The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. La Salette. part 5.


Melanie of La Salette

IN tracing the history of the devotion, of which La Salette was the cradle, we have somewhat lost sight of those who were the cowherd children, Melanie and Maximin.

On November 4th, 1874, a day bright and mild as in spring, and with sunshine bathing the Planeau of Sous les baisses, a solitary pilgrim made his way up the mountain. It was Maximin Giraud. He was going to take a last look at the spots engraven in his mind, in connection with the Apparition. The hand of death was upon him, though he was not to breathe his last until a few months later.

From a merely human point of view, his existence had been an unsatisfactory one from the time when the future Bishop of Orleans found him a restless, inquisitive lad, to the day when we see him toiling up the mountain, bent before his time, and with one foot in the grave. He had been a rolling stone that had gathered no moss. Educated at the charge of Mgr. Bruillard, Bishop of Grenoble, he had studied for the priesthood, but without becoming- a priest. He had been a medical student in Paris, but without becoming a doctor. At times in the great capital he had known what it was to want bread.

With all this, in his wanderings and vicissitudes, he had had the good fortune to meet with a worthy couple, who adopted him as their son. In 1865, he had joined the Pontificial Zouaves. In short, throughout his chequered career, opportunities and money had alike slipped through his fingers, leaving him poor, though neither mean nor ignoble. On the contrary, it may be said that he remained ingenuous and open to noble impulses to the last. The, humanly speaking, unsatisfactory side of his character has been made use of as an argument against the reality of the Apparition of La Salette. We have seen this argument ably refuted by Mgr. Ginoulhiac, Bishop of Grenoble. Theology and experience refute it also. Had the voyant turned out worthless, as well as reckless and unstable in human things, this in itself would not have militated against the value of his testimony as witness of the supernatural event at La Salette. But Maximin, as facts prove, was far from being worthless, while the weaker side of his nature remained admirably relieved by his unswerving attitude in connection with the Apparition. The Rev. Pere Berthier, who for years had been his spiritual director, says in his book, Lcs Merveilles dc Notre-Dame de la Salette : — "Maximin was probably less deserving of blame than those who blamed him."

So on this November 4th, 1874, and when approaching his fortieth year, we see him dragging himself wearily up the mountain, in order to look once more on the sacred spot by Mount Gargas. The following morning he assisted at Mass there and communicated. Afterwards he drank at the spring, in the dried-up bed of which, twenty-eight years before, he had seen the glorious Apparition seated in drooping attitude, with her face in her hands. He then trod reverently the way of the Cross marked by fourteen elaborately carved stations, showing where the luminous Apparition had passed before ascending out of the children's sight for ever.

By this time there was a religious community on the spot known as the nuns of La Salette. Maximin was received and tended by these ladies, and afterwards asked by them to relate something concerning the Apparition. He did so, first within their convent and afterwards outside in presence of pilgrims. Those who listened say that as he spoke his face was as that of one transfigured.

After taking a long last look at the hillock, whence, as a little lad of ten, he had seen the heavenly visitant ascend and then disappear as in a globe of light, he turned to go down the mountain.

Maximin lingered on until the following spring. When he saw his end was near, he sent for a priest, and piously received the last Sacraments. He died on March 1st, in the arms of his mother of adoption, Mme. Jourdain, and leaving a written profession of faith, which began as follows:—"I believe everything which the Holy Apostolic and Roman Church teaches." The profession continues :— " I firmly believe, even at the price of my blood, in the celebrated Apparition of the Holy Virgin, on the mountain of LaSalette, September i9th, 1846, which Apparition I have defended by word of mouth, and by my pen, as well as by suffering. Let no one after my death say that he has heard me retract anything of what I have said concerning the great event of La Salette, for in so saying he would lie to the world and to himself."

Though Melanie's existence up to that time had been calmer and less open to discussion than that of Maximin, she, too, had moved about considerably.

Early in her religious life we find her in England belonging to the Carmelite community of Darlington, and a few years later at Marseilles, and a little later still at Castellamare, near Naples.

By this time she was no longer a Carmelite nun, Pius IX. having released her from her vows in order that she might be freer to perform her mission in the world as witness of the Apparition of La Salette. From the time of that Apparition, her life seems to have been more or less clouded by the possession of her famous secret. At one time she was in the habit of effacing, whenever she could, from maps and geographies, the word " Paris." When asked why she did so her reply was : " Be cause Paris itself will one day be effaced." To a friend questioning her on this subject, she said more than once : " Paris ! unhappy Paris ! " She early began to blame the Cabinet of Napoleon 111. for the evils she saw about to befall France. She foresaw Napoleon capitulating before carbonari and freemasonry, and afterwards becoming, as she said, the "Pilate of the Papacy."

After the outbreak of the Franco-German war, writing to her mother from Castellamare, in a letter dated September loth, and under her name in religion of Marie dc la Croix, she said : " O Paris, home of vanity and pride, what is to prevent you from perishing unless our prayers arise in your behalf to the Heart of Jesus?" In another letter, dated November nth, 1870, she wrote : " Paris has been guilty in rewarding a bad man who has written against the divinity of Jesus Christ. God is angry because of the multitude of its sins, and because He is almost unknown and forgotten in its midst.

"What can stop the war that is causing such calamity in France? France must own that this war comes purely from God. She must humble herself and beg pardon for her sins, and she must promise to serve God with heart and soul, and to observe His commandments without human respect. Oh, let us not cease praying and doing penance !"

In another letter, dated the 20th of the same month, Melanie said :—"You say, dear mother, that I am fortunate in knowing what is going to happen to our dear France. Be thankful that you do not possess the same knowledge. For the last twenty years I have known that there would be this war. Twenty-two years ago I said that Napoleon was a knave and that he would ruin France. It was pretended that I was victim of an illusion, and France was said to be a strong nation. Where is France's strength now ? You have perhaps heard of Garibaldi ; know that he is a man of evil. He is doing what the devil would do had the devil a body. France has com mitted an additional crime in calling him to her aid. Let us pray, and pray, and pray. Let us not cease praying and asking for mercy." In a letter to someone else, dated January 2Oth, 1871, Melanie wrote: "Be prepared for the defeat of Paris, and be prepared also for a calamity still greater, but which will not be of long duration." On June 23rd of the same year she wrote to a nun of the Congregation of La Providence : "Our poor country is indeed humbled, and if we do not return to God quickly and sincerely, what has been is nothing to what will be."

It is worth while to bear in mind that Melanie, as she asserted in her youth and as she asserts now in her old age, saw with her mind's eye at the time of the Apparition, and while the celestial messenger was speaking to her, a series of terrible scenes representing to her the different calamities that were to befall France and the world, the Franco-German war being one of these. There are authentic facts to prove that she possessed a complete fore knowledge of this war and of the Commune that was to follow long before these events happened.

We will glance at Melanie again before these pages close.

THE consecration of the church of Notre-Dame de la Salette was fixed to take place August 20th, 1879. Leo XIII. on the occasion raised the building to the dignity of a Roman basilica, and authorised the crowning of the statue of Notre-Dame de la Salette.

The day before the one fixed for the ceremony people from all parts began gathering on the mountain. When the bishops reached Mount Gargas at nightfall they were met by the assembled pilgrims and made to pass through a triumphal arch. They included Cardinal Guibert, Arch bishop of Paris ; Mgr. Fava, Bishop of Grenoble ; Mgr. Paulinier, by this time Archbishop of Besancon ; Mgr. Pechenet, Archbishop of Cham-bery ; Mgr. Mermillod, Bishop of Geneva ; Mgr. Cotton, Bishop of Valence ; Mgr. Terris, Bishop of Frejus; Mgr. Robert, Bishop of Marseilles ; Mgr. Bonnet, Bishop of Viviers ; Mgr. Delaunay, Bishop of Aire, and the Rev. Dom Antoine, Mitred Abbot of La Trappe and Chambarrana.

Religious rejoicing followed beneath the night sky. There was a sermon on the occasion, the mountain of Planeau sous les Baisses w r as illuminated, and there was a torchlight procession in the valley of the Sezia. All this was as a prelude to the celebration of the morrow.

When the morrow came upwards of 15,000 persons had assembled. The ceremony of consecration was performed by the Archbishop of Besan9on. The Bishop of Frejus, in an eloquent sermon, defended the principle of the supernatural against the materialistic attacks of the age. " Never," he said, "had the supernatural been attacked with so much violence or such insidious bad faith as in the case of the Apparition of La Salette."

The following day the crowning or the statue of Notre-Dame de la Salette took place, the ceremony being performed by the Archbishop of Paris, as Papal delegate. The Mass over, Cardinal Guibert, at the foot of the altar, knelt beside the statue, from which the veil w r as about to fall ; while from the multitude around, including priests and people, arose as from one voice the O gloriosa Domina. The Regina Caeli followed. Then the veil fell and the crown took its place, and jubilant praise broke from the throng. The bells of the basilica pealing forth helped to swell the volume of sound that floated over valley and mountain. At that hour, refrains in honour of the Immaculate echoed from hill to hill. Of the crown that played such an important part in this manifestation there is something to be said. It had been on view at the Paris Exhibition of 1857. It was an ex voto on the part of a lady, who gave it in gratitude for the cure of her only son. A choice collection of family jewels was set into this magnificent production of the goldsmith's art. The centre of each rose was a diamond—each petal was formed of an aigue-marine. In all, stem and leaf and flower produced a dazzling effect of fretted gold and gems.

It but remains for us to glance at the last twenty years in connection with the devotion radiating from the "holy mountain," as it is called. While other sites of pilgrimage, new and old, have gained or regained notoriety, La Salette has retained its pre-eminence. Pilgrims continue to go thither by thousands, and the stream of its cures, reputed to be supernatural, as of its spiritual favours, has no more dried up than has its ever-healing spring in the ravine of the Sezia.

We will cite as an instance one cure connected with these later times. It is that of Viotoire Berlioz, a woman seventy years of age, living at Domodieu, who had been a cripple for twenty years, walking with crutches, and whose case had been pronounced hopeless by medical men. In August, 1897, this woman joined a body of pilgrims to La Salette from Morestel, and on the way thither had to be lifted in and out of railway carriages and other vehicles.

At La Salette, on the morning of August 19th, she was suddenly cured while assisting at the celebration of Mass. It was at the moment of communicating that the transformation was effected. She suddenly realized that a great change was taking place within her ; she felt at the same time an inclination to walk without crutches. Looking for a moment at these crutches, and then seizing them, she walked away with them in triumph, feeling, as she afterwards said, a strength in her legs that she had not known for twenty years.

Abbe Chavret, cure of the Curtin and director of the pilgrimage, writing a few days afterwards to the Superior of the Missionaries of La Salette, said : "I saw Victoire Berlioz yesterday ; she is in perfect health. So complete is her cure that she is hardly recognisable." The same priest, writing to the same Superior a few months later, says in a letter dated January 19th, 1878: " Victoire Berlioz is as active as ever. She has never needed her crutches since. She can even do a little work in the fields in spite of her seventy-one years. I think you may state that the favour granted to this humble woman is among the most remarkable or those connected with the devotion to Notre-Dame de la Salette."

Not less remarkable than the physical cures are the conversions connected with La Salette, a truth which, half-a-century ago, so struck Dr. Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham, that this pre late, in his book on La Salette, did not hesitate to say that these conversions constituted one of the greatest religious marvels of our time. The same writer goes on to say : " Ordinary graces will not account for a course of conversions so extensive and so thorough as that which devotion to Our Lady of La Salette has been the means of effecting." In the same work we read : " The ringer of God is here, and the Divine fruits, of which so great an abundance is visible, prove that a Divine seed has been abundantly sown on that holy mountain."

Writing nearly fifty years later on the same subject, the Rev. J. Berthier, in Les Merveilles de Notre-Dame de la Salette, says: "These conversions are, in themselves, more irrefragable proofs of Divine action than are all the marvellous cures that have ever been effected."

AND what of Melanie? the reader may ask. The answer is, that the storms of the last thirty years have beaten upon her with considerable fury. Since 1870 she has lived mostly in Southern Italy. Emerging thence from time to time, she has more than once been driven back by stress of weather in the great world beyond, but always protected and defended by the Italian bishops within whose influence she had come and within whose jurisdiction she had lived. These bishops were Mgr. Petagna, Bishop of Castellamare di Stabia ; and Mgr. Zola, Bishop of Lecce ; and they have not hesitated to proclaim Melanie to the world as pure, good, disinterested, and holy.

In 1879 the Bergere of La Salette published her secret in full, with the imprimatur of the Bishop of Lecce. A storm in certain French circles followed. Rome was appealed to to condemn ; Rome would not condemn. The most it could be got to do in the matter was to say, in an unofficial letter, written by Cardinal Caterini, Secretary to the Holy Office, to the Bishop of Troyes, that the secret in its published form should be kept as far as possible out of the hands of the public. " But let the clergy read it," added the writer ; " it will do them good." It was precisely this portion of the secret relating to the clergy that had given such offence in France.

There is little to be said on this delicate subject; but to those who believe that the white robe of the Bride of Christ may be stained by the lives of certain bad priests, the Secret of La Salette is not without its meaning.

The secret, fraught with the burden of the universal cataclysm which it predicted, was defended by the Bishop of Lecce, together with the publication of the same to which his imprimatur was affixed. Mgr. Zola at the same time defended Melanie, whose spiritual director he had been for some years, alluding to her as a virtuous and privileged soul, whom the hatred of miscreants and unbelievers sought to traduce. Mgr. Petagna, Bishop of Castellamare di Stabia, had spoken to a similar effect in 1872.

Fifteen years later Melanie came prominently before the public in an action at law, in which she defended a small inheritance that had been left her by an aged and holy priest, Abbe Jean Ronjon, with the object of founding and perpetuating a religious order, the foundation of which she believed to belong to her mission in connection with La Salette. This heritage consisted principally of a chapel at Chalon-sur-Saune. Her claim was opposed by two priests, Dessus and Gantheon by name, the deceased Abbe's universal legatees.

Melanie lost her case on purely civil grounds. Because she defended her claim Rome was again appealed to against her, and rumours arose, vague and false, like so many others that arise in France, that she had been excommunicated. Here again the holy and, by this time, aged Bishop of Lecce had to interfere. He asserted, even in the teeth of a French court of justice, that Melanie had never been excommunicated, and proclaimed at the same time through another channel that her life was solitary, holy, and edifying.

Whence the reason of the persecution of this woman, poor and defenceless, whom thousands and thousands of Catholics the world over persist in looking upon as the faithful custodian of a Divine message? The answer may be found in the fact that the world has hated La Salette, and all that pertains to it, with that unrelenting hate which oftener than otherwise serves as a Divine sign-manual of the works of God.

Before leaving this part of our subject, we have endeavoured to get a last glimpse of her, who now nearly fifty years ago struck Bishop Ullathorne in his single interview with her as having, as he said, tasted of the Cross. We have questioned Canon Anibale di Francia concerning Melanie, who not long ago spent a year under the eye of this eminent ecclesiastic, assisting him in the work of the great orphanage he has founded at Messina. He says of her as follows: — "According to my humble opinion, Melanie is led by the Holy Ghost, and is rich in supernatural gifts. I have observed in her profound humility, perfect resignation, a singular longing for suffering and penance, a complete detachment from human things, and an ardent love of Christ and His Mother." Canon di Francia adds that her life has been one of continual interior suffering. We call this glimpse of Melanie in Messina a last one, and yet there is a still later one that the world has had of her. This was on September i8th and i9th, 1902, on the occasion of the annual pilgrimage to La Salette. At that time the church and site of pilgrimage were in the hands of secular priests, the Missionaries of La Salette, who had been located on the spot for fifty years, and were now forced to leave through the present persecution of the religious orders in France.

Melanie, emerging from her seclusion, spoke concerning the Apparition to the pilgrims assembled in the ravine of the Sezia. Abbe Bonnet, Superior of the present chaplains of La Salette, writing on this subject in the November number of the Annales de Notre-Dame de la Salette for 1902, says : " Never did more sincerity and candour speak from human eyes ! If I had not already been a believer in the Apparition of La Salette, I have no hesitation i saying that the extraordinary simplicity and sincerity expressed in Melanie's eyes would have sufficed to convert me." Before this he had said: " The body alone has grown old, leaving the eyes young and limpid as at the time of the Apparition, and with something in them of the supernatural light with which they must have been then illumined."

BEFORE leaving the subject of La Salette, we will look with the mind's eye at the site of the Apparition, enframed as it is in its magnificent panorama of hills. These hills are mountains, some of them with fantastic peaks reaching to the clouds, some eternally capped with snow. The highest is the Obiou, on the crest of which the snow never melts. A good general view of the scene is to be had from the heights overlooking the planeau of Mont sous les baisses. Looking down from thence one sees the mountains smiling and verdant at their base. Their slopes are rich in pasture lands. In one direction alone the eye takes in as many as a dozen villages or hamlets forming the commune of La Salette. These, after heavy rains or a great thaw, are to be seen intersected by a multitude of crystal rills dancing in the sunlight. As the point of sight ascends, the scene grows in seventy. Severer and severer it becomes, as the eye rises to meet the outlines of the hills, showing in rugged grandeur against the sky. Snowy crests and rocky towers and pinnacles strike upwards, sometimes bathed in sunlight, but oftener wreathed in cloud.

Man cannot even copy such scenes adequately ; but he can do more : he can infuse language into inanimate stone. Of the church that has arisen by Mount Gargas it may be truly said, Lapides clamabunt. This temple, in the midst of the solemn Alpine solitude around, is as a poem, a prayer, a voice of praise in honour of the Blessed Virgin invoked as Notre-Dame de la Salette.

Beside the conventual buildings close by belong ing to the missionaries and nuns of Notre-Dame de la Salette, there is a sort of pilgrims' hostelry, able to afford accommodation to nearly a thousand per sons. All this, and the visitors who flock to the site throughout the summer months, constitute a little world of activity and religious life in what, less than sixty years ago, was but a beautiful wilderness. The spot seems to verify Isaiah's prophecy : " The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall flourish like the lily." And that other prophecy from the same inspired pen seems to find fulfilment here : "Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall be free, for waters are broken out in the desert and streams in the wilderness."

The votive church crowning the scene is Roman-Byzantine in form and built of black marble quarried out of Mount Gargas. Of the gifts accruing to it from the munificence of private Catholics, some thing has been already said. At the Jubilee celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apparition its collection of treasures received the addition of a gold ciborium studded with more than four hundred diamonds and other gems. It possesses an embroidered carpet, valued at 8,000 francs, the gift and the work of the confraternity of the Children of Mary of Lyons.

An account of its ex voto offerings would fill a volume. One of these takes the form of a beautiful altar with bas reliefs representing the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. A Latin inscription upon it says that it was erected in 1856 by H. and M. T.—a grateful husband and wife. The grateful couple were no other than Henri and Marie-Therese, Comte and Comtesse de Chambord. High and low, rich and poor, here speak their gratitude in the language of marble and gold.

The great day on the mountain—the one on which thousands flock to it from all parts—is September 19th, the anniversary of the Apparition. The publication, Les Annales de Notre-Dame de la Salette, continues, as it has been doing for nearly fifty years, to carry the records of the sanctuary to all parts of the world. The Archconfraternity known as that of Notre-Dame Auxiliatrice de la Salette, after more than half-a-century's existence, continues to gain fresh associates and to affiliate to itself fresh confraternities. It is computed that throughout the Catholic world there are as many as a thousand chapels and shrines in honour of Notre-Dame de la Salette.

The great message of La Salette seems to gain fresh significance from time. We may test it by its fruits. Among these are religious movements of a marked character at different times and in different places, having for object the sanctification of souls in general, and especially the purifying of France from what Pius IX. called her mortal sin, that is, profanation of the Sabbath. And now, at the beginning of another age, amid other fortresses of the supernatural, based on Apparitions in the nineteenth century, La Salette retains its place as a second Sinai with its message as of another decalogue.

From - The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century (1904) by Bernard St John