Millions of Catholics around the world wear the Miraculous Medal, the beautiful symbol which the Blessed Virgin Mary commanded Sister (now Saint) Catherine Labouré to create at three apparitions in 1830.
Sister Catherine (a member of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who subsequently was canonised) was given the design by Our Lady – a representation of herself in an oval frame, surrounded by the inscription: "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!"
On the reverse side was to be the letter M, surmounted by a Cross, with the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary below, and with twelve stars round the border.
Our Lady promised great graces to those who wear the medal when it has been blessed.
Sister Catherine carried out the design, and with the approval of the Archbishop of Paris, the first batch of medals was struck on 30 June 1832.
The devotion spread rapidly, and the Miraculous Medal, as it came to be named, soon became the source of many remarkable events.
One of the most remarkable true events featuring the power of the Medal occurred in America 75 years ago, involving the conversion of a convicted murderer, Claude Newman, on death row, when he was given a Miraculous Medal by a fellow-prisoner shortly before his execution.
(A full account was published by the Catholic Family News in the USA in 2001, and this has recently been revived on the Internet).
Sentenced to death
Claude Newman, 20, an illiterate Afro-American, was brought up by his grandmother, and had been sentenced to electrocution for killing his grandmother's husband, Sid Cook, in 1942. Cook had been abusing her.
Newman was in his cell on death row in 1943 when he noticed a small silver medal that one of his fellow-prisoners was wearing.
When he asked what it was, the other prisoner – apparently embarrassed by the query – took it off and threw it on the ground and told Newman he could have it. Claude, who had no religion, hung the medal round his own neck as he went to sleep.
During the night, he awoke with a start at a light touch on his wrist, and looking up he saw "the most beautiful woman that God ever created", as he said afterwards.
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." After speaking, she disappeared.
At Newman's request, the prison governor summoned Father Robert O'Leary SVD (1911-1984), chaplain to the local Afro-American community, to visit Claude, who had been joined by four other prisoners. They asked for instruction in the Catholic faith.
Fr O'Leary made regular visits to the men, and during this time, Newman said that Our Lady had appeared to him several times.
Among other things, he told Fr O'Leary: "The Lady told me that when we go to Confession, we are kneeling down not before a priest, but by the Cross of her Son ... and the Blood He shed for us ... washes us free from all sin."
And: "The Lady told me that in Communion, I will see only what looks like a piece of bread, but she told me 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 ..."
Fr O'Leary said the disclosures made by Newman convinced him that Newman had really had visions of Mary.
Newman was baptised on 16 January 1944. Fr O'Leary officiated, and a young nun, Sr Bena Hanken, served as his godmother.
Soon afterwards, Sheriff Williamson asked whether he had any last request.
Newman shed tears and replied: "All my friends are all shook up. The jailer is all shook up. But you don't understand – I'm not going to die, only this body. I'm going to be with Her. So I would like to have a party!"
Fr O'Leary arranged for a generous benefactor to donate ice cream and cakes, and a party was held for the prisoners.
Newman was given a short reprieve by the state governor, but when Newman expressed his disappointment at the reprieve, Fr O'Leary suggested that he ask Mary to pray for the salvation of another prisoner, James Hughes, who hated Newman.
The priest said of Hughes: "This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I have ever come across. His hatred for God and everything spiritual defied description."
Newman went to the electric chair on 2 February 1944. A short report in the local newspaper ended: "Newman's only comment prior to the execution was that he was ready to go."
But Newman's miracle was not yet over.
When the time came for Hughes' own execution, he refused the offer to see a clergyman, and when the prison doctor offered to pray with him, Hughes spat in the doctor's face.
But his way to the electric chair, his eyes became fixed on a corner of the room, and he screamed in terror. He turned round and cried: "Sheriff, get me a priest!"
Hughes made a sincere confession with Fr O'Leary before he was executed.
Asked before his death why he had changed his mind, Hughes responded: "Remember that black man, Claude Newman, the one I hated so much? He was standing there [pointing to the corner]. And behind him, with one hand on each shoulder, was the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me: 'I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. Holy Mary has obtained for you the gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.' I was shown my place in Hell, and that's why I screamed!"
Footnote: More than 300,000 Miraculous Medals have been distributed in Australia in recent years by organisations devoted to Holy Mary.
The Medal is available in Catholic bookshops and piety shops at minimal cost, and should be blessed by a priest before being worn. It can serve either as a brooch, or worn round the neck on a cord or chain.