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Saturday, 05 July 2008

The Chapel of Miracles, Paris

Written by Marilyn Z. Tomlins
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The Chapel of Miracles, Paris, The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Rue du Bac, Saint Catherine Labouré, The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Fain-les-Moutiers, Burgundy, travel FranceThe 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.)

The Labouré family also lived off the land. Pierre Labouré, head of the family, bred cattle. Doing well, the family was considered ‘upper middle-class’. He and his wife, Louise Madeleine, already had eight children when that evening of Friday, May 2, at the ringing of the bells to announce the commencement of the Angelus Mass, their ninth child, Catherine, came into the world.

Pierre and Louise Madeleine looked on the coincidence of her birth and the commencement of the Angelus Mass as a good omen. They were devout Catholics and therefore Catherine was baptized as soon as day broke. Those days, illnesses carried newborns off at an alarming rate and the two wanted to make sure that should that happen to their baby, her soul would be received by the Savior.

Catherine, to their delight, was a ‘saintly’ child. She never disobeyed them and therefore never did they have to reprimand her. Her older siblings would later recall what a kind heart she had. When she went visiting an ill relative or neighbor with her mother, she would climb onto the patient’s bed and offer a kiss; a kiss ‘to take the hurt away’, as she used to say.

Nine years after Catherine’s birth, Louise Madeleine died. She had brought another two children into the world, but Catherine had remained her favorite. It was a love that was reciprocated; this meant that young Catherine deeply mourned her mother. For comfort she turned to her faith. A maid told of how she had found her one day standing at a statue of the Madonna and saying: “From now on You will be my Mother”.

Next, Catherine announced that she wanted to take the vows. Her father, though, wouldn’t hear of it. Pierre Labouré had already given another of his daughters, Marie Louise, to the church. He wanted Catherine to marry; she would make a wonderful wife and mother, he thought. Therefore, to prepare her for marriage and motherhood, he sent her to a finishing school, which was run by an aunt. The woman quickly realized that Catherine had no interest in learning to cook and sew. “Allow her heart’s desire,” she told Pierre Labouré. “Allow her to become a nun”. He had no choice but to do so.

As Marie Louise Labouré was a “Daughter of Charity”, the Order founded by Saint Vincent de Paul in 1633, Catherine also joined the Order and entered its convent in Chatillon-sur-Seine, close to Fain-les-Moutiers, in January 1830. She was twenty-four years old. Shortly afterwards she was transferred to the Order’s ‘mother house’ at 140 Rue du Bac in Paris. She settled down rapidly yet she appeared to prefer isolation over camaraderie with the other nuns. Accordingly, when she started to have visions of the Holy Virgin, she did not initially mention it to anyone.The Chapel of Miracles, Paris, The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Rue du Bac, Saint Catherine Labouré, The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Fain-les-Moutiers, Burgundy, travel France

She saw the Holy Virgin for the first time on the eve of July 19, the Feast of Saint Vincent, the founder of her Order. It was a Sunday night and she had been at the Rue du Bac convent for only six months.

Catherine was already in bed and fast asleep when a voice awakened her. Opening her eyes, she saw a beautiful little girl standing at the foot of her bed. The little girl told her, “Sister Labouré, come to the chapel; the Blessed Virgin is waiting for you.” Catherine, still obedient, knew that nuns were not allowed to leave the dormitory at night, but she followed the child, in the dark, to the chapel. She knelt, still in the dark, at the Communion Rail and suddenly the chapel was ablaze with light. She heard a faint rustle behind her and when she turned around she saw the Holy Virgin sitting on a chair. The Virgin beckoned to her to join her and Catherine did so, kneeling in front of the Virgin, her hands in the Virgin’s lap.

According to what Catherine would later reveal, the Virgin then spoke to her of a ‘mission’ she was to undertake for God. It was not though until almost four months later, on Saturday, November 27, that the Virgin would tell her what this ‘mission’ was. Catherine was to have a medal struck that, when worn, especially around the neck, would bestow an abundance of graces and protection on the wearer.

Catherine described the Virgin. She said, “Her height was medium and Her countenance, indescribably beautiful. She was dressed in a robe the color of the dawn, high-necked, with plain sleeves. Her head was covered with a white veil, which floated over Her shoulders down to her feet. Her feet rested upon a globe, or rather one half of a globe, for that was all that could be seen. Her hands were on a level with Her waist. Her eyes were raised to Heaven.”

The Virgin also held a globe and she showed it to Catherine.

As Catherine described that moment: “There now formed around the Blessed Virgin a frame rather oval in shape on which were written in letters of gold these words: ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee’.

Those words and that scene were to be on one side of the medal that Catherine was to have struck.

Said Catherine: “At the same instant, the oval frame seemed to turn around. Then I saw on the back of it the letter ‘M’ surmounted by a Cross with a crossbar beneath it and under the monogram of the name of Mary, the Holy Hearts of Jesus and of His Mother, the first surrounded by a crown of thorns and the second transpierced by a sword.” This was to be on the reverse side of the medal.

She was anxious to know what words should be placed on this reverse side, but the Virgin told her: “The ‘M’ with the Cross and the two Hearts will tell enough.”

In a third apparition the Virgin told Catherine to go to her confessor, Father Aladel, and to tell him about her request to have this medal struck. Catherine did so but the priest would not believe her. Instead, he transferred her to a convent in Reuilly, a poor commune east of Paris. There she worked at a hospice, yet she kept on hearing a voice reminding her not to forget about the medal. Therefore, in exasperation, she again approached the priest and after having told him, “The Blessed Virgin is cross because you won’t listen to her,” she was finally given an audience with Monsignor De Quélen, Archbishop of Paris.

Having heard what Catherine had to say, the archbishop had 20,000 medals struck. It was 1832 and a cholera epidemic raged in Paris. Twenty thousand people had already died by the time the medal could be distributed by the nuns of Catherine’s old Order. Immediately, the epidemic eased and the medal became known as the ‘Miraculous Medal’. No one though knew the story of the medal: Catherine wouldn’t allow the archbishop to speak of her. Instead, she remained working at the hospice, an ordinary nun washing the bodies of those living their last hours.

Catherine died on Sunday, December 31, 1876, aged 70. Since spring of that year she’d been speaking of dying. “I am going up to Heaven”, she said. When the day came, her fellow nuns asked her whether she was afraid of dying. To that she replied: “Why be afraid of going to see Our Lord, His Mother and Saint Vincent?” Prayers were said at her bedside and she received Communion.

When news of Catherine’s passing reached the Parisians (by then they knew how the Miraculous Medal had come into being), they marched silently through the Paris streets. Some hung the medal from their front doors and windows.

On Wednesday, January 3, Catherine was buried in the local Reuilly cemetery. Those who prepared her body on her death said that rigor mortis had not set in. By then the Parisians had started to speak of her as The Silent Saint and one billion medals had already been struck and were in circulation worldwide. Bernadette Soubirous (Saint Bernadette) wore the medal when the Virgin appeared to her in Lourdes in 1858. Her description of the Holy Virgin confirmed that of Catherine.

The medal continued to perform miracles for those who wore it and popes referred to it and in 1894, Pope Leon XIII, approved a mass for the Feast of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846) kept the medal at the head of his bed. In 1854 Pope Pius IX had already in his ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ referred to the medal in describing the Virgin as a ‘splendid dawn that spreads its rays everywhere’. Finally, after a canonical investigation into the Virgin’s apparitions to Catherine, Pope Pius XII declared her a saint on Thursday, July 17, 1947.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1933, Catherine’s body had been exhumed. At that time, a worldwide campaign had begun for her to be canonized and her old order was going to transfer her remains for reburial in The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

Catherine, however, was not reburied.

The Chapel of Miracles, Paris, The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Rue du Bac, Saint Catherine Labouré, The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Fain-les-Moutiers, Burgundy, travel FranceAlthough she had died fifty-seven years earlier and had been buried for all those years, her body was perfectly preserved. Therefore, it was decided that she would lie in a glass coffin in the chapel.

The two million who come to the chapel yearly now see a beautiful young girl and not a 70-year-old woman as she was on her death. Her skin is without wrinkles and her eyes are open and very blue. One has to fight the urge to open the coffin and to touch her hands that are in holding a Rosary in prayer.

Back outside on Rue du Bac, the windows of ‘Bon Marché’ department store beckoned me. It is in this store that Johnny Depp shops when he’s in Paris; he rents an apartment in the area. Those who emerge from the shop that afternoon carried large, heavy shopping bags. In those bags would have been designer handbags, bottles of vintage champagne and things like appellation contrôlée butter – yes, not only wine receives the ‘guaranteed vintage’ label in France, so does butter.

The Chapel of Miracles, Paris, The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, Rue du Bac, Saint Catherine Labouré, The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Fain-les-Moutiers, Burgundy, travel FranceSome of the shoppers crossed the street to the chapel, an unassuming stone building. A beggar stood at its gateway, his skin dark with dirt. He smiled with gratitude each time a copper coin dropped into his cup. As I could see, Saint Catherine Labouré still performs miracles every day. So she did each time that beggar heard the clanking of a coin.

How to reach The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal:

The nearest Metro station is Rue du Bac. Upon emerging from the station, walk down Rue du Bac. The chapel is #140 on the right side of the street. It is a few minutes walk. Legend has it that one must approach the chapel on foot.

© Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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