Many Marian apparitions have occurred in France. Among the better known are those of St Catherine Laboure and St Bernadette at Lourdes, and the apparitions of La Salette. There are other more obscure stories, however, that have also received approval and recognition. In these, Our Lady reveals herself as someone who speaks not only about the drama of world events but also to the humble poor, otherwise hidden away from such events.
In this week’s instalment of Our Lady around the World, we take a look at the stories of Our Lady of Hope in Pontmain and Our Lady of Laus.
Otherwise known as Our Lady of Pontmain, Our Lady of Hope is the title given to Mary that, while preceding this apparition, has become particularly associated with the story of her appearance to children in the French town of Pontmain in 1871, at the height of the Franco–Prussian War.
Pontmain was a tiny settlement, home to no more than several hundred inhabitants. Conflict had begun the previous year with Emperor Napoleon III’s declaration of war against Prussia—a response to Otto von Bismarck’s provocative attempts to unite all German-speaking states into a single country— and it was not going well for France. Paris was under siege by Prussian forces, and more Prussian troops were on their way to take the city of Laval. The only settlement between them and Laval was Pontmain, and the people of Pontmain knew they were coming.
The children to whom Mary appeared were Joseph Barbedette, aged 10, and his brother Eugène, aged 12. On 17 January, they were in the barn helping their father when Eugène walked outside and gazed into the night sky. There he saw a beautiful apparition of a woman smiling down at him, wearing a blue gown covered in stars, a black veil and a golden crown.
Eugène excitedly told the rest of his family, but only he and his brother were able to see her. Their parents couldn’t. They called on more people from the village, and as the people gathered, still only the children of Pontmain could see her.
The local priest, Father Guerin, led the crowd in a Rosary and a recitation of the Magnificat. And as they prayed, a message appeared in the sky: ‘But pray my children. God will hear you in a short time. My Son allows himself to be moved.’
Together, they sung a hymn of praise called ‘Mother of Hope’. The story also goes that during the apparition, a red crucifix appeared in Mary’s hands, inscribed with the words ‘Jesus Christ’.
That night, Prussian forces received orders to suspend their campaign and retreat. Ten days later, a treaty was signed between the powers, finally initiating peace. Less than a month later, this armistice would be solidified in the Treaty of Versailles of 1871 (not to be confused with the famous treaty that brought the First World War to an end), signed by Otto von Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers of the Third French Republic.
An additional legend attached to this story is that one of the generals of the Prussian military, a man named General von Schmidt, described a ‘Madonna barring the way’ to Laval.
Whatever the case, years later, Joseph Barbedette would become a priest of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Recalling the beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he said that her eyes held an ‘unutterable tenderness’. ‘Like a true mother,’ he said, ‘she seemed happier in looking at us than we in contemplating.’
This apparition would go on to receive canonical recognition, and at the end of the 19th century, a sanctuary was built in honour of it. In 1905, this sanctuary was raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Pius X. The Basilica of Our Lady of Hope in Pontmain stands to this day and welcomes some 300,000 pilgrims every year.
There are certain recurring themes in many of the stories we hear about Marian apparitions. Common to many of them is the presence of young people—often children who are materially poor, though they might be rich in faith.
This is true of the story of Our Lady of Laus, also known as Our Lady of Happy Meetings. Between 1664 and 1718, a series of apparitions were experienced by a young shepherdess named Benoîte Rencurel, approved by the Holy See in 2008. A marble image depicting the apparitions was given a Canonical Coronation in 1855.
Benoîte was born into severe poverty and lost her father when she was only seven years old. The only work for her was tending sheep, and so she did, even as a young girl.
In May 1664, she had her first encounter with the supernatural: an apparition not of Mary but of St Maurice, a third-century martyr. There was a chapel dedicated to the saint near her village of St Etienne d’Avancon. Apparently, St Maurice told her that she needed to move her flock of sheep so they wouldn’t be stolen by ‘local guards’. He directed her towards the nearby Valley of Kilns, where he said she would also see the Mother of God.
See her she did. The first apparitions were wordless, though eventually, four months later, Our Lady would speak to her, telling her to go to Laus and look for her where there was a ‘nice perfume’.
Doing as she was told, Benoîte found a run-down chapel already dedicated to Mary, but Our Lady appeared again and asked for a new chapel to be built, this time dedicated to her son, Jesus.
‘It is my desire that a new chapel be built here in honour of my beloved Son. It will become a place of conversion for numerous sinners and I shall appear here very often,’ Our Lady told her. She specifically requested that this chapel be used for frequent Eucharistic Adoration.
In 2008, during Mass at the Marian basilica in Laus, Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, France, said, ‘Three centuries have passed since Benoite Rencurel testified … about what Christ and Mary, his mother, had revealed concerning God’s love for men, as well as his infinite mercy and his appeal for conversion.’
‘Here, as in Lourdes, as in La Salette, as in Fatima, we see Mary pursuing her mission to reveal her son and invite us to do all he tells us,’ he told the 6000 people who participated in the Mass.
One of the factors leading to the apparition’s approval by the Vatican was the many miracles of healing associated with the shrine. One of Mary’s promises to Benoîte was that if people allowed themselves to be anointed with oil from the sanctuary lamp, with faith in her intercession, they would experience miraculous healings. The testimonies emerging from anointing with this oil reinforced the ‘supernatural origin’ of these events.
Melbourne Catholic23 May 2023
Melbourne Catholic16 May 2023