Our Lady of Sorrows/ The Great Hunger (1846)
We are back in France on our trail of heavenly flowers nearly fifty years after the French Revolution. The alpine valley near the village of La Salette, just 50 miles from Laus, would be where two young cow herders would receive a visit from the Queen of Heaven. It seems more than a coincidence that shepherds are often chosen to carry important messages from God. Angels sang to Shepherds about the birth of Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, Benôite Rencurel of Laus was given a special mission as she shepherded, and the Fatima Shepherds were told important prophecies of world events that were oblivious to those in government. Maybe shepherds are chosen because their contemplation of nature and care for the animals predisposes them to be the best vessels to soak up heavenly messages and relay them to the world. Or maybe it is because Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep that go astray and need to be brought back into the fold and protected by Him.
Melanie Calvat, 14, described the events of the day before the apparition. “On the Eighteenth of September 1846, I was alone, as usual, watching over my Master’s cows. Around 11:00 A.M., I saw a small boy walking towards me. I was frightened at this, for it seemed to me that everyone ought to know that I avoided all kinds of company.
This boy came up to me and said, “Little girl, I’m coming with you, I’m from Corps, too.”
At these words, the natural evil in me soon showed itself, and taking a few steps back, I told him, “I don’t want anybody around. I want to be alone.”
But the boy followed me, saying, “Go on, let me stay with you. My Master told me to come and watch over my cows together with yours. I’m from Corps.” I walked away from him, gesturing to him that I didn’t want anybody around, and when I was some distance away, I sat down on the grass. There, I used to talk with the little flowers of the Good Lord. A moment later, I looked behind me and there I found Maximin sitting close to me. Straightaway he says to me, “Keep me with you. I’ll be very good.” But the natural evil in me will not hear reason. I jump to my feet and run a little farther off without saying a word and again I start playing with the little flowers of the Good Lord. In an instant Maximin was there again telling me he would be very good, that he wouldn’t talk, that he would get bored all by himself, and that his Master had sent him to be with me, etc. This time, I took pity, I gestured to him to sit down, and I kept on playing with the little flowers of the Good Lord.
It wasn’t long before Maximin broke the silence by bursting into laughter (I think he was making fun of me). I look at him and he says to me, “Let’s have some fun, let’s make up a game.” I said nothing in reply, for I was so ignorant. I didn’t understand what games with other people were, always having been alone. I played with the flowers on my own and Maximin came right up close to me doing nothing but laughing, telling me the flowers didn’t have ears to listen to me and that we should play together instead. But I had no liking for the game he told me to play. I started talking to him, however, and he told me that the ten days he was to spend with his Master would soon be over and then he would go home to his father in Corps, etc…
While he was talking, I heard the bell of La Salette, it was the Angelus. I gestured to Maximin to lift his soul up to God. He took off his hat and was silent for a moment. Then I said, “Do you want to have dinner?”
“Yes,” he replied, “let’s eat.” We sat down and I brought out of my bag the provisions my Master had given me.
As was my habit, before breaking into my little round loaf, I made a cross with the point of my knife on the bread and a little hole in the middle, saying, “If the devil’s in there, may he leave and if the Good Lord is in there, may He stay!” I rapidly covered up the little hole. Maximin burst into laughter and kicked the loaf out of my hands. It rolled down the mountainside and was lost from sight. I had another piece of bread, which we shared. Afterwards, we played a game. Then, realizing that Maximin must still be hungry, I pointed out a place on the mountainside covered with all kinds of berries. I urged him to go and eat some and he went straight away. He ate a few berries and bought back his hat full of them. In the evening we walked back down the mountain together and promised to come back the next day and watch over our cows together.
Saturday September 19th was the day before the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, a day recognized by the whole Church (extended in 1814 by Pope Pius VII) as occurring on the third Sunday in September, in this case, September 20, 1846. Melanie gives her testimony of the Virgin Mary’s visit, an event that would change her and Maximin’s lives.
The next day, the 19th of September, I met Maximin on the way up. We climbed up the mountainside together. I discovered that Maximin was a very good, simple boy and would willingly talk about what I wanted to talk about. He was also very flexible and had no fixed opinions. He was just a little curious, for when I walked away from him, as soon as he saw I had stopped, he would run over to me to see what I was doing and hear what I was saying to the flowers of the Good Lord. If he arrived too late, he would ask me what I had said.
Maximin told me to teach him a game. It was already late morning. I told him to gather some flowers for the “Paradise.” We set to work together. Soon we had a number of flowers of various colors. I could hear the village Angelus ringing for the weather was fine and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Having told the Good Lord what we had learned, I said to Maximin that we ought to drive our cows on to a small plateau near the gully, where there would be stones to build the “Paradise.” We drove our cows to the selected spot and then had a small meal. Then we started collecting stones to build our little house, which was comprised of a ground floor which was where we were to live, and then a story above which was to be, as we called it, “Paradise.” This story was decorated all over with different colored flowers with garlands hanging from flower stalks. This “Paradise” was covered by a single large stone, which we had strewn with flowers. We had also hung garlands all the way round. When we had finished, we sat and looked at the “Paradise.” We began to feel sleepy and having moved a couple of feet away, we went to sleep on the grass.
When I woke up, I couldn’t see the cows, so I called Maximin and climbed up the little mound. From there I could see our cows grazing peacefully and I was on my way down when all at once I saw a beautiful light shining more brightly than the sun.
“Maximin, do you see what is over there?” At the same moment, I dropped the stick I was holding. Something inconceivably fantastic passed through me in that moment and I felt myself being drawn. I felt a great respect, full of love, and my heart beat faster. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on this light, which was static, and as if it had opened up, I caught sight of another much more brilliant light, which was moving. In this light I saw a most beautiful lady sitting on top of our Paradise. She had her face in her hands and her elbows were resting on her knees.
This beautiful Lady stood up; she coolly crossed her arms while watching us and said, “Come nearer children, and do not be afraid. I have something of importance to tell you.”
These soft and sweet words made me fly to her and my heart desired to attach itself to her forever. When I was close to the beautiful Lady, in front of her to the right, she began to speak and from her beautiful eyes, tears started to flow. She said, “If my people will not submit, I shall be forced to let go my Son’s arm. I can no longer hold it up. How long I have been suffering for you! In order that my Son not forsake you, I am obliged to pray to Him without ceasing. And you all pay no attention to this. No matter how much you may pray, or what you may do, you will never be able to make up for what I have done for you. You were given six days to labor, and the seventh day to keep holy, and that (seventh day) you will not keep holy. It is that which makes my Son’s arm heavy. Those who drive carts can no longer swear without using my Son’s name. It is these two things that so weigh down His arm. If the crops fail, it will be through your own fault. I gave you a proof of this last year in the potatoes, and you paid no attention to it. On the contrary, when you found bad ones, you swore and included my Son’s name. They will go on rotting until Christmas, and then there will be none.”
At this point, I was trying to interpret the word “potatoes” (pommes de terre). I thought I understood it to be “apples” (pommes). The beautiful and good Lady, reading my thoughts, spoke her words in the local dialect of patois, rather than French, “You do not understand, my children. I will tell it to you another way. If the harvest is spoiled, it does not seem to affect you. I made you see this last year with the potatoes. You took little account of this, but when you found bad potatoes, you swore oaths, and you included the name of my Son. They will continue to go bad and at Christmas, there will be none left. If you have corn, you must not sow it. The animals will eat all that you sow. And all that grows will fall to dust when you thresh it. A great famine will come. Before the famine comes, children under the age of seven will begin to tremble and will die in the arms of those who hold them. The others will do penance through hunger. The nuts will go bad; the grapes will become rotten.”
At this point in the apparition Melanie and Maximin were each given a private message. Then Our Lady continued, “If they convert, the stones and rocks will change into wheat and potatoes will be found sown in the earth. Do you say your prayers properly, my children?”
We both replied, “Oh! No, Madame, not so much.”
She said, “Oh! My children, you must say them morning and evening. When you can do no more, say a Pater (Our Father) and an Ave Maria (Hail Mary); and when you have the time to do better, you will say more. Only a few old women go to Mass in the summer. The rest work all day Sunday and in the winter when they able, they only go to Mass to make fun of religion. During Lent, they go to the Butcher’s like hungry dogs. Have you ever seen any spoilt wheat, my children?”
We both answered, “Oh no, Madame.”
The Holy Virgin turned to Maximin, saying, “But you, my child, you must have seen some once near le Coin with your father.”
Remember how the farmer said to your father: Come and see how my wheat’s gone bad! You went to see. Your father took two or three ears in his hand, rubbed them and they fell to dust. Then on your way back, when you were no more than half an hour away from Corps, your father gave you a piece of bread and said: Take it, eat it while you can, my son, for I don’t know who will be eating anything next year if the wheat is spoiled like that!
Maximin replied, “It’s quite true, Madame, I didn’t remember.”
The Most Holy Virgin then concluded, “And so, my children, you will pass this on to all my people.”
The most beautiful Lady crossed the gully and after two more steps without turning back towards us who were following her (for we were drawn by her brilliance and even more by her kindness which elated me, which seemed to melt my heart), she repeated to us, “So, my children, you will pass this on to all my people.” Then she walked on up to the place where I had gone to see our cows. Her feet touched nothing but the tips of the grass without bending them. Once on the top of the little mound, the beautiful Lady stopped and I hurried to stand in front of her to look at her closely, and try and see which path she would take. I had forgotten both my cows and the masters I worked for. I had linked myself forever and unconditionally to my Lady. She looked at me with a tender kindness, which drew me to her. I could have thrown myself into her arms with my eyes closed. She did not give me the time to do so. She rose imperceptibly from the ground to a height of about four feet or more and hanging thus in the air for a split second, my beautiful Lady looked up to Heaven, then down on the earth to her right and then her left, then she looked at me with her eyes so soft, so kind and so good that I felt she was drawing me inside her, and my heart seemed to open up to hers. The beautiful face of my good Lady disappeared little by little. Light took the place of the parts of her body which were disappearing right in front of my eyes.
Melanie saw Our Lady in just one apparition, but she gives one of the most detailed descriptions of any person who has seen Our heavenly Queen. This is Melanie’s account of how Our Lady appeared:
The Most Holy Virgin was tall and well-proportioned. She seemed so light that a mere breath could have stirred her, yet she was motionless and perfectly balanced. Her face was majestic, imposing, but not imposing in the manner of the Lords here below. She compelled a respectful fear. At the same time, her majesty compelled respect mingled with love.
The voice of the beautiful Lady was soft. It was enchanting, ravishing and warming to the heart. It seemed to me that I could never stop eating up her beautiful voice and my heart seemed to dance or want to go towards her and melt inside her.
The eyes of the majestic Mary appeared thousands of times more beautiful than the rarest brilliants, diamonds and precious stones. They shone like two suns. They were soft, softness itself, as clear as a mirror. In her eyes, you could see Paradise.
The clothing of the Most Holy Virgin was silver white and quite brilliant. It was quite intangible. It was made up of light and glory, sparkling and dazzling. There is no expression nor comparison to be found on earth. The Most Holy Virgin had a yellow pinafore. What am I saying, yellow? She had a pinafore more brilliant than several suns put together. It was not a tangible material. It was composed of glory and this glory was scintillating and ravishingly beautiful.
She appeared to me like a good Mother, full of kindness, amiability, full of love for us, of compassion and mercy. The crown of roses, which she had placed on her head was so beautiful, so brilliant, that it defies imagination. The different colored roses were not of this earth; it was a joining together of flowers which crowned the head of the Most Holy Virgin. But the roses kept changing and replacing each other, and then, from the heart of each rose, there shone a beautiful entrancing light, which gave the roses a shimmering beauty. From the crown of roses there seemed to arise golden branches and a number of little flowers mingled with the shining ones. The whole thing formed a most beautiful diadem, which alone shone brighter than our earth’s sun.
Her shoes (since they must be called shoes) were white, but a silvery brilliant white. There were roses around them. These roses were dazzlingly beautiful, and from the heart of each rose there shone forth a flame of very beautiful and pleasing light. On her shoes there was a buckle of gold, not the gold of this earth, but rather the gold of paradise.
The Holy Virgin was crying nearly the whole time she was speaking to me. Her tears flowed gently, one by one, down to her knees, then, like sparks of light, they disappeared. They were glittering and full of love. I would have liked to comfort her and stop her tears. But it seemed to me that She needed the tears to show better her love forgotten by men. I would have liked to throw myself into her arms and say to her, “My kind Mother, do not cry! I want to love you for all men on earth.” The tears of our sweet Mother, far from lessening her air of majesty as Queen, seemed, on the contrary, to embellish her, to make her more beautiful, more powerful, more filled with love, more maternal, more ravishing. If I could have wiped away her tears, it would have made my heart leap with compassion and love.”
Melanie and Maximin did their best to gather their herds and go down to the village. They told the parish priest and in time the words of Our Lady spread throughout the region. The Virgin said that the sins of not keeping Sunday holy and using the Lord’s Name in vain were very grave sins. Although her posture was cool and majestic, she was crying throughout the message, and the tone of her words in the message were remonstrating, impatient, and sorrowful. Recall that in that period of time, France had to reestablish Sunday as a Holy Day of Obligation after the effects of the French Revolution when the calendar had been switched to a 10-day week to ‘abolish Sunday.’ Our Lady indicated that Sunday worship by the Faithful was not satisfactory in 1846 due to the suppression of Catholic worship during the French revolution and then during the rule of Napoleon. Besides lax Mass attendance, blasphemy against the Holy Name of Jesus was a serious and pervasive sin. Our Sorrowful Mother could no longer intercede to mitigate the justice of God as she complained that she had already done much to ameliorate Divine justice with little to no help from the faithful.
Historical events bore out everything that the Virgin warned and lamented. Ireland was in the grip of a catastrophic potato crop failure. Our Lady said, in part, “I made you see this last year (1845) with the potatoes.”
In 1845 there were 8 million people in Ireland and potatoes were the main subsistence crop. 32% of the farmland of Ireland were sown in potatoes because they grew well in small plots of mostly infertile ground. They are rich in Vitamin C and potassium so in those days each Irish man, woman and child would consume, on average, 4.6 pounds of potatoes per day. They were prepared in every imaginable way for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The animals also consumed potatoes as part of their feed. Sadly a fungus called Phtophtera infestans,entered the agricultural picture. Scientists believe it originated from bat dung brought from North America that was used as potato field fertilizer. Phtophtera infestans produced a condition in the potato plant called late blight, which ravaged all parts of the plant including leaves, stem and tubers (potatoes). Late blight caused an astonishingly rapid rate of decay of plant tissue to produce a distinctly foul odor and a black color. There were accounts of entire fields of potatoes spoiling and blackening within hours. The heavy rains and cool air of late summer and fall of 1845 were ideal for propagating the fungal spores. Spores on infected leaves washed into the soil and infected the potatoes rendering them rotten, black, and slimy. The spores propagated by wind and water at a rate of 50 miles/day so although Ireland carried the brunt of the failed potato crop burden, all other potato crops in western European countries were significantly lower than in previous years. In France, the country where Our Lady appeared, the potato crop was down by 20% in 1845. Although the French diet was only partially dependent on potatoes, the blight created hardship because, on average, each Frenchmen consumed 1.1 lbs of potatoes per day. Furthermore, the wheat crop in France was down by 25% and rye was down 20% for
the year 1846 in agreement with what Our Lady warned.
As Our Lady wept and warned in September 1846, the worst was yet to come. Although hopes were high in Ireland during the planting in June 1846 for a good potato harvest in August, the blight returned with more virulence than ever, ruining entire crops overnight. 1846 was the peak year of late blight infestation ravaging about 88% of Ireland’s and 19% of France’s entire potato crop.
A victim of the famine, Diarmuid O’Donovan Rossa, related, “My brother and I went up the hill to dig the potatoes. He was the digger and I was the picker. He dug over two hundred yards of a piece of ridge, and all the potatoes I picked after him would not fill a skillet. They were no larger than marbles.”
Here is an eyewitness account of someone at Christmastime, 1846 in Ireland, the time when Our Lady of LaSalette warned, “They will continue to go bad, at Christmas there will be none left.”
“Women and little children were scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half-naked, shivering in the snow and sleet…while their children screamed with hunger.”
There were responses to the growing hunger. Relief services set up soup kitchens throughout Ireland. Donations poured in from all over, but mostly from England, Canada and the United States. Most charitable groups dispensed their soup and food unconditionally, however a small number of Protestant soup kitchens only fed those Catholics whom first gave up their faith and converted to Protestantism. That practice was the rare exception to the relief efforts, but it also demonstrates the tension between the Irish Catholics and Protestants that was evident then.
The succeeding years brought slightly better potato harvests, but by now so many of the poor were weakened by months of hunger and malnutrition that diseases were taking hold and decimating the poorest classes of people, especially the young and old. Dysentery and cholera spread from drinking unclean water and through flies. The worst disease, however, was Typhus, also known as Black Fever. Spread by lice, Black Fever victim’s blood vessels would swell and burst in the skin and brain. The skin of the victim would then turn black from the broken and blocked blood vessels and spread throughout the body. A high fever and delirium accompanied this pathology with the victim eventually dying from heart failure. It is estimated that one million people died from hunger and disease during the famine.
To escape the dire situation in their homeland, a large proportion of people emigrated, mostly to Canada and the United States. One million Irish men, women and children left the Emerald Isle to survive in a new country with more opportunities.
As of 2004, the population of Ireland was 4 million people, about half of what it was before the great famine. The religious vocations and devout Irish-Catholic families that sprang up from the Irish emigration were like more flowers planted in a new garden that would produce millions and millions more flowers for triumph. Today about 34.5 million people in the United States claim Irish descent and although precipitated by tragedy, the “going away” from Ireland has enriched and ennobled our own country in vast ways, seen and unseen.