BY CHERYL ANDERSON
Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Laghet, located in Laghet, France, lies between Nice and Monaco, nestled in a small valley in the hills above the Côte d’Azur.
The chapel itself dates back to the 15th, or as far back as the 11th, century. Don Jacques Fighiera, a priest from Eze, restored the chapel with his own money in 1628/9. He looked after the chapel, as it has been said, “with great love and devotion” for more than 25 years. It was located on the route he took to the parish of which he was in charge, L’Ariane (today known as Trinity).
The church was built in the modern style of the contemporary churches in and around Nice. The first stone of the new chapel, in the Baroque Nisso-Ligurian style, was laid on All Saints Day,1653, and the new building was inaugurated on November 21,1656.
It was early in 1652 that miracles ascribed to the Virgin Mary of Laghet began to happen. It was said that “[p]ilgrims came in great number from Nice, Monaco, Vintimiglia (Italy), San Remo (Italy), [and] Oreglia (Italy).” Bishop Palletis, following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), requested that a commission of theologians be formed to examine the miracles happening at Laghet. They were assisted by a lawyer and a doctor. Twenty-two of the thirty-six cases brought to them from the past 18 months were considered to be miraculous. On December 26, 1653, worship was officially authorized, and on April 16, 1654, the official pilgrimage to Laghet was organized by the Bishop and led by the Consuls of Nice, who gave 100 écus to build a fountain providing spring water. It continues to refresh the pilgrims to this day.
The Fighiera family was in possession of a statue of the Virgin Mary sculpted from rowan wood by the artist Pierre Moïse of Paris. The statue, blessed by Bishop Palletis in 1645, was placed in a church in Eze. So moved was Don Jacques Fighiera by the many pilgrims that were coming to Laghet, he decided to have it moved there. In a solemn procession, the White Penitents brought the statue to the chapel at Laghet on June 24, 1652. (Annually, on June 24th, parishioners from Eze travel to Laghet on foot.)
Revolutionaries from both armies of the warring House of Savoy and Kings of France sacked the sanctuary as they passed through the county of Nice before the end of the 18th century. However, the statue of Our Lady of Laghet was kept safely hidden in La Turbie by a steward of the Sanctuary, Denis Lanteri. It was returned after the church was restored in 1802.
The Carmelites of Turin were given the responsibility of the place in 1674 and remained so for more than two centuries; their coat of arms appears on the main altar and on the stained glass window above the choir. With the separation of church and state, the Carmelites were expulsed in 1903, and the monastery was put up for sale and purchased by Bishop Chapon.
Since the sanctuary has been put under the care of the Benedictine Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in 1978, it’s now operated as a place of spiritual retreat (retreats are available to the public for a fee of room and board). Taking place at the sanctuary are daily masses, the liturgy of hours, daily exposition on the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, and the meditation of the rosary.
When you enter the church building, you will notice throughout the ambulatory small paintings and marble plaques covering the walls. “Very quickly,” it was described, “the faithful began to express their gratitude to the Virgin through Ex-Voto,” a votive offering to a saint or divinity. Some are painted by professional artists and others are obviously not. They depict the miraculous happenings, with our Lady of Laghet in the upper part of the painting and the name of the person, with the acronym VFGA, meaning “has made a vow and obtained grace,” in the lower part.
As well as the paintings, there are more recent Ex-Votos, marble plaques expressing Merci for the Virgin Mary’s grace given to them. The Ex-Voto paintings only go back two centuries, as the earlier ones were destroyed during the French Revolution. The oldest are down below, but that area is not always open. I’ve only had the opportunity once. Take time to study them and you will see something of the life of a region as well as the faith the people possessed.
Enclosed in the center of the building is the chapel, rather small and very intimate. It has side chapels, a beautiful altar, the original statue of the Virgin Mary, and a beautiful stained glass window above the choir. I have been inside the chapel but have not taken a picture. Somehow in such an intimate chapel it never seemed appropriate.
The Benedictine Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre, in full habit, may pass by you with a nod and a smile in the quiet of the sanctuary. The peaceful surroundings are comforting.
Perhaps on your visit you will hear them singing. I was fortunate to be there this past September when they were. Indeed, it is a beautiful sound floating through the air, slicing through the quiet. I was excited when I learned about this church with such a rich history located in a beautiful small valley on the Côte d’Azur—I make it a point to visit every year.
Perhaps you will choose to light a candle or to simply enjoy the history depicted in the Ex-Voto pictures on the stone walls. In either case, I think you will be glad you made the visit.