In July 1830, the Blessed Mother appeared to Catherine Labouré, a novice of the Daughters of Charity, who was living in the community’s motherhouse in Paris, on the Rue de Bac. In this first apparition, Our Lady told young Catherine, “The whole world will be turned upside-down by misfortunes of all kinds.” She continued, “There will be victims. … My child, the Cross will be held in contempt. It will be thrown to the ground and trampled. Blood will flow. … Our Saviour’s side will be opened anew. … My child, the whole world will be plunged into gloom.”
In this first apparition, and in a second apparition during November of the same year, Mary spoke a solution to the grave situation she described months earlier. She told Catherine, “But come to the foot of this altar. There, graces will be poured out on all those, small or great, who ask for them with confidence and fervour.” The promise was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with the assistance of Our Lady’s intercession, would strengthen Christians against the portent that was gathering around France and all of Europe.
In the second apparition, the Blessed Mother made an additional request. She directed the young novice to have a medal stamped as a reminder of this important message, and then she revealed the design for both sides of the Miraculous Medal. Our Lady described the significance of the image, specifically pointing out the symbolism of the rays of light emanating from her fingers. Her statement was meant to remind Sr. Catherine, and to remind us, that we can constantly be interceding for the world; and that we can never exhaust the available graces.
With the minting of the medal, and with sharing the devotion, came a promise: “All who wear it will receive great graces…. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.” Thus, the devotion to the Miraculous Medal was born and, since 1832, the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity have been constant in their efforts to this devotion through which Mary offers a message of hope to the world. That is the reason for the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which stands in Perryville, Missouri, just eighty miles south of St. Louis.
The Vincentian community had arrived in St. Louis in 1818, before the apparitions of Mary in Paris. Originally, the site only contained a parish church, called St. Mary of the Barrens, along with the Vincentian seminary. The site was the locus for works of mercy and education in the region that was still sparsely inhabited after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The parish maintains the memory of its Vincentian origins as the tomb of the community’s first superior in the United States, Fr. Felix DeAndreis, resides inside the church.
The church that currently stands on the site was consecrated in 1837 by the Bishop of St. Louis, also a Vincentian. The structure is a one-third-scale replica of the community’s motherhouse in Rome. Inside the church, there is beautiful and inspiring art, including marble altars, statues and paintings. All of the art draws together the story of Vincentian community and their significant devotions, including devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Other prominent figures include St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Merillac, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Catherine Labouré, and Fr. Alphonsus Ratisbonne, whose conversion from Judaism was initiated by the Miraculous Medal.
In addition to the paintings and the exquisite marble altars, in a secluded corner of the church, there is a quiet chapel that contains a statue of Our Lady of Grace as the focal point. The room is filled with light emitted by votive candles, and it is tinted by blue stained glass. It reminds pilgrims that our lives should be filled with the light of Jesus Christ and also colored by the life and devotion of the Blessed Mother.
The parts of the shrine outside the church building also offer pilgrims the potential for deepening their devotion to the message. These opportunities happen along the half-mile Rosary walk that begins a short distance from the main entrance of the church. This path, open every day of the year, incite pilgrims to seek Mary’s intercession for our contemporary world, asking for those graces that she promised at Rue de Bac.
Along the Rosary walk, there are a few special sites that a pilgrim ought to see. First, there are two small grottoes that commemorate each of the apparitions in Paris in 1830. Each includes a beautiful sculpture corresponding to the July and November apparitions. Then, about halfway through the Rosary walk, is the site that the shrine calls its crown jewel. It is a grotto that was hand-built by Vincentian seminarians, completed in 1918. For more than a century, it has been a site of prayer, procession, and pilgrimage. Each of these grottoes offers an opportunity to ponder particular elements of the message.
Tour groups and families traveling along Interstate 55, or visiting St. Louis, ought to add this shrine to the itinerary. Shrines like this one allow ordinary road trips and vacations to be transformed a into pilgrimages, journeys imbued by faith that have the potential to be turning points in our lives. Making an average trip into a pilgrimage reminds us that our whole life is a pilgrimage, and that we need to allow God’s grace, mediated through the Blessed Mother, to illuminate and penetrate our lives. That, after all, is the message that our Blessed Mother has announced consistently during each of her apparitions in the modern era, including Rue de Bac.