France was favoured with many apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the 19th century. Among them, she appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830 (when she gave her the Miraculous Medal), to two children in the village of La Salette in 1846, to the young St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858, to four young children at Pontmain in 1871, and to Estelle Faguette at Pellevoisin in 1876.1
“Why France?” you might ask. “And why did Mary appear so frequently and in such awe-inspiring ways?” In her book, Those Who Saw Her, Catherine Odell notes that apparitions are always manifestations of God, and they “always have something to do with [Mary’s] heart and the world’s needs.”2 Mary loves us as only a mother can, and there is no question that she desired to comfort and console her suffering children in France during that difficult time.
The winter of 1870-71 was a particularly bleak time for the 500 villagers who lived in the tiny hamlet of Pontmain. The French parliament had declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870, and 38 of their young men had been conscripted into the army to defend their homeland.3 But the newly drafted soldiers were not military men by any stretch of the imagination. They were little more than farmers carrying guns, and “their families and friends were desperate with fear for them and for the nation.”4
Sadly, the French army was no match for the Prussians, and they experienced one defeat after the other. By January 1871, Paris was under siege and two-thirds of the country had fallen into enemy hands. It seemed that it would only be a matter of time before the French Emperor, Napoleon III,5 would be forced to surrender. Pontmain was located right inside the French defensive line, and on the night of January 17, 1871, it lay directly in the path of the oncoming army.
The Barbadette Family
“Twelve-year-old Eugène Barbadette of Pontmain was thinking of such grim possibilities as he rose at six o’clock on the cold morning of January 17, 1871. He had heard that the Prussians were closing in on Laval, the capital of the region in which tiny Pontmain was situated. While Eugène was worried about the threat, he was even more worried about his older brother Auguste. Auguste was one of those from this farming village who had been called to battle.”6 After waking his 10-year-old brother, Joseph, the two boys prayed the Rosary for their brother and then headed off to serve the morning Mass for Abbé Guérin.
Although many of France’s churches had lain empty and lifeless since the upheaval of the French Revolution (1789-99), Pontmain was an exception. Its villagers – humble farmers – were devout believers. Their pastor, Abbé Michel Guérin, had been the town’s priest for 35 years, and it was his great example that had inspired them to remain true to the faith. He had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, and each morning at Mass, the Abbé offered up special prayers for the villagers in the army. This morning, “the priest offered prayers of hope. ‘Let us add penance to our prayers, and then we may take courage,’ the Abbé told his villagers at Mass. ‘God will have pity on us; His mercy will surely come to us through Mary.’”7 No more than eleven hours later, his words would begin to be fulfilled.
Our Lady of Pontmain: First phase of the apparition
Around five o’clock that evening, Eugène and Joseph headed to the barn to help their father, César, with the evening chores. Although war was at their doorstep, there was still work to be done. Eugène recalled that, “As soon as we came back from school, all kinds of small tasks were waiting to be done at home. We had to turn the spinning wheel for our mother and for the servant, fray the old woollen rags, crush the gorse [a yellow-flowered shrub of the pea family] in the barn, slice up the beetroot and carrots to give the animals to eat. I remember that this work was quite hard. We never had time to be idle.”8
But before they had finished their chores, Jeannette Détais, a woman from the village, stopped by with news. “Usually, this was a woman who came to visit families in sad circumstances. Jeannette prepared most of the dead of the village for burial. Yet she had good news on this day, she told Mr. Barbadette. She had seen Auguste, and he was in good health and sent his greetings to his family. Mr. Barbadette, with a wide smile on his face, stood his pitchfork upright for a few moments and quizzed Jeanette further.”9
As they continued to chat, Eugène walked to the barn door to check on the weather. As he looked out at the star-studded sky, his attention was drawn to an area above a neighbouring house that seemed to be completely free of stars. Puzzled, he continued to gaze at the spot, and suddenly he saw an apparition of a woman smiling at him. Eugène let out a cry of surprise, and in a moment Joseph also stood next to him, gaping at the vision.
In his testimony – written after he became a priest – Joseph described his experience. “In the air, seven or eight metres above Augustin Guidecoq’s house, I saw a woman of extraordinary beauty. She appeared to be young, about eighteen or twenty years of age, and tall of stature. She was clad in a garment of deep blue. When we were told to describe exactly the shade of this blue, we could only do so by comparing it to balls of indigo such as laundresses use for rinsing linen. Her dress was covered with gold stars, pentagonal in form, all of the same size, and brilliant, but without emitting rays. They were not very numerous, and seemed to be scattered over the blue without regard to method. The blue garment was ample, showing certain strongly-marked folds, and without girdle or compression of any kind from the neck to the feet. The sleeves were ample and long, falling over the hands.
“On the feet, which the dress left uncovered, were chaussons of the same blue as the dress and ornamented with gold bows. On the head was a black veil half covering the forehead, concealing the hair and ears, and falling over the shoulders. Above this was a gold crown resembling a diadem, higher in front than elsewhere, and widening out at the sides. A red line, from five to six millimetres wide, encircled the crown at about the middle. The hands were small, and extended towards us as in the miraculous medal, but without emitting rays.
“The face was slightly oval. To the freshness of youth was added the most exquisite delicacy of feature and of tint, the complexion being pale rather than otherwise. Smiles of ineffable sweetness played about the mouth. The eyes, of unutterable tenderness, were fixed on us. I give up further attempting to describe the beautiful figure of her who looked down upon us and smiled. Like a true mother, she seemed happier in looking at us than we in contemplating her.”
The writer continues: ‘Notwithstanding that it was night, and that we were separated from the beautiful Apparition by a distance of about a hundred metres, we could see every detail of the face as distinctly as if it had been in full daylight and we had been close by.”10
César and Jeannette ran out to see what was happening, but neither of them could see anything. César’s wife, Victoire, also came out of the house but could see nothing, even though she went back in to get her glasses. It was now about a quarter past six and, certain that nothing was happening, the parents told the boys to go in for dinner. Victoire must have sensed that something special was happening, though, for she gave them permission to go out again soon after. When the boys told her that Our Lady was still there, Victoire said, “Maybe it’s the Virgin Mary.” She suggested they say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys in her honour, and she then ran to fetch Sr. Vitaline, the local schoolteacher.
When Sr. Vitaline arrived, she also couldn’t see anything, but “[she] immediately suspected that the Mother of God indeed might be appearing to the boys. Perhaps, she advised Mr. and Mrs. Barbadette, the Virgin would be visible only to children. It was certainly well known that the La Salette and Lourdes visions were given only to simple children, she reminded the parents.”11 She then rushed back to the convent school to fetch Françoise Richer (age 9), Jeanne-Marie Lebosse (age 11), and Sr. Marie-Edouard, who in turn went to fetch the parish priest. He was somewhat hesitant after first, but in the end decided to come.
Françoise and Jeanne-Marie had not been told what they might see, but when they arrived, they immediately saw the apparition and described Our Lady just as the boys had done. The four children all observed three bright stars that they said formed a triangle around Mary. Although none of the other villagers could see the apparition of Mary, they were all able to see these stars during the apparition; the three stars disappeared as soon as the apparition was over.
By this time, neighbours were coming to see what was going on. About 60 people had gathered together, and when Abbé Guérin arrived he asked them to pray. Sr. Marie-Edouard started to pray the Rosary, and the crowd recited the Magnificat. As they were praying, Joseph Babin – a carter [a person who drives a cart] – returned from the market at Ernée with ominous news. “’You’re right to pray,’ he shouted to the crowd, ‘the Prussians have arrived at Laval.’”12
The villagers continued to invoke Our Lady, singing the litanies of the Virgin Mary, Inviolata, and Salve Regina. As they continued to pray fervently in silence, a blue oval with four unlit candles appeared around the beautiful Lady and her face became sad. “A few minutes later, she smiled again and as the prayers became more fervent, she grew slowly in size. The oval also grew and the stars multiplied. A big white banner unrolled under the feet of the beautiful Lady and then a word appeared letter by letter ‘BUT’. At that moment the word ‘PRAY’ was written on the banner and then two other words ‘MY CHILDREN.’ Other words appeared, forming a phrase: ‘GOD WILL ANSWER YOU VERY SOON’”13
The people wept with joy as the message was spelled out to them by the children. But it was still not complete. “‘MY SON …’ Shouts of joy and exhilaration erupted from the crowd now. … These two words clearly identified the woman. She was surely the Mother of God. The rest of the message followed: ‘… ALLOWS HIMSELF TO BE TOUCHED’. This was a message of consolation to Pontmain. The heavenly Virgin was telling the people of the village that God had heard their prayers and that He would answer their needs shortly. He would answer because He was a God who allowed himself to be touched by pleading and prayers.”14
The villagers began to sing the words of the hymn, “Mother of Hope, whose name is so sweet, protect our land of France, pray, pray for us.”15 As they sang, the children continued to exclaim how lovely Our Lady was. They sang another hymn, and “the Virgin Mary lifted her hands to the level of her shoulders and moved her fingers in time to the hymn as if to accompany an invisible instrument.”16 She smiled, and the banner and message disappeared. “It’s as if a roller, the same colour as the sky, has passed over the words,”17 the children said. Mary looked very sad and she seemed to speak, but they couldn’t hear her voice.
After the crowd sang a hymn of repentance and reparation to Jesus, a red cross with ‘Jesus Christ’ written in white appeared in front of the Virgin Mary. “It bore a [figure of] Christ of the same colour. The Virgin took the cross in both hands and tilted it towards the children.
A small star came to light the four candles inside the oval, just as the priest did at church on the Holy Virgin’s altar. The star then took up a position above the Virgin’s head.”18
“When the cross with Christ appeared in her hands, Joseph Barbadette recalled that ‘her face was marked with a deep sorrow … the trembling of her lips at the corners of her mouth showed deep feeling … But no tears ran down her cheeks.’”19
Sr. Marie-Edouard then led the people in singing Ave Maris Stella, and when they had finished, Abbé Guérin led them in Evening Prayer. “Everyone kneeled down where they were. When they reached the examination of their conscience, something new happened.
“The red crucifix disappeared. A small white cross appeared on each shoulder and the Holy Virgin smiled again at the children. A large white veil appeared at the feet of the Virgin. It rose slowly in front of Her, making her disappear from view little by little. It reached the face, then the crown. No more was to be seen.”20 “Do you still see anything ?” asked Father Guérin. “No Father, it’s all over,”21 replied the children. It was about 8:45 p.m. The apparition had lasted for around three hours. Everyone returned to their homes. Their minds were at rest, and all their fears had been banished.
The Miracle of Pontmain
Although the Prussian army had reached the outskirts of Laval at 5:30 p.m. on January 17th – the exact time the apparition was taking place – at that point they inexplicably stopped advancing. The following morning, the general is reported to have said, “We cannot go farther. Yonder, in the direction of Brittany, there is an invisible ‘Madonna’ barring the way.” Shortly afterwards, “General Von Schmidt received orders from the Prussian High Command to halt his campaign and withdraw.”22 The war was over and all the soldiers from Pontmain returned home unharmed. Ten days later, an armistice was signed between France and Prussia. The miraculous intercession of our Blessed Mother had saved Pontmain.”23
Both Eugène and Joseph Barbadette went on to become priests; Joseph was a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and his brother, Eugène, became a diocesan priest. One of the other visionaries, Jeanne-Marie Lebossé, became a nun, and Françoise became Eugène’s housekeeper. Today, Pontmain has a population of almost 900 people, and the villagers dedicate their lives to serving the many pilgrims who come to their town to pray.
The apparition of Our Lady of Pontmain – also known as Our Lady of Hope – is a reminder of the power of her intercession. Her message is that of hope: “But pray my children. God will hear you in a short time. My Son allows Himself to be moved with compassion.” Our Lady of Hope, pray for us.
Sharon van der Sloot
Novena to Our Lady of Hope24
I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. In me is all grace of the way and of the truth; in me is all hope of life and of virtue. Come to me all that desire me and be filled with my fruits (Sirach 24:24-26).
O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Grace, Hope of the World. Hear us, your children, who cry to you.
Let us pray.
O God, who by the marvellous protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary has strengthened us firmly in hope, grant we beseech You, that by persevering in prayer at her admonition, we may obtain the favors we devoutly implore. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer to Our Lady of Hope
O Mary, my Mother, I kneel before you with heavy heart. The burden of my sins oppresses me. The knowledge of my weakness discourages me. I am beset by fears and temptations of every sort. Yet I am so attached to the things of this world that instead of longing for Heaven I am filled with dread at the thought of death.
O Mother of Mercy, have pity on me in my distress. You are all-powerful with your Divine Son. He can refuse no request of your Immaculate Heart. Show yourself a true Mother to me by being my advocate before His throne. O Refuge of Sinners and Hope of the Hopeless, to whom shall I turn if not you?
Obtain for me, then, O Mother of Hope, the grace of true sorrow for my sins, the gift of perfect resignation to God’s Holy Will, and the courage to take up my cross and follow Jesus. Beg of His Sacred Heart the special favor that I ask in this novena.
(Make your request.)
But above all I pray, O dearest Mother, that through your most powerful intercession my heart may be filled with Holy Hope, so that in life’s darkest hour I may never fail to trust in God my Savior, but by walking in the way of His commandments I may merit to be united with Him, and with you in the eternal joys of Heaven. Amen.
Mary, our Hope, have pity on us.
Hope of the Hopeless, pray for us.
Say 3 Hail Marys
1 Although there has been no official approval of the apparitions at Pellevoisin, it has been approved for faith expression. Pope Leo XIII encouraged pilgrimages to Pellevoisin by approving indulgences to pilgrims; he also approved other related devotions to Our Lady. For a complete list of Marian apparitions in France in the 19th century, go to http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/approved_apparitions/apparitions_1800-1899.html.
2 Catherine M. Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, rev. ed. (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2010), 21.
3 The Franco-Prussian War began on July 19, 1870 in response to Prussia’s desire to unify Germany under Prussian control. Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (who was related to the Prussian royal house) had reluctantly accepted the Spanish throne in June 1870. Although Prince Leopold’s candidacy was withdrawn under French diplomatic pressure, France was alarmed by the possible alliance of Spain and Prussia; it felt that its position as the dominant power in Europe was threatened.
4 Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, 118.
5 Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) was the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was the first French leader to hold the title of President, and the first elected by a direct popular vote.
6 Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, 118. Laval is about 53 kilometres southeast of Pontmain.
8 “Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pontmain – Mass times, statue, and website,” Pilgrim-info.com; available from https://www.pilgrim-info.com/sanctuary-our-lady-pontmain/; Internet; accessed 26 January 2018.
9 Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, 119.
10 Fr. Joseph Barbadette, Recit d’un Voyant; taken from Bernard St. John, “Pontmain and Our Lady of Hope Part I – The Apparition of the Blessed Virgin,” The Blessed Virgin in the Nineteenth Century: Apparitions, Revelations, Graces, 1904; reproduced at Cor Jesu Sacratissimum [Catholic website]; available from http://corjesusacratissimum.org/2012/07/pontmain-and-our-lady-of-hope-part-i-the-blessed-virgin-appears-in-the-night-sky/; Internet; accessed 26 January 2018.
11 Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, 121.
12 “Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pontmain – Mass times, statue, and website,”Pilgrim-info.com.
14 Odell, Those Who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, 123.
15 “Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pontmain – Mass times, statue, and website,” Pilgrim-info.com.
19 James Ben Malabanan, “Our Lady of Hope of Pontmain of Quezon City – Quezon City’s Shining Ray of Hope,” Pintakasi [Catholic website]; available from http://pintakasi1521.blogspot.ca/2017/03/our-lady-of-hope-of-pontmain-of-quezon.html; Internet’ accessed 26 January 2018.
20 Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pontmain – Mass times, statue, and website, Pilgrim-info.com.
22 “What is the story behind our Blessed Mother’s title, ‘Our Lady of Hope’?” Catholic Straight Answers; available from http://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-story-behind-our-blessed-mothers-title-our-lady-of-hope/; Internet; accessed 26 January 2018.
24 “Our Lady of Hope,” EWTN [Global Catholic network]; available from https://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/novena/hope.htm; Internet; accessed 26 January 2018.
* “Apparitions de la Vierge Marie en France,” available from http://lechemindemarie.unblog.fr/2015/08/24/apparitions-de-la-vierge-marie-en-france/.
** Par http://www.diocese-laval.fr/media/abbe_guerin_michel__094971500_1047_23052013.jpg, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55508680