Historical dictionary  vol.: 1  let.: M

Marseilles, Notre-Dame de La Garde

Marian Shrine; Oblate House from 1830 till 1903
At the summit of a hill a hundred and sixty meters high, near the old fort of Marseilles, in the XIII century, an oratory was built and dedicated to Notre-Dame de la Garde. In a short time, it began to draw pilgrims, especially sailors, who came to implore the protection of Our Good Mother.

Notre-Dame de la Garde (Hubenig).

In 1524, in preparation for the siege with which Charles V threatened the town, François I built a fort which surrounded the oratory. The latter remained however a place of devotion always frequented until the first years of the French Revolution. In 1802, the chapel was restored as a place of worship. As In the past, the priest went up to celebrate Mass on Saturdays, Sundays and Feast days.

When appointed Bishop of Marseilles, Mgr. Fortuné de Mazenod wanted to nurture the devotion of the faithful; he named a chaplain to celebrate Mass each morning. However it was not easy to find a priest ready to make this rough ascent and pilgrimage of more than an hour’s walk, up and down, from the old fort.

The Ministry of the Chapel Entrusted to the Oblates
The Oblate community of Le Calvaire, always quite numerous, counted several young Fathers. Bishop Fortuné‚ asked the Superior to add this ministry to the various works of the house. Among the first Oblate chaplains we know are Joseph Touche in 1830-1831, Marius Bernard from 1831 till 1833, François Noël Moreau in 1834, Jean-Baptiste Honorat in 1835, Jacques Eymard in 1835-1836, Étienne Semeria and Antoine Rolleri from 1837 till 1841 and especially Jean-Antoine Bernard from 1841 till 1862. This Father can rightfully be considered the true restorer of this place of pilgrimage in the last century; the citizens of Marseilles soon referred to him as “the priest of Our Good Mother”.

An affable and devoted man, a good preacher, often in demand in the parishes of the city, Father attracted pilgrims to Notre-Dame de la Garde, where he spent the morning for confessions and Mass. Full of initiative and daring, he worked at the same time for the material restoration of the chapel.

Marseilles, Statue of Notre-Dame de la Garde (GA).

The silver statue had disappeared during the Revolution. Fr. Bernard got a new statue made, blessed by Bishop Fortuné‚ on July 2, 1837. He then succeeded in getting one of the heaviest bells then known in France, weighing eight thousand, two hundred and thirty-four kilograms cast in Lyon. This famous bourdon which still exists, was blessed by Bishop de Mazenod on October 5, 1845. Finally, Fr. Bernard conceived the project of a new church. This initiative pleased Bishop de Mazenod who, passing through Paris in 1850, used all his influence and friendship to obtain from the President of the Republic, the future Napoleon III, a decree ceding the land necessary for the construction of a chapel of the largest possible dimensions, always within the limits of the fort. The old oratory was torn down, a temporary chapel was constructed and on September 11, 1953, the foundation stone was laid by Bishop de Mazenod and the deputy Mayor of Marseilles, the Count of Chantérac, in the presence of about a hundred thousand pilgrims.

This building, the work of architect Vaudoyer and contractor Bérengier, cost a lot. By an Instruction of November 1, 1852, Bishop de Mazenod appealed to the generosity of the citizens of Marseilles and also obtained Government permission to launch a national lottery organized by Fr. Bernard. He had the joy of seeing the completion of the crypt in 1858, but it is his successor Bishop Patrice François-Marie Cruice who presided at the consecration of the new shrine, on June 4 and 5, 1864, in the presence of about fifty Cardinals and Bishops and a few hundred thousand pilgrims.

The Oblates at the Shrine from 1864 till 1903

The overly enterprising Fr. Bernard clashed with the lay members of the administrative council. Bishop Cruice had to remove him and name one of his Vicars General as president of the council; however he kept the Oblates on as chaplains. After an agreement with the Bishop, four Fathers and three Brothers received a salary and had to devote the greater part of their time to the pilgrims, whose numbers, after 1864, were estimated at more than half a million every year. Dr. Fabre, a fervent and devoted member of the administrative council, succeeded, after 1870, in organizing a daily pilgrimage from Marseilles, composed of parish groups, associations, schools etc. Each day of the month of May, a parish of the diocese went up to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Organized pilgrimages arrived also from other dioceses of France and even from Italy, Spain and Belgium. In general they involved pilgrims who stopped to greet Our Good Mother en route to Rome, the Holy Land or Lourdes. Almost every year the chronicler of the Codex historicus noted the Notre-Dame de la Garde extraordinary cures and the gifts of ex-voto offerings for favours received.

The Corpus Christi procession was still, in the last century, one of the most popular religious celebrations of the city; on this occasions the triumph of the Mother had to be joined to that of Her Son. Thus the statue of Notre-Dame de la Garde left her shrine temporarily for two days and was taken around different parts of the city. She spent the night at Le Calvaire. The civil authorities forbade this procession first from 1870 till 1872 and then permanently after 1878.

All through the 19th century the administrative council, often aided by the municipal council, undertook various works, in particular the enlargement of the sacristy, the interior decoration of the crypt and the upper church. and above all, the construction of a route suitable for vehicles and a flight of stairs. On June 10, 1879, at the request of Bishop Louis Robert, Pope Leo XIII elevated the church to the status of a minor basilica.

The Oblate House of Notre-Dame de la Garde (1850-1903)
Fr. Bernard and his confreres, at the service of Notre-Dame de la Garde, resided at Le Calvaire till 1850. The Congregation then rented a house half-way up the hill, rue Montée-de-l’Oratoire. Bishop de Mazenod installed the community there on December 16 1850 and bought the property in 1852. Fr. Bernard the first Superior lengthened the building by eight meters and built a second floor. It then comprised sixteen rooms, a chapel, a kitchen, a dining room and a few halls. Little by little, the Brothers added a beautiful garden with walls, water tanks and ramps etc.

House of the Sanctuary Chaplains (GA).

Eight Superiors succeeded one another in rapid succession except Frs. Jean-Antoine Bernard, who remained there from 1850 till 1962, Charles Baret, from 1868 till 1875 and above all Léopold Gigaud, from 1877 till 1899.

Bishop de Mazenod loved to form communities of several Oblates in order to better maintain regularity and fraternal charity. The community of Notre-Dame always comprised about twelve Oblates: Fathers and Brothers In charge of the shrine and the care of the house, and a few missionaries. From the month of May 1855 and for a few years afterwards, all the rooms still free were occupied by young Fathers, obliged to follow what was called “the great course”, in view of getting ready for the ministry of the Word.

If in the various shrines outside the city the Fathers could be absent from the month of November until the month of April in order to preach missions, in Marseilles they could not do so because pilgrims crowded in throughout the year. The Fathers were nevertheless chaplains of prisons and of many religious communities. They also preached often in the parishes of the city while the team of three or four missionaries covered the other parishes of the diocese or of the neighbouring dioceses. One can provide a precise list of their labours only for the final years of the 19th century. For example, from 1887 till 1893, the four missionaries and four chaplains gave three missions, eighteen Lenten retreats and seventy-two retreats. From 1893 till 1898, they preached seven missions, eight Lents, five Advents, ninety retreats, three months of May and fifteen Octaves. At Notre-Dame de la Garde, as at Le Calvaire, Oblates ceaselessly proclaimed the Word of God.

The Expulsions
In 1880, a radical and sectarian Government decreed the dissolution of the religious Congregations of France. On October 30 1880, three commissaries came to expel the Oblates manu militari. Only Frs. Gigaud and Bovis, co-proprietors. could remain there as guardians of the house. The other Fathers and Brothers went to live in friendly families. They continued however, to minister at the shrine and preach as before; they even came back to the house soon afterwards for dinner and for community meetings.

The confiscation of properties, announced as being certain, did not take place at the time. It seems as if this semi-dispersion of the community lasted only a few years. In the codex of the house in May 1886, it is noted that the Fathers and Brothers expelled in 1880, should momentarily remain outside the house during the census.

The law of 1880 was enforced again in 1903 and this time the properties were confiscated. On April 12, 1903 the Oblates of Notre-Dame de la Garde received the order to dissolve their community; they were expelled fifteen days afterwards. On the following May 10 Mgr. Paulin Andrieu, Bishop of Marseilles, named Abbé Caudray rector of the Basilica.

The house was put up for auction in 1906, but no buyer appeared. In 1907 it was bought for a very low price by Bishop Laurent, with the intention, it seems, of giving it back to the Oblates one day; but at his death in 1921, Mgr. Antoine Fabre, Bishop of Marseilles, bought it from the heirs. The Oblates protested. The matter was taken up before the Congregation of the Council which, on December 14, 1923, ordered the diocese to give them 35,000 francs.

Regarding service at the Basilica, Vicar General Louis Borel informed the Provincial Fr. Antonin Guinet that the diocesan Priests were “unanimous in wanting the direction of Notre-Dame de la Garde to be reserved definitively to the diocesan clergy”. The Oblates understood that they should not hope any more to get back a Marian shrine so dear to their hearts and that of Bishop de Mazenod too.

Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.

Sources and Bibliography
General Archives, Rome: Notre-Dame de la Garde, France-Midi Province.
Register of Notre-Dame de la Garde, 1872–1891, 277 pages.
Codex historicus of the house of Notre-Dame de la Garde, 1850 - 1903, 279 pages.
Journal of the house, 1875-1898, and collection of various articles in the newspapers referring to Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Missions OMI, passim, see especially 1864.
Ortolan, Théophile, o.m.i., Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée, Paris, 1914, t. 1, p. 417-425.

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