Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 12, 2005
Our Lady's mountain shrine
A heart-pounding trip ends in a sanctuary of saintly serenity
Our Lady of La Salette — September 19
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Open treeless vistas slope upwards in all directions to snow-streaked rocky prominences in an otherworldly scene.
This is the site of the Sanctuary and Hostelry of Our Lady of La Salette, a man-made addition to this otherwise pristine area of France's Hautes-Alpes, and the scene of a miraculous appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1846.
The 2,000-metre-high shrine is in the Isere Department high above the Drac River town of Corps which is midway between the cities of Gap and Grenoble.
Negotiating the narrow road up to the sanctuary in a bus full of pilgrims is a heart-stopping experience. A succession of switchbacks and s-turns provides unforgettable aerial perspectives of the rooftops of tiny alpine villages impossibly balanced on too-steep slopes.
The ancient story
Overawed by the stark beauty of the alpine vistas, arrivals pause to contemplate the story of two poor local children and their supernatural encounter 150 years ago.
Both natives of Corps, Melanie Mathieu, age 15, and 11-year-old Maximin Giraud met for the first time on Sept. 19 in the settlement of Les Ablandins where, because of financial problems at home, they had both been sent to work as cattle herders.
Neither had ever attended school or catechism classes and, although familiar with a little French, spoke only the local patois. They agreed to pasture their few cows beyond the hamlet of La Salette, higher into the mountains.
There, near midday, they were amazed to see, in a brilliant light, a "beautiful lady" sitting on a large rock, her head in her hands, weeping. Although dressed in local attire, she wore an unusual headdress and a large crucifix.
The apparition spoke to them in their dialect, requesting that they convey to others her son's dismay with the habits of the local people - cursing, failure to pray and irregular observance of the Lord's Day. After predicting a continuation of the ongoing potato famine, she disappeared in a blinding light.
Today, three groups of monuments identify the places where Mary spoke to the children. These - a small chapel, a tiny cemetery and three Ways of the Cross - are the only man-made features at the site other than the huge sanctuary/hostel complex.
Five years after the apparition and following a thorough investigation of the event, the bishop of Grenoble issued a doctrinal decision that "Christians (have grounds to believe) in the children's experiences in 1846."
A church was then built on the site and in 1899 was designated a basilica by Pope Leo XIII.
Pilgrims taking part in tours of the sanctuary today are impressed by its many windows and artworks honouring the Mother of God.
Over time, the popularity of the complex has grown so that as many as 250,000 persons a year visit La Salette. A variety of accommodations are provided there, ranging from dormitories to private rooms. Camping is available and visitors are able to obtain meals on site.
In addition to regularly scheduled Masses in the basilica, pilgrim groups also have access to the more intimate meeting chapel for the celebration of the Eucharist.
Clergy associated with the new church became a formal congregation in 1879 and since then, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette have spread world-wide. Their patron is honoured in churches across Canada and a shrine established by them is the site of an annual pilgrimage in the Saskatchewan town of Forget.
After leaving the sanctuary and again admiring the site's impressive statuary, pilgrims are ready to retrace the tortuous downhill route to Corps. Hopefully they will retain and heed the message of La Salette - "a call to conversion."