Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pilgrimage to Rue du Bac

Not Many of Us May Know this but there is an easy way to get extra bang from your vacation air travel with just a little extra planning on your part. We are all aware of what a layover is and for the most part dread them because they mean unexpected unwanted delay. We prefer the non-stop flights to get us there and back in a direct and timely manner. Who would want a four hour layover in Detriot, for example, while waiting for a connection? And then there are the “you missed your connecting flight” layovers and you have to bide your time waiting for the next available connection in the terminal or even worse, remain overnight. It is also possible, however, to build them into a trip for a few days of intentional layover in some place of your choosing. If you are going to have to wait somewhere or have so little time to make your next connection that it will most likely mean missing it anyway (even though they swear that 45 minutes is plenty of time), why not just delay for a few days before continuing your trip? For many years I was not aware of this option. I hadn’t the time to linger anyway, what with work and all. We do, however, do this now and then these days. So far, we have toured both London and Paris this way on return trips from Naples and Rome.

In Fact We Did This not long ago with a stop in Paris while enroute from Rome to Boston. We made it a whopping five-day layover. My sister, Lorraine, joined us while we were there. She made her way, all on her own, to Charles de Gaulle Airport from JFK and surprisingly was waiting for us when were exited customs. Brava for her! We stayed in what I would consider a boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter, the “Hotel du College de France”. It is conveniently located on the left bank of the Seine in Paris’ 5th ‘arrondissement’ (district) and just a stroll away from Notre Dame and the Sorbonne. We thought the entire place divine, being everything we had envisioned Paris would be over all these years of romantic Hollywood movies. We wanted to experience it and be able to truly say, “We’ll always have Paris”, for ourselves. Of course there were so many places we wanted to see and visit. Versailles was at the top of Maria Elena’s list, mine had Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower by night, while my sister had to see Rue du Bac. Big museums like the Louvre would just have to wait for another time.

‘Rue’ as Many of You Know is French for street. Indeed, Lorraine wanted to find a particular street. Fresh in from Italy, it made for interesting confusion when, seeking directions, I’d mix Italian with French by asking for ‘corso’ or ‘strada’ and not ‘rue’! We found smaller, inconspicuous Rue du Bac sandwiched between the larger tree-lined avenues of Rue de Babylone and Rue de Sèvres. We used the very modern, efficient and clean Paris Metro to get there and exited from the nearby Sèvres-Babylone station. We’d thought to purchase multi-day rail passes, which made getting around the city quite convenient. It was a local priest back home who had mentioned that while in Paris my sister should visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal located on Rue du Bac. This then was our goal. I recall having received such a religious medallion from the nuns while in grammar school. Where it is now I have no idea but I recall that I had worn it on the same neck-chain as my dog-tags during all those missions over Vietnam.

The Miracles Surrounding this Medal are many and the story of its beginning is just as amazing. The exceptional events occurred beginning the night of 18-19 July 1830. On this night, Zoe Labouré (later Sister Catherine), a 24 year old novice sister preparing to enter the order of the Daughters of Charity in the Rue du Bac Motherhouse, experienced an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in what is described as an “in flesh and bone” encounter. She was told of a personal mission she would receive that would be explained to her in a later meeting. This mission was revealed months later, on 27 November, when Catherine was instructed to have a medal made and distributed to the people of the world. Design details for the medallion, on a scale of God's instructions to Noah for construction of the Ark, were disclosed to Catherine down to the finer points concerning the specific inscriptions to be placed on its front and reverse. It would be called “The Medal of the Immaculate Conception”. Its only words, actually a prayer, appear on the front of the medal and would be as seen by Catherine in the November visitation. The prayer reads: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.” The “conceived without sin” phrase is interesting to me since the Catholic dogma of the 'Immaculate Conception', inspired according to these accounts by Mary herself during this second encounter, had not yet been proclaimed by the Church. It was not until December 1854 that Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, no doubt influenced by Catherine’s experience. When a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in February 1832, claiming more than 20,000 lives, the sisters began distributing the first medals. It had taken Catherine this long to convince church authorities of both her credibility and that of her visions. Many cures were reported and word spread like wildfire. The people of Paris called the medal “miraculous” and thus it received the name we know it by today, ‘The Miraculous Medal of Mary’.

Today the Chair Mary sat in while Catherine knelt by her side is still behind the altar railing along with the body of Sister Catherine herself, encased in a glass reliquary beneath one of the altars for all to see. It is hard to believe that this is she lying there, as it were, in state. Like Padre Pio, her face is concealed by a wax mask in her likeness sculpted from a photo. Her rosary wraps her hands together in prayer even in death. An elaborate white coif almost hides her face. The distinctive character of her habit reminded me of something far more than the diminutive headpiece worn by Madeline’s storybook Parisian guardian, ‘Sister Clavel’, and just less than the canards of the ‘Flying Nun’. I later learned that the headpiece of this particular habit, similar to a winged hat, was discontinued by the order in 1964.

After Her Death she was buried in a vault in Reuilly, France. In 1933, in view of her beatification (one of the steps in the process of being declared a saint), her body was exhumed in the presence of witnesses for transfer to Rue du Bac - her body was found to be completely “incorrupt and supple”. Due to her exceptional life and the numerous miracles associated with her since her death, Sister Catherine (1806-1876) was declared a Saint of the Catholic Church on 27 July 1947 by Pope Pius XII. Today Sister (now Saint) Catherine and the entire chapel on Rue du Bac are the subject of intense respect and devotion. Together they are a physical testimony to faith and the power of trusting prayer. Curious visitors and pilgrims stream in and out of the chapel continuously. Being a chapel it is not large and was nearly full while we were there. Over the ensuing years the walls have been beautifully decorated with mosaics, murals and a triumphal arch over the main altar. A statue of Mary, hewn from white Italian Carrara marble, depicting her as seen in one of the apparitions, stands over the altar containing Catherine’s remains. Though she is not worshipped, there is an “if she can live such a holy life, why can’t I” aura about the place. Small and non-descript as the place is at 140 Rue du Bac, not much is made of it. It must have something to do with the long history France and Paris in particular have with saints and such. With such a rich religious heritage, their appreciation for saints may in fact have waned. What’s another saint in a city full of them?

You Can Walk Right by the Chapel and not notice it. Rue du Bac is quite commercial in fact. As we strolled down the street window-shopping, I recall visiting a flower shop where everything in the store was artificial. I had to touch a few to convince myself otherwise (see photo). In a nearby kitchen accessory store just jammed full with every imaginable work-saving device, I purchased a ceramic pitcher made to look like a crumpled milk carton, the kind you might see pictures of missing children on, though this one was chalk white. It was a different kind of place but then this was Paris where street after street begs you to linger. For us this was all new. Undoubtedly for the locals, who seemingly had a clear sense of destination telling from their haste in passing us, the street, this place, was as common as another saint.

During My Time There I had my own religious encounter but nothing on the order approaching miraculous. After a spin through the gift shop I exited early to wait outside in the small courtyard while Mare and Lorraine purchased medals and other souvenir gifts. Waiting outside, I was practicing what Parisians do so well, people watching, when I noticed a group of about ten nuns organizing themselves for a photo. Contrary to my early days in parochial school, where my particular teaching branch of nuns wore a cumbersome arrangement of head veil and an extravagant white coif similar in appearance to an inflated bicycle inner-tube in a yoke-like fashion around their faces, these religious women courted modernity. They ranged from young to mature in age and to a one wore simple blue dresses with white v-necks and unpretentious head veils. Lose the veil and they could pass as typical Parisians. There was also the apparent lack of a crucifix among the lot, which was surprising. The veil would just have to do. They were not as modern as the nuns I see at home these days where, for example, I might be introduced to a woman totally in civilian mufti only to learn she is a sister in a religious order. I’ve heard of dressing-down but come on, let’s be realistic. But I digress. I asked if I could take a group picture for them and they agreed. Soon finished with the “smile and say fromage”, their apparent leader or at least the one who spoke English, asked me if I’d like to have my picture taken with them. I agreed and using my camera she took the photo you see at the start of this story. I’m the tall one in the center! Today their picture with me adorns the front of my refrigerator. I smile every time I glance at it. I look at the photo and wonder if there is a Catherine among them. It's certainly not me!

So Much for a Miraculous Layover Adventure on Rue du Bac. Of course it is all in how you see it - whether you believe or not. Could it all have been a convincing dream? A tale of magic, borne on by a penchant for superstition? Might it have been true divine intercession? That my dear reader is a matter of individual faith and belief, for a hoax to a 'doubting Thomas' can be another man’s miracle. I do know, however, that I now have my miraculous medal again, this one an original from Rue du Bac.

The Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Rue du Bac".