It is a hamlet of some five hundred inhabitants and was to become for ever memorable. Even its geographical position on the borderland between Brittany and Mayenne was to assume historical importance. Seen by the light of the celestial drama it was to appear as a sentinel guarding Brittany.
The blue color often associated with Mary permeated the places we visited including the ceiling of the barn where the Blessed Mother’s apparition took place.
On January 17, Joseph and Eùgene (ages 10 and 12) were helping their father in a barn in France, then engaged in the Franco-Prussian War. Looking into the sky, a golden-crowned lady wearing a dark blue dress covered with stars appeared.
The parents were unable to see anything but on faith suggested it might be the Blessed Virgin and prayers were offered. Later, two girls from a local school (Francoise Richer age 11 and Jeanne Marie LeBosse age 9) were brought and could also see the vision, while a growing crowd of sixty adults, who had begun to pray the Rosary at the suggest of the local priest, could not.
A blue frame with four candles formed around the Virgin and a red cross appeared over her heart. She began to grow in size as the stars multiplied and became part of her dress. As various Marian devotions were recited, messages began to appear in the sky on a broad banner under the Virgin’s feet. She smiled the entire time until a large red crucifix appeared before her. A white veil slowly rose as the crucifix vanished and the appartion ended.
Pontmain remains a powerful example of the power of prayer to preserve us from disaster and war.”
Details of the Apparition
It is the darkest hour of the War of 1870. Prussian armies have invaded a large part of France, and the nation is in complete disarray. On the morning of January 17, 1871, Prussian troops are at the outskirts of Laval in the district of Mayenne.
The city is preparing to pay the heavy military assessment levied against it: three million francs in gold. “The rout of fleeing soldiers is unimaginable. They are deaf to the command of officers. Two of them have been shot down in their tracks, but this example has had no effect on the others. In the 39 years that I have been in the service, never have I found myself in such a distressing situation,” writes the Commander of the 16th Corps.
A Sign of Hope
Toward evening on January 17, Pontmain, a small town in the north of Mayenne, lies under a blanket of snow. People are anxious, but everybody is going about work as usual. In a barn in the middle of town two boys, Eugene and Joseph Barbedette, are helping their father pound stalks to feed to the horses. Some minutes before six o’clock in the evening, taking advantage of a break from work, Eugene leaves the barn and sees in the sky a “Lady” dressed in a dark-blue robe sprinkled with stars.
She spreads her lowered hands in a gesture of welcome and smiles on him. Joseph comes along a few moments later and also sees the Lady. But the father of the boys sees nothing. Undaunted, they call their mother, who also fails to see anything even after going back to the house for her eyeglasses.
There is nothing to it, declare the parents, and the boys are to get on with work and then come in for supper. After a quick meal, the boys still see the beautiful Lady, so the Sisters of the school are called. Again, they see nothing. But two little girls with them do see the beautiful Lady and describe the star-studded blue robe, the dark veil, and the crown of gold.
The town now gathers around the two small boys. Father Guérin, pastor of Pontmain for 35 years, is called and there, in the snow, a vigil of prayer ensues, a veritable dialogue with the Virgin. While the people are praying, the apparition grows and is covered and surrounded with stars. A large blue oval with four candles attached encloses it. The people kneel, some in the snow, some in the barn, whose small door is open.
Sister Mary Edward, kneeling at the door, leads the Rosary. The Lady becomes more beautiful and increases in size as prayer continues. The increase is harmoniously proportioned.
The blue oval expands accordingly, and the stars surrounding the apparition seem to move aside to make way for the oval, ranging themselves two by two at the feet of the Lady. Those which spangle her robe multiply and the dark blue of the robe brightens.Message of Hope After recitation of the Rosary, the people sing the Magnificat “in the sonorous tone of the Bretons.” A white banner then appears on which large letters of gold slowly form. The two small boys try to decipher them while prayer goes on. After some moments, they can read:
“PRAY, MY CHILDREN. GOD WILL ANSWER BEFORE LONG. MY SON LETS HIMSELF BE MOVED.”
The message produces a strong emotional reaction in the crowd. After a momentary silence the pastor suggests they sing the hymn “Mother of Hope.” The children leap for joy and clap their hands while repeating: “SEE HOW SHE SMILES! OH, HOW BEAUTIFUL SHE IS!” At the end of the hymn the banner bearing the inscription vanishes.
The prayer of the people takes a penitential turn with the singing of the hymn: “Gentle Jesus, Pardon now our penitent hearts…” A sadness appears in the Virgin and is reflected in the children. A large red crucifix is then seen, surmounted by a placard bearing in beautiful red letters the name: JESUS CHRIST.
The Virgin presents the crucifix to the children. The sadness seen in her makes a deep impression on Joseph. Later he will write:”Her sadness was more than anyone can imagine. I saw my mother overwhelmed with grief when, some months later, my father died. You know what such grief in a mother’s face does to the heart of a child. But, as I remember, what instinctively came to mind was the sadness of the Most Blessed Virgin, which must have been the sadness of the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross that bore her dying Son.”
“It’s All Over …”
While all this is happening, the crowd continues to pray. Some moments later the red crucifix vanishes and the Virgin resumes her initial posture, arms extended downward. A small white Cross appears on each of her shoulders. The Lady smiles once more. At the suggestion of the pastor evening prayer is begun. People kneel where they happen to be, in the barn or in the snow. A large white veil appears at the feet of the Virgin, slowly lifts and gradually enshrouds her. When evening prayer is finished, the apparition vanishes. “IT’S ALL OVER,” declare the two small boys. The time is about nine o’clock in the evening and everybody leaves for home.
Source: Dictionary of Mary, (N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1985)
Photos of the Apparition place
Inside, a painting and five statues evoke the setting and the different stages of the Apparition. The only remaining traces of the past are the granite trough and the pestles which were used to crush the gorse, the horses’ winter food.
It was from the threshold of the barn that the children first saw Mary but it was also the place where the movement of grace began which still touches so many pilgrims.