“The Franco-Prussian War, which began in 1870, was the backdrop to this silent apparition of Our Lady at Portmain in northwestern France. By January 1871, the country was in a very serious position militarily, with the Prussians controlling two thirds of the country and Paris besieged. It seemed to be only a matter of time before Mayenne and Brittany, the northwestern part of the country, would also be taken. The next attack was expected at Laval, the capital of Mayenne, less than 30 miles from Pontmain, where the Blessed Virgin would appear.
Guided by their parish priest, they sought to live as good Christians
At the time, Pontmain was a small village, inhabited by simple and hardworking country folk, who, guided by their parish priest, Abbé Michel Guerin, sought to live as good Christians.
The Barbedette family consisted of father Cesar, his wife, Victoire, with their two sons Joseph and Eugene, aged ten and 12, and another older brother who was away in the army.
On 17th January 1871, after going to early morning Mass, the boys spent the day at school as usual. On their return, they were helping their father in the barn when a neighbour, an elderly lady named Jeannette Details, called in and began to talk with Cesar. During the conversation, the older boy, Eugene, walked over towards the door to look out, and noticed one area practically free of stars above a neighbouring house. This puzzled him; but, as he gazed at it, suddenly he saw an apparition of a beautiful woman smiling at him; she was wearing a blue gown covered with golden stars, and a black veil under a golden crown.
His mum suggested they should all say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys in her honour
As Jeannette Details was about to leave, Eugene asked her if she could see anything, and as she replied in the negative, his father and brother came out to look. Joseph immediately said he too could see the apparition, although their father, like the old lady, saw nothing. He asked Eugene if he could still see the lady and on being told ‘Yes’, asked him to go and fetch his mother. Victoire arrived but like the other adults she could see nothing, although she was puzzled because her boys were usually very truthful.
She suggested that it might be the Blessed Virgin, and that they should all say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys in her honour. By this time the neighbours were coming out to see what was going on, and the Barbedettes withdrew into the barn to pray.
The family servant, Louise, was called but she too could see nothing; and as it was now about a quarter past six, the family went inside for supper. Victoire gave the boys permission to go out again soon after, and, on hearing that the lady was still there, went to fetch Sr Vitaline, the local schoolteacher.
He pointed to three bright stars in the shape of a triangle
Eugene pointed to three bright stars in the shape of a triangle and told her that the lady’s head was in the middle of them. Although Sr Vitaline could see the stars, she saw nothing else, and so she went to get three young girls from the school to see their reactions. Immediately they arrived, the two youngest of these, aged nine and 11, expressed their delight at the apparition, describing it as the boys had done, although the oldest girl saw nothing. The three stars were seen by everyone that evening, but disappeared after the apparition.
It was decided to fetch other children, and another sister called at the presbytery to tell Fr Guerin, who, after some hesitation, decided to come out as well. As he reached the barn with his housekeeper, a child of two and her mother had just arrived. Immediately the infant looked with delight at the apparition, clapped her hands, and called out the name of Jesus, as taught by her mother. The next evening the child was taken back to the same spot at the same time and told to look, but gave no indication of seeing anything.
They began to say the rosary, and as the rosary progressed, the stars began to multiply around her
The adults in the crowd, which had now grown to about sixty people, including the priest, could still see nothing and began to say the rosary, as the children exclaimed that something new was happening. A blue oval frame with four candles, two at the level of the shoulders and two at the knees, was being formed around the lady, and a short red cross had appeared over her heart. As the rosary progressed, the figure and its frame grew larger, until it was twice life size; the stars around her began to multiply and attach themselves to her dress until she was covered with them.
“My Son allows himself to be moved”
As the Magnificat was being said, the four children cried out: ‘Something else is happening.’ A broad streamer on which letters were appearing unrolled beneath the feet of the lady, so that eventually the phrase, ‘But pray, my children,’ could be read. Fr Guerin then ordered that the Litany of Our Lady should be sung, and as this progressed new letters appeared, making the message: ‘God will soon answer you.’ As they continued to sing, another message was formed, one that removed any doubt that it was the Blessed Virgin who was appearing to the children: ‘My Son allows himself to be moved.’
The children were beside themselves with joy
The children were beside themselves with joy at the beauty of the lady and her smile, but her expression then changed to one of extreme sadness, as she now contemplated a large red cross that had suddenly appeared before her, with a figure of Christ on it in an even darker shade of red. One of the stars then lit the four candles that surrounded the figure, the crucifix vanished and the group began night prayers.
As the group began night prayers a white veil lifted
As these were being recited, the children reported that a white veil was rising from the lady’s feet and gradually blotting her out, until finally, at about nine o’clock, the apparition was over.
It is worth noting that earlier that evening, at the house near Paris where Catherine Laboure – the seer of Rue du Back and the Miraculous Medal – lived, the sisters observed the remarkable colour of the western sky, which some felt was an omen. Catherine looked but said nothing, although later, when the events of Pontmain became known, it was suspected that she had some inkling of what had happened. In any event, it appears that she certainly believed that Our Lady appeared there, since she said as much to a fellow nun in 1872, telling her to send her prayer intentions to the village, because ‘the Blessed Lady revealed herself there…’
Our Lady of Hope
The following March a canonical inquiry into the apparition was held, and in May the local bishop questioned the children. The inquiry was continued later in the year, with further questioning by the theologians and a medical examination. The bishop was satisfied by these investigations, and in February 1873 declared his belief that it was the Blessed Virgin who had appeared to the children. Joseph Barbedette became a priest, a member of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, while his brother Eugene became a secular priest. One of the girls who had seen Mary assisted him as his housekeeper, while the other, Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, became a nun. A large basilica was built at Pontmain and consecrated in 1900.
During his reign, Pope Pius XI confirmed the decision of the bishop and granted a Mass and Office for Pontmain under the title ‘Our Lady of Hope’.”
– This article by Donal Anthony Foley was published in the Catholic Times newspaper, issue 16th January 2015. For subscriptions please contact: The Universe Media Group, Allerton House, St Mary’s Parsonage, Manchester M3 2WJ.