Pontmain is a small hamlet in the Diocese of Laval, between Brittany and Mayenne. On Janury 17, 1871 it was hourly expected that the victorious German soldiery, under General Schmidt, would enter Laval and sweep through Brittany, which so far had been saved from their depredations. That night the commander of the Prussian forces, who had taken up his quarters at the archiepiscopal palace of Le Mans, said to the Archbishop : " By this time my troops are in Laval." The sum to be levied upon the town had already been fixed at three million francs. On that same evening, at half-past five o'clock, the Prussian soldiers in sight of Laval stopped suddenly, turned backwards, and were doomed never to take an onward step. Laval was saved in a way that has never been explained, as Paris was to be saved from the same enemy some forty-three years later. There are forces at work in the supernatural order with which even German forethought cannot cope. At the very hour when the Prussians changed their purpose, and turned away from their prey at Laval—it was half-past five in the evening—a few miles off, at Pontmain, two boys, called Eugene and Joseph Bernadette, twelve and ten years old respectively, were at work with their father breaking up gorse as food for cattle. Eugene, the elder of the two, went to the door of the barn to see, as he said afterwards, what the weather was like, when suddenly in the air over his head there appeared the figure of a beautiful Lady (une grande belle dame). The father, with his younger son and a neighbour, who were inside the house at the time, coming out, Joseph immediately saw the same sight as his brother. This vision lasted for more than three hours. It was seen also by two little girls and a child of six, but by no grown-up people. The children's father and mother, their servant, the parish priest, some nuns and neighbours, were all gathered round the children, but none saw the heavenly vision, though all were convinced in the end by the clear statements of the children, who could not all have suffered in the same manner from mere hallucination. Lack of space makes it impossible for me to describe how these children were tested in various manners, or how convincing was their concordant testimony. Soon they saw beneath the feet of the Apparition what looked like a band of white linen, on which the Lady, who was surely " a Great Wonder in Heaven," spelt out in letters of gold various messages to her children. One of them ran as follows: " God will speedily hear your prayers " It was Mary's message of consolation and answer to prayers that were rising to her throne in Heaven from all parts of France. Again, for a wonderful moment, the Lady showed her children a large red Cross in the sky, bearing an Image of the Crucified, towards which she seemed to incline her head in supplication. During these marvellous happenings, for three hours, prayers and hymns to our Lord and His Blessed Mother were rising from the lips of the assembled peasants at Pontmain, led by their parish priest. At last, at a quarter to nine in the evening, " the four children, with their eyes constantly fixed on the sky, saw a white sheet or veil appear beneath the feet of the Apparition. It seemed as a roll slowly unfolding as it ascended. When it reached about the waist of the celestial figure it stopped for a few seconds. Then the upward movement continued, to stop again, this time at just below the head, and for fewer seconds than before. A last glimpse of the face with its radiant smile was vouchsafed to the four children below. Then the obliterating veil continued to roll upward, stopping for a moment at the base of the crown. Another moment and all was over."
That same evening the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires at Paris was crowded with a congregation already suffering from the pangs of famine. It was the first day of a solemn Triduo, to be followed by a Novena, ordered by the Archbishop to implore the cessation of hostilities. The preacher that night, suddenly moved as it seemed by a sudden impulse, cried out: " We will all now implore the help of the Blessed Virgin, and we will not leave this temple consecrated to her glory with out having solemnly promised her a silver ex voto, which shall tell to future generations how on this evening, between eight and nine o'clock, a whole people prostrate at her feet was saved." All who listened were thrilled ; on the spot offerings were made for the ex voto, which can be seen in the church to-day. The congregation poured out of the church at a quarter to nine, the moment when the Apparition was vanishing from Pontmain. The armistice was signed twelve days subsequently—the closing day of the great Novena. The words that had been written in the skies were fulfilled ; in a short time God had heard the prayers of His people.
Of the five children who witnessed the Apparition at Pontmain, the youngest died within a year ; on his deathbed, before making his first Communion, he declared again that he had spoken the truth as to all that he had seen on the wonderful night. Both the boys became priests—Joseph as a priest wrote a full account of the Apparition, which was published under the title Recit d'un Voyant —one of the girls became a nun and the other a schoolmistress. A beautiful basilica has been built at Pontmain, which has become a celebrated shrine and place of pil grimage. Some of the miraculous cures worked at Pontmain recall those of Lourdes. Amongst the more remarkable are those of a boy aged thirteen, named Eugene Durenne, who had been for more than a year deaf and dumb after an attack of meningitis. This child was continually invoking our Lady and writing little notes to his parents, begging to be taken to Pontmain. At last his wishes were acceded to, and after prayer at the shrine he was suddenly and completely cured. The medical man, a M. Daniel, who had attended the boy during the previous year, gave the following certificate: " I am convinced that a state of total deafness, occasioning total loss of speech, which, being the consequence of an illness, acute and non-nervous, that in the course of the preceding year had shown no sign of yielding 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 one that is supernatural."