By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Former Fall River resident Marie-Rose Ferron’s name might not be familiar to many people in the Fall River Diocese, but her more affectionate “Little Rose” Ferron moniker is likely to conjure the image of a bed-stricken young woman, serenely smiling despite having to endure incredible pain and suffering.
The most memorable of these images would be the black-and-white photograph of a peaceful Ferron in her final moments with the intertwined pattern of Christ’s crown of thorns apparently protruding from beneath the flesh of her forehead. That striking depiction was used for the cover of Father Onesime A. Boyer’s 1949 biography — the primary resource documenting Ferron’s life — aptly titled “She Wears a Crown of Thorns.”
Published a little more than a decade after her death on May 11, 1936, Father Boyer’s detailed account of Ferron’s life as a mystic and stigmatist is for many proof positive that the Woonsocket, R.I. woman should be venerated as a saint. And as devotees prepare to commemorate liturgically the 75th anniversary of Little Rose Ferron’s death this week, they remain steadfast in their opinion of her saintly virtue.
“In our minds, we know there have been so many miracles attributed to her, and we’d like to have her recognized as a saint,” said Deacon Nicholas A. Mazzei, president and director of the Little Rose Ferron Foundation. “That’s what our foundation is doing right now.”
“People used to think she was faking it, but she wasn’t,” said Diane Marshall, a family friend who currently cares for Ferron’s cousin, Rose Myette. “She suffered greatly.”
But not everyone agrees that Ferron’s canonization is inevitable.
“It’s a fascinating story, but you never hear much about it around here anymore,” said Father Edward G. St-Godard, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Woonsocket, where the Ferron Family once belonged. “Even among those who remember her, most people no longer talk about it. I don’t think she’ll ever become a saint.”
Born May 24, 1902 in St. Germain de Grantham in Quebec, Marie-Rose Ferron was the 10th child in a family of 15 children.
The Ferrons were a deeply-faithful and pious Catholic family and Rose’s mother, Delima Mathieu Ferron, is said to have offered to God through the Blessed Mother each of her children in honor of the 15 Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Being the 10th child, Little Rose was to become forever linked with the final Sorrowful Mystery: Christ’s Crucifixion.
In 1906 when Ferron was just four-and-a-half years old, the family moved from Canada to Fall River where they lived at 175 Tremont Street and attended the former St. Roch’s Parish until relocating to Woonsocket, R.I. in 1925.
It was while living in Fall River at the age of six that Ferron had her first vision of Jesus as a child, carrying a cross. “He was looking at me with sadness in His eyes,” she once said.
When she was 13, Ferron became stricken with a mysterious paralysis and painful contraction of the muscles in her legs, feet, arms and hands, forcing her to walk with crutches for several years until her twisted and clubbed feet confined her to a bed for the rest of her life. Because her muscles would sometimes painfully contract, making it very difficult to straighten once again, a flat board was placed on her narrow bed to which she was rigidly strapped.
She also suffered an intestinal problem that made it difficult to digest solid food and contracted tetanus and pyorrhea.
According to Glenn Dallaire on his website devoted to “Mystics of the Church,” Ferron’s stigmata first appeared about a year after the family moved to Woonsocket in 1926.
“But it was during Lent of 1927 … that these wounds began to appear regularly every Friday. The red and purple stripes were clearly visible on her arm, which seemed to have been lashed with whips. The wounds swelled and hurt like burns.
“Two days later, before the eyes of her biographer and another priest, the wounds of the nails appeared in her hands. Her feet, too, bore the marks of the nails. The stigmata of the heart began during the Lenten season of 1929. They brought such sharp pains to Ferron that she sometimes fainted into unconsciousness. The wounds of the crown of thorns resembled, in Ferron’s mother’s words: ‘two heavy cords that encircled her head.’ The holes made by the thorns themselves made Ferron feel ‘as if her head were breaking open.’
“Finally Ferron suffered from the shoulder wound, which likewise brought her acute pain. The five wounds and the crown ‘came to stay,’ but the others appeared every Friday and disappeared on Saturday as rapidly as they had come, without leaving a trace. On Fridays, when the bleeding would begin, Ferron’s mother would lock the doors of the house and would admit only a few visitors who had obtained special permission.”
Because of Ferron’s digestive problems, it is said that for the final decade of her life she took only liquid food and sustained herself solely on Holy Communion.
“I saw her face full of blood one time,” said one of Ferron’s few surviving relatives, her 99-year-old cousin Rose Myette. “Her face was covered in blood, you couldn’t see her face. I saw that on a Friday. She always suffered. I saw her suffer so much; it was terrible. No one will ever know how much she suffered.”
The amazingly vibrant Myette, who still lives in the same house where she converted a front parlor into a chapel to honor her cousin, spoke fondly of how she and her family used to help care for Ferron.
“I was 13 when I first started visiting my cousin; they had just moved from Fall River,” Myette said. “I used to make her clothes. My brother and I used to stop there two or three times a week.”
Myette’s love and devotion for her cousin is manifest in the home chapel she built which contains some of Ferron’s personal belongings including one of the narrow beds to which she was strapped for months on end. The entire room is filled with statues and relics and everything is either framed or adorned with hand-carved wooden thorns — all of which Myette made herself using a jigsaw in the barn out back.
Even the wall-to-wall carpeting within the chapel — patterned with roses and thorns — was handmade by Myette and her sister Wilda. That’s why the sprightly Myette makes no bones about asking all who enter to remove their shoes first.
Although in her heart she already considers her late cousin a saint, Myette is surprisingly pessimistic that Ferron will ever be canonized.
“You won’t see her become a saint,” Myette said firmly. “She’s never going to become a saint, and I’ve been telling everyone that since she died.”
After nearly a decade of suffering for souls, Ferron passed away on May 11, 1936.
“Seven years before Ferron died, she cried out to Jesus and asked when He was going to take her home, and He said ‘in seven years,’” Marshall said. “And it was exactly seven years later when she died at age 33: the same age when Jesus died on the cross.”
As word of Ferron’s life and suffering began to spread in the aftermath of her death — due in no small part to the publication of Father Boyer’s book — many devotees were confident that their “Little Rose” would soon join the famous ranks of stigmatists like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Genoa.
“Her cause has been studied and investigated three times by the Diocese of Providence and denied all three times,” Father St-Godard said. “Bishop Russell J. McVinney issued a formal decree on the matter on Jan. 9, 1964.”
Bishop McVinney’s decree, issued after two of the three official diocesan investigations, acknowledged Ferron to be “a girl of deeply religious bent” and suggested that Father Boyer’s biography had generated “great interest so that a rather extensive cult developed around Little Rose.”
It concluded: “Two investigations were undertaken in the Diocese of Providence … the findings in both of these investigations were predominantly negative. Therefore, with deep regret, we conclude that any further action to promote the cause of Rose Ferron is not warranted.”
Father St-Godard said some suggested the decree was ethnically motivated, claiming that the Irish Bishop McVinney was against promoting a French-Canadian to sainthood.
“But then Bishop Louis Gelineau, who was our first French bishop, investigated the matter a third time and came up with the same conclusion,” he said.
“When they did the investigations, they interviewed three people who were against Ferron becoming a saint and they never interviewed any member of the family or the eyewitnesses who saw her stigmata,” Marshall said.
Even more surprising, Marshall said Ferron’s cousin Rose Myette was never interviewed.
“Common sense would say there were certain things in those investigations that should cause people to think and question,” agreed Deacon Mazzei. “I just think they need to look into the situation and acknowledge the good and virtuous life that she led and the suffering that she endured. I also understand that the Church is very prudent, and with St. Joan of Arc it took 500 years, so maybe Little Rose will never be canonized within our lifetime.”
More recently, a Jesuit priest named Father John Baptist Palm, S.J., took it upon himself to investigate the Ferron cause.
“Father Palm came here and interviewed thousands of people who met and knew Ferron and he documented everything and made them sign an affidavit,” said Dr. Ben Healey, a longtime family friend. “He put all his research together into a bound book entitled ‘Tape Recorded Little Rose Testimonies’ that’s well over 2,000 pages.”
Before his death in 2009, Father Palm is purported to have sent his findings to the Diocese of Providence.
“How can a person investigate a cause and not interview surviving members of the family?” Deacon Mazzei said. “There are many miracles that have taken place through her intercession. They have been recorded and sent to Rome and that’s where we’re at right now and we’re not giving up.”
Although Ferron’s life may no longer be readily familiar to those in Fall River and Woonsocket, she continues to attract interest elsewhere — having inspired a magazine, newsletters, several websites, a remote shrine in Taylor, Mich., an apostolate in North Huntingdon, Pa., and the aforementioned foundation dedicated to promoting her sainthood cause based in Yonkers, N.Y., to name a few.
“For me, the mere fact that here is a young lady who has experienced so much pain and suffering and yet continues to smile has always captured my attention,” said Deacon Mazzei. “We who are devotees of Little Rose already recognize in our hearts that she is in the presence of God. We just keep praying for the time when the Church recognizes it, too.”
While she doesn’t think she’ll see her cousin canonized, Rose Myette — who will turn 100 in September — continues to pray the novena Ferron taught her consisting of 33 Our Fathers, 33 Hail Marys and 33 Glory Be to the Fathers every morning.
“They’re going to see what’s going to happen before long,” Myette said. “She told me one day all her things will be together … and that day is coming.”
“I do find that the people who are devoted to Little Rose are enthusiastic and a little overzealous,” Father St-Godard said. “Every once in a while someone will pick up one of the books about her and call us to visit the shrine to Little Rose Ferron. Of course, we have no shrine. Some will come and want to see her house and others want dirt from her grave.”
Ferron was laid to rest in Precious Blood Cemetery in Woonsocket 75 years ago beneath a gravestone that declares her a “victim of her Jesus” and a “stigmatist” in French. In his homily at Ferron’s well-attended funeral, Father Norman Neunier claimed: “You will have a little saint in Woonsocket.”
While many continue to pray that Marie-Rose Ferron will one day be recognized as a saint, an official from Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s office in the Diocese of Providence confirmed there are currently no plans at the diocesan level to further pursue Ferron’s sainthood cause.
An Anniversary Mass for Little Rose Ferron will be celebrated Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at her beloved Holy Family Church, 414 South Main Street in Woonsocket, R.I.
A second Mass in Little Rose’s memory will also be celebrated at Holy Family Church on May 29 at 9:30 a.m.