By Simon Cotton
The Cantal is one of the emptiest parts of France. When you hear what sounds like cow bells, it is not ringing in your ears or even a Mahler symphony; it most probably is the bells of the Cantal cows.
One of the few towns in this rural idyll, Mauriac stands on the zero meridian. The church of Notre Dame des Miracles is a largely Romanesque building, made into a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XV in 1921, the largest and finest church in the region. The west portal has a Romanesque sculpture (c. 1120) of the Ascension of Christ. Though mutilated, with Our Lady and the Apostles headless, it is of high quality.
Inside you first see a splendid, generously proportioned Romanesque font, its colored and sculpted bowl decorated with figures including the Baptism of Christ, Christ in Majesty, the Agnus Dei, St. Michael and the Dragon, and the Evangelistic symbols, while above the high altar is the venerated statue of Notre Dame des Miracles (said to have stopped droughts and a cholera outbreak in 1832). A characteristic 16th-century statue of the Virgin and Child, a Vierge â l’oiseau, flanks the chancel arch, while the altar in the south chapel has a retable of the virgin donating the rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena. On the outside wall is a plain cross that commemorates the Abbé Filiol, executed on May 14, 1793.
The Basilica of Notre Dame des Miracles at Mauriac has a quite wonderful silence (sadly lost to most of us today). There is no coincidence that this has produced saints. Catherine Jarrige (1754-1836), known as Catinon Menette (“Cathy the little nun”) in the local patois, was born on a farm at Doumis in the Cantal. The youngest of seven children, she worked on the farm before becoming a lacemaker when she was 20.
Devout, even from childhood, she looked after the poor all her life, begging to provide food and clothing for them. She became a Third Order Dominican, taking vows and becoming a member of the tertiary order, but really came into her own in 1791 when the French Revolution’s leaders began persecuting the Catholic Church. Priests were asked to swear an oath to the state, which many regarded as apostasy.
A death sentence awaited these non-jurors and their helpers. Priests who would not prêter le serment, as it was called, went into hiding, often in the forests, or caves; in the straw in barns; in the lofts of houses; or dovecotes. Working under cover of night, Jarrige visited the priests in their hideaways, providing them with vestments, wine, wafers, and sacred vessels, so that they could celebrate Mass.
She brought them babies to baptize. She also escorted them to remote locations; as they were in mufti, she could pretend to be their wife, often scolding them to fool the troops and gendarmes. They would pray to Our Lady of Miracles to help them. Her eye was open to all that was going on, and was always on her guard. She went into areas where even the strongest men would not venture after dark.
People said to her, “Weren’t you afraid?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “When leaving Mauriac I’d make my act of contrition, put my rosary in my hand and set off. In any case, I wasn’t alone.”
“Really, who was with you?”
“Oh, le bon Dieu!”
Sometimes she’d sing the Marseillaise or put a cockade on her hat. She was arrested several times but the Revolutionary tribunals she appeared before set her free each time. She had immense support in Mauriac and the civil authorities simply couldn’t believe that someone of such a wretched appearance could trick them as Catherine did. She saved all the priests she looked after, except one.
The 11th of 14 children, François Filiol was born at Bouval, near Mauriac, on August 22, 1764, and baptized the following day. He studied at Mauriac, then went to the seminary in Clermont-Ferrand in 1786; he was ordained priest on March 26, 1789, and became the assistant priest (Vicaire) of Drugeac, near Mauriac, in October 1790.
The next year he refused to take the oath and decided to go into exile in Spain, along with other clergy, but soon after he set off, he had a change of heart, and retraced his steps to exercise a clandestine ministry in his hometown, hiding in farms and the woods.
Betrayed, he was sent to the guillotine by the revolutionary tribunal of Aurillac. Catherine Jarrige walked with him to the scaffold by the church in Mauriac on May 14, 1793. After his martyrdom, she dipped a cloth in his blood and applied it to the face of a blind child, who saw again.
After the Revolution ended, Catherine went back to begging alms for the poor. No one would refuse her. She fed whole families and took particular care of orphans.
Blessed Catherine Jarrige was beatified by John Paul II in 1996.
Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich, and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.