Notre Dame de Pontmain, the Lesser-Known "Our Lady of France"
Very few people, even among the French, know about this spiritual heritage story.
Forty-one years after the apparition of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal to Catharine Lebouré in Paris, and thirteen years after the vision of Bernadette Soubirous of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, the inhabitants of a little Norman village also witnessed an event of miraculous characteristics in the rigorous winter of 1871.
It was a very difficult time, during the Franco-Prussian War. The villagers were afraid of an enemy invasion at any moment, and gathered everyone everyday in the small parochial chapel to pray. During that Sunday's prayers, they had cried for the 38 young men of the city who had been summoned to war, from whom they no longer had news. Peasants and poor, the people from Pontmain could not defend themselves, and the situation was very tense.
The story has it that it was a little past five o'clock in the afternoon of February 17th and two brothers, Joseph and Eugéne Barbedette, were helping to gather feed for the horses in the stable while their parents listened to the neighbors' report on the the imminent attack of the Prussian army.
Eugéne, 12 years old at the time, felt a desire to go look at the sky to check the weather. Once outside, he sees a religion apparition floating in the air over the stable a lady with an indigo-blue mantle full of golden stars, just like the ceiling of the parochial chapel. His 10-year-old brother Joseph gets outside and sees her too.
They are enraptured by the lady's beauty. They call their parents, but the adults see nothing in the sky. They call for the nuns of the local school, and they bring other children with them.
Two other young girls claim to be able to see the Virgin and repeat the same description as the boys. Little by little, the neighborhood gathers round. Only the children see the religious apparition. Slowly, a phrase is drawn into the sky. The boys, almost illiterate, dictate letter by letter the words that appear in a message that is written on a strip on the lady's feet: "Pray, my children. God will answer shortly. My son will allow himself to be moved."
Four candles and a red crucifix are added later to the image of the Virgin. The lady says nothing. The spiritual apparition lasts three hours and four children describe what they see until it all ends. After that religious and spiritual experience, the Prussians inexplicably give up on their attack and the armistice is celebrated soon after that.
The local healer, Abbot Guérin, is so impressed that he starts fighting for the recognition of the Virgin's apparition. One year later, in 1872, Our Lady of Pontmain is recognized by the region's Bishop and the date of February 17th is authorized by the Pope Pius IX to celebrate the date.
Today, the 17th of each month is celebrated with a special program in the city, and there is a great annual pilgrimage on the actual date of Our Lady of Pontmain.
The Power of Faith
Pontmain today is a village of 864 villagers totally dedicated to the pilgrims that arrive there to pray or rest.
It is possible to stay there with simplicity and comfort both in the Pastoral Center and in the big complex of Relais Bocage or in L'Auberge de l'Espérance.
In the city is now a bastion of French spirituality. The stable remains the way it stood 141 years ago, and there you can watch videos about the happening. The chapel has been restored to its original state and there is an imposing neo-Gothic basilica built by the village inhabitants in the 19th century following long-distance instructions from the architects. The basilica was inaugurated in 1900, only 30 years after the apparition.
The Virgin of Pontmain is still not well known, even in France. The Virgin of Pontmain is still not well known, even in France. But the faith and religious spirituality rule the hearts of the inhabitants of this little French heritage town. They are firmly devoted to the lady of the starry mantle and believe that hope will still be, one day, global.
For a taste of the miraculous in Normandy, don't leave this little town off your list.