Driving through the mellow villages and pretty countryside of the Perche Ornais (south Normandy), to see La basilique Notre-Dame de Montligeon is something of a surprise.
Standing very talk against the ancient Perche forest, the basilica was constructed in dramatic gothic style just over 100 years ago.
This isn’t the site of an ancient blessed spring, or near the birth place of a saint, it was just the parish of a kindly priest who made a deal with the souls in purgatory.
Abbé Paul-Joseph Buguet was appointed parish priest to Chapelle-Montligeon in 1878 when the small parish was in crisis. A hamlet of just a few hundred people, families were losing their incomes as factories and machines replaced cottage industries. The young people were moving to cities for work and unemployment was rising.
A parish priest
Father Buguet had recently suffered a crisis of his own. His brother Auguste was killed in 1876 while bell ringing at Mortagne-au-Perche, when a church bell came away from its supports and fell crushing him. Shortly afterwards Auguste’s two young daughters also died, apparently from grief.
From this time Paul-Joseph was haunted by the thought of forsaken souls in purgatory, particularly those with no-one to pray for them. He asked himself ‘what became of the souls of the dead?’
On his arrival at Chapelle-Montligion the kindly father, much changed for his trauma, set himself two very specific goals. He wanted to encourage people to pray for neglected souls and he wanted to help the local people to make a living, keeping the parish alive.
The travelling salesman for the souls in purgatory
In his mind prayers would encourage the souls to help the living, those struggling parishioners of Chapelle-Montligeon. He said:
“I sought to reconcile this twofold aim of praying for neglected souls, and, in return, obtaining from them the means of sustaining the workers.”
Father Buguet’s first enterprise, setting some of his parishioners up as glove makers, was not a success. So he set to work on his second task
In 1884 he explained to the Bishop of Sees his desire to pray, and encourage others to pray for lost souls. Approval was given for a mission and so he created the “Association for the Rescue of the Souls in Purgatory”. Now he was able to travel, encouraging others to pray, and to raise funds for the cause. He called himself ‘the travelling salesman for the souls in purgatory’.
Print and pilgrims
To spread the word about his mission a small printing press was set up in the presbytery, operated by one local man.
As prayers were given and souls saved the printing enterprise grew, and expanded to include publishing religious tracts and translations. Father Buguet used the profits to buy up unwanted village houses to lodge the print workers and interpreters.
The first pilgrimage to Chapelle-Montligeon, to pray for the forgotten souls took place in 1885. Soon pilgrims flocked from all over France and abroad.
By 1894 Father Buguet’s mission was so successful the print works outgrew the sheds and a new building was found for the 31 workers.
Plans for a church at Chapelle-Montligion were soon shelved – it was clear something much larger would be needed for the growing number of pilgrims. Plans for Notre-Dame de Montligion began.
‘Associates’ were encouraged to pray but also subscribe to the construction of a new church at Chapelle-Montligeon. Stones were 50 and 100 francs, with the donor welcome to have them engraved with their initials. Millions of subscribers prayed and sent what they could; as well as money, silver, gemstone and jewellery was sent to Montligeon.
Father Buguet’s mission took him first across France, then to Rome in 1893 where Pope Leo XII gave his personal encouragement, further across Europe in 1895, to America in 1897, Germany and central Europe in 1898 and Spain in 1899.
A beginning, and an end
On 22 September 1894 the first shovel hit the ground at Chapelle-Montligeon. On 4 June 1896, the first stone of the future church of Our Lady was blessed. The first Mass was held on 1 June 1911, for the first pilgrims. Work was interrupted in 1916 due to the war.
Exhausted, Abbé Buguet would not see his life’s work completed. Abbé Paul-Joseph Buguet died in Rome on 14 June 1918. His body was brought back to Montligeon and rests in the crypt.
Father Buguet’s dream comes true
50 years after the arrival of Father Buguet, in the summer of 1928 the church was complete. Thirty two granite steps lead up to an imposing limestone edifice that measures 74m long, 32m wide at the transept and 26m wide at the nave. Two towers rise 60m high into the sky, reaching for God.
On 28 August 1928, the church was consecrated and placed under the protection of Mary, liberator of souls. The following day Notre Dame de Montligeon was honoured as a Minor Basilica by Pope Pius XI.
Today the basilica is a centre of prayer for souls of the dead and every year pilgrims travel from across the globe to pray and remember loved ones. There is a network of prayer centres in countries around the world and many thousands, perhaps millions have found reassurance thanks to the work of this gentle village priest.
The print works, ‘Imprimerie de Montligeon’ now employs more than 200 people at a state of the art facility a short distance away.
The parish is thriving.
- Find out more about the Sanctuaire de Montligeon Notre-Dame de Montligeon
Find out more about the work of Notre-Dame de Montligeon