Normandy, the home of Mount Saint-Michel and the birthplace of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, was the site of a mysterious apparition on a cold January night in 1871, a story that is little-known even among the French
was forty-one years after Catherine Labouré witnessed the miraculous apparition
of the Holy Virgin at the Medal chapel in Paris, and thirteen years since
Bernadette Soubirous’ visions at the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes. In 1871, residents of a small village in Normandy witnessed this miraculous event during a particularly harsh winter.
As the Franco-Prussian war raged on, the times were tough. With the looming possibility of an enemy invasion on any given day, the villagers gathered daily to pray in a small parochial church. On this particular Sunday, they prayed for 38 young men from the village who had recently left for war, about whom they were anxiously awaiting news. As the village was composed of poor villagers, Pontmain was not well equipped for self-defense and tensions were mounting.
Just after 5:00 in the evening on January 17th, two brothers named Joseph and Eugène Barbedette were in their family’s stable feeding their horses, as their parents learned of an imminent attack on the village from the Prussian army.
Twelve year-old Eugène was suddenly overcome with the urge to go outside and look out at the sky. When he did, he saw something unusual floating above a neighbour’s house: a beautiful woman wearing a blue dress dotted with stars. His brother Joseph, 10 years old, confirmed with his own eyes what Eugène had seen.
by the beauty of what they had seen, the boys called to their parents to come look as well, but they were unable to see what their sons had. Perplexed, the Barbedette brothers called upon other children from school to come and see.
Two other girls assured them that they too saw the image of the Virgin, describing her just as the boys had. Other villagers gathered outside the Barbadette’s stable, but only the children could see the apparition.
Eventually,words became visible in the sky on a banner beneath the woman’s feet. The boys, practically illiterate, dictated the words letter by letter: “But pray, my children. God will soon answer your prayer. My Son is willing to hear you.”
Four candles and a red crucifix appeared with
the image of the Virgin, while the woman remained silent. The scene lasted three hours, with the four children describing what they saw until the apparition disappeared.
the Virgin’s disappearance, the Prussians inexplicably abandoned their attack, with an armistice following a few days after.
A local priest, Father Guérin, was so taken with the apparition of the Virgin that he dedicated himself to ensuring its recognition. One year later, in 1872, the apparition was recognized by a bishop from the region, and Pope Pie IX declared its anniversary, January 17th, a day of celebration.
Ever since, the village
of Pontmain holds a certain program on the 17th of each month, and a large pilgrimage
converges annually towards the Notre-Dame basilica on the apparition's anniversary.
Today,Pontmain's population of 864 is dedicated to those making the pilgrimage who gather there to pray.
For visitors looking for simple yet comfortable accommodations in the village, the Centre pastoral du Sanctuaire presents an ideal option, as well as in the larger complex of Relais Le Bocage or at the Auberge de l’Espérance.
The exterior of the Barbedettes’ stable has been preserved as it stood in 1871, where video about the celebrations that take place can be viewed. The church has also been restored, appearing now as it did during the nineteenth century. Nearby stands an imposing neo-Gothic sanctuary, whose construction began the year after the apparition. It was consecrated in 1900 and then expanded into a basilica five years later.
The story of the Virgin of Pontmain remains unknown to most, even in France, but devotion has not faded in the hearts of the villagers who live there who still firmly believe that the faith given to them by the woman in the starred dress will one day be universal.
you’re looking for a bit of mystery on your next trip to Normandy, don’t miss out on a visit to the village to learn more about the story that has inspired many!