Finally, after twenty-five years -- twenty-five years of regret -- I drove to the summit of a mountain that rises 7,800 feet above Corps in the French Alps and reached the apparition site of LaSalette-Fallavaux, so named for a village just below that is really just a scattering of hamlets.
It was more than eight miles up winding and often hairpin turns on a road that was nearly too narrow for two cars and in most spots had no road shoulder or guard rail -- with the drop straight down, at many turns, to deep ravines.
Yet, its beauty is stunning: the highlands comparable to the Rockies in ossified magnificence and fall foliage peaking from various clutches of vegetation depending on elevation.
At some spots, snow from the night before was melting in the sun (LaSalette is surrounded by snowcapped mountains).
It took me twenty-five years to get here because in 1990 when I tried to find the spot of apparitions -- coming within what I later learned was within a mile of it -- I turned back as snow began to brush the road ahead of me and I could find no signs indicating the shrine nor anyone who could muster enough English for directions.
It had been a disappointment. I have written often about LaSalette and its prophecies, but had never gotten here. This is a fully approved apparition that occurred in 1846 to (once more) two shepherd kids; Melanie Calvat and Maximin Giraud.
Now, I was finally there, in a rental car that fortunately had good power and standard gear. I prayed a Scriptural Rosary at the site of apparitions below mountain rises that are alternately vegetated and bald, with steep rock faces. The spot is marked by bronze-like statues of the two children and the Blessed Mother standing before and addressing them. Unlike classic European depictions, she wears a Russian-style tiara. The apparition was approved by Pope Pius IX in 1851 (just five years after the event) while the canonical coronation with tiara was approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. The spirit here is said to be one of prayer, conversion, and commitment. I would add: penance and spiritual warfare.
It is as fully approved as an apparition can get short of an actual visit by the Supreme Pontiff, but always has been perplexing and controversial -- with three sets of prophecies: one, which was immediately released after the apparition, predicting disease and failure of the grapes and potato crop if men kept offending God (especially by not honoring the Sabbath and using the Name of Jesus as a swear word) and two dramatic prophecies given in a secret to each of the seers and predicting a time of tremendous chastisement, as the earth convulsed and the Church wallowed in impurity. In the formal, approved message, the Virgin Mary complained that only a few elderly went to church and that during Lent people went to butcher shops "like dogs." Only the prediction of the potato failure -- which indeed occurred immediately after, with the potato famine in France and, more famously, nearby Ireland -- was formally accepted by authorities. The unapproved secrets given individually contained apocalyptic-style language about an anti-christ and astronomical, geophysical, and demonic perturbations, which some claimed had been contrived, especially by Melanie, who spent years in a convent and was thought possibly to have been influenced by nuns who were reporting similar warnings in previous decades (including three days of darkness).
Whatever the case, it is an apparition that clearly foresaw one chastisement -- the potato famine (children, as predicted, became sick during the food shortages) -- and one gets a feeling here that is similar to the feeling at Fatima: not the level of warmth or maternal presence as Lourdes -- not even close -- and a loneliness in the dank, windswept terrain.
But in that stillness, in that loneliness, LaSalette has its own force of presence, once more in the heights, as also I have visited alleged sites at great elevations such as one near Cuencha, Ecuador, in the Andes and another in northern Spain at San Sebastian Garabandal that are likewise above the clouds, literally.
Like those sites there are few visitors: most of the time two or three people praying near the apparition site, a few people milling about a tall stone church constructed just above (the apparition itself was in a small ravine), a group of young people praying with a priest at crosses planted along a path up the mountain, and on a Saturday, a busload, just one, and probably not full, of pilgrims.
Like Fatima, like Lourdes, there is a spring right next to the spot of apparitions (within feet) and another outlet for the water about twenty-five yards away -- very cool clear mountain water in this rarefied ambience.
Like other places, there is also a Cross overlooking the site at the very top of the mountain.
A very limited and sparingly-stocked souvenir shop and cafeteria are attached to the church complex, and there is also a small hostel for visitors and a small museum that focuses on the history of the church and apparition (there was just one appearance, on September 19 of 1846) and church. It is easy to imagine no visitors on certain weekdays.
No one looking for the maternal caress, the charisma of Mary, felt at places such as Lourdes, the Miraculous Medal, and Medjugorje, will find it here; this is a place, like Fatima, of grim, blunt warning; it is soundless terrain.
But it is breathtaking in its own context and has a remaining, wordless prophecy in how strangely still the sky seemed, as if everything had stopped.
-- Michael H. Brown, 10/18
[resources: The Final Hour]