Sainthood candidate’s story rekindles faith

Joseph and Jennifer MacNeil with Brother Llewellyn Muscat, who has been overseeing Elisabeth Leseur’s cause for sainthood at the Vatican, at her tomb in Paris.

After years of frustration with infertility, Jennifer MacNeil was losing her faith in God. But then, she learned about Elisabeth Leseur, a candidate for sainthood whose spirituality had transcended sorrow over her own infertility, other health problems and her husband’s hostility to Christianity.

“I thought ‘Oh, my gosh, people in church are quoting this married woman. I have to find out who she is,’” said MacNeil, the development director for St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights.

Since reading a Facebook post about Leseur, she and her husband, Joseph have spent five years working to revive her cause for canonization.

On Wed. Jan. 13, 2021, at 1 p.m. Eastern,  MacNeil will give a Facebook Live interview about Leseur for Ignatius Press, which has just published an English translation of Salt and Light: The Spiritual Journey of Elisabeth and Felix Leseur by Bernadette Chovelon.

Before discovering Leseur, MacNeil had sought a saint to identify with but found only women whose faith was miraculously rewarded with a child or celibates whose prayers are said to be efficacious for pregnancy. Although Leseur’s writings don’t dwell on her inability to have a child, that became an instant touchstone for MacNeil.

Soon after seeing the Facebook post, she and her husband traveled to Jerusalem, where she found Leseur’s biography in a Catholic bookstore.

“I devoured it,” she said.

Elisabeth and Felix Leseur

In 1889, after a brief courtship, 22-year-old Elisabeth Arrighi, a well-educated woman from a wealthy Parisian family, married a young doctor, Felix Leseur. She didn’t realize until after their marriage that he despised the Catholic Church.

After wavering in her own belief and beginning to read anti-Christian writers, she spotted logical fallacies in their arguments and her faith was revived. She became a self-taught lay theologian who could hold her own intellectually against her husband’s public attacks on the Catholic faith, even as she prayed quietly for his conversion.

After she died of breast cancer in 1914, Felix Leseur went to Lourdes, intending to denounce the shrine’s claims of healing miracles. Instead, he sensed his wife’s presence, experienced a conversion and ultimately became a Dominican priest. Until his death in 1950 he promoted her writings and pursued her cause for sainthood.

She was declared a Servant of God in 1936. However, the canonization effort was derailed by World War II and Felix’s death. Though groups of lay women from the Netherlands to Argentina continued a devotion to her, by 2000 the formal work on her behalf was dormant.

After reading the biography, MacNeil contacted a Vatican office with oversight of her canonization and, to her surprise, received a reply. That led her to a series of international contacts, which she has brought together into Elisabeth Leseur’s Circle of Friends.

MacNeil’s own prayer life blossomed as she followed Leseur’s example of keeping a spiritual journal and engaging in regular examination of her relationship with God.

“I forced myself at first to write about gratitude for everyday gifts from God,” she wrote in an essay about her devotion to Leseur. “After several months the practice becomes less an exercise and more nightly prayer.

At the beginning of Leseur’s journals, “You can see that her spiritual life is very shaky and immature when they first married, and you watch her grow through her writing,” MacNeil said.

“She struggled with a husband who was an atheist writing in anti-clerical journals. Over time she says, ‘I just need to surrender to God’s will’ and she moves to abandonment. She never fights with her husband over faith. Her journey is beautiful.”