Thursday 10 May 2018
On the eve of a quiet Sunday in January 1933, the young Mariette Beco saw the faint glow of a woman outside her kitchen window. Smiling, the woman beckoned the child to come out, but Beco’s mother held her back. Beco noted what the woman was wearing a white veil, long white robes with a blue sash, a golden rose on her right foot, and a rosary with a golden chain and cross hanging on her right arm. Three days later, the woman in white reappeared and told Beco that she was ‘Our Lady of the Poor’. Altogether, the woman appeared eight times to the girl. Word quickly spread of the visions and an episcopal commission from Rome was called in to investigate the claims. It was not until May 1942 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Liege acknowledged the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Poor. Approval by the Holy See had to wait until after the war, coming in 1947 with a final declaration in 1949.
“I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail,” remarked Mariette Beco dryly after decades of silence about the apparition of the Virgin Mary which she saw more than 70 years earlier. “Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”
The child’s sightings put the small village of Banneux (Sprimont, Belgium) on the religious map. But it came at a price for the newly dubbed Our Lady of Banneux, who suffered taunts and derision, even reportedly from members of her own family.
Today, Banneux is a recognised pilgrimage site for Catholics in Belgium, joining the village of Beauraing, where apparitions of the Blessed Virgin were recorded the year before Beco’s own. These sites are sometimes overshadowed by better-known Marian holy sites elsewhere in Europe including Our Lady of Lourdes and La Salette in France, Our Lady of Fátima and Sameiro in Portugal, and many sites in Spain like Our Lady of Sorrows in La Codosero and Umbe, Our Lady of Graces in La Puebla del Río, and many more dotted around the continent.
With international tourist arrivals on the rise, the World Tourism Organisation — a UN body — estimates that 35% of European travellers are interested in religious tourism. Out of every four short breaks, religion and spirituality are the main reasons for at least one trip.
Pilgrims to Banneux day trip in from Belgium and nearby France, Germany and the Netherlands, or stay for longer in one of the hotels which sit alongside facilities that sprang up to cater for visitors to the holy site, which has grown to include a seminary, hospital, mission, information centre, and several indoor and outdoor chapels.
In one of the eight reported apparitions, Mary guided Beco to a nearby spring now on the site and urged her to plunge her hands into the healing waters which were “reserved for all nations … to relieve the sick”.
Fresh memories of the war
For those inclined to analyse past events for meaning or ‘alternative’ historical explanations, the timing and location of the sightings is not without interest. First is the location of Banneux just across the border from what was becoming an increasingly impoverished and restless Germany, while memories of World War I were probably still fresh. Then the timing; the girl’s sightings in 1933 were the same year the Nazi government came to power.
“While it cannot be claimed that eleven-year-old Mariette was aware of the ramifications of the political situation, she grew up in a culture where there would have been intense concern about the international situation,” notes Chris Maunder in his book Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe.
“The Virgin Mary was believed by devotees to have created a shrine ‘for all nations’ that would outlast the war and mark her healing properties for decades to come,” he explains.
Today, the site is dotted with mini-shrines or chapels erected by Christian communities from all over the world. One shrine immortalises ‘Our Lady of the Poor’ or ‘Queen of Nations’, as Mary came to be known in Banneux, complete with a life-like statue of her bent over in prayer or contemplation before a cross and the simple words, “I thirst”.
The connection to the healing waters of Banneux is not lost. The small spring yields about 7-8,000 litres of water a day with many reports of miraculous healings throughout its existence. Religious souvenir shops lining the out-sized car and coach park sell the water by the gallon. Day-trippers head straight to the line of taps, some content with a sip and a dip, others to fill drums of it for later use.
“Believe in me and I will believe in you”
But for the young Beco, the strain of her apparitions took something of a toll. Reportedly not a regular church-goer, the events of 1933 changed her life and that of her family. As Maunder explains, “There is a long-held Catholic belief that Mary appears to people who have no particular predisposition to visions nor merit them.”
Beco maintained that Mary called her to believe but this faith must have been put to the test throughout the woman’s adult life. She suffered the loss of two children and divorce, according to Maunder: “Beco’s traumatic adult life is popularly regarded as another good example of the way in which quite ordinary people appear to be chosen by the Virgin Mary.”
To the plain-speaking Beco — who died at the age of 90 after having spent most of her life in the Banneux area, and even ran a pilgrim hotel for many years — all these theories would probably struggle to conjure up much interest in a time of rising religious scepticism.