by Anne Marie Jacques
November 27 marks the Feast of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. On this day, we commemorate the apparition of Our Blessed Mother to Saint Catherine Laboure (whose feast day is on the following day, November 28) and celebrate the vision of Our Lady to the young saint, in which she gives to her a most precious gift, the Miraculous Medal.
It was in Paris, in the year 1830, during a period in which the Catholic Church was under attack from its many enemies. “Times are evil in France and in the world” said Our Lady to Catherine. While in silent meditation, Saint Catherine saw before her a striking vision of the Blessed Virgin, “her beauty [was] indescribable, standing on a globe. Rays of light [were] shining forth from the precious gems on her hands symbolizing the graces that she bestows upon us.” Catherine saw an oval frame formed around the Virgin Mary, bearing the words “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” And a voice said to Catherine, “Have a medal struck after this model. Persons who wear it will receive great graces, especially if they wear it around the neck.”
The following true story reveals the power of this promise of great graces. It is the story of a twenty-year-old man awaiting execution in a Mississippi prison in 1943. His crime was that of ambushing and shooting the abusive second husband of his beloved grandmother. But through his humble faith and by the simple wearing of the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces, he called down Our Lady’s maternal gaze, not only on himself, but on many other souls in that Mississippi prison.
Claude Newman was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas, on December 1, 1923, of African-American parents, Willie and Floretta (Young) Newman. At a young age, and for unknown reasons, Claude’s father took him and his older brother away from their mother and brought them to Mississippi to live with their grandmother, Ellen Newman, who had only recently been remarried to a man named Sid Cooke. They lived on a very large plantation in Bovina where Sid was employed. Claude too was hired to work there as a farmhand.
Sid Cooke was a violently abusive man, especially toward Claude’s grandmother. This angered Claude very much and as the abuse escalated, Claude’s grandmother finally separated from Sid Cooke. Claude remained deeply angered by this treatment of his grandmother and on the night of December 19, 1942, egged on by a fellow co-worker, Claude lay waiting for Sid outside his cabin. When Sid arrived, Claude shot and killed him, and after stealing his money, fled to Arkansas to the home of his mother. He was apprehended there in January, 1943 and was returned to Mississippi where he stood trial and was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair the following year.
In prison, Claude shared a cellblock with four other prisoners. One of the men was a Catholic and Claude had noticed a medal that he wore around his neck. When Claude asked him what the medal represented, the other prisoner became embarrassed. He removed the medal and threw it at Claude saying, “Here, you can have it!” It was the medal of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the Miraculous Medal.
Claude did not know what the medal represented, but intrigued by it, he began wearing it around his own neck. One night as he lay sleeping on his cot, he felt someone touch his arm. Looking up he beheld “the most beautiful woman that God ever created” standing there, looking down at him! She said to him, “If you would like me to be your Mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” Then she disappeared. At first Claude was frightened, thinking he had seen a ghost. He asked the prison guards if he could see a Catholic priest.
The next morning they brought in Fr. Robert O’Leary from a nearby parish. He listened to Claude’s account of the happenings during the night and was deeply impressed by Claude’s sincerity. Realizing that he knew practically nothing about religion or Christianity, Fr. O’Leary offered religious instruction to him and returned the next morning to begin teaching all five men in his cellblock about the Catholic faith. It was then that he also realized that Claude could neither read nor write and could only tell if a book was right side up if there were pictures in it!
Fr. O’Leary obtained permission to have two of the religious sisters from his parish accompany him into the prison. Together they worked patiently to instruct these men on the most basic teachings of the Church. Claude was a very willing and eager student, absorbing all he could about the faith. One day Father announced to them that he was going to teach them about a very important Sacrament, Confession. Claude said to him, “Oh, I know about that! The Lady told me that when we go to confession we are kneeling down not before a priest, but we’re kneeling down by the Cross of Her Son. And that when we are truly sorry for our sins, and we confess our sins, the Blood He shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins.”
Father O’Leary and the sisters were stunned! “Then you have seen her again, Claude?” Father asked. Claude asked to speak privately with the priest for he had this message for him. “She told me that if you doubted me or showed hesitancy, I was to remind you, that lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940, you made a vow to her which she’s still waiting for you to keep …[to] build a church in honor of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.”
This revelation convinced Fr. O’Leary that Claude was telling the truth; he had never revealed this vow to anyone! (Fr. O’Leary did fulfill this vow. He was transferred to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1945, where a delegation of African-American Catholic laymen came to him to ask to have a church built there for them. The Bishop of Natchez, Mississippi, had been sent $5000 by Archbishop Cushing of Boston for the “Negro Missions”, and together with the bishop, Father O’Leary commissioned the building of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1947. It still stands there today.)
About a week later Fr. O’Leary, accompanied by the Sisters, was teaching the men about Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Claude asked Father if he could tell everyone what Our Lady had taught him about the Holy Eucharist. Encouraged by Father, Claude related, “The Lady told me that in Communion, I will only see what looks like a piece of bread. But she told me that it is really and truly her Son, and that He will be with me just as He was with her before He was born in Bethlehem. She told me that I should spend my time like she did during her lifetime with Him, in loving Him, adoring Him, thanking Him, praising Him and asking Him for blessings. I shouldn’t be distracted or bothered by anybody else or anything else, but I should spend those few minutes in my thoughts alone with Him.” It was decided that Claude was more than ready to be received into the Catholic faith, so on January 16, 1944 he was baptized ‘Claude Jude’ by Fr. O’ Leary.
Claude’s execution had been scheduled for January 20, only four days after his baptism. Fr. O’Leary came on that day to give him Holy Communion. After receiving the Blessed Sacrament, as he knelt with the priest giving thanks to God, the sheriff rushed in to announce that he had received a two-week reprieve from the governor; his execution had been postponed! Instead of being happy, Claude was devastated. He had been preparing all this time for the day when he would be joined with his Heavenly Mother for all eternity. Why was God allowing that moment to be postponed?
Consoling him, Fr. O’Leary was inspired. He encouraged Claude to offer every moment that he suffered in separation from Our Blessed Lady as a sacrifice for a fellow prisoner who was also sentenced to die. This prisoner, James Hughes, had been raised a Catholic but now he rejected anything relating to God or religion. Fr. O’Leary related that, “This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across. His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description.” What’s more, during their time in prison together, James Hughes had developed a keen hatred for Claude. It was with a truly generous heart that Claude accepted to offer his own disappointment that this man might not be separated from God for all eternity.
Claude’s execution took place on February 4, 1944. Fr. O’Leary testified, “I’ve never seen anyone go to his death as joyfully and happily. Even the official witnesses and the newspaper reporters were amazed. They said they couldn’t understand how anyone could go and sit in the electric chair while at the same time actually beam with happiness.”
The execution of James Hughes was scheduled for May 19, 1944, three months after that of Claude Newman. On that day Fr. O’Leary was called in, as it was the law in Mississippi at that time to have a clergyman present for all executions. After Hughes was strapped to the electric chair the sheriff asked him if he had any last words. Hughes began blaspheming, then stopped suddenly and screamed in terror. With a look of complete horror on his face he called out, “Sheriff, get me a priest!” Fr. O’Leary had been hidden behind some reporters so as not to provoke the condemned man, but now he came forward. The room was cleared and Hughes made a sincere and holy confession. When the Sheriff returned, he asked Hughes, “Son, what changed your mind?” The prisoner responded, “Remember that black man, Claude – the one whom I hated so much? Well he’s standing there [and he pointed], over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross, for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.” James Hughes was therefore converted in the last moments of his life. It was through the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, that Fr. O’Leary was able to teach Claude the value of uniting his suffering to that of Christ on the cross for the salvation of souls.
The information presented here is from a tape recorded radio interview of Father Robert O’Leary, SVD (1911-1984), a priest who came to know Claude very well during his imprisonment.
The Icon of Claude Newman is the work of Br. Claude Lane, OSB. It is shown here with the kind permission of Br. Claud. He resides at Mount Angel Abbey, St. Benedict, OR. Hiss work can be seen at:
About Iconography: Icons are meant to be Scripture in visual form. That is why we say that we “write” an icon rather than “paint” it, so that we can bring forward, through the Icon, a more God-centric perspective.