Sunday 26 June 2011

Notre Dame de l'Agenouillade

Close to where we live for part of the year in France is a little-known Marian shrine devoted to an apparition of Our Lady and a miracle worked through her intersession.

Interior of N.D. de l'Agenouillade, June 2011

The ancient town of Agde (founded by Phocéen traders (ancient Greeks) over 2600 years ago) is built on and of volcanic basalt: it was the striking appearance of this rock that reputedly lead Marco Polo to refer to this then-important seaport as the "Black Pearl of the Mediterranean" - a label still loved by the local tourist board.

Renovated interior - the sanctuary

Around the year 456 the Sanctuary of Notre Dame du Grau, established by the hermit Saint Sever (originally from Syria) was threatened by tumultuous rains which caused the Herault to burst its banks. A strong easterly sea wind meant that sea-water was being forced up-river and compounding the flooding. Just to complicate things, an earthquake happened at the same time (although geologically stable now, in the early Christian era tremors were not uncommon because of the volcanic makeup of the area), creating tidal waves and increasing the terror of the agathois and the monks living in the monastic community established by Saint Sever at the Grau.

Exterior of Notre Dame de l'Agenouillade, Grau d'Agde

As the waters rose, a brave un-named monk from the sanctuary of Notre Dame du Grau knelt and prayed to God, begging for His mercy through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Looking up, he saw Our Lady kneeling in prayer on a rock that was still visible above the churning waters, joining her prayers with those of her servant. The waters stopped rising at her feet, and the storm abated. 

The grille covering the rock with the imprint of our Lady's knee

When the waters had receeded the monk found the indentation of Our Blessed Mother's knees in the rock where she had been seen kneeling ("a genouillade" hence "Notre Dame de l'Angenouillade" - literally: "Our Lady of the Kneeling"). The imprinted stone was placed in a chapel, which serves as a shrine, built by Henri de Montmorency in 1583. He also built a monastary and a church which were entrusted to the Capuchin Order. The shrine was, apparently, a pilgrim's stage en-route to Compostella, but I can't find any modern source to confirm this.

The rock on which Our Lady appeared (?)

There is a statue of Our Lady outside the chapel on a large rock which I think is supposed to be the original  site of the apparition, however it's been really badly - garishly - painted ("renovated" by the municipality) and is poorly signed if it is, in fact, the actual site of the apparition. 

An old postcard of the rock of the apparition - with a mother and pram in the foreground!

Chapel/sanctuary pre-renovation - early 20th C

Postcard of N.D. de l'Agenouillade, dated February 1914, sent from Beziers

I have some old photographs of  Notre Dame de l'Agenouillade from before it was "renovated" by the state (my photos, at top of post). Personally, I think it looked better beforehand. Mass is still said here occasionally in the summer. The shrine, which not long ago was in a rural no-mans-land between Agde and the Grau d'Agde is now surrounded by villas and apartment buildings. Despite this, it still retains a cool quietness and an inescapable sense that one is in a sacred space. I like to think that in the same way that our Our Lady joined in prayer with the young monk as the dangerous waters rose, so today she listens to her children in that quiet place, and joins her prayer to our petitions.

Notre Dame de l'Agenouillade, priez pour nous!

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