It was so good to return to this luminous chapel on the Rue du Bac on the Left Bank near the Rue du Sevres where Catherine Laboure is venerated for her visions of the Virgin Mary in 1830.
We entered through a porte-cochere, followed a short drive and stepped into the large chapel. It is a relatively modern, three-nave, galleried space with a domed chancel. The walls glitter with pale blue-and-white mosaics, the apsidal arch is frescoed in pale blues, and the vaults float with light. The Sacrament is reserved on the high altar, and to the right is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Catherine Labouré in July of 1830. Below the image lies Catherine’s incorrupt, undecayed, body. In Offerings, my character, Rachelle DuPres, enters the chapel and reads the following leaflet:
On July 19, 1830, the feast day of Saint Vincent de Paul and six days before the streets of Paris were barricaded by the July Revolution, the Virgin Mary appeared to twenty-four-year-old Catherine Labouré.
Catherine, one of ten children born to a poor farming family in Burgundy, had joined Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity. One night, three months after she arrived at the motherhouse on the Rue du Bac, an angel-child led her to the chapel. There, Mary appeared to her and predicted terrible times for France. She wore a white robe and held a globe representing the world.
She instructed Catherine to have medals made of a certain design with the words O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you. The Blessed Virgin promised graces to those who wore her medals and to those who prayed before her image in the chapel.
Catherine told her confessor and urged him to have the medals cast. The archbishop agreed, seeing no harm. She told no one else about the visions until her deathbed confession in 1876, forty years later. Decades after her death, the body of this “Saint of Silence” was found to be incorrupt, untouched by time.
We entered the chapel as Rachelle did in my novel. It was just as I had recalled and described. While there were numerous pilgrims kneeling in the pews and at the railing before the glass sarcophagus, the total silence added to the ethereal sense of the color and light. Folks stepped quietly and carefully, to honor this “Saint of Silence.”
I have been here other times when a Mass was celebrated and the singing led by the nuns was joyous and lilting, a community of happiness. We bring our sorrows and our worries, our sickness and our hurts. We give thanks for prayers answered and blessings received. We repent our wrongdoings, our not-doings, our restrained efforts at love, and in the silence, in the floating light, it is as though the Holy Spirit weaves among us. It is as though angels, invisible doves, fly above, flapping the air with their wings.
I gazed through the glass wall of the coffin to the peaceful face, the body draped in her black-and-white habit of the Sisters of Charity. This place, I thought, was indeed a place not only of charity in its giving to the poor, but of Saint Paul’s caritas, of love, probably the greatest gift of all: The love of God weaving among us.
We stepped outside the glimmering space to the shaded driveway and walked silently out to the busy Rue du Bac where shoppers rushed in and out of the Bon Marche Department Store, and taxis screeched around the corners. I didn’t mind the noise and confusion. I carried the silence and the light into the life of Paris.