CHANCES ARE, as many American Catholics associate Notre Dame with a university in South Bend, Indiana, as they do with Our Lady. Some may even wonder why a cathedral in Paris was named after a football team with a fighting leprechaun as a mascot. Fewer still are likely to be familiar with the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France. Admittedly, I was one of those in the dark until an inadvertent discovery on a recent vacation.
Our adventure started out as planned, with a few days in Paris, visiting many of the popular attractions including the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and Luxembourg Gardens. When we arrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, it was immediately apparent why it is the most visited site in the city, even outranking the Eiffel Tower. Simply observing the 14th-century cathedral’s twin 228-foot towers— sculpted portals that portray scriptural themes and stained-glass artistry— makes it impossible to imagine a more magnificent structure anywhere on earth. And we hadn’t yet left Paris.
An Unexpected Find
We escaped the City of Light before our credit cards exceeded their limit and drove to Lyon for a two-day stopover, unaware of what was in store for us. Though Lyon is the second-largest city in France, it is much more manageable to sightsee. The neighborhood of Veiux (“Old”) Lyon dates back to the medieval and Renaissance era, with narrow cobblestone streets that snake up a steep hill where the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière sits atop, watching over the city.
Around 1870, the bishop of Lyon vowed to build the basilica if the city was spared by the Prussians, who had taken over Paris and were progressing south to Lyon. Their halt and retreat were attributed by the Church to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Construction of the basilica began in 1872 and took 12 years. Mary had previously been credited with saving the city from the endemic cholera sweeping Europe in 1823. Each year on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, residents pay tribute to the Virgin Mary with the lighting of candles throughout the city in what is referred to as the Fête des Lumières, or the Festival of Lights.
The basilica does not compare in size or stature to the cathedral in Paris, but its intimacy is mesmerizing. The structure has four main towers and a bell tower at the apse end, topped with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary. The basilica is made up of two churches: the ornate upper church dedicated to Mary and the lower, simpler church dedicated to her husband, Joseph. Outside the church is a large patio with spectacular views overlooking the city. On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.
Intricate mosaics and art depicting Church history include scenes from the Council of Ephesus declaring Mary the Mother of God in 431, Joan of Arc hearing messages from Mary and rallying the French against the English at the Siege of Orleans in 1429, and Louis XIII offering the crown of France to the Virgin Mary. Rather than a crucifix above the altar, which we’ve been accustomed to seeing throughout our lives, stands a striking statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. My wife, Joanne, and I agreed it was the most Mary-centric church we’d ever entered.
We went downstairs to explore the chapel dedicated to Joseph. As soon as we got to the bottom of the winding marble stairway, we were struck by a large painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa. After 30 years in the home where we raised our children, we had recently moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and adopted the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa as our new church. We had no idea our transformational journey had just begun.
Our final evening in town, we stopped for a drink at an outdoor café on theSaône River across from Old Lyon. As we sat among the locals, I looked across the river and up the Fourvière hill at the basilica, which was even more imposing under floodlights. It seemed to be calling us back, even though we had been there only hours earlier. I looked over at Joanne and said, “How about we pack tonight, take an early railcar up the hill in the morning for Mass, and check out when we come back down?”
Jo looked at me as if she was expecting the question and said, “Of course.”
The following morning we woke early to make the short commute and attend Mass so we could check out before 11. On the ride to the top of the hill, I wondered what lured us to return to a church that hadn’t even been on our itinerary. When we hopped off the railcar, the clock on my cell phone read 9:40, and we hurried inside 10 minutes late for Mass. We climbed the steps and were sucked like a vacuum through the huge front door into the near-empty church, but there was no Mass. It became painfully obvious my interpretation of the French language needed some polish.
Visitors were scattered around, and we found an empty pew close to the altar. I was overcome by a kind and compassionate aura emanating from Our Lady as she stood above us holding her Son. Her presence compelled me to do something I hadn’t done in such a long time—recite the rosary.
Since I no longer carried beads, I used my fingers to keep track of a process that I recalled taking 15 torturous minutes from the days it would be levied upon me as penance for confession. The rosary I said in the basilica in Lyon, however, seemed as though it took no time at all.
When I finished the Hail Holy Queen, I looked at Jo, and we nodded to each other, indicating we’d better get back to the hotel to check out. We made a quick loop around the grounds and walked back to the terminal. As we sat inside the railcar, waiting to make our descent, I looked up on the tiled wall and was startled. I nudged Jo and pointed to a clock that read 12:15 p.m.
“It must be wrong,” she said.
I pulled the cell phone from my pocket to prove the clock was wrong, but instead, I was perplexed. I looked at Jo and said, “How did we lose more than two hours?”
When we got back to the hotel, the young woman manager looked anxious as I explained what had happened and asked, “Has anyone ever shared such an experience with you? Do mystical things happen at the basilica?” It was difficult to discern whether she believed my story or took us for a couple of scheming tourists trying to squeeze another hour or two from our stay.
As we drove from Lyon, it became increasingly apparent that there was more to what had occurred than mere time travel. Events that had caused anxiety in the past were now met with a rare serenity. I didn’t feel the usual stress at being rushed, and an unease of driving in high altitude that had developed over the years was noticeably absent as we drove across towering bridges and through tunnels on the way to Chamonix Valley in the French Alps.
Before our trip, I wondered how my nerves would hold up when we boarded the highest cable car in Western Europe that climbs the 12,600 feet to Aiguille du Midi and the observation decks facing Mont Blanc. I never would have believed I’d be so at ease, feeling as though I were in the palm of the Creator’s hand.
During our final stop in Beaune, a quaint little town in the Burgundy region, we encountered yet another sign that made me think that something miraculous might well have happened. As we drove through town in search of a good vantage point to shoot photographs of the countryside, we decided to stop for a bite to eat at a roadside café in Pernand-Vergelesses. After our meal, the owner pointed us up a narrow street to the town’s highest elevation for a panoramic view of the sprawling vineyards.
As we maneuvered the car up the hill along tiny, winding streets, Jo sensed we missed a turn and suggested we backtrack. I pulled into a side street and stopped in front of a large wooden door in the side of a stucco building and put the car in reverse. When I turned and looked over my shoulder to make sure I was clear, I came face-toface with Our Lady standing in a grotto over a fountain that was excavated under an old row house directly across the street. Jo and I looked at each other and smiled knowingly that our misguided venture through the streets of Pernand was no accident. Moments later, we were at the crest of the hill, gazing out over the vineyards, the bounty before us representing more than fruit on the vine.
We had set the itinerary long before our plane touched down in Paris 10 days earlier, unaware a pilgrimage had already been planned for us. Our journey reminded us that God has his own plans.