Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Two miles down the road from the sanctuary of St. Joseph in Cotignac, France, where he appeared in 1660, his spouse the Blessed Virgin Mary also appeared in a similar way, but for a different reason. Yet both of these approved apparitions have remained fairly obscure to the world in general, unlike Lourdes or Fatima.
Mary arrived at this place in the heart of Provence some years earlier than St. Joseph. It was the first step linked to a major intervention she would make for a family and France.
The date was August 10, 1519. A woodcutter named Jean de la Baume climbed Mount Verdaille to begin his work for the day. Like every day, Jean began it by kneeling in prayer. Only this time, when he stood up, he was astonished to see a cloud before him, and emerging from the cloud is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was holding the Child Jesus and standing on a crescent moon. With her was St. Michael the Archangel, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Catherine of Egypt.
Mary gave a message to Jean. “I am the Virgin Mary. Go and tell the clergy and the counsels of Cotignac to build me a church on this place in the name of Our Lady of Graces and that they should come in procession to receive the gifts which I wish to bestow.”
But Jean didn’t tell anyone what he saw, thinking it was a hallucination from the summer heat. Next day, August 11, he came back to continue his work. Again the Blessed Mother appeared to him. This time Jean believes and dashes to the village to tell of Mary and her message.
The wonderful EWTN documentary, Shrine of the Holy Family: Provence, France brings out that people know Jean as a decent, responsible man with proven character. Everyone believes him. We can imagine his jubilation touching off a whirlwind of excitement among families, individuals, and the town council.
On September 14, the Feast of the Holy Cross, the villagers laid the first stone for the chapel that Mary requested. The whole of Cotignac walked in procession to the site on Mount Verdaille.
Familiar Saints, Surprise Discovery
Everyone in Cotignac and indeed Provence would be familiar with the saints accompanying Mary and the Child Jesus. Back then St. Michael the Archangel was honored as protector of God’s family, the Church. St. Bernard of Clairvaux had established several monasteries, one of them only 15 miles from the village.
And martyr St Catherine of Egypt’s French connection? Because her remains were brought to France by King Louis IX, himself later canonized as St. Louis. In addition, St. Catherine, along with St. Michael, were seen and identified by Joan of Arc as two of the saints who counseled her.
“Thus, a common link among all the saints in the vision — a link to the well-being of families, national families, ecclesial families — all the communities needed for the well-being of people, communities for which God himself is concerned,” explains he Shrine of the Holy Family documentary.
Another surprise — and connection — came during the month the villagers began building the chapel for Our Lady of Graces. Digging the foundation, they uncovered the tombs of Christian martyrs that dated to the earliest centuries.
In reality, the people in Provence became converts not long after Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and Martha arrived on the southern coast. Tradition says they landed at a place known as Saintes Maries de la Mer, then went not far away to Marseille where they preached the gospel and Lazarus baptized many. Until the fourth century, the Romans controlled the region and persecuted Christians, yet spirituality remained strong. It was strong after the 1660s when the sanctuary to Our Lady of Graces was built, and countless miraculous answers to prayers came through the intercession of Mary.
Fast forward to 1637 and a critical moment for France.
Mary Promises Her Help
By that year, the kingdom was worried. After 22 years of marriage, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne of Austria were without children. The Queen continued praying fervently for an heir to the throne, but again she miscarried in her most recent pregnancy. Louis was not of the Henry VIII mentality.
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces in Cotignac would soon play a big role in the answer.
On November 3, 1637, not far from the Louvre, the Blessed Mother appeared to an Augustinian monk named Brother Fiacre while he was in prayer in the monastery of the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victories).
The cry of a toddler attracted his attention. So explains an official history given by Our Lady of Victories. It describes what happened on the first quarter-hour visitation to him as recorded in the monastery’s archives and countersigned by the vicar general and the prior.
"He turned his head to the side of the voice…and saw the Sacred Virgin surrounded by a beautiful and agreeable Light, with a child in her arms, dressed in a blue robe with stars, her hair hanging on her shoulders, three crowns on her head, sitting on a chair and saying, “My child, do not you Fear, I am the Mother of God” On this he threw himself into the ground to worship the child she held in her arms, thinking that it was Jesus Christ, but the Holy Virgin said to him: “My child, it is not my Son, Is the child God wants to give to France.”
Then Our Lady asked for three novenas from the Queen, and the son will be granted. Specifically, one novena prayed at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Another there at Our Lady of Victories. And the last at an unknown shrine called Our Lady of Graces.
The monk was perplexed. Mary said, “To spare any doubts, my child, to show you that I want the Queen to make three novenas to me, here is the same picture which is at Our Lady of Graces in Provence and the appearance of the church.”
The monk and his superiors still doubt, but in less than a week a baby’s cries awaken Fiacre. Again he sees Mary showing the child. Fiacre believes and begins the novenas for the queen on November 8. When the Queen is told, she too prays the novenas Our Lady requested in honor of her. Then King Louis orders Fiacre to find the sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces in Provence to pray the last novena there.
As an aside, the brother was named after a saint popular with the French, and it so happened that both the king and queen had devotion to St. Fiacre. Another providential connection.
Off to Cotignac
The trip to Cotignac near the southeastern tip of France was trying. When Brother Fiacre arrived, he was unsure if he found the right shrine. Again Our Lady had already given him the way to dispel doubts. Once he entered the chapel, he saw a painting being restored — the very same image the Blessed Mother had shown him when she appeared on November 3. It was the chapel she requested.
Fiacre finished the novena on December 5. Exactly nine months later, on September 5, 1638, their first child was born to King Louis and Queen Anne. They named him Louis-Dieudonné which means “God-given.”
The miracle is for both the royal couple and France, known as the Eldest Daughter of the Church, to have an heir in the baby who will become Louis XIV.
Overjoyed, dad Louis declared a national act of thanksgiving and consecration of all of France as soon as it became known Queen Anne was with child, and seven months before the birth of Louis-Dieudonné. In thanksgiving Louis XIII decreed:
“We declare that taking the very Holy and Glorious Virgin Mary as special Portectress of our kingdom, we particularly consecrate to her our own self, the state, our crown and our subjects. And we notify the said Archbishop of Paris [and] order him that every year on the feast of the Assumption he should commemorate our present declaration at high Mass. We similarly exhort all people that have a special devotion to the Virgin on that day to implore her protection that God will be served and revered in such a holy way that we and our subjects may finally reach the happy end for which we have all been created. Such is our wish.”
The consecration continued annually.
Before we return to Cotignac, there is one more providential connection. Louis XIII named Our Lady of Victories in Paris and had it built in thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He credited her intercession for his victory over Huguenots at La Rochelle which guaranteed the stability of the kingdom.
He laid the cornerstone in 1629 the day after the first Archbishop of Parish blessed the foundation on — December 8. Then celebrated as the feast of the Immaculate or the Sacred Conception of the Virgin Mary, that date would celebrate the Immaculate Conception after the 19th century dogma). On that same December date, Fiacre would begin the novena a few years later.
Back at Cotignac
Our Lady of Graces in Cotignac received royal visitors on February 21, 1660. Louis XIV, with his mother Anne, came to Cotignac specifically to give thanks for his birth. What a grateful monarch he was. The event proved the royal family was ever grateful for Mary’s intercession for them.
The year after Queen Anne died in 1666, Louis XIV, her Louis-Dieudonné, had a plaque placed in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces to honor his mother’s memory and reminding that he was given to the people by the vows Anne made. It remains there. Louis XIV would become the longest reigning of European monarchs — 72 years.
Just over 100 days after the royal visit in 1660, and two miles down the hillside from Our Lady of Graces, a royal member of the House of David appeared in Cotignac — St. Joseph.
With the members of the Holy Family appearing in such close proximity, from the beginning pilgrims to the sanctuary of Our Lady naturally walked the very short distance to the sanctuary of St. Joseph.
Just months later, in January 1661, local Bishop Giuseppe Zonga Ondedei combined both shrines under one name — Sanctuary of the Holy Family — so as to unite devotion to these two members of the Holy Family who God joined on earth.
Hard Times Turn Good
By 1789 the havoc the French Revolution wreaked reached the shrines. They were confiscated and dismantled, and the material sold. But during the nights three young sisters risked their lives to save what they could from the sanctuaries, stashing the painting and statues in secret in the village.
Years later when some justice was eventually restored, Christian families could buy back their land and rebuild the shrines, returning the sacred objects they preserved.
Today many people make several formal annual pilgrimages and informal visits to both sanctuaries.
As one of the priest there said in the documentary, Shrine of the Holy Family, “Special to Cotignac is that people come seeking God as communities…Our role in Cotignac is to confirm to the families that they are right to see themselves as domestic churches” — imitating the Holy Family. Something Joseph and Mary planned centuries ago.