“Our Lady of Laus”
LAUS, FRANCE (1664-1718)
At the foot of the Alps in southern France is the village of Laus. In 1666 the hamlet held twenty households, scattered in little huts. The inhabitants had built a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation. A humble, unschooled shepherdess, Benoite Rencurel, was born into extreme poverty – complicated by the death of her father when she was only seven years old. Benoite was protective of her mother, who trained them well in religious prayers, while Benoite had to take a job as a shepherdess for two different masters to help support the family.
In May of 1664, 17-year old Benoite was watching her flock of sheep while praying the Rosary. Suddenly, an old man, clothed in the vestments of a bishop of the early Church, approached her and asked her what she was doing in this place. She replied that she was tending her sheep, praying, and looking for water. He offered to get her some water and went to a well that she had not seen before.
B: “You’re so beautiful! Are you an Angel, or Jesus?”
M: “I am Maurice, to whom the nearby chapel is dedicated. My daughter, do not come back to this place. It is part of a different territory, and the guards would take your flock if they found it here. Go to the valley above Saint-Etienne. That is where you will see the Mother of God.”
B: “But Sir, She is in Heaven. How can I see Her there?”
M: “Yes, She is in Heaven – and on earth, too, when She wants.”
Very early the next morning, Benoite led her flock quickly to the designated area in the Valley of Kilns. As Benoite arrived in front of a small grotto on that site, a lady of incomparable beauty appeared, holding the hand of an equally beautiful child. Despite St. Maurice’s prediction, the naïve shepherd girl just could not believe that she was actually in the presence of the Mother of God.
“Lovely lady, what are you doing here? Did you come to buy some plaster? (local product) Would you be so kind as to lend us this child? He would delight us all!”
The beautiful lady just smiled without answering. Benoite invited her to eat something with her. She just smiled again. She would go in and out of the cavity in the rock grotto, approaching at times, moving away at other times from Benoite. When evening came, she took the child in her arms, entered the grotto and disappeared.
Every day for the next four months, Benoite would come to this place and enjoy the beautiful lady’s presence. She never dared to ask who she was, but the villagers began to seriously wonder if it could be the Virgin Mary – just from the amazing transformation in the face, mood, and spirit of this young shepherdess. After two months of silence, Mary finally spoke – in order to teach, test, and encourage her. One day, Mary invited Benoite to rest by her side and to peacefully fall asleep on the hem of the Virgin’s mantle.
She taught Benoite the Litany of Loreto, and then asked her to teach it to the girls of Saint-Etienne and go with them to sing it in church every evening. Mary displayed the sweetness and patience of a loving mother in dealing with Benoite’s stubbornness and frequent impatience. She told Benoite that she wanted her role to be that of working for the conversion of sinners through prayer, sacrifice, and exhortation. Mary said that God had granted Benoite the “charism of reading in hearts.” This means that she could discern the good or bad condition of one’s soul. She would work with sinners to help them admit to and confess their issues.
Benoite’s employer, Mrs. Rolland – a woman who had no interest whatsoever in religion, wanted to see for herself what was going on at the site of these apparitions. One day before dawn Mrs. Rolland entered the grotto and hid behind a rock. Shortly afterwards, Benoite arrived and Mary appeared to her.
“Your mistress is over there, hiding behind the rock. Tell her not to curse with the name of Jesus, because if she keeps it up, there will be no paradise for her. Her conscience is in a very bad state; she should do penance.”
Mrs. Rolland heard every word clearly — and tearfully promised to amend her ways – which she did, faithfully, after that day.
News of these apparitions spread quickly; everybody was talking about them. Many believed in them; others treated Benoite as a “false mystic.” Francois Grimaud, the magistrate of Avancon Valley and a good Catholic and man of integrity, decided to conduct an investigation. After a serious examination, he concluded that Benoite was not deceiving anyone, nor was she an impostor, or was she mentally ill. But, since Benoite had never asked the identity of the beautiful lady, the magistrate requested that Benoite at least ask her who she really is.
“My good Lady, I and all the people in this place are hard put to know who You are. Might You not be the Mother of our good God? Please be so kind as to tell me, and we will build a chapel here to honor You.”
“I am Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is no need to build anything here because I have chosen a more pleasant spot. You will not see me here anymore, nor for some time.”
Benoite did not see Mary for an entire month and became profoundly depressed. But on September 29, 1664, halfway up the hill that leads to Laus, on the other side of a stream, Benoite caught sight of the Virgin. Crossing the stream, she threw herself at Her feet.
“Oh, good Mother! Why did you deprive me of the joy of seeing you for so long?”
“From now on, you will only see me in the chapel that is in Laus.”
The little chapel in Laus was nothing more than a small, thatch-roofed structure just over two meters square. Its plaster altar only had ornaments of two wooden candlesticks and a pewter ciborium. The chapel appeared to look like all the other small houses in the village, so Benoite had a terrible time the next day trying to locate it in a town she had never travelled to. She stopped at the entrance to every poor dwelling, trying to detect that “sweet fragrance” that she associated with the Blessed Virgin. Finally, she detected the fragrance at a doorway where the door had been left ajar. Inside, she found the beautiful Lady standing on the dust-covered altar.
“My daughter, you have searched diligently for Me, and you should not have wept. Even so, you pleased Me by not being impatient.”
“Honorable Lady,” Benoite replied, “would you like me to spread my apron under Your feet? It is very white.”
“No, … soon nothing will be lacking here – neither vestments nor altar linens nor candles. I want a large church built on this spot, along with a building for a few resident priests. The church will be built in honor of my dear Son and Myself. Here, many sinners will be converted. I will appear to you often here.”
Benoite: “Build a church? There’s no money for that here!”
“Do not worry. When the time comes to build, you will find all that you need, and it will not be long. The pennies of the poor will provide for everything. Nothing will be lacking.”
Benoite travelled the four kilometers to Laus every day, even through the entire winter, praying as Mary instructed for the conversion of sinners. In 1665, Mary asked her to stop tending her flocks of sheep in order to devote herself to her mission.
“I asked My Son for Laus for the conversion of sinners, and He granted it to Me.”
As news of the continuing apparitions spread, the number of visitors to Laus increased. Graces and blessings poured down upon souls; people came by the hundreds and then thousands to pray in the poor little chapel. Cures of all kinds abounded, and sinners were converted in great numbers. By March 25, 1665, an immense crowd had come to the once-deserted chapel. On May 3, 1665, thirty-five parishes converged in a ceremonial procession, and then several priests heard many confessions. Although the Catholic authorities had not pronounced any decision regarding these apparitions, they did permit Mass to be held at the chapel.
That is when the Vicar General, Rev. Pierre Gaillard, entered the scene. Out of curiosity he arrived in August of 1665 and asked for graces. He obtained such great graces there that he was immediately convinced of the authenticity of the apparitions. But Laus was not in his diocese, so he wrote to the Vicar General of the Diocese of Embrun, Father Antoine Lambert, and suggested he make an official inquiry. Father Lambert was unsympathetic and convinced that Benoite’s apparitions were diabolical. He arrived at Laus on September 14, 1665 to put an end to “this sorcery” by proving Benoite to be a fake and shut down the chapel.
Benoite became frightened and wanted to run away, but Mary intervened:
“No, my daughter, you must not run away. You must remain, for you must do justice to churchmen. They will question you one by one and try to catch you with your own words. But do not be afraid. Tell the Vicar General that he can very well make God come down from Heaven by the power he received when he became a priest, but he has no commands to give the Mother of God.”
Benoite remained unruffled during the tricky interrogation, answering him with simplicity and calm assurance. But Father Lambert already had his mind made up.
“It is my conviction, as it is of everyone with any common sense, that your visions are false. Consequently, I am going to close down this chapel and prohibit the devotion.”
Benoite: “Sire, although you command God each morning and make Him come down to the altar by the power you received when you became a priest, you have no commands to give His holy Mother, who does as She pleases here.”
(Impressed by her words:) “Well, if what people are saying is true, then pray to Her to show me the truth by a sign or miracle, and I will do all that I can to accomplish Her will. But, once again, be careful that these not be illusions and effects of your imagination to delude the people, or I will punish you severely to undeceive those who believe you. I will stamp out abuses with every means in my power.”
Heavy rains prevented the Vicar from leaving too quickly, delaying his departure for two days. A well-known cripple in the area, Catherine Vial, was praying a novena with her mother at the chapel. Her nerve contraction disorder was declared incurable by two eminent surgeons. Around midnight of the last day of her novena, she suddenly felt her legs relax, and she was able to walk. The next morning she entered the chapel under her own power, totally cured, as the Vicar General was saying Mass. Quite a stir was created as many shouted, “Miracle, miracle!” Moved to tears, Father Lambert had a hard time finishing Mass. The Vicar General declared,
“There is something extraordinary occurring in that chapel. Yes, the hand of God is here!”
Although there were no resources at all, construction of a much-needed, larger church was undertaken with great enthusiasm. It was the poor who took up the challenge. Many of the pilgrims as well as the local people would carry one or more stones from the streams to the construction site. Thanks to Father Gaillard’s tenacity, the construction was built according to the indications Our Lady had given to Benoite. On October 7, 1666, Father Gaillard laid the first stone of the building at the Feast of the Holy Rosary. At the same occasion Benoite became a Dominican Tertiary.
Within four years, the church was completed. The hands of the poor had gathered its materials; donations had dug its foundations. The earliest historians of Laus are unanimous in reporting the sweet, heavenly fragrance of the place. A great number of people attested to the strong fragrances coming from the church. It was so intense that it spread from the church all over the valley. Judge Francois Grimaud claimed,
“During the Easter season of 1666, I smelled a very sweet fragrance for around seven minutes. I had never smelled anything like it in my life, and it gave me such deep satisfaction that I was enraptured.”
From March 24th until the end of May, 1690, the Laus church was so pervaded with this fragrance that all the pilgrims attested to it. This phenomenon is still experienced today. To avoid any possibility or claim of deception, flowers are not usually allowed at the shrine. The manuscripts of Laus report:
“Every time the Blessed Virgin honored her with Her visit, people smelled a heavenly fragrance that pervaded the entire church. Sometimes the shepherd girl’s clothing was deeply permeated with the heavenly scent for up to eight days. These supernatural fragrances were so sweet and delightful that they uplifted many souls.”
One day in the winter of 1665, Benoite was advised by the Virgin Mary to invite those with illnesses to take oil from the lamp in the chapel and apply it to themselves, and if they have recourse to Her intercession and have faith, they will be healed. Physical and moral cures were granted in great number by means of the oil applied with faith.
Mary appeared to Benoite at least once a month for 54 years! The Virgin Mary gave Benoite the exceptional privilege of reading onto souls. She could “see consciences the way we see in a mirror, all at once.” She revealed faults, grievous and lesser sins, hidden motives, hypocrisy, and errors often committed unconsciously. She would even take away from the Communion rail those people who were not in the state of grace. She would often have to share her painful observations, but her kindness and compassion generally led to grateful responses.
To priests, she revealed their indiscretion, their lack of prudence in their manner of questioning penitents, their neglectful behavior, and their grudges. She would see priests at the altar either shining with light or tarnished, according to the state of their conscience. She would warn them if they appeared “tarnished.” A young priest claimed, “You cannot be in that chapel without trembling if your conscience is not clear.”
Mary counseled and corrected Benoite closely in her mission:
“Take heart, My daughter! Have patience. Do your duty cheerfully. Bear no hatred towards the enemies of Laus. Do not be troubled and sick over it if people do not profit from your advice. Do not be disturbed by temptations, visible or invisible spirits, or temporal affairs. Strive never to forsake the presence of God, for whoever has any faith will not dare to offend Him.”
On Friday, July 7, 1673, a vision of the bleeding Christ on the cross was the beginning of a weekly “mystical crucifixion” that started on Thursday evening and ended on Saturday morning. This lasted every week for 15 years!
Politics and personalities brought turmoil, controversy, persecution, and threats to close the church over some 20 years. But Benoite always remained faithful until her death on December 28, 1718. (Approved by the Church: May 4, 2008.)