Some places become special for reasons no-one can remember, and that is true of a little patch of land by a lane leading to the manoir du pas de la Vente, near Passais. For more than a millennia this has been a place of hope, desperation and occasionally, prayers answered. It is now also home to some remarkable 20th century art.
Back in the sixth and eight centuries hermits St Fraimbault and St Simeon evangelize around here, but nearby Neolithic remnants suggest older prayers may first have found this place.
A prayers answered and the first oratoire
For years statues left in thanks marked the spot, including St John and St Mathew, taking in the devotions of passers-by and people in need.
During the French revolution the statues were carefully hidden away, more precious than Liberté égalité and fraternité. Their return marked a return to peace, for a while.
In 1852 the wealthy Mme Helain was unwell and prayed to the powers in this leafy lane, vowing that if she was ever well again she would build a shelter to display a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her pleas, like many here, were answered.
So the first oratoire was built near Passais. It was small and apparently looked rather like one of the local bread ovens, but it kept the Virgin Mary and her pilgrims dry.
In 1855 a little girl near death, Eugenie Roussel, was healed and a year later gave her testimony here to 1000 pilgrims.
The little oratoire could not begin to accommodate the growing number of visitors so Maria Duchatellier, daughter of the parish priest, began a collection to build a bigger chapel.
Maria’s chapel, completed in 1857, is the little building by the car park that still stands today. It protects a sweet and hopeful statue of the Virgin Mary as a young girl. When Maria died she was buried here, her grave is by the altar.
We think the screen in our postcard could have originally been inside.
A larger chapel, with a little help from friends
As the century turned the oratoire’s popularity as a place of pilgrimage grew and it was clear a larger chapel was needed. Plans were halted for a terrible war, but by 1924 work began, thanks to the determination of l’abbé Bignon.
Local people helped; M. Henri Hamon donated the field, others freely transporting stones, sand and wood. The building was completed in 1927.
A fortunate decision
Then a very fortunate decision was made. An artist born locally in Mantilly, André-Gustave Jouault, was put in charge of the interior decoration. It was an inspired choice that has given the chapel unique and surprisingly personal decorations.
André Jouault had left home for Paris as a very young man and worked at a variety of jobs to support his art (at one time as manager of a bleach factory) before making a living as an artist.
Age just 26, André left his Paris studio for sleepy Passais. He began by painting the Virgin Mary behind the altar in 1930 then the remarkable fresco ‘Procession de ages’ around the walls. This work, together with the chancel and stations of the cross, took him 22 years.
The paintings and frescos of the Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Oratoire
The style of painting is very much of its time; 1930’s stylised illustrations that tell stories. André’s people young and old, rich and poor all have a classic, distinguished look.
This is already an unusual interior for a chapel, but what makes it particularly interesting is the procession includes many people and events from the history of Passais.
Local history on the walls
The farmer who gave the land Henri Hamon, abbé Bignon, lords and ladies of Domfront stand proud. Eugenie holds her crutches high, her health restored.
The village nurse, Soeur Vitaline, who worked in the village for over 50 years stands looking over the congregation. Mme. Hélain walks her arms outstretched carrying the first chapel.
Two men are seen putting back the statues of St John and St Matthew after the French Revolution.
The scale and impact of the procession cannot be underestimated. While André’s art remembers the people and history of this place it also raises them up, a little more perfect than real life, as you would expect in the presence of the Notre Dame.
Whether for devotion, for artistic inspiration or both, the Chapelles Notre-Dame de l’Oratoire are thoroughly recommended.
Atypical artist – André Jouault
André Jouault went on to travel extensively in Africa and was professor at the college of Beau Arts in Tunis and in Madagascar. He exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Artistes Français, securing silver and gold medals and was laureate of the Institut de France. He died in 1987. The 2003 Paris retrospective described him as: ‘A painter atypical and unclassifiable, André Jouault worked with the greatest painters of his generation: Cocteau, Derain, Chagall, Miro, Brayer and Cheyssial.’
Visiting the Chapelles Notre-Dame de l’Oratoire.
The Chapelles Notre-Dame de l’Oratoire are of course more than an art gallery, they are places of worship and visitors respect this.
Open 8am – 8pm May to September and 9am to 5.30pm October to April.
Plenty of parking. Although peace can usually be assured, the chapels are quite busy during saint’s days and holidays.
- Support the restoration and upkeep of the main chapel windows via the Fondation de Patrimoine