close down A.C. Novitiate, at Bayonnein 1873, the convent for which she had suffered and agonized.
Then, at the age of 50, she re-entered the Cloistered Carmel of Pau again, as a novice and this time made her Solemn Profession as a Discalced Carmelite on 21 November 1874, and took the name Sister Marie Therese of Jesus. In 1875, ten Carmelite nuns from the Cloistered Carmel of Pau, including Mother Veronica and Saint Mary of Jesus Crucified, set out for a new foundation at Bethlehem where she remained for twelve years.
Her stay in Bethlehem brought out a new dimension of her saintly qualities as she was offered a painful participation in the cross of her Master in a special way. After the death of Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified, she underwent terrible trials, misunderstandings, humiliations of every kind and the greatest of these being the interior affliction that found her helpless, feeling the weight of her sins and the sense of abandonment by God. She could not be comforted neither by her confessor nor by the truths of faith. Finally, God gave her peace through the instrumentality of Mgr. Bracco, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who helped her to accept suffering as coming from God and enabled her to leave Bethlehem and return to Pau.
Last days of a holy soul
The last nineteen years of her life were spent in peace and tranquility at the Carmel of Pau. During this time, she spent her life serving the community in humble and unobtrusive tasks, fostering that interior life which had always been so very important to her. Truly she could say at the end, “self seems to disappear, whereas God and his mercy alone remain”. Her heroic “yes” to God, who was becoming her “All”, to an ever deepening degree with the passing years, continued with increasing ardour. Her gift of mystical prayer along with her thirst for asceticism made her increasingly humble and compassionate of heart. She prayed and made penance unceasingly for her sisters in India whom she loved dearly, and with whom she kept in touch through correspondence. Her life of loving surrender to God under challenging circumstances culminated in her holy death on 16 November 1906.
A flame that burned bright
Mother Veronica’s heroic obedience to the will of God, her life of unceasing prayer and heroic charity, her deep faith in the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus in the Eucharist, her enthusiastic loyalty to the Catholic Church, her wholehearted commitment to the cross, her outstanding humility and zeal for the Mission, her vision of education for the integral development of persons especially the girl with emphasis on faith formation and prayer, remain an inspiration to all those who, following in the footsteps of Jesus, seek to offer their lives in loving service to humanity, especially the less privileged. Brought up as a Protestant and yet firmly rooted in the Catholic Church, her gesture of keeping in loving touch with her Protestant relatives and friends, her prayer for them and her welcoming attitude towards people of different faiths, especially in the missions, inspire ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue in our times.
Mother Veronica’s Cause for Beatification and Canonization was introduced on 16 July 1999, by Most Rev. Dr. Ignatius Paul Pinto, the Archbishop of Bangalore at the Apostolic Carmel Generalate Bangalore and she was declared Venerable by our Holy Father Pope Francis, on 9 July 2014. We ardently look forward to the day when she will be raised to the honours of the Altars, so that she becomes a greater source of inspiration to all those who wish to follow Jesus in the religious life.
Prayer to Mother Veronica.