In 1947, in the course of a week from Monday 8th to Sunday 14th December, Our Lady appeared to four children in the small town of L’Île-Bouchard, not far from the city of Tours in France.
In 2001, Archbishop Vingt-Trois of Tours issued an official decree recognising that pilgrims had encountered the grace of God at L’Île-Bouchard and encouraging further devotion there. This is not an explicit finding that the claimed apparition is true; but establishing that there are fruits of prayer without distorted devotions is a key step on the way to full Church recognition. For me, that was a good enough reason to visit the shrine last week.
What happened at L’Île-Bouchard? December 1947 was a time of crisis in France. It was only two years after the Nazi surrender, French Communists had become powerful, and the nation was in the grip of a general strike. On 8 December – the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – several important events occurred. A state funeral took place for the noted Catholic General Leclerc; the mystic Venerable Marthe Robin commented to a worried priest that “the Virgin Mary is going to save France by the prayers of little children”; and the sisters who ran the school in L’Île-Bouchard had completed a secret novena with a prayer of consecration to the Virgin Mary.
Monday 8 December
Jacqueline Aubry (12), her sister Jeanette (7) and their cousin Nicole Robin (10) were in the habit of visiting the local church, St Gilles, during the school lunch break. Although their parents were not practising Catholics, Jacqueline had learned the habit of prayer from an elderly neighbour, Mademoiselle Grandin. On this day, during their lunchtime prayers, the girls unexpectedly saw a silent image of the Virgin Mary with an angel kneeling beside her. Written below the image, in French, was the prayer which also appears on the Miraculous Medal: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The children went out to alert others – when their friend Laura Croizon (8) came in, she too saw the vision, but Laura’s elder sister (13) did not.
When they went back to school that afternoon, their claims of a vision received a cool reception from the teaching sisters. Jacqueline misinterpreted one teacher’s sarcastic comment as permission to return to the church, and so she rounded up the other three girls to return to St Gilles. The beautiful lady was already there in the same place, and this time she spoke: “Tell the little children to pray for France, for her need is great.” When asked her identity, she replied, “but of course, I am your Heavenly Mama.” The children asked the identity of the angel; for the only time in the whole series of apparitions, the angel spoke, saying “I am the angel Gabriel.”
The Virgin then bent down towards them, held out her right hand, and said “Give me your hands to kiss.” The girls were unused to such manners, and when Jacqueline offered her open palm, the Virgin turned it over before planting a kiss on her fingers. Nicole reached up, on tip-toes, to receive her kiss; Jacqueline then had to bodily lift up Laura and Jeanette, who were too short to reach the height of the apparition.
Finally, the lady asked the children to come back the same day at 5 pm and the following day at 1 pm – but since circumstances stopped the other children from being able to come, only Jacqueline was present at 5 pm, when Benediction was scheduled. Alone among the many worshippers in the church, she saw the Virgin in the same place – but the lady disappeared for the duration of Benediction itself.
Tuesday 9 December
The four children were all able to return to the church for 1 pm the following day. They received a vision which was similar, but different in detail. The Virgin’s hair no longer cascaded down her chest but was pulled back and hidden under the veil; the angel now knelt on the right, and the inscription on the rocks was different. This time, it was the title Our Lady had identified herself with at Lourdes – “I am the Immaculate Conception.” There was also a word written in gold letters across the Virgin’s chest, but partially obscured by her hands: “MA—–CAT”.
This time the Virgin, who had a rosary over her right arm, stretched out the hand holding the golden crucifix of her rosary, inviting the children to kiss the image of Jesus. As when invited to receive the Virgin’s kiss, Jacqueline and Nicole stretched up to do so and then Jacqueline lifted up the younger two. They then imitated the Virgin in making a very slow sign of the cross, lasting all of two minutes. The Virgin instructed them: “Pray for France, which in these days is in great danger.” Then she asked them to tell the parish priest to come at 2 o’clock, bringing “the children and a crowd to pray”.
The parish priest did not agree to this request, and so the children were in class at 2 pm, but were able to return to the church for 5 pm. This time the Virgin asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, and then through them asked the crowd present to approach and recite ten Hail Marys. Finally, she asked the children to come each day at 1 o’clock and blessed the crowd with another slow sign of the cross. It was on this day that the French communists called off their general strike.
Wednesday 10 December
Today, when the Virgin appeared, she first asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, after which they spontaneously prayed ten more Haily Marys and a Glory Be. Then the Virgin beckoned them forwards, sweetly and softly saying “Kiss my hand.” This the children did, Jacqueline lifting up the two little ones as before.
Jacqueline’s mother was present, and although she could not see the Virgin, through the children’s action she was aware that the Virgin was present. Madame Aubry implored her daughter: “Ask the Blessed Virgin to perform a miracle so that everyone will believe!” Jacqueline did ask but the lady replied: “I have not come here to perform miracles but to tell you to pray for France; but tomorrow you will see clearly and you won’t wear glasses anymore.” (Jacqueline not only wore thick glasses but had a chronic eye condition such that her eyes wept pus regularly.)
Thursday 11 December
On Thursday morning, Jacqueline awoke to find that her eyes had indeed been cured and she had no need of her daily lotion of hot water to remove the nightly crust. Not only that, she was no longer cross-eyed!
Again, today’s apparition began with the girls being asked sing the Hail Mary. The lady then asked them whether they prayed for sinners; since they were often led to pray this way by their parish priest, they affirmed that they did. Jacqueline asked whether the lady would cure many sick people; the Virgin did not give a direct answer but said “There will be happiness in families” and asked for another sung Hail Mary.
Friday 12 December
Today’s apparition took on a novel appearance: the Virgin was crowned by shining rays, each a foot long. Two narrow ones in the centre were intense blue; five broader ones fanned out on each side consecutively red, yellow, green, pink and brownish-red. The outer rays curved inwards, forming a shell shape. Today the virgin also held her hands lower so the word written in gold across her chest was clearly visible: MAGNIFICAT.
(The December 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would not have been part of the calendar in France at that time, but it is noteworthy that the colourfulness of the image revealed today echoes the beauty of the tilma of St Juan Diego.)
On this day, the Virgin Mary asked three times that the girls should sing the Hail Mary; then again she asked that they should kiss her hand. Once again, the girls affirmed that they did indeed pray for sinners. The Virgin responded: “Good! Above all, pray a lot for sinners,” and led the girls in a decade of the rosary.
In response to two requests for healings, first for a girl present the lady said: “If I don’t heal her here I will heal her elsewhere” (which indeed happened soon afterwards), then “I have not come here to perform miracles, but that you should pray for France.”
Saturday 13 December
By Saturday, crowds had started flocking to the church, and about 500 people were present. In the course of the apparition, Our Lady asked for four decades of the rosary. As onlookers who had fallen away from the habit of prayer began to respond, it seemed to the seers that Our Lady grew more joyful. Finally, she declared that the following day would be her last visit.
Sunday 14 December
On this final day, a crowd of about two thousand people had come and were crammed into every corner of the church. The children offered to the Virgin the flowers and messages they have been given by the people of the parish. In answer to one question about how we should console Our Lord for the suffering caused to him by sinners, the Virgin simply said: “Pray and make sacrifices.” After some decades of the rosary, she led the girls to make the Miraculous Medal invocation: “Pray for us who have recourse to you.” The Virgin then asked for the crowd to sing the Magnificat, and when that was done she asked for a third and then a fourth decade of the rosary, again prompting the same invocations. Finally, asking the girls once again whether they prayed for sinners, she invited the children (and all present) to extend their arms in the form of the Cross as they prayed the fifth decade of the rosary.
Before the Virgin Mary took her leave for the last time, she once again blessed the crowd with a very slow sign of the Cross, which the girls followed. As this took place, a ray of sunlight entered the church and illuminated the corner where the girls’ eyes were fixed. Many in the wintry church felt strangely warmed at that moment, and later it was confirmed that it was not physically possible for the winter sunlight to have followed that path in the natural course of things.
Affirming these Apparitions
Apart from Jacqueline’s persistent cure and the physically impossible ray of sunlight, two other features give credence to this account. In the natural order of things, it would not have been possible for the frail Jacqueline to lift the two young children as she did; and indeed she tried and failed when tested outside the context of an apparition. Also, on the later days, the priest and sisters in the parish took care to separate the children as soon as the apparitions were over, and yet their accounts tallied in detail, notably on the Friday when Our Lady wore her unprecedented resplendent crown.
There is nothing new in these messages, and this is part of their beauty. Mary echoes the call to pray for “us sinners” which she issued to St Catherine Labouré, and re-affirms her identity as the “Immaculate Conception” as she did to St Bernadette in Lourdes. If you visit the church of St Gilles today, you will find it hung with banners each containing one of Our Lady’s simple phrases – here on the right, “Do you pray for sinners?”
At that time of need in France, she asked simple children to pray for France. Each of us can pray for our own nation and its needs. She asked for prayers to be both spoken and sung – in the latter case, the Hail Mary and the Magnificat. (As I am travelling through France this month, I have noticed it is common practice for the last Hail Mary of each decade to be sung when the rosary is prayed in common.)
As an evangelist, Mary begins her encounter by building a bridge of trust – she honours the simple children by kissing their hands. Next, she leads them to Jesus, offering the crucifix for them to venerate. By this time, the girls are discovering that it is costly to be a seer among sceptical adults, but they persevere. They gain the confidence to ask questions, and Our Lady catechises them – in the face of the mystery of human suffering, they are promised only that “there will be happiness in families”. Ultimately the Mother of God is able to call the children – and those who will follow them – to the response she is looking for: acts of love for the Immaculate Conception by invoking her prayers for sinners.
Pilgrims are welcome to visit L’Île-Bouchard today, and indeed throughout 2017 the parish is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the apparitions. The parish is served by priests of the Emmanuel Community, and Mass is celebrated daily at 11.15 (there may be additional Masses at some times of year). Across the road from the church is a small information bureau where a video plays an hour-long interview with Jacqueline Aubry; this is currently only in French, although they hope to have an English version in 2018.
Jacqueline died of Alzheimer’s disease last year; her younger sister Jeanette died in 2001. Neither married. Both Laura and Nicole did marry; Laura died of diabetic complications on Christmas Eve 1999. At the time of writing, Nicole is still alive and living in Maine et Loire.