NOTRE DAME DE MONTAIGU
The French word “ Montaigu ” is originating from the Latin “ mons acutus “, meaning “sharp hill” and in Dutch “ Scherpenheuvel ”. It is located in Belgium, near Louvain in the archdiocese of Malines-Brussels. The oldest written source for this Marian devotion dates from the 13th century. But its origin lies far ago in history. When mother nature was venerated by pagan religion and druids gathered around the magical oak trees.
In 1400, the inhabitants of the village of Zichem, which enclosed also the hamlet of Montaigu (or Scherpenheuvel), wrote a public document. They declared that their parents and grandparents always told stories about a statue. It was famous for the healings of all kinds of diseases, but mostly of fever. This statue was located in the woods of Montaigu, fixed on an old oak tree. Their ancestors told stories about healings, there, occurring almost every day.
The oldest writings which tell us about the Christian origin of the statue of Montaigu came from Philip Numan, lawyer and humanist, born in Brussels. His work “Miracles de Nôtre-Dame advenue au Montaigu“ is dating from 1603. According to his writings, one day around the year 1500, a shepherd was leading his flock of sheep grazing on the hill of Montaigu. He found the statue of the Virgin that had fallen from an old oak tree. The shepherd taught he could appropriate the statue for himself. The moment he laid his hands on the statue, he felt his feet anchored to the ground. He tried to move away but all attempts were in vain. When evening came, the owner of the sheep didn’t see his shepherd coming home. So he went looking worried on the sharp hills. When he found the shepherd and saw the statue, his first action was to place the statue back onto the oak tree. Suddenly, the invisible force grounding the shepherd disappeared. He could walk freely again. The shepherd devotedly bowed before the statue of the Holy Virgin Mary.
This story spread widely very fast and brought upon a large number of pilgrims. The renown of Montaigu was so great. For example, in 1572, the great Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, made a halt at Montaigu. Before he and his troops marched on Zichem, he made it a duty to first greet the miraculous statue of the Holy Virgin Mary, into the woods of the sharp hills of Montaigu.
One day around 1579, the statue disappeared. It was a dark period of time. Heretic Beggars and bandit knights, iconoclasts, and church looters terrified this region. Did they destroyed it or threw it away in the forest? Or steal it for resale? A mystery…
The devotion to Notre dame of Montaigu went under a terrible time of trial. But the fire of faith burned so hard that pilgrims continued to arrive. Holy Mary didn’t interrupt the course of miraculous healings during the 7 years when the oak tree was deprived of the Statue.
An octogenarian man from the region, named Arnout Van Inne, testified in 1506 that he personally knew 200 peoples healed by Notre Dame of Montaigu. In Zichem, when someone was sick, friends and family immediately went and seek the intercession of the Virgin.
This way, Notre Dame conducted slowly to the means She had of intention. Which they were, will be unveiled in a near future.
In 1602, the priest of Zichem, abbot Godfried Van Thienwinckel, ordered the building of a wooden chapel underneath the protection of a shadow providing a linden tree. The Statue was placed into the chapel and the oak tree was cut down. From the wood of the oak tree, many statues were made, but none became notorious for producing miracles.
The wooden chapel received rapidly the consecration of a first miracle. On the 3rd of January 1603, three peoples from Zichem came on pilgrimage inside the small sanctuary. They prayed on their knees at the feet of the altar, when one of them noticed a drop of blood on the lips of the Statue of the Holy Virgin. The pilgrim wipes off the drop when forthwith more drops of blood reappear. The other companions testify for this prodigy. They also try to wipe the blood from the lips of the Statue, and also the drops reappeared. The miracle wasn’t dubious as the Statue never received any coloring that could explain this phenomenon. The three pilgrims confirmed later on and under oath to a magistrate of Zichem that they personally experienced the prodigious event.
That same year, there was such affluence of devotees, that only on the day of Nativity of the Holy Virgin, the number of pilgrims reaches 200.000.
It was then, the age of the blessed reign of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. These pious royals decided to replace the wooden chapel by a stone chapel. The first stone was placed, in their name, by the count Frederic Van den Berg, on the 19th of July 1603.
In 1604, the chapel had again to endure a new trial. Three months after the benediction and a few days before the Nativity of the Holy Virgin. People reported that a group of heretic knights was approaching Montaigu. Their anti-religious rage was known and there was fear for what would happen to the sanctuary. In a haste, the Holy Sacrament, the Statue of the Virgin, the sacred vases, and all precious objects were placed into safety. When the heretic Beggar knights arrived, they had almost nothing to plunder. Furious, they burned the houses and try to destroy the sanctuary. But the fire wouldn’t take. So they burned the altar inside the chapel, destroyed the paintings, the images, and the confessional. They left discontent. Holy Mary not only didn’t permit that Her sanctuary was destroyed, but She gave a clear signal of Her power against Her enemies. A knight that rode a blind horse passed by the chapel and laughed aloud: “ You are the one that helps people and gives back sight to the blind. Behold here is my horse, give him back his eyes. “ In one instant, the horse was given back sight, but the knight was even so suddenly blind. That same man testified later on before the magistrates of Weert (in the Netherlands) on that phenomenon.
The Archdukes Albert and Isabella contributed after these events, to the restoration of the chapel. Trees were planted all around. In their shades, seven smaller chapels were built. Montaigu was separated from Zichem and became an independent town. In 1606 great indulgences were obtained by Pope Pius V, in favor of those that visited the sanctuary. The pilgrimage became so great that soon the chapel was too small. So in 1607, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella decided to replace the chapel by a church. They placed themselves in 1609 the first stone in presence of the Cardinal and Archbishop of Malines and the whole royal court. It took 18 years of the building until the benediction of the church on the 6th of July 1627. A chef-d’oeuvre in honor of the Holy Virgin Mary.
The Archdukes and other greater noblemen were very generous to the sanctuary of Montaigu. It became soon, one of the richest sanctuaries of the country. Only a few sanctuaries in the world had the privilege to receive visits from famous personages such as in Montaigu. It even had visits of Saint John Berchmans, that was born and lived nearby, in the city of Diest. He went every week, with the rosary in the hand, praying at the sanctuary of Montaigu.
During the next two hundred years, Montaigu enjoyed an era of great prosperity. This was since the Papal decree of Pope Urban VIII (27th of December 1624). The Oratorian brothers served the sanctuary in tranquility. Notable is also the fact that during that time, the Holy Virgin delivered the inhabitants of Montaigu, rapidly from the pest epidemic. The people were so grateful that they held a procession with torches and candles, in honor of the Virgin. Which they repeated every year after that and which they still do nowadays. Every year on the anniversary date, the first Sunday after All Saints.
Unfortunately, the time approaches wherein a devastating torrent of destruction is coming from the south. The French Revolution. On the 5th of January 1797, the convent of the Oratorians is eliminated and their goods were sold. On the 27th of September that year, the religious mass is suspended. On the 5th of January 1798, the goods that weren’t placed in safety on time are confiscated. Peoples even to scared to enter the church and follow religious service. This until in 1802, when religious liberty was again admitted. The Oratorians again took service in the sanctuary and the pilgrimages regained bit by bit again their former glory.
Seventy years later on the 25th of August 1872, the statue of Notre Dame of Montaigu was crowned in name of Pope Pius IX by the Cardinal Dechamps, Archbishop of Malines. A plenary indulgence was accorded to all who came and pray before the Statue on the day of this anniversary.
It is said that on the place where now is the altar, is the same place where, long ago, was standing a majestic old oak tree where the statue of the Virgin Mary appeared.
On the 50th anniversary of the Crowing of Notre Dame of Montaigu, the church was lifted to the dignity of Basilica Minor. This by Papal Decree of Pope Pius XI, on the 2nd of May 1922,
Extra info and something interesting to know, is the presence in the Basilica of Our lady of Montaigu of a statue to Saint Damian of Molokai. He lived near Montaigu and made the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Montaigu, just before he left for his mission on Molokai, where he helped the leper and finally died there.
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