Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. 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 is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate 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.
“I am Mary, the Mother of my very dear Son,” Our Lady answered the teenage shepherdess who had asked her name. The day was Aug. 29, 1664. The place was outside Laus, a small village in France’s southern Alps. The girl’s name was Benôite Rencurel.
Earlier, in May — while praying her favorite prayer, the Rosary — she had been directed to the place by a heavenly visitor who identified himself as St. Maurice. The saint told her to go to “the valley above Saint-Étienne. That is where you will see the Mother of God.”
Next day, Benôite did as directed and saw a woman with a child. The woman smiled at her. “Beautiful Lady!” Benôite called out. “What are you doing up there? Do you want to eat with me? I have some good bread which we can soften up at the fountain.” Thus began visions that would go on much of Benôite’s life.
And what did Our Lady have to tell her?
First, jump ahead to May 4, 2008.
“Here, as in Lourdes, as in La Salette, as in Fatima, we see Mary pursuing her mission to reveal her son and invite us to do all he tells us," Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, France told thousands of people during his homily at Mass in Laus that day.
The occasion marked the Church’s official approval of Our Lady’s many appearances to Benôite Rencurel nearly 350 years earlier, from 1664 through 1718.
This was the first apparition the Church in France approved since endorsing Lourdes in 1862. And the first Marian apparitions approved by the Vatican and Church in France in the 21st century.
With Vatican officials there, Bishop Jean-Michel de Falco Leandri of nearby Gap read the decree during Mass, mentioning how the visitations of Jesus and Mary were concerning “God's love for men, as well as his infinite mercy and his appeal for conversion.”
How did these apparitions begin over 300 years? What did Our Blessed Mother tell us through the shepherdess?
Benôite Rencurel was born on Sept. 16, 1647. Her father died when she was a young child, and the struggling family was very poor. She couldn’t read or write. She became a shepherdess of two flocks to help the family survive. Although she saw our Blessed Mother daily after that first appearance, it wasn’t until four months later that Our Lady told the girl her name.
During that time, an unusual incident happened. The woman employing Benôite did not believe the girl’s story of seeing the Lady and hid behind a rock to watch the youngster. But you can’t hide from the Blessed Mother. The employer didn’t see Our Lady but heard her tell Benôite that her employer’s soul was in danger, that she was sinning.
Tell her to do penance, Our Lady directed Benôite.
Hearing this, the badly shaken woman repented, returned to church and the sacraments and lived a holy Christian life. This incident revealed a major reason why the Blessed Mother came to this place. She had come for people’s conversion. Our Lady told the girl, Pray continuously for sinners.
When shortly after Mary directed Benôite to the small chapel then in Laus, she told her I have asked my Son for this place for the conversion of sinners and He has granted it to me.
We can think of her direction as a foundation for Lourdes where Our Lady told St. Bernadette what was needed: Penance, penance, penance. Pray for sinners.
And also for Fatima, where Our Lady in July told the children: Make sacrifices for sinners, and say often, especially while making a sacrifice: O Jesus, this is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for offences committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Our Blessed Mother wanted a large church built in Laus, and a residence for priests who would care for the pilgrims and penitents. Laus was over the hill from where Benôite was seeing Our Lady. Maps today call the area Saint-Etienne-le-Laus. But first came a setback, momentarily.
The vicar general of the diocese, Father Antoine Lambert, did not believe in the visions. He questioned Benôite, trying to get proof she was making everything up.
But he soon became nearly awestruck by the answer she gave him as our Blessed Mother had told her to. Father Lambert told the girl to pray to Our Lady and ask her to show him proof with a sign or miracle. Then he would then do all he could to “accomplish her will.”
The miracle Our Lady provided left no doubt. A crippled woman whose legs were immovably bent backwards to touch her body was at the chapel making a novena. Prominent doctors had declared her incurable. On the last day of the novena her legs unexplainable returned to normal, she walked into the chapel amid cries from the people of “Miracle!” Even Father Lambert who was saying Mass at the time began to cry. “Yes,” he said, “the hand of God is there!”
At once he gave permission to build the church Our Lady requested. That Sept. 18, 1665, four days after his request for a miracle, the diocese recognized the apparitions officially.
Healings both physical and moral were continuing. Our Blessed Mother instructed Benôite to have the sick take some oil from the sanctuary lamp, put it on themselves, and if they have recourse to her intercession and have faith, they will be healed.
It was more than physical healings why that Our Lady came to Laus. It was a foundation for what she was going to do and to ask at Lourdes, La Salette, and in a major way at Fatima. As the Catholic News Agency recorded, “Mary revealed herself in Laus as the reconciler and refuge of sinners.”
Then she had Benôite begin shepherding in a new way.
Benôite became a Dominican Tertiary, wore a veil, and people would call her Sister Benôite or Sister Benedicta. Our Lady told her God was giving her the gift of reading souls, much as what would later be given to Padre Pio, in order to help people to know their sins, remembered or forgotten, repent, confess in the sacrament of Penance, and return to God. Our Lady also wanted her to “to admonish women and girls about living lives of scandal, especially those who commit abortion, the unjust wealthy and the perverse,” as reported.
As Bishop de Falco Leandri would state it during his talk in May 2008, “Our Lady chose to address a simple shepherdess to open the way of penitence and conversion, to invite pilgrims to reconcile themselves with the world and with God.”
The prime manuscript of the time about Laus states: “It is Benôite who consoles everyone, gives courage to the confessors, warns those who do not dare to speak their sins, gives them the confessor which she judges proper for them… How many people have said that Laus is the refuge of sinners, where God inspires them to make good confessions, lifts the shame of those who do not dare to say, assisted by the opinions of Benôite who discovers to them all their interior, gives courage and time to look well, and good confessors who send them back very happy.”
But everything was not so easy, as later happened to Padre Pio.
For a decade beginning in 1669, Benôite had five visions Jesus — the suffering Jesus. In July 1673, Jesus told her one Friday: My daughter, I show myself in this state so that you can participate in my Passion. She received the stigmata and would suffer weekly for 15 years, except for a two-year hiatus when she was absorbed in duties related to building the church, later named a basilica.
Added suffering came after Father Lambert died. Some others with authority who weren’t fans of the apparitions put Benôite under what amounted to house arrest for 15 years. She was only allowed to attend Sunday Mass.
Finally, in 1712 the bishop overturned the unjust prohibitions, assigned an order of priests to take care of pilgrims, and in 1819 asked St. Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to take over running the shrine at Laus with his priests. He did through 1841. During that time another future saint — St. Peter Julian Eymard who founded the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament — prepared for his First Holy Communion for nine days at the Laus shrine.
After 54 years of regularly seeing the Blessed Mother, getting visits from her guardian angel too, and enduring years of suffering, Sister Benôite (Benedicta) died. On Christmas Day 1718 she received Communion. Then on Dec. 28, made her confession, asked to receive the last rites, said goodbye to those with her, kissed a crucifix, and died in the odor of sanctity. Many had confirmed that a celestial fragrance — a heavenly perfume unlike anything they ever experienced — also filled the church every time our Lady appeared to Benôite.
Blessed Pius IX named her “Servant of God” in 1872. Earlier, he had Mary, Our Lady of Laus, crowned. St. John Paul II restarted her cause for canonization in 1981. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared her Venerable in 2009.
At Laus, which get scores of pilgrims yearly but nowhere near the multitudes going to Lourdes and Fatima, Our Lady built the foundation of the messages of reconciliation with God, confession of sin, praying for sinners, and possibly very subtly, praying the Rosary since Benôite was a devotee of the Rosary. As later was Padre Pio. Both had the gift or reading souls. Early on our Blessed Mother also had Benôite tell the girls there to sing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin in the church every evening.
In a sense, Laus was a prelude to La Salette, Lourdes, then Fatima.
Today, Laus remains known as the Sanctuary of Reconciliation and proclaims, “Let yourself be reconciled.” It follows in what Our Lady directed Benôite into being — the messenger of reconciliation.
The shrine continues to make the sanctuary oil available, explaining, “Mary proposes to us an act of faith and trust in God with the help of this ordinary oil that burned before the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.” Through it we direct our requests to Jesus through the Virgin Mary. Anointing helps us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit “to receive, in response to our prayer, the visible or hidden graces of spiritual or physical healing that the Lord wants to grant us in His love. The sanctuary receives many testimonies from people claiming that they have been relieved in their pains, sometimes cured of their physical, moral, spiritual miseries, after having prayed and used oil from the sanctuary lamp.”
The healings spiritual and physical continue at Laus, as they do at Lourdes and Fatima. And spiritual healing continues in the confessionals closest to us.
Queen of Laus, kind and loving Mother, hear our pious pleas. Your son always hears your prayers, and you always hear your children. O pure Virgin, ceaselessly watch over our hearts from heaven. Let no dirt tarnish the heavenly whiteness. Be our support in virtue, all-powerful Virgin, and guide our feeble steps. If we fall, Compassionate Mother, kindly embrace us in your arms. Give us shelter under your wings when the storms burst with fury, spare us from cruel agony, and may the sinner repent with true remorse. Leave us not at our last hour, but let us sleep in peace at your maternal breast. And once awakening, drawing back the veil, we will see you in the splendor of heaven. Our Lady of Laus, Refuge of sinners, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Amen