Tilly was a small town about fourteen miles south of the English Channel, lying between the bigger towns of Bayeux and Caen. There was a school of seventy students staffed by three nuns. In March, 1896, at about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, a young boy glanced out of one of the school’s windows opening onto a field to see a “beautiful lady” slowly descending from the sky. As the boy reported this, the other children and the teacher in the classroom rushed to the windows and all saw the same scene. In extreme wonderment, they watched the Lady move here and there – as if uncertain where to land. She finally positioned herself in the air near a big elm tree across the open field.
The seventy students and three nuns evacuated the school and raced across the field to see the “beautiful lady” up close. All of them clearly saw the apparition. The beautiful lady was within an oval-like aura of brilliant greens, reds, pinks, blues, and yellows which emitted “rays.” Inside of these rays was the “beautiful Lady.” Her dress appeared to have been “opulent and Turkish” in style, but it scintillated and changed colors. The Lady stood out in some resplendent and astonishing fashion and was life-size or slightly larger.
Not only had the school’s occupants all seen the descending apparition, but others in the area had also seen her arrival. Soon, there was “a great concourse of the devout and curious” filling up the field, all of whom witnessed the resplendent Lady, too. Most knelt in awe and began praying. They all assumed that this was the Blessed Virgin Mary. After a short time, the apparition vanished.
Blessed Mary did return at frequent intervals in the days thereafter, which made the usual conduct of school activities nearly impossible with these heavenly distractions! The appearances of the “beautiful lady” continued sporadically for about four years. These supernatural appearances submerged Tilly-sur-Seulles beneath an enormous and continuous crowd of pilgrims, reporters, devout and curious, and platoons of both religious and skeptical investigators.
Even on days when the Lady did not appear, crowds of 400 to 2,000 waited for her anyway. The field and nearby trees became a “forest of candles” and effigies of the Holy Mother. When Our Lady did appear, the crowds would swell into the thousands. Skeptics became convinced that these events “surpassed comprehension.” Investigators arriving to debunk the appearances would see her and then have to wrestle with their own disbelief. Witnessing her appearance with their own eyes undermined their initial convictions to doubt and disbelieve.
A large number of witnesses also described seeing other features – including saints, angels, demons, devils, and other assorted imagery which would revolve around the central apparition of the Virgin Mary. It was not realized at that time that these swirling figures corresponded to the apocalyptic visions reported by the two young visionaries at La Salette in 1846. The apparition and its accompanying phenomena usually occurred during broad daylight. But these horrible figures were soon thought of as “disquieting” and phantom-like. Some began gossiping about them as being diabolical.
Many observed some of the witnesses going into “ecstasies, trances, fits, and convulsions.” Their eyes would fix on the apparition and could not be distracted. They could not be jolted by pin pricks, burning candles touching their fingers, or slaps to their faces. Our Lady, asking for prayer, spoke through many of those in ecstasies. Some reported unintelligible languages from various angels, demons, and phantoms.
Two visionaries, Paul Guerard and Marie Martel, had much enthusiastic support by the faithful during their trances or ecstasies. Others witnessed “combat between angels and disgusting creatures.”
It is estimated that the original descent of the Blessed Virgin was witnessed by at least one hundred people. Up to one thousand had observed her prior to the addition of any other beings or imagery. Many miraculous cures were claimed. Yet, certain medical doctors and psychiatrists attempted to explain these supernatural events as either “communicable hysteria” or “mass insanity.” Neither term is viewed with any credibility in today’s field of psychiatry.
Although the Blessed Virgin did not directly warn of what was to come to this area of France in the future, it is commonly known that she frequently appears just before some upheaval, disaster, or deadly event. It is significant that just fourteen years later the broad area around Tilly-sur-Seulles was plunged into World War I. The area became an apocalyptic wasteland of fighting, trenches, mud, deadly gas weapons, insanity, slime, disease, and death – with thousands of rotting bodies and mass graves. This area around Tilly and north to the beaches of Normandy became another massive graveyard during World War II. Some of the most intense and bitter fighting occurred in this area.
No known official investigation by the Catholic Church has ever been conducted. No explanations could ever account for the supernatural visits. Skeptics and investigators were impressed by the events that they witnessed; no answers could ever be found.