The silence in the small chapel was both welcoming and intimidating. It was late afternoon on a weekday in Paris and gusts of wind swept a spring drizzle into the faces of shoppers. They scurried for cover, cutting through bumper-to-bumper traffic. It is forbidden to use the car horn in the French capital, but motorists were still doing so: one even beat the side of his car with a clenched fist and shouted something about acting like an imbecile.
Once I was inside the chapel, it was as if I’d stepped from hell into heaven, or a place as close to what one can imagine heaven would sound like. In the few rows of wooden bunks sat men, women and children, their heads bowed and their lips moving soundlessly.
This was The Chapel of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at No. 140 Rue du Bac in Paris’ chic 7th Arrondissement.
And these were people praying to Saint Catherine Labouré for a miracle. “You should not ask for money or for the demise of anyone,” a nun, the aunt of a friend of mine, had told me earlier.
Every year three million people come here to pray for a miracle. The chapel is no Lourdes. No one welcomes anyone. No committee of doctors and priests verify that those who had sought a miracle cure for an illness or affliction had found it. Here, each walks in, sits down and prays in silence. Some stay for only a few minutes, others for an hour, even two hours. Occasionally someone will start to cry, but even this is done gently and noiselessly. It is as if the tears say: This is between Saint Catherine Labouré and me only.
The story of the ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal’ (Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse) is also the story of Saint Catherine Labouré.
The story began in 1806 on Friday, May 2. It was 6 p.m. and the bells of the church in the village of Fain-les-Moutiers started to sound the commencement of the Angelus Mass. Fain-les-Moutiers is in Burgundy, Eastern France, and 161 miles (188 kilometers) from Paris.
On that Friday, the village was, as it still is today, one of stone houses with slate roofs and chimneys that spew smoke from early morning to deep into the night. Its inhabitants (today there are only 141 and they are called ‘Finois’) lived off the land in the 19th century. Today, with the decline of agriculture on the European Continent, only four of the village’s families still live off the land as a 1999 Census shows. (A 1982 Census had registered twenty farming families.)