One of the more popular tourist areas of France, Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azur is known for its lavender fields and majestic Southern Alps. It also to here that tradition tells us that Mary Magdalene arrived.
The small town of Cotignac is perhaps less well-known, yet it is the site of apparitions of two members of the Holy Family: Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary. This one of the few times that both Joseph and Mary manifested themselves together in an apparition.
About the apparition of Our Lady of Graces:
the story dates from August of 1519, when a devout Catholic woodcutter named Jean de la Baume was about to begin his work day, starting in prayer as was his custom. After kneeling in prayer he arose and saw an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary appear. She was reportedly standing on a crescent moon with the Christ Child in her arms. Accompanying here were St. Michael the Archangel, Saint Bernard and Saint Catherine the Martyr.
Our Lady told Jean that she wished a church be built here in her honor under the name of Our Lady of Graces and that the clergy and Consuls of Cotignac should come here on pilgrimage. Jean, somewhat unsure of what he had just witnessed, decided to do nothing and tell no one.
The next day he was greeted with the same vision, but this time he did not hesitate but went to tell the villagers and the local clergy. A chapel was built on the site of the apparitions that was later replaced with a larger building in 1537. The local clergy were unable to attend to all the pilgrims coming here so in 1586 a community of priests came here to staff the shrine.
But the story does not end here but reaches its highlight during the reign of King Henry XIII about a century later. The King was married to Anne of Austria and had been unable to father an heir to the throne. The queen prayed constantly and on October 27, 1637 her prayers began to be answered.
On this day religious named Brother Fiacre was praying at Our Lady of Victories in Paris had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which she told him that the Queen would receive the grace of conceiving a child if the people said three Novenas for her. These three were to be said at Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Graces in Provence. He had actually had this same vision two years earlier, but ignored it. This time he took action and told his superiors.
Of course such a claim would be received with some skepticism but six days later came proof of the apparition. On that day Brother Fiacre was drawn to the sound of a crying child while he was in prayer and was graced with an appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She told him that the baby she held in her arms was the Prince that God wanted to give to France. Two hours later she appeared to him again and showed him a picture that was a likeness of the one in Our Lady of Graces in Provence. Although Brother Fiacre had never been to Our Lady of Graces and never seen the image, there were other brothers who had been there and affirmed that his description was accurate.
Brother Fiacre began the novenas on November 8th and completed them on December 5th. Some nine months later, on September 5, 1638 the Queen bore her first son. He was given the name Louis Dieudonne (God-given).
About the apparition of Saint Joseph:
There are few recorded instances of apparitions of Saint Joseph and perhaps none as interesting as this one. It occurred in the exceptionally hot summer of 1660 when a 22 year old shepherd named Gaspard Ricard, who by mid-day was very thirsty and had already drunk his flask of water. Suddenly an elderly gentleman appeared to him and said "I am Joseph". The mysterious man pointed to a nearby rock and told Gaspard to lift it and he would find water underneath.
The rock was very large and Gaspard knew there was no way that he would be able to lift it. The man repeated his instructions so he decided to try. Much to his surprise he was able to move it easily and, true to the strangers words, water flowed down the hillside from the rock.
Gaspard eagerly drank the water and then when he turned around he found that the stranger was gone. He cut his day short and rushed to tell the other villagers about the event. Since he was known as upright and honest man, the villagers tended to believe his story. That belief was firmly implanted when they followed him to the site of the apparition and saw the water flowing. And, indeed, the rock was too heavy for one man to move. Since then reports of miraculous healings have come from here and a sanctuary was constructed in 1663 that is there today. The St. Joseph Monastery of Besillon has daily Mass.
About the Church:
The church was ransacked during the French revolution but has been restored and pilgrims are welcomed. The sanctuary is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., admission is free. Parking is available upon arrival at the site. Groups are accepted beginning at 10:00 a.m.
There is no direct train service to the town, but you can take the high-speed TGV from Paris to Aix-en-Provence in about 3 hours. From there it is about 30 miles by bus or taxi..
1. Photo courtesy Our Lady of Graces
2. The Monastery of Font Saint-Joseph du Bessillon, pub by the monastery in 1993