Pontmain: Panel on the front of the Barbedette barn indicating the place where the children saw the Blessed Virgin on 17 January 1871
IT is now time to give a few instances of that language in which Heaven converses with earth in the matter of answers to prayer. From the many such instances recorded in the archives of Notre-Dame de Pontmain, we will single out a few which seem particularly edifying and suggestive.
On September 28th, 1871, a young nun of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Evron, and belonging to the Pensionnat St.-Etienne, at Laval, was at Pontmain. She was known in religion as Sister Leonie, her family name being Pigeon. She was at Pontmain on the day in question with fifteen other nuns of her community. They were there on a pilgrimage with the object of obtaining the cure of an affection of the larynx, from which Sister Leonie had been suffering for four years, and which had all but deprived her of the use of her voice. During that time the religious had only been able to speak in faint whispers.
Early in the day the little group from Laval, mingling with other pilgrims, stood gathered around the statue of Notre-Dame de Pontmain on the spot known as the Champ de l'Apparition. They were singing the Ave Maris Stella. Sister Leonie, looking up imploringly and speaking from her heart to Her whose image was before her, murmured : " Would that I could sing ! " Obeying, as it were, an irresistible impulse, she attempted to join in the first stanza of the Ave Man's Stella. The attempt was useless. A second effort on her part was hardly more successful. In trying to sing the third stanza, something of her voice came forth. In the fourth, she sang in a clear pure voice : Monstra te esse matrem. Looking towards a sister nun she said in joyful accents, " I can sing." Then, going towards the Superioress of her community, and taking that lady's hand while the tears streamed down her cheeks, she said : " I can sing now."
The Rev. Mother, whose joy was equal to that of the young nun, could only reply: "Go on praying."
But Sister Leonie went on singing, fearing to lose her newly-regained power.
The Holy Sacrifice, which that morning was to have been offered for her in the basilica by way of supplication, was offered for her by way of thanks giving.
There was joy in the St.-Etienne community at Laval that night on the return of the sixteen or seventeen pilgrims, who had issued thence in the morning. At an early hour on the morrow, one of the nuns approached Sister Leonie's cell, but seemed half afraid to enter. She feared lest she might find that the joyful event of the preceding day had proved to be but a short-lived reality.
Another nun, bolder, gently opened the cell door, and said: "Benedicamus Domino!" "Deo Gratias!" in a clear, sweet, voice, was responded from within.
This case, which was published at the time in the Semaine Religieuse of Laval, is given in Canon Julien Bonnel's book, entitled, " Notre-Dame d'Esperance de Pontmain"
The author just mentioned is our authority for the facts of the following interesting account. As he was journeying one day from Pontmain to Fougeres in the company of M. and Madame Lecler, owners of a well-known glass manufactory in the locality, the conversation happening to turn upon Pontmain, the above-mentioned lady said, as they were passing through the burgh of Landean : " A woman lives here who five years ago was cured of a cancer by Notre-Dame de Pontmain."
" Do you know her?" asked the priest. "Perfectly well," was the reply. "She is a widow. Her name is Perrine Renzeau. She is a charwoman, and is now seventy-five years of age."
The matter being thus revived, Madame Lecler elicited further details from Perrine Renzeau and forwarded the same to Canon Bonnel.
Moreover, the cure of Landean made a fresh investigation of the case, with the result of which also Canon Bonnel was made acquainted.
The facts thus elucidated and embodied in the interesting account, which we read in the Canon's book, are as follows :
In 1879 Perrine Renzeau had for twenty years been suffering from a cancerous wound in the right cheek, which was in a continual state of discharge. Being obliged to earn her living by charring, the poor woman had spared no pains to conceal her infirmity. The doctor, the most in repute in the locality, had assured her that her wound was in curable, and had added that, in the event of its healing, her death would be the consequence.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, to whom she had gone, as a last resource, had told her that she was suffering from cancer and that there was no hope of her cure.
In her extremity the sufferer had recourse to Heaven. She resolved to go on a pilgrimage to Pontmain, and resolved moreover to perform the journey there and back on foot and fasting, the distance being about twelve miles and a half. She at the same time promised, in the case of her prayers being answered and her cure effected, to perform the same journey under similar conditions succeeding year as long as her strength lasted..
Accordingly, Perrine Renzeau set out for Font-main on foot and fasting. On arriving at her destination she set to her task at once and began praying for her cure —humbly, simply and fervently. Having thus done her best to enlist Heaven in her cause, she arose and turned back to go home.
At a certain moment in her homeward journey she realised that all pain in her cheek had ceased. Her impression was at first one of fear, for she remembered the doctor's words to the effect that the healing of her wound would mean death. Feeling tired, she turned into a field, sat down by a hedge, and fell asleep.
After a while, rising refreshed and still free from pain, she resumed her journey. The first thing she did on reaching home was to examine her face by the aid of a looking glass. She at once perceived that the wound in her cheek was healed and that the excrescence connected with it had disappeared, leaving behind a slight scar only, which, by the way, on close inspection, remained visible to the end of her life. Thus was this woman, suddenly and totally, cured at the age of seventy of a tumour classed as cancerous.
Writing five years later to Canon Bonnel on this subject, the cure of Landean said : "She is now seventy-five years of age, and has just performed her annual pilgrimage to Pontmain, on foot and fasting."
Among the many voices that proclaim their gratitude to Notre-Dame de Pontmain, is that of a religious of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of Laval.
In the account of her cure, published in the Sernaine Religieuseot Laval, dated April 2Qth, 1882, her name is not given, but, as was stated at the time, the Bishop of Laval was in possession of it, as well as of all the facts of her case. This religious, then a novice and quite young, had long been suffering from a severe gastralgic affection com plicated by a cancerous abscess in the stomach. She could take no food without vomiting, and had reached that stage when her only sustenance was a few drops of liquid taken at intervals. In short, she was a living skeleton and seemed in a dying state. Her medical attendant, considering her end near, said to those around : " Watch her closely or she may pass away without your knowing it."
The sufferer displayed perfect resignation and even joy at the near prospect of death. Her own words best describe her state. She says : " I waited for death. The thought of dying, and of dying soon, thrilled me with joy. I was thankful to see my strength daily fail. From my heart I said Fiat voluntas tua. I had but one wish, and that was to make my religious profession. This was the favour I craved. It was to be granted me. The Superioress who brought me the coveted per mission was the one who had guided my first steps in the religious life, and she was not altogether resigned to the prospect of seeing me leave the world while still so young.
" What if we were to attempt a miracle?" she said. "The Blessed Virgin is all-powerful. Shall we begin praying for your recovery, and will you pray for it yourself?"
"My recovery would indeed be due to an intervention of Providence," I replied. "To tell the truth, I only half acquiesced in the affectionate proposal of my superior. I ended, however, by submitting to what those around me wished, my only desire being to do God's will."
It should be mentioned that the leading idea in this scheme of prayer was to supplicate Heaven through the instrumentality of the Blessed Virgin, invoked as Notre-Dame de Pontmain.
The ceremony of the religious profession was fixed for January 19th, the anniversary day of the Apparition at Pontmain. Meanwhile, she who was so soon to be signed with the mystic sign of the spouses of Christ, and for whom Notre-Dame de Pontmain was being so ardently invoked, kept saying to herself: "Am I to die, or am I to get well ? My God, let it be what Thou willest, and in the manner that Thou willest."
On the morning of the profession there were two centres of prayer in connection with the event. One was the convent chapel, where nuns and novices were praying for their young sister in religion; the other was the neighbouring parish church, where priests and people were praying with the same intention.
The ceremony of the religious profession over, she who had just given herself to Christ for ever was about to receive Him in His sacramental form. The smallest possible particle of the Sacred Host was laid on her tongue, and it was laid on with fear by reason of the vomiting that invariably accompanied every attempt on the patient's part to take food.
During the minutes that followed, the poor, frail body of her who had just received her God was undergoing a transformation. In it death was giving place to life. Shortly afterwards she asked for food, and, to the astonishment of all, ate and drank, and without ill effects.
That day at the mid-day meal she ate as well as any member of the community. In short, the state of infirmity that had led her to the brink of the grave had suddenly given place to one of sound health. Her own words on the subject are: "The hand of the Blessed Virgin had made itself felt, and had applied to my wound a salutary remedy." Her further testimony, which was published in the Semaine Religieuse of Laval, already alluded to, and which is also incorporated in Canon Bonnel's book, says : " My sufferings are at an end, and I have regained all my former strength. Glory be to Notre-Dame de Pontmain, to whom I owe my restoration to health."
Spiritual favours and bodily cures continuing in connection with the shrine of Pontmain, we pass over a few years and take up the case of a boy of thirteen, who had been deaf and dumb for twelve months as a consequence of an attack of meningitis. This boy, Eugene Durenne, of Saint-Berthevin-la-Tanniere, in the diocese of Laval, suddenly recovered speech and hearing on a pilgrimage to Pontmain, June l7th, 1891.
In the course of the year, when he could neither hear nor speak, everything that medical skill could do for him had been done, but to no effect. The parents lost hope, but not so the boy. The young Eugene, who had heard of the Apparition at Pont main, hoped, and from his heart was continually invoking Her who in that locality had come to be known as Our Lady of Hope (Notre-Dame d'Esperance).
The parents afterwards stated, in giving their deposition to the chaplains of the basilica of Pontmain respecting the case, that they had often noticed their child's pale and melancholy face become suddenly animated, and that at such times he would take a pencil and write the words: "Father— Mother, let me go to Pontmain ; the Blessed Virgin will make me speak."
At length the boy's wishes were acceded to and he was taken to Pontmain. He arrived there June 17th, 1891, accompanied by his mother and sister and a servant. The little party went at once to the basilica. There people noticed that the little lad's eyes were constantly fixed on a statue of Notre-Dame de Pontmain surrounded by lights at the entrance to the sanctuary. When asked, later on in the day, what he had then said to the Blessed Virgin, he replied : "I kept saying the 'Our Father' and the 'Hail Mary,' and after that I said : "Notre-Dame de Pontmain, make me hear and speak."
"Did you say these prayers?" was further asked.
" Then you could speak ? "
"Then how did you say the 'Our Father' and the ' Hail Mary ' ? "
" From the bottom of my heart," was the answer.
On leaving the basilica the party assisted at Mass in the little parish church. Afterwards they went over to what had been the barn, from the door of which the Apparition had been first seen, and which was then fitted up as an oratory.
There they fell on their knees and began saying a decade of the Rosary. Hardly had they time to rise and turn towards the doorway, when Eugene Derenne exclaimed : " Maman, I've seen the Blessed Virgin ! " These were the first words he had uttered for a year. In saying he had seen the Blessed Virgin, he was alluding to the statue of Notre-Dame de Pontmain he had seen shortly before in the basilica, and the sight of which had strongly impressed him.
The mother, for answer, clasped the child to her breast. "So the Blessed Virgin has wrought a miracle," were her words as soon as she could speak. The boy spoke between smiles and tears, remaining calm the while.
The people of Pontmain were that day witness of a child deaf and dumb suddenly recovering speech and hearing.
Two months later, August 2nd, Eugene Derenne, accompanied by relatives and friends, was again at Pontmain, this time on a pilgrimage of thanks giving, and in perfect possession of his faculties of speech and hearing.
M. Daniel, of Saint-Denis de Gastrines, the medical man who had attended the boy during the previous year, testified concerning his case as fol lows :
" I am convinced that a state of total deafness, occasioning total loss of speech and being the consequence of an illness, acute and non-nervous, and which, in the course of the preceding year, had shown no sign of giving way to medical treatment, could not, according to nature's laws, suddenly give place to a state in which the organs of hearing and speech are perfect. I have no hesitation, therefore, in considering this sudden and complete cure to partake of the character of a supernatural one."
The medical certificate from which this extract is taken was published in the Semaine Religieuse of Laval of August 2nd, 1891.
We will pass over seven years and single out a remarkable cure effected in the basilica of Pontmain August 15th, 1899. The case is that of Maria Vaugeois, sixteen years of age, and the daughter of poor parents.
For five or six years this girl had been suffering from a spinal affection of the worst kind. At the time of which we write, she was a cripple unable to move without crutches and unless encased in an iron apparatus. She was an inmate of the Orphanage of Saint-George de Reintembault, in the diocese of Rennes.
The testimony of the different medical men who had attended her, pointed to the conclusion that she was incurable. They had pronounced her to be suffering from scoliosis and from osteomalgia, or softening, not only of the backbone, but of the whole bony system. She had reached such a degree of helplessness that, at the end of the day when her crutches were laid aside and her metal apparatus taken off, it required two persons to raise her from the ground and put her into bed.
Owing to the apparent hopelessness of her condition, it was decided, though to the regret of the authorities, that she could no longer remain an inmate of the orphanage.
Here the poor girl pleaded to be allowed to go on a pilgrimage to Pontmain, her hope being to obtain her cure from heaven.
This wish of hers being acceded to, she set off for the favoured spot in company with another girl, a fellow inmate of the orphanage. The two reached their destination on the eve of the Assumption, Maria by the way having moved to pity those who saw her.
On the morrow they took part fervently in the solemn offices of the day in the basilica. By mid day, no change having taken place in the sufferer's condition, something of disappointment was felt. They returned to the basilica about one o'clock, resolved to do violence to Heaven by way of supplication. " We must pray well, you know," said Maria's companion ; "the Blessed Virgin said at Pontmain, ' But pray, my children, God will soon answer your prayers.'" When in the Church, the girl in health said between whiles to the one suffering beside her, " Pray, pray; it is by faith that you will obtain your cure."
At the end of about three-quarters of an hour, the two being still in the basilica, Maria Vaugeois was seized by a paroxysm of pain that caused her to writhe in contortions. This lasted for about ten minutes. Then, suddenly rising, and leaving her crutches behind her, she took to walking. She walked so quickly that she was out of the basilica before her companion had had time to come up with her.
" Why, one would think you were cured ! " said the latter in astonishment.
" It does not need much cleverness to see that I am cured," was the reply ( ne faut pas etre matin pour votr que je sins guerie).
Those at Pontmain who had just before seen Maria Vaugeois' deplorable state, with a back forming in shape the letter S, were now witness of her sudden and complete restoration to health and strength. The girl had at once become agile of limb and straight of back.
She and her companion left Pontmain that evening, with the strains of the Magnificat ringing in their ears. They reached the orphanage at about ten o'clock. The inmates were in bed. Maria going upstairs two or three steps at a time, went at once to the directress of the establishment, and, kissing that lady, said to her : " I am cured! "
The following morning, carrying in her hand the surgical apparatus, which for months previously had encased her poor misshapen body, she went to see Dr. Bremugat of Saint-George de Reintembault. This medical man's impression was at first one of utter astonishment, and then one of perfect conviction :
His certificate is as follows : "I saw the young Maria Vaugeois on April 6th, 1899. She was suffering from scoliosis in an advanced state, owing to a deviation of the bones of the spine. The scoliosis dated from three years back. During those three years the patient had worn an orthopedic apparatus.
"On April 26th, 1899, I again examined Maria Vaugeois, and found that the scoliosis had made further progress. Another and more complicated orthopedic apparatus was then applied, but without producing any good result. The patient continued to decline. A softening of the entire bony system was going on. I, together with certain of my professional colleagues, who examined the girl after I did, were of opinion that she was incurable. I certify to having seen her on August 16th, walking upright and holding her metal corset in her hand. I then examined her and found that her backbone, instead of forming the letter S, showed no sign of deviation. I certify, moreover, that no human agency could have performed this cure, even by a course of treatment extending over several years. I therefore attribute the same to a supernatural agency.'
The testimony of Dr. Lory, of La Ferte, to the same effect is : "I certify that Maria Vaugeois was attacked, as far back as four or five years ago, by scoliosis, accompanied by considerable deviation of the vertebral column. I treated her, though without much success, by means of phosphates and orthopedic appliances, though, in the meantime, not considering it in the power of human science to render her backbone straight."
On the 8th of the September following, Maria Vaugeois went to Pontmain on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving, and, as testified by an eyewitness, was seen on that occasion with rosy cheeks and with a back straight as the letter I instead of crooked as the letter S.
Again at Pontmain, on the i8th of the October following, she wrote in the visitors' book there words to the effect that, just before her sudden cure in the basilica on the Feast of the Assumption, she had said from her heart and with the utmost fervour of which she was capable, St. Bernard's prayer, the Memorare. Another divulgation was to follow later on. It was that, just before saying this Memorare, she had promised the Blessed Virgin that, in the case of her cure being granted, she would consecrate herself to God in the religious life. So, seven months later, on the occasion of a beautiful statue of Notre-Dame de Pontmain being placed in a niche of the parish Church of Ferte-Mace, of the Diocese of Seez, as an ex-voto of grati tude for her recovery, Maria Vaugeois bade farewell to the world for ever, and entered the convent of the Poor Clares of Alencon.
MORE than thirty years have passed since the Apparition at Pontmain. It may not be uninteresting here to glance at those who were the four children through whose simple words the great event was given to the world. The boys, Eugene and Joseph Barbedette, now daily stand before the altar as God's ministers, one a secular priest, and the other, as has been said, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate. The younger of the two little girls, Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, is a nun of the Congregation of the Holy Family. The elder one, Fran^oise Richer, exercises the profession of a schoolmistress.
Now, we will look at Pontmain itself, and see how it has changed in aspect from the time when we saw it a snow-clad hamlet beneath a star-lit sky on the night of the Apparition.
A new Pontmain has arisen within and around the old one, but without displacing the landmarks of the former. It comprises principally the basilica and the community house and grounds of the Oblate Fathers. These grounds are a prominent feature in the picture. But a few years ago they were an unnoticed sylvan sweep of country, and now they present the aspect of a park-like scene, along which pilgrims wend and along which the Blessed Sacra ment is borne in procession to a magnificent Calvary at the further end. There birds sing and grasses wave; magpies flit among the tall tree tops ; a meandering river winds below. This river is the Futaie.
Pontmain lies enframed in an enchanting piece of landscape, interspersed by hill and dale and with extensive forest scenery for background. As has been said, the landmarks of the Pontmain of thirty years ago have not disappeared. The little old parish church is within a stone's throw of the stately religious edifice that has since arisen. It bears upon it the marks of its feudal origin, which include the armorial bearings of the former lords of Pontmain, or Pontmeen, as the word used to be written.
In the middle ages, Pontmain was a strongly-fortified town, which had grown up around the castle of its feudal lord, and constituted the most important fief of the dukedom of Maine.
Both town and castle were destroyed by the English about the year 1431. The remains of an old fortified wall of great thickness, showing here and there from out earth and ivy, and the miniature church of the one-time lords of the place, are all that now remain of feudal Pontmain.
We must glance again at this little church, curious, quaint, and eminently suggestive as it is, having witnessed in the past the genuflexions of grim warriors and stately dames, and in the present the prayers of peasants and of peasant-saints. For it was there that the people of Pontmain, at the time of the Franco-German war, prayed for their country early and late, and often with tears, gathering round their pastor every night and every morning.
It was there that Abbe Michel Guerin, whom, on the night of the Apparition, we have seen directing his little flock, had stood at the altar daily for thirty-five years offering the Holy Sacrifice. From the beginning, his strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin had stamped itself on the spiritual life of his parishioners.
When in the early days of his ministry he consecrated his flock to the Mother of Christ, he gave expression to the following words, which, read in the light of subsequent events, seem prophetic : "We feel sure that this good and tender Mother, our patroness and advocate, under whose protection I place my parish, will intercede for us and plead our cause with God."
In truth, this much revered priest must be looked upon as one of the makers of modern Pontmain. Though many years have passed since his death, people do not forget his grave in the pretty little Pontmain cemetery.
In this God's acre there is another grave that draws attention, but one of much more recent date. It is that of Victoire Barbedette, who lived to toil and to pray for nearly thirty years after that evening of January lyth, 1871, when, adjusting her spectacles with eager haste, she looked up into the night sky hoping to see there what her sons saw. She lived long enough and well enough to deserve to be known among her neighbours as the "saint of Pontmain," her aged cheeks retaining to the last something of the hue of a monthly rose. Priests going to see this woman with the object of strengthening and consoling her, used to come away strengthened and consoled themselves. To those who thus went she was in the habit of saying : "Talk to me of God."
At the consecration of the bells of Pontmain she was called upon to give her name to one of the peal. She died shortly afterwards, strengthened in her last moments by two priests, her sons, the little boys, Eugene and Joseph, of twenty-seven years before.
We have said that Abbe Michel Guerin must be looked upon as one of the makers of modern Pontmain.
Another of these makers is to be seen in the person of the Rev. Jean-Baptiste Lemius, O.M.I., who for eight years was Superior of the Chaplains of the basilica of Pontmain before assuming the more onerous charge of Superior of the basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre. While at Pontmain he started the publication known as the Annales de Notre-Dame de Pontmain. He also founded the Juniorate of Pontmain for the education of boys afterwards to become priests and Oblate Fathers.
Another of the makers of present Pontmain is the Rev. Archibald Rey, O.M.I., Superior of the Chaplains there during the closing years of the nineteenth century.
Commenting in the August number of the Ann ales de Notre-Dame de Pontmain on the sense, hidden and apparent, of the words of the Apparition, he says : "These, like all God's words, have a meaning within reach of our weak, human intellect, and another which remains inaccessible to it and belongs only to God."
This remark leads us to consider again the celestial message at Pontmain in 1871, the promise contained in which seemed to be at once fulfilled in the turning back of the German forces and the speedy ending of the war. Whatever may be the wider meaning to be put on the words read by the children on the scroll in the night sky above Pontmain, these words, by believers in the Apparition, must ever be considered as conveying a heavenly message of hope to France in one of the darkest hours of her national history.
From - The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century (1904) by Bernard St John