- The Oblates at Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in 1845-1846
- The Activities of Father Dassy, the First Superior (1846-1847)
- Fifty Years of Prosperity (1850-1900)
- The Great Trials (1901-1918)
- The Renewal of 1919 to the Council Present Situation
- The future
The legal deed establishing this Marian shrine, which is located in the department of Vivarais, is dated May 10, 1680. This pilgrimage place owes its existence to the generosity of Mr. Julien Ginest, sieur Delille, and of his spouse Marie-Anne de Paulet, both of the Lablachère parish. They established the shrine in thanksgiving for a favour they had received and also to promote among the faithful devotion to Mary.
On September 8, 1682, the Abbé Rodilly, parish priest of Lablachère, blessed the modest oratory and celebrated the first Mass there. A first church replaced the chapel in 1783 and, in 1825, a second church, different in form and better decorated, replaced the first. This second church is still there today.
The parish priests of Lablachère were in charge of this church until 1777. They were then replaced by a full-time chaplain whose sole task was to serve the pilgrims: the latter were coming in ever greater numbers. A priest’s residence near the church was built to house the chaplain.
The Oblates at Notre-Dame de Bon Secours in 1845-1846
When Bishop Hippolyte Guibert arrived in the diocese of Viviers in 1842, the Abbé Deschanels, chaplain at the shrine, was asking for help. Furthermore, the Jesuits of the house of Lalouvesc were no longer able to respond to all the requests for parish missions. Bishop Guibert was very attached to his own religious family and thus he decided to ask the Oblates to serve the shrine and to preach missions in a sector of his diocese. The General Council readily acceded to this request, for it corresponded so well with the ends of the Congregation. In the minutes of the January 14, 1845 Council meeting we read: “This is a shrine to Mary, our holy Mother and Patroness, which needs to be developed and our Congregation is called to do the same in other pilgrimage places that have been entrusted to us… By its location on the borders of the dioceses of Viviers, Nïmes and Mende, this house presents us with a vast field that is worthy of the zeal of those among us who will be its personnel…”
Father Henry Tempier was mandated to come to an agreement with Bishop Guibert in regard to property rights. He made several trips for this purpose. The contract which for a long time governed the material situation of the Oblates was signed only on January 15, 1847. The shrine remained the property of the diocese but the Oblates were in charge of administering it. The bishop allowed the Oblates to keep the revenues accruing to the shrine and the Oblates renounced receiving a salary. Bishop Guibert also gave the Oblates a piece of land on which they could build a house.
The Activities of Father Dassy, the First Superior (1846-1847)
Father Louis-Toussaint Dassy and Jean-François Hermitte arrived at Notre-Dame de Bon Secours on February 11, 1846. Father Dassy was an enterprising man and tireless apostle; though he spent only 20 months at Bon Secours, what he began there was so well-done that the shrine was to benefit from the impetus he provvided for many years thereafter.
In agreement with Bishop Guibert and the Oblate General Council, he began two important construction sites in the month of August: the tearing down of the priest’s house and the construction of an Oblate house as well as of the sanctuary and sacristy of the church. The work proceeded at such a pace that when Father Dassy left in the middle of August 1847 to found the novitiate at Nancy, his fellow Oblates were beginning to move into the vast house that had been built. In fact, the latter comprised a basement area, a ground floor, and two stories above that, each with fifteen rooms.
Apostle that he was, Father Dassy did not allow himself to be totally taken up with material concerns: he promoted three areas at the same time – the pilgrimage work, preaching missions and the beginning of a juniorate.
The Abbé Deschanels and his predecessors had always given all the spiritual care they could to the pilgrims who came to the shrine church in rather large numbers, especially during the summer months. Now that a religious community had arrived and works of expansion were in progress, even more pilgrims began to come: there were some 6000 for August 15, 1846, and about 8000 for the following September 8. Father Dassy had even organized a week-long retreat for September 1846 in order to help those faithful who wanted to deepen their faith. This service was thereafter offered several times a year.
In March-April 1846 Fathers Dassy and Hermitte preached two missions. During the summer Father Hermitte preached four retreats to religious communities within the diocese. Four long missions were given during the winter of 1846-1847. Bishop Guibert went to meet with his fellow Oblates at Alissas. On November 9, 1846 he wrote to Bishop de Mazenod: “Here I am in the midst of a mission. I wept for joy when I arrived and found myself immersed in a ministry that for such a long time brought so much happiness to my life.”
When he had accepted this shrine, Bishop de Mazenod did not conceal his hope for vocations from Vivarais, an area that was still quite Christian. As early as March 1846, Father Dassy had proposed to the Founder that they accept some 12-14 year old boys who would help make the liturgical ceremonies more solemn and learn the rudiments of Latin prior to continuing their studies at Notre-Dame de Lumières. There were ten such students in the autumn of 1846. This experiment, as well as that of Notre-Dame de Lumières, was halted at the beginning of 1848 because of the unexpected successful results of Father Léonard’s tour of the seminaries of France.
In order to advance these various ministries, the Superior of the shrine did not hesitate to ask for co-workers. In a short time there were six Fathers and three Brothers in the community; this number of personnel remained more or less constant over the succeeding years.
Fifty Years of Prosperity (1850-1900)
The 1850 General Chapter, an important one for so many reasons, also marks the beginning of an era of prosperity for the house of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. Father Joseph Martin, a missionary of the first generation of Oblates, was put in charge of the house; he held this post from 1850 to 1857 and again from 1860 to 1867. During his first seven years at Bon Secours, Father Martin finished the work on the sanctuary of the church and also purchased the house of the Marist Brothers for the purpose of accommodating pilgrims therein. The four summer months became like a permanent mission. The number of pilgrims fluctuated between 50,000 and 100,000 per year. Bishop de Mazenod consecrated the church on August 12, 1855, in the presence of some 20,000 people. During the other months, the Fathers preached missions and retreats, as many as 20 a year.
Nine other Fathers succeeded each other as Superiors of the community. Among them was Father Jean Fayette (1889-1891), an architect in his time, who made noteworthy repairs. The personnel varied between six and ten Fathers and two or three Brothers. Canonical visitors generally praised the Fathers’ good spirit and zeal but complained of “incontinence” in their language and often reminded them of the requirements of fraternal charity. The need to struggle against egoisms, little jealousies and trying character traits was especially felt during the summer months when, because missions were not preached at that time, the community was all together and taken up with pilgrimages on Saturdays and Sundays.
One is struck at how many changes of personnel were made during the first fifteen years of the Oblates’ presence at Bon Secours; and this seems to have continued afterwards too. Only Father Jean-François Hermitte (+1884) and Brother L. Rual (+1894) spent their lives there. These changes resulted from the need to arrange personnel for new houses in France and in foreign countries. Bon Secours and a few other houses of France South then seemed to function as the testing ground for young Oblates destined for elsewhere or as a receiving house of those who were difficult to place either because of their problematical character, limited talent or problems of health.
The Government measures against religious taken in 1880 directly affected many apostolic works. Three Fathers, who held the title of ownership, and the Brothers remained in the house, while six or seven were officially expelled on November 5, 1880; these latter, in fact, simply slept in some homes near the shrine but continued serving the pilgrims and preaching missions.
The faithful always came in large numbers during the summer, especially for the feasts of the Assumption and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Martin mentions 100,000 pilgrims for 1863 and 1864, but the yearly average seems to have between 60,000 and 80,000. There was always some work going on at the shrine. From 1877 to 1883 the facade and the bell tower were redone; the latter received a large bell as well as a statue at its peak. Retreats for women, given in the Deschanels house, and for men, given in the Fathers’ house, were continued but without any great success.
Preaching missions and retreats had some lean periods and others of great prosperity, depending on political events and on the talent of the personnel. While Fathers Martin and Hermitte managed to give up to 20 missions a year, this statistic fell to 4 or 5 between 1870 and 1880, then rose again to 20 per year thereafter. Most of the missions are given in small parishes by one or two Fathers and usually lasted only two weeks. In reporting to the General Chapters, the Provincials wrote that 150 missions and retreats were preached by the Oblates at Bon Secours between 1873 and 1879, 97 missions and 76 retreats from 1887 to 1893, and 77 missions and 110 retreats between 1895 and 1898.
Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the missionaries begin to speak of a diminishing population and a weakening of the faith. They were now preaching only short missions during Lent; the parish priests could not feed them for longer periods and the faithful would come only during that time of the year.
During that same period the house received between 20 and 35 juniorists for the first years of Latin (1877-1882). This school, referred to as “la maîtrise”, had to close its doors shortly after the school decrees of Jules Ferry in March 1882. From 1890 on, a dozen sick scholastics came to Bon Secours to continue their studies and rebuild their health.
The Great Trials (1901-1918)
The expulsion of 1903 and the 1914-1918 World War badly affected the community and its works.
The law on Associations of July 2, 1901 and the March 25, 1903 refusal to authorize the Oblates and other Congregations condemned them to legal dissolution. The Fathers were evicted manu militari and the chapel and house were closed. In 1907 the chapel endured the lot of other church goods and became the property of the local municipality. The Oblate house and property, assessed at 200,000 francs, were then sold for 12,000 francs.
The Bishop managed to reopen the chapel in 1907. He entrusted it to the care of a few Oblates who were officially considered to be secular priests. Soon they were five or six in number and lived two by two in various homes of the village. They even managed to preach over 100 missions and as many retreats between 1909 and 1914. The 1914-1918 War dispersed them again, however, except for two elderly Fathers who remained to serve the shrine.
The Renewal of 1919 to the Council
Slowly things began to resume in 1919. But it was only in 1924-1925 that the Fathers and Brothers restored community living in a house named St-Antoine, purchased and remodelled for this purpose. There were always between six and ten Fathers there, even during the 1940-1944 War. All were hard at work and so the local treasurer had a good income: they were thus able to contribute to the Province and at the same time to undertake work on the church, enlarging the space before it, and repair the original Oblate house that had been bought again in 1923-1924.
The number of pilgrims was never again reach that of the 19th century, though it averaged out at some 50,000 per year. The feasts of August 15 and September 8 usually brought in some 5000 to 10,000 people. On September 8, 1930, the church was raised to the dignity of a minor basilica, an event that drew some 40,000 pilgrims.
While serving the shrine and promoting devotion to Mary, the community also remained faithful to their mission of evangelizing the poor. The four or five who were preaching were constantly busy in this task for eight to ten months of the year. From 1920 to 1925 they had preached 300 missions and retreats and they averaged a hundred until the l960s. An item in Notre Midi of 1966 says that Bon Secours is one of the only a few Oblate shrines in France that still has a team of missionaries; another item in 1968, however, mentioned that now they are only looking after the shrine.
From the beginning of this century the novices of the France South Province made their novitiate in Italy (Aosta and San Giorgio). In 1926 Bon Secours became the France South novitiate and served in this capacity until 1950. The original Oblate house had been repurchased in 1923 and repaired and opened to receive between ten and twenty novices a year. 313 scholastics and 48 Brothers made their novitiate there in 24 years.
In 1950, this house was rented by the Bishop of Viviers as a family house for agricultural training for young people of the Bas-Vivarais. But this initiative did not last long. After a period of searching, this house and that of Saint-Antoine were rented out to the civil Department to be transformed into a retirement home for the aged. They house some 75 persons. The civil authorities are responsible for the administration and an Oblate Father is there as chaplain.
Since 1966 the four or five Fathers who make up the community reside in a few rooms of the old house. They continue to receive and animate the prayer of pilgrims who come there week by week as individuals or in groups. The feasts of August 15 and September 8 still attract some two to three thousand people. The pastoral activities of the Fathers, however, are broader than the pilgrimage context. One of them is responsible for several nearby villages, another is assisting the parish priests of the Joyeuse section, and all of them occasionally preach retreats.
This is a local pilgrimage, not one of great renown. Contrary to what happened at Lourdes, La Salette and elsewhere, it did not begin with an apparition and a message. It draws faithful only from the south of Ardèche and north of the Gard, regions now sparsely populated and wherein religious practice has fallen off, in spite of the clergy’s constant serious efforts to maintain the faith. The future of this shrine depends on the faith and religious practice of the region.
The Oblates were part of this effort and greatly devoted to it. They left at the end of August 1994 since it was no longer possible to maintain the heritage received from De Mazenod, Guibert, Dassy, Martin, and the rest who preceded them.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.