France during the seventeenth century when Heaven reached out in various ways to touch the hearts of Frenchmen and spread God’s love through the world. France, at that time, was regarded as the most powerful nation in Europe after winning a series of battles at the end of the Thirty Years war. French Explorers like Father de La Salle, who floated down the Mississippi River from Canada, claimed the entire river basin from the Appalachians to the Rockies for France, naming the area Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV and his Austrian bride, Queen Anne. French missionaries were setting up mission centers in Montreal to teach the faith. They made strides in preaching the Gospel to the Huron and Iroquois Indians, but in the case of Saint Isaac Jogues and some other French Jesuit priests, the blood of their martyrdom watered the seeds of the Church in the new world.
This chapter is about how one ordinary French village was revived spiritually by visitations from the Virgin Mary to a teenage shepherdess named Benedicta (or Benoîte in French) Rencurel. The presence of a flowery fragrance was widespread during the time of the heavenly visitations. The phenomena is the fragrant scent that is supernatural in origin. The composition of the scents could be described as a mixture of lilies and roses, jonquils, violets or other flowers.
In southeastern France in the Alps region near the border with Italy, Benedicta Rencurel was born in September 1647. Benedicta’s father died when she was just seven which imposed poverty on her mother, two sisters and herself. When she was old enough, Benedicta helped contribute to the family livelihood by shepherding. She was employed by the Rolland family to tend their sheep. Although she lacked a school education, she knew her prayers and the faith.
One day while shepherding in May, 1664, Benedicta saw a distinguished older man dressed in vestments like a Bishop. He asked what she was doing and she replied that she was herding sheep and looking for water to drink. He showed her a well that she hadn’t noticed before. Appreciatively, Benedicta exclaimed, “You’re so beautiful! Are you an angel? Or Jesus?”
The man replied, “I am Maurice to whom the nearby chapel (then in decay) is dedicated. My daughter, do not come back to this place. Go to the valley above Saint Stephen’s. That is where you will see the Mother of God.”
Puzzled, Benedicta asked, “But Sir, She is in Heaven. How can I see Her there?”
Maurice remarked, “Yes, She is in Heaven and on earth, too when She wants.”
After that Benedicta guided the sheep to the valley near the village of Saint Stephen. Many shallow caves marked the hillsides and it was in front of one such cave that Benedicta beheld a beautiful woman and child. Benedicta enthusiastically called out to them and asked them what they were doing. The Lady didn’t reply, she just stood holding her Child’s hand. After some time, Benedicta invited, “Would you like to have a snack with me? I have a bit of good bread that we could dip in the spring?” The Lady smiled, but didn’t answer. Benedicta then suggested that the Child could stay and, “make our hearts so glad!” Still the woman said nothing and in time she and the Child disappeared in the cave.
The lovely Lady appeared every day through the summer of 1664. The Lady gradually and patiently taught Benedicta prayers that were pleasing to God and planted firmly in Benedicta’s soul a vocation to work for the conversion of those far from the love of God. Everyone noticed a joyful change in Benedicta. She was a shepherdess for the wealthy Rolland family. Mrs. Rolland was curious about what was happening to Benedicta while she herded the sheep so she hid behind a rock to spy. On that occasion the dear Lady said to Benedicta, “Your mistress is over there, hiding behind the rock. Tell her not to curse with the name of Jesus. Her conscience is in a very bad state; she should do penance.” Upon hearing this, Mrs. Rolland experienced a profound conversion that continued for her entire life. Word spread throughout the area about the presence of the Lady.
François Grimaud, a judge of the district, traveled to Saint Stephen in August 1664 to interview Benedicta and her acquaintances. At his suggestion, Benedicta asked the Lady at the next apparition who she was. The woman said, “My name is Lady Mary. My Son and I wish to be honored by a church at a site I will show you. You will not see me for some time, but I will return.” The judge was intrigued with Benedicta’s testimony. He concluded the interview with a favorable impression of Benedicta.
An entire month passed without the Lady visiting. Although Benedicta missed Lady Mary, she was being strengthened for the mission that lay ahead of her. At the end of September when Benedicta was resting on a riverbank with the sheep and goats of her herd, she saw Lady Mary in brilliant radiance. Benedicta scrambled to get closer and asked, “My good Lady, why haven’t you visited in so long?”
Mary replied, “From now on, you will see me only in the chapel that is in Laus.” The settlement of Laus was very small and although she had heard of it, Benedicta had not been there. Twenty-four years earlier the villagers of the valley of Laus had built a chapel to go to when flooding prevented them from going to Saint Stephen’s; the chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of the Good Encounter (Annunciation). Benedicta traveled to Laus the next day to seek Our Lady in the chapel she spoke about. The village cottages looked alike and she couldn’t readily distinguish which one was the chapel. With some frustration she searched through the village and scrutinized each dwelling to determine where the abandoned chapel was. At last, at the slightly opened door of a dusty small shed, she smelled a most beautiful fragrance. Opening the door further she saw Our Lady standing on the small altar of the chapel. She greeted Benedicta, “My daughter, you have searched diligently for me, but you should not have wept. Even so, you pleased me by not being impatient.”
Benedicta was happy to have found Lady Mary, but distressed at the shabbiness of the chapel. Benedicta suggested using her apron as a mat for Our Lady to step on so she wouldn’t get dirty from the thick layer of dust that had built up over the years. Our Lady assured, “No, soon nothing will be lacking here. You will see linens, candles and everything needed for divine worship. On this spot I wish a church to be built. Many sinners who come here will repent. I will appear to you often here.”
Benedicta was surprised, “Build a church? There’s no money for that here!”
Our Lady prophesied, “Do not worry. When the time comes to build, you will find all that you need. The coins of the poor will provide for everything. Nothing will be lacking.” Every day Benedicta walked the 5-mile round trip to the chapel from October 1664 into the spring of 1665. The Virgin Mary urged her to pray continuously for sinners and would give her names of people to pray for. By the spring, Lady Mary asked Benedicta to quit shepherding so that she could devote all her time to preparing for the spiritual and material construction of the Church, telling Benedicta, “I asked My Son for Laus for the conversion of sinners, and He has granted it to me.” This revelation led people to understand that the Church at Laus was to be a refuge for sinners and for reconciliation. Pilgrims started streaming into the area to pray and have their confessions heard. Priests were brought in to accommodate the pilgrims and to administer the sacrament of reconciliation. A priestly commission was convened in September to assess the authenticity of the apparitions. Benedicta was apprehensive about the investigation and confided to Our Lady that she wanted to run away. Our Lady advised, “No, my daughter, you must not run away. You must remain and give your account to the priests. They will question you and may seem severe, but don’t be afraid.”
The chair of the commission, Fr. Antoine Lambert, entered the investigation with skepticism, it is thought, because Laus was eclipsing the popularity of pilgrimage to Our Lady of Embrun, a devotion he favored. On the first day of the questioning Father Lambert told Benedicta that he would thoroughly investigate her claims of the Virgin’s apparitions. He warned, “…but once again, be careful that these events are not products of your imagination to delude the people, or I will admonish you severely to speak the truth to those who believe you. I will stamp out abuses with every means in my power.” The panel questioned Benedicta about her experiences in great detail. Fr. Lambert wrote a lengthy report and prepared to leave, but stormy weather postponed his departure.
On the morning of September 18, 1665 while Fr. Lambert was saying Mass there was a stirring among the congregants. “Miracle, miracle!” they cried. The miracle had to do with Catherine Vial who did something unimaginable to the people who knew her; she walked into the church on her own two feet. Just the day before and for the previous six years a nervous system disease left her severely crippled and unable to walk. Her devoted parents had consulted surgeons to relieve her condition with no results. By the will of God, the family had just completed a novena for Catherine’s healing when, during the night of September 17, her legs relaxed and she was cured. Fr. Lambert instantly perceived this grace as a sign of God’s favor of the Chapel of Annunciation, as he had also seen Catherine in her decrepit condition the previous day. The healing of Catherine Vial led to the confirmation of the events of Laus. Fr. Lambert concluded, “There is something extraordinary occurring in that chapel. The finger of God is there!” The commission recommended that pilgrimages to Laus could take place and the chapel needed to be expanded.
Our Lady gave a new consolation during the winter of 1665. She told Benedicta that oil drawn from the tabernacle lamp would act as a remedy to those who applied it in faith to their afflicted areas. News of healing led more pilgrims to visit Laus. There were no roads in this region of France in the 17th century, just worn paths that were difficult for people to transverse, especially when they were muddy. Yet, pilgrims, young and old, brought river stones for construction of the new Church and donations were collected in abundance.
The first stone of the Church was laid on October 7, 1666, the Feast of the Holy Rosary. It was also on that day that Benedicta became a professed member of the Third Order of St. Dominic. She wore the associated cape and veil of a Dominican Tertiary but continued with her mission in the world to pray, do penance and lead all to reconciliation with God. Through the guidance of Our Lady, Sister Benedicta worked tirelessly through the four years it took to construct the Church. François Grimaud, the initial judge in the matter, testified that during the Easter season of 1666 he sensed a delightful fragrance at the chapel for more than seven minutes and that it was unlike anything he had ever smelled. It was said that during construction, oftentimes a heavenly fragrance permeated the building site and stretched out into the valley because the church was built to the singing of psalms and hymns. The fragrance became known as the Bouquet of Laus because the fragrance wasn’t confined to the chapel, but spread out into the whole valley. Sister Benedicta said the Bouquet of Laus combined the perfumes of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the angels of heaven. She told of a hierarchy in the odors of sanctity, “My personal observation is that the odors of the angelic hierarchy differ as much as the perfume of flowers. All angels exhale odors, but none so ravishing and so powerful an odor as the Queen of men and angels. The perfumes which exhale from Our Savior Jesus Christ surpass however, in an infinite degree every other odor.”
Finally, after four years of construction the church was ready to be consecrated. The consecration of Notre Dame du Laus (Our Lady of Laus) was set for December 25, 1669. Sister Benedicta described the scene after the Midnight Mass, “Large numbers of angels processed three times through the church with Sister Benedicta following them. They were singing Gloria in Excelsis as they processed.” The crowd gathered outside was amazed at the refulgence coming from the windows. The Vicar General commented that the “sweet odors emanating from the church gave the crowd a foretaste of Heaven.”
In the instance of another blessed event, some workmen volunteered to do the strenuous job of pruning the vineyards for Sister Benedicta’s widowed mother who was very poor. When the job was completed, the Virgin Mary filled Sister Benedicta’s apron with roses from Paradise to distribute to the workmen in gratitude for their neighborly compassion. There was little doubt that the roses came from the Virgin’s celestial home because it was the last week of winter, mid-March, when roses wouldn’t bloom in the alpine climate of Laus.
Sister Benedicta lived out the next 50 years of her life serving the refuge for sinners, Notre Dame du Laus. Later in her life, she was gifted with apparitions of Our Crucified Jesus and underwent pains of mystical crucifixion for fifteen years. Suspicion by some members of the diocesan clergy always dogged her. There were at least two more full investigations of Laus after the Church was built. During one thirteen-day investigation, Sister Benedicta undertook a complete fasting from food. Despite her fast, she was able to answer their questions with clarity and logic. Additionally, no one could ignore the otherworldly fragrance that imbued Sister Benedicta. Her breath, clothes and things that she touched were saturated with a sweet fragrance, which led the board to conclude that she was a good and holy daughter, gifted from the love of God.
During a very trying period of about 15 years, Sister Benedicta was put under house arrest and was only allowed to participate in Sunday Mass. Her guardian angel would often console her and once prophesied to her, “The Laus devotion is the work of God which neither man nor the devil can destroy. It will continue until the end of the world, flourishing more and more and bearing great fruit everywhere.” Sister Bendicta died peacefully on the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, 1718. Her tombstone reads: Tomb of Sister Benedicta, died in the odor of sanctity, 1718. Pilgrims noted the presence of an unearthly perfume exuding from the site of her tomb. Sister Benedicta was declared ‘Venerable’ in 1871.
On May 4, 2008 the current Bishop of the diocese that includes Laus gave official Catholic Church approval of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Blessed Benoîte Rencurel. Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco stated in part, “Three hundred forty-four years ago, Our Lady chose to show a simple shepherdess the way of penitence and conversion, to invite pilgrims to reconcile themselves with the world and with God.”
The Bouquet of Laus was given as a gift for conversion and it adds to our anticipation of the scents and fragrances of what ‘God has ready for those who love Him.’