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The Illustrious History of Our Lady of Victory

Victory is a theme dear to the hearts of Catholics, and that’s partly why the feast of October 7 means so much to us: it’s the glorious day Our Lady helped us save Christendom at the battle of Lepanto. In fact, it was originally called the Feast of Our Lady of Victory by Pius V, only later renamed Our Lady of the Rosary.

In keeping with this Catholic spirit, there’s a famous church in Paris dedicated to all the victories of Our Lady, past, present, and future: Notre Dame des Victoires, in the 2nd arrondissement. Mozart liked to say his rosary there when he was in town, and the family of St. Thérèse had close ties to it: they had a novena of Masses said when their little girl was ill, and St. Thérèse herself came there on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving after her recovery.

Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Notre Dame des Victoires was built in thanksgiving for Louis XIII’s defeat of the Protestant Huguenots at the Siege of La Rochelle — which, like Lepanto, was a victory of the rosary. During the war, Louis had ordered rosary processions throughout the kingdom; his queen, Anne of Austria, made a point of being seen at a public rosary every day, and over 15,000 sets of beads were reportedly handed out to Louis’s army.

With a classical façade and iron palings out front, it’s not the most impressive church in Paris. But step through the painted doorway, and you’ll find yourself in another world. Light and shadow, candles and pillars, archways and side-altars, stained glass and statues — everything melts into a timelessly Catholic sensation of peace and prayer. Along the top of the walls are inscribed Latin invocations to Our Lady; above the high altar we read Regina sine labe concepta: Queen conceived without sin.

Not sure if Our Lady has time to deal with your troubles? Start reading the thousands — and thousands — of ex votos that line the walls: plaques with gilded lettering, testifying to graces obtained. There are 37,170, to be exact, in a variety of languages, with dates all the way up to the present. They record every kind of blessing under the sun: conversions, cures, preservation from dangers, children born, loved ones regained, soldiers kept safe, prisoners freed. There is a wall of military decorations here, too, left by grateful soldiers at Our Lady’s feet — in more Catholic times, officers used to come to this church to consecrate their swords to her. Perhaps some still do.

If you’re still not convinced, you might approach the front for a look at the central panel behind the high altar, which depicts the Vow of Louis XIII. Louis XIII and his queen begged Our Lady for years to grant them an heir. Louis eventually vowed to consecrate France to her if their prayer was heard. Our Lady sent them little Louis “Dieudonné” — God-given — who would become the Sun King, arguably one of the greatest monarchs in French history.

But Notre Dame des Victoires is unique for another reason: Our Lady chose it to be especially dedicated to her Immaculate Heart, which is where the 19th-century parish priest Fr. Desgenettes comes in. Those were anticlerical days; hardly anyone bothered to come to Mass. After four years of seemingly fruitless labor in the parish, Fr. Desgenettes was terribly discouraged and felt tempted to resign. But one day while saying Mass at the altar of Our Lady of Victories, he heard an interior voice: “Consecrate your parish to the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

On his knees after Mass, he began to think it was only his imagination. “If I keep this up…I’ll end up a visionary,” he told himself severely — when, to his shock, the same voice repeated the command. Then a notion, seemingly fully formed, sprang into his mind: that of forming a pious association to pray for the conversion of sinners through the intercession of the Immaculate Heart.

Unable to get the idea out of his head, he yielded.  At High Mass the next Sunday, with the bishop’s approval, Fr. Desgenettes announced a first meeting of the new pious association after Vespers that evening. There were barely a dozen people at Mass, and he wasn’t optimistic.

But when evening came, to his amazement, he found almost 500 people gathered in the pews — the congregation size they normally had only at Christmas and Easter. They were quiet during Vespers, but after he had explained the goals of the new pious association and begun Benediction, they began to sing, and they were soon responding to the Litany of Loreto with fervor. Within the first days of the canonical establishment of the association, 240 signed up. The pope soon raised the association to the Archconfraternity of Notre Dame des Victoires.

Between the consecration of the parish to the Immaculate Heart and the new archconfraternity, Notre Dame des Victoires found itself at the heart of a new surge of Marian devotion throughout France.

In 1853, in gratitude to French soldiers who had helped put down a Roman revolt against the pope, Pius IX declared that the statue of Our Lady of Victories was to be honored by a formal papal coronation, the first time such a privilege was granted to a French shrine. His delegate brought with him Pius IX’s gift: a magnificent pair of gold crowns for the statues of Our Lady and the Infant, studded with rubies, emeralds, topazes, lapis lazuli, and jacinth, symbolizing at once royalty and victory.

Frank Jan / www.lumiè

The annals of Notre Dame des Victoires became a veritable Who’s Who of 19th-century Catholicism. Among the first to sign up for the new archconfraternity were Dom Prosper Guéranger and the Curé of Ars, who would later register the names of his entire parish. Don Bosco said Mass at the altar of Our Lady of Victories, where he was told in a vision, “This sanctuary is a house of blessings and graces.” The first gatherings of the Nocturnal Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament took place at the altar of the archconfraternity, organized by renowned concert pianist and Jewish convert Herman Cohen.

Another Jewish convert, Theodore Ratisbonne, became a priest and then vicar of the parish of Notre Dame des Victoires. He believed that the prayers of the archconfraternity were responsible for the miraculous conversion of his freethinking brother Alphonse.

Even John Henry Newman had history with Notre Dame des Victoires. He stopped by on his way to Rome in 1848 to thank Our Lady for his recent conversion. He, too, had been the subject of the archconfraternity’s prayers. They were overjoyed to meet him and reportedly charmed by his modesty and simplicity.

In troubled times, it’s consoling to reflect on the immense power Our Lady has both to avert disaster and to repair the seemingly irreparable. Notre Dame des Victoires bears witness to past and present victories of grace. Consecrated as it is to her Immaculate Heart, it is also a sign of her great victory in the future, predicted at Fatima: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Not for nothing was Our Lady called the Destroyer of all Heresies by St. Pius X. Not for nothing is she called terrible as an army in battle array. And let’s remember that whatever legless heresies come crawling out of the Amazonian jungles or Teutonic fens, they’ll be no more than withered grass in the morning of her victory.

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