The Franco-Prussian War (War of 1870) was the culmination of years of tension between the two nations, which finally came to a head on 19 July 1870, when Emperor Napoleon III of the second Empire declared war against Prussia. From the first days of the war, defeat followed defeat. By January 1871, Paris was under siege, two-thirds of the country was in the power of the Prussians, and they were advancing.
The apparition is said to have occurred at the height of the Franco-Prussian War. Pontmain, a hamlet of about 500 inhabitants, lay between the oncoming Prussian army and the city of Laval. The Barbadette family consisted of father César, his wife, Victoire, with their two sons Joseph and Eugène, aged ten and twelve, and another older boy who was away in the army. On the evening of 17 January 1871, the two boys were helping their father in the barn when the elder, Eugène, walked over towards the door to look out. As he gazed at the star studded sky he suddenly he saw an apparition of a beautiful woman smiling at him; she was wearing a blue gown covered with golden stars, and a black veil under a golden crown.
His father, brother, and a neighbour came out to look and Joseph immediately said he too could see the apparition although the adults saw nothing. The mother, Victoire, came out but she too could see nothing. The boys’ parents could not see what their children were seeing that night and called for Sister Vitaline, the local school teacher. She, like the boys’ parents, could also not see the apparition, and called for two girls, Françoise Richer and Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, aged nine and eleven. Sister Vitaline suggested that perhaps Our Lady was visible only to the children. Without any knowledge of the apparition, these two girls looked into the night sky and began describing Our Lady in the same exact detail as the Barbedette boys had described.
A crowd gathered to pray as word quickly spread among the anxious villagers. Children saw the beautiful Lady, and gleefully pointed up to her. Adults, however, only saw three stars forming a triangle As they prayed the Rosary, the children saw the garment’s stars multiply until it was almost entirely gold. Next, the children saw a banner unfurl beneath the Lady. Slowly, a message appeared: But pray, my children. God will hear you in time. My Son allows Himself to be touched.” Upon hearing the message read aloud, the crowd spontaneously began the hymn “Mother of Hope”. As they sang, Our Lady laughed and joined in the singing.
The children squealed with delight as her hands kept time with the music. When the crowd began “My Sweet Jesus,” her expression changed to profound sadness and a red crucifix appeared in her hands, with the words “Jesus Christ” above it. Her eyes mournfully contemplated the cross during the hymn. As the people sang the “Ave Maris Stella,” the cross vanished and her smile returned, though with a touch of melancholy. Two small white crosses then appeared on her shoulders before Our Lady disappeared behind a cloud. As the night prayers came to a close, the apparition ended. It was about nine o’clock. The Apparition ended after lasting about three hours.
Years later, Joseph Barbadette, who later afterwards became a priest of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate recounted:
She was young and tall of stature, clad in a garment of deep blue, … Her dress was covered with brilliant gold stars. The sleeves were ample and long. She wore slippers of the same blue as the dress, ornamented with gold bows. On the head was a black veil half covering the forehead, concealing the hair and ears, and falling over the shoulders. Above this was a crown resembling a diadem, higher in front than elsewhere, and widening out at the sides. A red line encircled the crown at the middle. Her hands were small and extended toward us as in the ‘miraculous medal.’ Her face had the most exquisite delicacy and a smile of ineffable sweetness. The eyes, of unutterable tenderness, were fixed on us. Like a true mother, she seemed happier in looking at us than we in contemplating.
After the Apparition That same evening the Prussian forces inexplicably abandoned their advance. General Von Schmidt of the Prussian Army who was about to move on the city of Laval towards Pont-Main, received orders from his Commander not to take the city.On the evening of the ever-memorable 17 January 1871, the Commander of the Prussian forces, having taken up his quarters at the archiepiscopal palace of Le Mans, told Msgr. Fillion, Bishop of that diocese: “By this time my troops are at Laval”. On the same evening, the Prussian troops in sight of Laval stopped at half-past five o’clock, about the time when the Apparition first appeared above Pont-Main, a few miles off. General Schmidt is reported to have said on the morning of the 18th: “We cannot go farther. Yonder, in the direction of Brittany, there is an invisible ‘Madonna‘ barring the way.”The sudden stopping of the Prussian forces in sight of Laval, and their retirement the following morning, meant, together with the saving of Brittany, the turning back of the tide of conquering soldiery from that part of France. The war was practically at an end. On 23 January 1871, the long-hoped for Armistice was signed. Soon all the thirty-eight conscripted men and boys returned home unscathed.
After that the devotion to the Blessed Virgin under the title of that of Notre Dame d’ Esperance de Pont-Main, Our Lady of Hope of Pont-Main, was authorized by the ecclesiastical authorities, and the confraternity of that name has been extended all over the world.
After the apparition of Our Lady of Hope on January 17, 1871, pilgrims made up of both the clergy and the laity came to Pont-Main. At the same time, inquiries and investigations were made about the apparition; the visionary children were submitted to various intense interrogations. Finally, on the Feast of the Purification, February 2, 1872, Msgr. Wicart, Bishop of Laval, issued a pastoral letter giving a canonical judgment on the apparition. Thus, the veneration of Our Lady of Hope of Pont-Main was given official Church recognition and approval.
Joseph Barbadette became a priest of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate; his brother Eùgene became a secular priest. He was assisted by one of the girls who had seen Mary as his housekeeper, and the other, Jeanne-Marie Lebossé, became a nun.
In May 1872, Bishop Wicart authorized the construction of a sanctuary, which was consecrated in October 1900. In 1905 Pope Pius X elevated the Sanctuary to the status of a basilica.
Pope Pius XI gave a final decision regarding the mass and office in honor of Our Lady of Hope of Pont-Main. A final papal honor was given to Our Lady of Hope on July 16, 1932 by Cardinal Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, by passing a decree from the Chapter of St. Peter’s Basilica that the statue of the Blessed Lady, Mother of Hope, be solemnly honored with the crown of gold. The Lady then was crowned in the presence of archbishop, bishops, priests and the laity by Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris. The coronation took place on July 24, 1934.
At Pontmain, it was a matter of a message of prayer, very simple in the dramatic circumstances of war and invasion. At Pontmain, Mary is a sign of hope in the midst of war. A place of pilgrimage, it attracts annually around 200,000 drawn from among the people of the region, with some international pilgrimages, especially from Germany.
Notre-Dame-de-Pontmain, Quebec is a village in Canada that was named after the apparition. Our Lady of Hope is a Roman Catholic Parish of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie located in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. There is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Hope of Pontmain at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Funds for this chapel were donated by Bob Hope and his wife Dolores.
The statue of Our Lady of Hope of America was sculpted by a well-known local artist/sculptor, Francois LePelch. He has a life-long devotion to Mary. These roots go deep into Francois’ family, back to when his father was healed of an incurable form of TB at Lourdes. Francois, too, had experienced the healing power of God. In gratitude he and his whole family made a trip to Lourdes and there he was over come with love. “I couldn’t stop crying as we rode the train into the tiny town of Lourdes; joy and peace filled my being.” On his return to the US he felt an urge to go back to work carving a tree, which he had found at his son’s Virginia property shortly before his illness. Francois completed the statue, standing 52 inches high and weighing 88 pounds, but the hands eluded him. He could not see to complete the prying hands so often seen, so he and his wife prayed to Mary for more direction. When the name, “Our Lady of Hope of America” came through loud and clear, Francois’ wife felt directed to a book containing a picture of “Our Lady of Hope” with hands c.htming a cross. Those are the hands he sculpted. The message, which Mary seems to want to convey is one of deep concern, or as Francois puts it, “Please my children, come to your senses. My Son is very unhappy. A change must be made…The next three years are crucial…I come to you with words such as I spoke at Cana to do whatever my Son tells you to do.” The statue was blessed by the Pope on December 8, 1996. The hope is that the statue and the over 100 sister statues now making their pilgrimages throughout France as part of a lay response to the Pope’s encyclical will indeed bring a sense of Our Lady’s sweetness and love, and with that, deep spiritual renewal.