It is the darkest hour of the War of 1870. Prussian armies have invaded a large part of France, and the nation is in complete disarray. On the morning of January 17, 1871, Prussian troops are at the outskirts of Laval in the district of Mayenne. The city is preparing to pay the heavy military assessment levied against it: three million francs in gold. "The rout of fleeing soldiers is unimaginable. They are deaf to the command of officers. Two of them have been shot down in their tracks, but this example has had no effect on the others. In the 39 years that I have been in the service, never have I found myself in such a distressing situation," writes the Commander of the 16th Corps.
A Sign of Hope
Toward evening on January 17, Pontmain, a small town in the north of Mayenne, lies under a blanket of snow. People are anxious, but everybody is going about work as usual. In a barn in the middle of town two boys, Eugene and Joseph Barbedette, are helping their father pound stalks to feed to the horses. Some minutes before six o'clock in the evening, taking advantage of a break from work, Eugene leaves the barn and sees in the sky a "Lady" dressed in a dark-blue robe sprinkled with stars. She spreads her lowered hands in a gesture of welcome and smiles on him. Joseph comes along a few moments later and also sees the Lady. But the father of the boys sees nothing. Undaunted, they call their mother, who also fails to see anything even after going back to the house for her eyeglasses. There is nothing to it, declare the parents, and the boys are to get on with work and then come in for supper. After a quick meal, the boys still see the beautiful Lady, so the Sisters of the school are called. Again, they see nothing. But two little girls with them do see the beautiful Lady and describe the star-studded blue robe, the dark veil, and the crown of gold.
Evening of Prayer
The town now gathers around the two small boys. Father Guérin, pastor of Pontmain for 35 years, is called and there, in the snow, a vigil of prayer ensues, a veritable dialogue with the Virgin. While the people are praying, the apparition grows and is covered and surrounded with stars. A large blue oval with four candles attached encloses it. The people kneel, some in the snow, some in the barn, whose small door is open. Sister Mary Edward, kneeling at the door, leads the Rosary. The Lady becomes more beautiful and increases in size as prayer continues. The increase is harmoniously proportioned. The blue oval expands accordingly, and the stars surrounding the apparition seem to move aside to make way for the oval, ranging themselves two by two at the feet of the Lady. Those which spangle her robe multiply and the dark blue of the robe brightens.
Message of Hope
After recitation of the Rosary, the people sing the Magnificat "in the sonorous tone of the Bretons." A white banner then appears on which large letters of gold slowly form. The two small boys try to decipher them while prayer goes on. After some moments, they can read:
"PRAY, MY CHILDREN. GOD WILL ANSWER BEFORE LONG. MY SON LETS HIMSELF BE MOVED."
The message produces a strong emotional reaction in the crowd. After a momentary silence the pastor suggests they sing the hymn "Mother of Hope." The children leap for joy and clap their hands while repeating: "SEE HOW SHE SMILES! OH, HOW BEAUTIFUL SHE IS!" At the end of the hymn the banner bearing the inscription vanishes.
Sign of the Cross
The prayer of the people takes a penitential turn with the singing of the hymn: "Gentle Jesus, Pardon now our penitent hearts..." A sadness appears in the Virgin and is reflected in the children. A large red crucifix is then seen, surmounted by a placard bearing in beautiful red letters the name: JESUS CHRIST. The Virgin presents the crucifix to the children. The sadness seen in her makes a deep impression on Joseph. Later he will write:
"Her sadness was more than anyone can imagine. I saw my mother overwhelmed with grief when, some months later, my father died. You know what such grief in a mother's face does to the heart of a child. But, as I remember, what instinctively came to mind was the sadness of the Most Blessed Virgin, which must have been the sadness of the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross that bore her dying Son."
"It's All Over ..."
While all this is happening, the crowd continues to pray. Some moments later the red crucifix vanishes and the Virgin resumes her initial posture, arms extended downward. A small white Cross appears on each of her shoulders. The Lady smiles once more. At the suggestion of the pastor evening prayer is begun. People kneel where they happen to be, in the barn or in the snow. A large white veil appears at the feet of the Virgin, slowly lifts and gradually enshrouds her. When evening prayer is finished, the apparition vanishes. "IT'S ALL OVER," declare the two small boys. The time is about nine o'clock in the evening and everybody leaves for home.
This clear manifestation of the Mother of God tells us of her Son and renews our hope. There is no need to add anything, except perhaps to say that we ought to receive the message of Pontmain with the same joy and simplicity of soul as these villagers. Without fanfare or extraordinary demonstration, for two hours and more they prayed and listened to what the message meant for them.
Source: Dictionary of Mary, (N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1985).
The story of Mary at Pontmain, France is available on video in our catalogue department. It can be purchased individually, or with two other videos in the set called The Woman Clothed With the Sun.