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Sep 23, 2008

Betharram's history

In the Country of Our Lady

By Roberto Cornara

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In the South West of France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, there is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Betharram. In a particular way, the Virgen has taken over the whole región. – Lourdes, the center of pilgrimages known world wide, is 15 kilometers from there. In the XIX century, Saint Michael Garicoïts made there the cradle of a new community, the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

According to some, the origin of the Sanctuary goes back to the XI century, at a time when the whole of Europe, instigated by Saint Bernard, was covered by homes of Marian devotion. When returning from their campaigns against the Moors, the knights of the Crusades came to render homage to the Virgen. Betharram was also a stage for the pilgrims who marched through from all over Europe toward Compostelle. Its name appears for the first time in 1493 under the term of Gataram.

The popular tradition bears witness to three miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary in this place.

One day that the shepherds were leading their flocks along the mountain stream – Gave – they were suddenly attracted by a very bright light coming from the rocks. When they approached and were near, they saw a beautiful image of the Virgin. As soon as the people of the village of Lestelle were informed, they decided to build a chapel to put in a statue, but on the opposite side of the stream, because of the lack of space there where they had found her. But, every time they placed her there, mysteriously, she crossed to the other side of the stream. The people from the village then understood that Mary wanted to remain in the initial place. And so it was then that they constructed the first Marian Building of Betharram.

The second miracle dates back to the year 1616. Some peasants from Montaut, not far from Lestelle, were returning after a long hard day of work out in the fields, when a violent wind rose and devastated the hill threatening Betharram. The cyclone beated on the great wooden cross at the summit. But as soon as it fell on the ground, it was seen completely surrounded by a halo of light. The news rapidly spread around the country, and an immense crowd gathered there coming in procession to the chapel of Betharram to thank God for this prodigy.

Now we come to the third extraordinary event; this is important since it gave its name to Betharram. A young girls bent over the edge of the Gave – the mountain stream – to pick a flower, and she fell head long first into the swirling, whirling water. She was about to get drowned when she invoked the Virgin of the Sanctuary, with a loud cry. Miraculously, a branch appeared: and in this way she was able to heave to the shore and save her life. As a sign of gratitude, she wanted to offer a golden branch to the Madonna, and thus she became for all the Virgin of Betharram – that is to say – “a beautiful branch”, in the local dialect.

To these three miracle, narrated by ancient authors, popular piety has added many others, of a similar nature. One of these was even mentioned by Bernadette Soubirous; upset because of the great curiosity of which she was the object, one day the saint exclaimed: “Why seek at all cost to see me? What more do I have than others? God serves himself of me just as he served himself of the bullocks of Betharram”. Bernadette refers here to a tradition according to which some bullocks went away from the herd to dig the ground, and they found on their hoof a statue of the Virgin.

Whatever may be the historical exactitude, these miracles give witness to a fundamental truth: Betharram has always been considered as a sacred place, which has nourished faith and the Marian devotion. Throughout the times, pilgrims who come to place themelves under the protection of the Virgin are always more numerous. Hubert Charpentier (1565 –1650), a priest architect had the idea to open a hospice for the pilgrims and a house for the priests in charge, who also rendered services in the parishes around. And thus, the first chapel was enlarged in order to build a Sanctuary worthy of that name, extended by a monastery belonging to the chaplains of Betharram. In addition, Hubert Charpentier also had a monumental Way of the Cross –Via Crucis – set up above the Sanctuary at the side of the hill.

The whole gave way to make this Sanctuary one of the most visited in France in the XVII-XVIII centuries, the golden centuries of Betharram. At that time it was the third most popular pilgrimage of the Kingdom, according to Saint Vincent de Paul. But the French Revolution interrupted this expansion, at the end of the XVIII century, destroyed the Calvary, confiscated the property and expelled the chaplains. The only thing saved was the Sanctuary.

Roberto Cornara, archivist

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