In the Footsteps of St. Louis Marie de Montfort

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"Footsteps Online"

Autumn 1999 (Volume 4, Issue 3)

The Calvary of Pontchâteau

Fr. Paul Allerton describes the magnificent plan, and disastrous failure, of the Calvary proposed by St. Louis Marie at Pontchâteau in Brittany - a potent symbol of the Cross of Christ in Montfort’s own life, and in ours.

The Mont Valérien Calvary

In 1704, St. Louis Marie spent some time, at the request of the diocesan authorities in Paris, living with a group of hermits on Mont Valérien, to the West of Paris. His task (in which he was successful) was to restore peace to this group which had been divided for a long time. While he was there, he seems to have been very impressed with the three crosses of a Calvary which stood on the hill at that time (today, the figures from this Calvary can be seen in the garden of the church of St Peter, next door to the Sacred Heart Basilica, on the hill at Montmartre). He was to cherish the idea of building a similar Calvary in his native Province of Brittany for many years.

Three years later, while preaching a mission in his home town of Montfort, St. Louis Marie thought his chance had arrived: he proposed building a great Calvary on the Butte de la Motte, the highest point in the town. He even bought the statues which would be mounted on the Calvary from a sculptor in St Brieuc. But it was not to be: the local authorities would not agree, so he had to wait another three years before bringing his plan to fruition.

His opportunity finally came when he went to Pontchâteau, 60 km or so from Nantes, to preach a mission there. Just outside the town was a kind of heath, known as the Lande de la Madeleine, rising to a height which commanded wide views over the surrounding countryside. This would be an ideal spot, he thought, to erect a great Calvary, one which could be seen for miles around, serving to remind all the faithful people of the area, of the great sacrifice of love offered by their Saviour, Jesus Christ. Perhaps there was a further reason for choosing this particular spot: not far away, there is still to this day a "standing stone", the Menhir de la Madeleine, which was known to have been the site of pagan rites in bygone days. Also, whenever a place bears the name of the Madeleine (Magdalene) in France, it is often associated with a degree of immoral behaviour which seems to be customary in such a place. Perhaps it was in St. Louis Marie’s mind to "christianise" and hallow this place?

The Pontchateau Calvary today

Whatever may have been his reasons for choosing this place (and there is also a legend of doves flying to the spot to indicate it…), it was here on Magdalene Heath that he rallied thousands of helpers to build the Calvary. His magnetism was such that members of the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry all worked together, in harmony, and even in a religious silence, even when the saint himself could not be there to oversee the work.

His plan was to bless the Calvary and its accompanying Way of the Cross, on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 14, 1710. All was ready when, at the last moment, a cruel blow fell: the Bishop of Nantes forbade the blessing. It transpired afterwards that an order had already gone out from the Palace of Versailles itself that the Calvary was to be pulled down again. Some enemies of Montfort had managed to persuade the Government that this was not a Calvary at all, but a redoubt planned to give succour to an invading English force!

St. Louis Marie was obviously bitterly disappointed, but saw in this setback a manifestation of the Cross of his Master in his own life, and, true to his habit, gave thanks to God for being allowed to share in this Cross. He did not, however, give up hope that the Calvary would one day be rebuilt: in a letter he sent to a Father de la Carrière (to whom he had entrusted his statues for safe-keeping), he wrote: "Letters have been sent to Paris about their return (i.e. the return of the statues to the Calvary), and I am more hopeful than ever." However, it was not to be for almost another hundred years that his Calvary would be properly rebuilt and completed. Today, it stands as he would have wished to see it.