The Order of Carmel has been graced with this new Saint, “the little Arab,” as she is commonly called. St. Mary of Jesus Crucified (Mariam Boaouardy) has her roots in the Holy Land. Her early family life was situated in the same place where the first Carmelite hermits gathered together. Her birth place and home town of Abellin is a small Galilean village in the Greek-Melchite parish of St. John of Acre, half way between Haifa and Nazareth. Poor and simple as this village was, it was surrounded by the scenery of Biblical history—Mount Hermon to the north; to the east a low range of hills, with Nazareth behind; and to the south the great plain of Esdraelon, sharply bounded by the ridge of Mount Carmel. This was the Biblical culture into which Mariam was born.
Early in the life of St. Mary, we see much suffering amidst not only her poor and humble background, the difficulties of Christian life (being a minority), but even the loss and death of both of her parents when she was only two years old. Her parents died within days of each other, leaving Mariam and her newly born brother, Paul, orphans at a young age. A paternal uncle who lived in Abellin welcomed Mariam into his home as his adoptive daughter. Paul was adopted by a maternal aunt who lived in Tarshiha. From the day the two children were separated they never set eyes on one another again.
Not long after this, little Mariam moved with her adoptive parents to Alexandria in Egypt where she slowly grew up under their care and in the company of her cousins. In the family her religious inclinations developed, and by the age of 7 she was going to weekly confession and made her First Communion just before she was 8.
According to the oriental practice of the time, Mariam’s uncle had betrothed her to a cousin living in Cairo when she was only 13 years of age. Everything was settled and made ready for the marriage but the young girl proceeded to surprise everyone by refusing to wed. She wished to remain a virgin for Christ. She persisted in her decision despite the pressure of family, a priest and even a bishop who knew the family. By way of punishment her uncle set her to work in the kitchen. Confiding to a friend and Muslim family servant she knew, she was invited to their home for a meal. Conversation turned to her awkward situation and her hosts offered to help her, on condition that she convert to Islam. Of course Mariam refused, so the Muslim man, filled with rage, beat and wounded her gravely on the neck with a sword. Then her lifeless body was left in a deserted alley. She later testified to the fact that a mysterious lady took her in and looked after her for about a month. She bore a deep scar across her throat all her life.
Mariam then fled for safety in other towns, looking for humble work as a servant to support herself, which she did for some time. Later through the direction of a priest, she was encouraged to enter religious life. Known for her seriousness and virtue, at the age of 20 she was accepted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, whose mother house was in Marseilles. Mariam was happy in the community and was made most welcome for her simplicity and hard-working attitude. Apart from the events of everyday life, other more unusual phenomena were observed, such as raptures and stigmata. After two years of postulancy, it was decided that she should be sent away: one reason was that they felt these external phenomena were better suited to the contemplative cloistered life rather than in an active community.
Mariam then applied to the Carmel of Pau, where she was received as a lay sister (because she was illiterate) and given the name Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified. In the novitiate St. Mary underwent various trials: her bad health prevented her from joining in the community work as much as she wanted; she desired mortifications; she was tempted to leave; and there were frequent unusual phenomena. Mother Elijah, Sister Mary’s novice mistress, testified about her: “I can but paint a half-portrait. It would take another pen, more skillful than mine, to describe this beautiful soul, her ingenuousness, simplicity, humility, generosity, charity and her love for God and neighbor; her long-suffering in trials, her faith in God, her constancy in waging battle with the foe who never leaves her alone; her love for the hidden life so common and ordinary. One would have to live with and follow this child to get an idea of her. Do all the extraordinary things that have happened to her, past and present, come from God? It is not our place to judge, but what I can say is that, if the Spirit of God were not their author, our novice would be all the more worthy of our admiration for her ability to remain faithful to her God, full of hope in Him, humble and small in herself, never seeking human glory, nor desiring anything but the will of God and His glory, and all the while under the Devil’s influence.”
In August of 1870, St. Mary of Jesus Crucified accompanied a group of nuns to India, where they were to make a foundation in Mangalore. But Sister Mary was eventually sent back to Pau due to misunderstandings and suspicion. She later went on, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to lead two foundations: first to Bethlehem, the holy site of the Birth of Jesus; then to Nazareth, where Jesus led his hidden life of 30 years. Being the only native Arabic speaker, she was put in charge of overseeing the workmen and the building of the monasteries.
Frequent ecstasies, apparitions and the stigmata were experienced by Sister Mary. But above all, it was her earnest quest for God through a life of faith, hope and charity which has marked her as so outstanding and inspiring a witness. At the age of 33, on August 26, 1878, Mary of Jesus Crucified entered into eternal life after much suffering and illness. Witnesses testify to her transpierced heart which was removed shortly after her death. May this “Flower from the Holy Land” intercede on our behalf. Her feast is celebrated on August 25th.