Story of the Lard Light
... A primary source of trouble was the sister's desire for a chapel and religious services. Since a convent without a chapel is an anomaly, nothing was more natural than that the sisters should plan to have one at St. Coletta's as soon as possible. Small as the house was, Mother Antonia designated one of the rooms as an oratory and immediately set about securing the altar and other requisites for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. The sisters already had four beautiful imported vestments, the gift of Father Heiss. They confidently expected that occasionally the pastor would offer Mass for them; they also hoped that the Blessed Sacrament would be reserved in the chapel.
Unfortunately for the sisters, Father Jansen did not at all approve of these hopes and procedures. . . . he made no move to yield to the sisters' request for further religious services in their convent chapel.
In the hope of overcoming Father Jansen's obduracy, the sisters had recourse to the only weapon at their disposal, prayer. Some of them spent entire nights on their knees before the empty tabernacle entreating their Divine Spouse that He would deign to take up His Sacramental Presence in their midst. Before the feast of St. Joseph, 1865, the sisters united with their superior in a novena in honor of the saint, fervently begging him to use his intercessory power with his Foster Son. If ever in the life of the congregation there was an answer to prayer bordering on the miraculous, it was the response that followed this outpouring of petitions to St. Joseph.
To add to the trials of this first year at Jefferson, Mother Antonia was at times seriously ill, and, from all appearances, very near death. Several days before March 19 of this year, she was suffering from one of these attacks of illness. What was the surprise of the infirmarian-portress, Sister Michaela Nepper, when on Sunday morning, the feast of St. Patrick, Father Jansen, greatly agitated, rapped at the convent door before proceeding to the parish church for Mass. She was still more startled at his distraught questions: "How is Mother Antonia? Is she still living?" Wondering what could have caused his perturbation, Sister Michaela answered, "Yes, she is living, but she is very ill." Father Jansen responded, "Tell her I shall visit her after services."
When he came to the sick-room later, he demanded of Mother Antonia, "Where were you last night?" In reply to her statement that she had been nowhere but in bed, he insisted again, "Tell me honestly, where were you between eleven and twelve o'clock, and what did you do during that time?" To this, Mother Antonia answered simply, "Throughout the entire evening I was heartsick and so much oppressed that I could not sleep. I prayed earnestly to St. Joseph that he would plead with God to touch the heart of Your Reverence; that He would move you to give us the Blessed Sacrament. Then, suddenly, I must have gone to sleep; I don't know what happened thereafter."
It was now Mother Antonia's turn to wonder and to be startled at the priest's incoherent and almost vehement outburst; "You shall have it, but hereafter leave me alone. You came to me last night. I saw you in my room and you threatened me. Never disturb me again at such a time. On St. Joseph Day I shall read Mass in your chapel and we shall have everything as solemn as possible. I shall leave the Blessed Sacrament exposed all day so that you may have adoration. Prepare things meanwhile." Suddenly and strangely the answer had come to the sisters' persevering prayer.
The cause of Father Jansen's change of heart is matter for conjecture. Was there some kind of mental telepathy, or was Mother Antonia, like her patron saint of old, favored for a moment with the miracle of bilocation? Or had only a vivid dream aroused the priest? It does not matter now. Only the confirmed skeptic can refuse to see God's direct intervention in the incident. Father Jansen's housekeeper later told the sisters that she had heard him spring from his bed, talk excitedly aloud, and for a long time walk back and forth in his room much disturbed. The next morning he said to her, "I fear that Mother Antonia is dead and that her spirit came to me last night." Father Heiss, when questioned on the matter, always evaded an answer. In his historical sketch he contented himself with recognizing the underlying mysteriousness of the affair and with attributing the turn of events to the intercession of St. Joseph. Sister Michaela had only one account to give. Fearing to leave her patient alone during the night, she had remained at her superior's bedside and had noticed that about eleven o'clock, Mother Antonia had fallen into a deep sleep which lasted until morning and from which she awoke considerably refreshed.
The last two days of the novena became days of thanksgiving. Mother Antonia's health improved rapidly, and the sisters went about preparing for St. Joseph Day. . . . On the morning of the nineteenth, Father Jansen arrived at the convent long before the expected hour. . . . After the Mass, Father Jansen exposed the Blessed Sacrament in the small combination ostensorium-ciborium he had brought for the purpose, for the community did not yet own a monstrance. Throughout the day, as the sisters, novices, and postulants knelt in adoration before their Eucharistic King who had come at last to abide with them, joyous hymns were heard to alternate with fervent prayers of thanksgiving and petition. In the evening, Benediction fittingly and solemnly closed the first St. Joseph Day at Jefferson, a day that will live in the memory of a grateful community until time shall be no more. As Mother Antonia was expressing her appreciation to Father Jansen after the services, he remarked once more, "But, Mother Antonia, hereafter, do not every again disturb me at night."
Only as the candles were being extinguished and the fragrance of the burning incense diffused in the night air, did the sacristan and Mother Antonia recall that in the hasty preparation for this event, so eagerly anticipated and so unexpectedly realized, no provision had been made for a sanctuary lamp. Their embarrassment was greatly relieved when Sister Alphonsa Head, then a novice, explained how she had seen the Sisters of Mercy at a Detroit hospital produce a satisfactory night lamp by putting a wick of twisted tissue paper into a deep saucer filled with lard. Mother Antonia agreed that, as poor as such a light would be, to use it would be more appropriate than to leave the Lord without the symbol of His Eucharistic Presence.
With the novice's help, the light was quickly prepared, and Mother Antonia herself carried it to the chapel and placed it upon the altar. Then, in the flow of that flickering light, a memorable scene was enacted, and before that altar a vow was made, the fulfillment of which became the congregation's greatest ambition and remains its most cherished privilege. Sisters who had lingered in the chapel for a farewell visit or who had re-entered to witness this last act of homage, heard their superior pray audibly in a voice vibrant with emotion: "Dear Lord, accept this poor light. It is the best we can give You now, but if you will help us and bless the community, we will one day establish the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and build for You as beautiful a chapel as our means will allow."
A new spiritual life had begun for the sisters. They were no longer alone. From that eventful March 19 of 1865 until the actual introduction of the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the congregation, each successive St. Joseph Day was observed with exposition and adoration at the motherhouse; and, throughout the decades, the devotion to the Foster Father of Jesus has grown in the community. The exact date of the origin of the custom is obscured in the shadow of these early days, but catching its spark, as it were, from that first sanctuary lamp at St. Coletta's, a memorial lard light burns each March 19 before a statue of St. Joseph, not only in the motherhouse but in every affiliated convent and mission station, no matter how small or how distant it may be.
Excerpts from A Chapter of Franciscan History
Sister M. Mileta Ludwig, FSPA, pages 130-135