An hour’s drive from the medieval fortress of Alençon, framed against the rolling wooded hills of Normandy, lies the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Montligeon. Consecrated in 1911, it is the only basilica on earth dedicated to the Holy Souls.
Though it sits in the markedly medieval landscape of Normandy, Montligeon fits seamlessly into the patchwork of shrines – of Lourdes and nearby Lisieux – that grew out of the Catholic revival in the late 19th century.
The spiritual fraternity that resides in Montligeon, the Association for the Deliverance of Souls in Purgatory, was founded by l’Abbé Paul Buguet in 1884.
When Buguet arrived at the parish of La Chappelle-Montligeon nearly ten years earlier, the small rural commune had been suffering the effects of the great depression that plagued French agriculture at the time. Mechanisation had put an end to cottage weaving and the young fled to the cities seeking new, more promising futures. Buguet, like many other priests at the time, turned entrepreneur to bring employment to his flock but with little success.
Two years before, Buguet’s brother had died in a neighbouring parish, crushed by a bell that came loose from its moorings. His two nieces died soon afterwards of grief.
Faced with the twin motivations of family tragedy and an impoverished parish, Buguet formed a plan.
In his own words: “I sought to reconcile a double goal: to have people pray for neglected souls and, in return, to obtain from them the means of providing a livelihood for the worker. In my mind, it was like a “do ut des” [“I give what you give”] between the souls in Purgatory and the poor forsaken souls here on earth. It was a reciprocated deliverance.”
Not long after the Fraternity was formalised, Buguet had the first of his successful business ventures with a printing press. Its oeuvres helped him spread news of his apostolate as he toured France, Europe and eventually the United States to go in search of funds to build a church. He earned the nickname “the travelling salesman of the souls in Purgatory”.
And in 1896, the first stones of the basilica were laid.
Driving to Montligeon on the southern road, it is evident why the basilica is called the “cathedral in the fields”. As you leave the lanes of leafy hedgerows, it suddenly emerges. Its twin spires and the body of the church tower up out of the hills in a sprawling mass.
Elevated above the village of La Chappelle-Montligeon, you must approach the basilica up a double avenue, edged by trees and a row of sandy-coloured cottages, and then up a broad stone staircase to reach it.
Like all neo-Gothic buildings, up close, it looks a little too neat – too tidy and clean – to seem real. But the Tessier family, who designed it and oversaw its construction, knew their craft.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the exterior is the panel above the western entrance. Set in the pale limestone of Charente, a crowd of both crowned and bareheaded men and women seek blessing from Christ on the left, as Death, scythe in hand, looks on patiently from the right – a reminder to pilgrims, if any were needed, of what awaits us all.
It was quiet when I paid my visit. The basilica was almost empty. The overcast skies and the air, thick and cold after the morning rain, weighed heavily on the day. What little light breached the clouds trickled into the church through four levels of stained-glass windows, depicting the lives of saints and scenes from the end of days.
A vast 16-ton statue of Our Lady looms over the altar. In one arm, she holds her son while two female figures sit at her feet.
Both figures have been said to represent one soul: on the left in Purgatory, she sits supplicant before Mary, who extends a hand; on the right, the other is crowned by the infant Christ as she enters heaven, freed from her suffering.
The six bays of the nave are flanked by side aisles and a series of chapels. Each chapel is dedicated to a given cause. One is dedicated to children lost to miscarriage or abortion; another, with a bulky metal statue of a man on a cross and two verses from Luke, is dedicated to criminals and convicts.
Walking the aisles of the basilica, it doesn’t take you long to reach for your last experience of death.
For me, it was my uncle. He died of a stroke some short months before my visit, in Zimbabwe, at just 66.
The grief did not come immediately, it took its time. Not long, though always longer than expected.
With the travel restrictions, none of the family in England could go to comfort those few who were in Zimbabwe. Most of my uncle’s siblings and his children had to grieve from half a world away.
Inevitably, the funeral was on Zoom. It was good – love, tenderness and grief bound in perfect harmony. But a cameraman, no matter how hard he tries, directs your eye. He robs your grief of itself, by pointing it at something else.
And though what family was in England met afterwards – to break bread, raise glasses and speak loving words – something remained unsaid.
This sombre thought in mind, I head to the Hermitage – which doubles as accommodation and administrative hub to the sanctuary – to meet the rector, Don Paul Denizot. He reaches reception shortly after I do. His black soutane wafts past him as he stops to greet me, his round, kindly face smiling behind black glasses.
We settle into armchairs in a room overlooking the sanctuary to talk.
It is hard to discuss death amid the wealth and ease of our wellbeing-oriented society, he says.
“We hide it. We no longer have wakes, neither at home or at funerals. Perhaps the Church has questions to answer here – it doesn’t discuss death much either.”
But at Montligeon, they do encourage it. They welcome those who have lost and give them a means to discuss death.
Inevitably, Covid emerges in discussion. “During the pandemic,” he observes, “we didn’t confront the question of death. It was a health panic. And behind that of course there is an anxiety around death, an ‘I don’t want to die’, but it wasn’t named as such.”
It was never dealt with directly and remains an open wound.
To discuss death is to explain a part of a mourner’s suffering, Denizot asserts. “When people you love have died, there is an objective suffering.” But there is also another – the loneliness of grief.
“After the funeral, it’s done. You have to turn the page. And, good luck. In this period, the pain is terrible for six months, one year, five years.”
In one case, an atheist came to spend time at the sanctuary to discuss the death of his wife. When Denizot spoke to him about why he had come, the man said simply, “Where else can I go?”
“And that’s it, who will listen to them?” Denizot asks. “Even 20 years later, we have need to discuss [our dead], to say ‘this person existed’.”
As Don Denizot gets up to leave – he must go to the basilica to say Mass – he concludes on a cheering note.
“It can seem naive, but behind [the reciprocity between living and dead] there is the profound idea of the communion of saints.”
“Even though we can no longer see or feel the dead, the loving link between the dead and the living still lives.”
And for that I am grateful.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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