Did you know that Pontmain in the Mayenne is the 2nd most visited shrine in France? Every year, on the 17th January and on the Feast of Assumption (15th August), thousands of pilgrims make their way to this tiny village to pray at the site of the vision of the Virgin Mary in 1871.
Our story starts in Pontmain, on 17th January 1871. It was six o’clock in the evening…night had fallen, it was dark and very cold. The ground was covered in snow.
By candlelight, Eugène and Joseph Barbedette, aged twelve and ten, were working in the barn with their father. The people of Pontmain were worried because France was at war with Prussia and there was no news of the young soldiers from the village who had gone to fight in the French army. The Prussian advance had nearly reached the gates of Laval!
Eugène paused for a break and went outside. The sky was clear, dotted with stars. Suddenly, in the night sky, he saw a beautiful lady… she smiled gently at him. Joseph joined him outside and exclaimed, “Oh, the beautiful lady! The two brothers described the sight to their father: “A beautiful young lady, with a very blue dress, full of stars, a golden crown with a red border, a black veil behind her shoulders, blue and gold slippers…”, but above all “How beautiful she is! How sweet her smile! Their father was concerned as he could see nothing in the sky. Their mother arrived, and even with her glasses on, she couldn’t see anything either! “You’re nothing but liars”, she said, and left to prepare their supper.
With a heavy heart, the children finished their task and went home to eat…
When they returned to the barn, they could still see the beautiful woman in the sky. Eugène and Joseph fell to their knees to pray.
Their mother went to fetch the nuns, convinced that if there was anything to see, the nuns would see it!! The Sisters arrived accompanied by two children, boarding with the nuns: Françoise and Jeanne-Marie. They were joined by curious neighbours, but only the children could see the beautiful lady!
Prayers & Hymns in Pontmain
They hurried to fetch the parish priest, Abbé Guérin, but all he could see was the starry night… It was then, according to the children, that the Lady surrounded herself with a large blue oval and four candles, and a small red cross formed on her heart.
By now, almost the whole village had gathered in front of the barn. There was a great deal of commotion… people were talking, laughing and asking the children questions. The lady in the sky became sad and the priest asked the villagers to pray together.
As the people prayed, the apparition grew, stars appeared on her dress, more gathered below her feet, and she smiled again. As the prayers continued, golden letters appeared at the feet of the vision: “But pray, my children”, the children spelled out the letters that came one at a time.
“God will hear you in a short time”, they read.
More prayers were said and hymns were sung, and five more words appeared, underlined by a golden line: “My Son lets himself be touched”.
The villagers realise it must be the Virgin Mary, because she says “my Son”! With tears in their eyes, the children were asked to repeat the message a hundred times…
They sang the hymn “Mother of Hope” and the Virgin Mary raised her arms, moving her light fingers in time: “She’s laughing, she’s laughing! Oh, how beautiful she is!” shouted the children, clapping their hands with joy on their faces.
Towards the end of the hymn, the letters disappeared. When they begin to sing “My Sweet Jesus” Mary’s face becomes sad again… In her hands, she held a large red cross. The children declare that they have never seen such a sad face. Then a star appeared to light the four candles in the sky.
When the parish priest sang the Ave Maris Stella, the large red crucifix disappeared, Mary looked up, stretched out her hands again towards the children, and smiled again. Two white crosses appeared on her shoulders.
The priest leads the villagers in their evening prayers..
And slowly, towards the end of the prayer, a veil covers the Virgin, and, smiling, she gradually fades away.
The next day, the village priest interviewed the children and wrote down an initial account before informing the bishop. The Prussians never entered Laval. 11 days later an armistice was signed (28th January) Eventually, the thirty-eight soldiers from Pontmain returned safely home.
A year later, on 2 February 1872, Bishop Casimir Wicart officially recognised the apparition of the Virgin of Pontmain.
From the very first days after the apparition, even before the Church had recognised the authenticity of the apparition, pilgrims flocked to the site to pray. The rapid departure of German troops from the département (in the days following the apparition) was taken as a sign of the Virgin’s protection. Abbé Richard counted around 400 pilgrims in the village on 2 March (just over a month after the apparition). In the spring, there were already between 3,000 and 4,000 people a day.
Pilgrims arrive in Pontmain
Following the official recognition of the apparition by the Catholic church, Abbé Guérin, the parish priest of Pontmain, welcomed the pilgrims with the nuns from the school. But after his death in 1872, the bishop called in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to lead the first pilgrimages and preach in the region. The number of pilgrims increased rapidly. On the first anniversary of the apparitions, 17 January 1872, there were 8,000 pilgrims. Initially coming from the department, pilgrims gradually came from all over France, and then from abroad.
Today, there are around 300,000 pilgrims a year, and 4,000 a day on major feast days such as the Assumption6,7.
The Catholic church decided to build a new church in honour of the vision. Bishop Wicart, of Laval, laid the first stone of the church on 17 June 1873, but died shortly afterwards. His successors followed in his footsteps. The church was finally completed in 1890, but not consecrated until 15 October 1900.
On 21 February 1905, Pope Pius X promoted the church to the rank of basilica.
The Basilica of Pontmain
The Basilica is built with granite in the neo-Gothic style, it features large coloured stained glass windows and the two towers house a total of 39 bells weighing over 11 tons and was designed by the Franco-English architect Eugene Hawke who also designed the Palais de Justice in Chateau Gontier and the church at Chailland amongst many other projects in the department.
You can still visit the thatched barn in the centre of the village where the 2 boys were working when the vision first appeared. And the old parish church across the road. Regular services are held at the Basilica every day throughout the year, 4 on weekdays and 5 on Saturdays and Sundays, with special services also throughout the year. Visiting the Basilica is always a memorable experience, whether its full of people or, my personal favourite, when it is almost empty. As in most catholic churches you can light a candle of remembrance for lost loved ones, or just sit quietly and forget about your worries. There are several souvenir shops in the village as well as a café, restaurant and bar. There is a wooded walk behind the Basilica, where you can take a short circuit through the Arboretum or extend it to a 5km walk past the Château de Mausson.
As for the Apparition of Our Lady of Pontmain, whether you believe the story or not, you’ll find a visit to the Basilica will leave you de-stressed and contemplative; especially if you go on a sunny day and the light is streaming through the blue glass. It doesn’t take much imagination to look up and imagine her smiling face looking down at you! Even the most pragmatic person leaves Pontmain questioning what really happened on that cold winter’s night in 1871…..