In 2008, Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco Leandri, the bishop of Gap in the French Alps, celebrated a special Mass to announce the Vatican’s approval of Marian apparitions in that diocese that occurred between 1664 and 1718.

Although the location of the apparitions to Venerable Benôite (Benedicta) Rencurel and the shrine founded there have been drawing pilgrims since the late 17th century, Our Lady of Laus is relatively unknown outside of France. The website for the shrine is available only in French and Italian, for example, and the nearest airport is in Grenoble, about 60 mountain miles away.

The shrine of Our Lady of Laus may be obscure to those outside the region, but her message of reconciliation, with its emphasis on repentance, the Sacrament of Penance and reparation for sins should be better known. Our Lady of Laus is known as the Refuge of Sinners. As she appeared to Benôite Rencurel for more than half a century, she repeated a call for holiness and devotion among the laity and for faithfulness among priests and religious. The Mother of God also promised miraculous healings for those anointed with holy oil if they had faith in her intercession.

Mary’s calls for repentance, warnings against unfaithfulness and scandal, and requests for a shrine to be built in Laus are all common attributes of the Marian apparitions recognized by the Church. Since they are private revelations, Catholics are not required to believe in them. Like other Marian apparitions — for example, at Rue de Bac in Paris (St. Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous Medal); La Sallette, also in the French Alps; and most famously at Lourdes (St. Bernadette Soubirous) — Our Lady of Laus offers guidance for devotion and personal holiness.

An Orphaned Shepherdess

Benôite Rencurel was an orphan, born on Sept. 16, 1657, in Saint-Etienne d’Avancon. After her father died when she was only 7 years old, she helped her family by serving as shepherdess for a neighbor. Benôite had not learned to read or write; her only source of education was the parish church and the sermons she heard at Mass.

In May 1664, she saw a beautiful lady holding a child in her arms and standing on a rock in the valley of Laus, where Benôite was guarding her neighbor’s flocks and praying the Rosary. Her simple response, offering to share the hard bread she had to eat after softening it in the nearby fountain, made the beautiful lady smile. Her desire to hold the little child made the lady smile again, but she left without saying a word.

Over the next four months, the beautiful lady, whose name Benôite did not know, returned daily to instruct her on her mission. Benôite told her neighbor about the lady, and the neighbor did not believe her. Following Benôite to the valley one day, she heard the lady — although she did not see her — warn Benôite that her neighbor was in spiritual danger: “She had something on her conscience” and needed to confess her sins and do penance, because she took the name of Our Lord in vain. Benôite’s neighbor took this message to heart and did penance for the rest of her life.

Statue of Mary and Benôite Photos: ND du Laus

Benôite finally asked the lady who she was. “My name is Mary,” she replied. Mary called on Benôite to pray for sinners and work for their conversion. She asked Benôite to meet her at a chapel in Laus which was to be used as a shrine. Once the diocese recognized the authenticity of the apparitions, the same chapel was replaced by a larger church, the present shrine church. The miraculous healings with the oil from the sanctuary lamps continued, drawing more and more pilgrims to Laus. (At the present time, more than 120,000 travel there yearly.)

Like all visionaries, Benôite knew suffering and misunderstanding. After all, she was a simple peasant instructing priests on how to welcome penitents with kindness and charity in the Sacrament of Penance to encourage them to confess their sins and repent. Benôite also urged young girls and older women to be modest, sometimes correcting their dress or behavior. She became a Third Order Dominican and received visions of Jesus in His passion from 1669 to 1679. Among these five visions, Jesus told her once, “My daughter, I show myself in this state so that you can participate in My passion.” Benôite mystically participated in the sufferings of Christ for 15 years, enduring great pain starting every Thursday evening and continuing until Saturday morning. On Christmas Day 1718, she received holy Communion; on the feast of the Holy Innocents, she went to confession, received extreme unction and died. Bishop di Falco Leandri, in addition to urging the Vatican approval of the apparitions — the first approval in this century and the first approved in France since Lourdes — has also supported the cause for Benôite’s canonization.

Our Lady of Laus, Refuge of Sinners, pray for us!

Stephanie A. Mann writes from Kansas