One of the most controversial of the Church-approved apparitions of Mary is her visit to La Salette in the French Alps. The seers who saw her were two poor shepherd children, half wild, unwanted by their parents and unschooled. They had little credibility with the people in their region and even less with the local clergy. Yet because of the complete conversion or change of heart of the little town, this apparition was approved within four years.
On September 19, 1846, two shepherds, fourteen-year-old Melanie Calvat and eleven-year-old Maximin Giraud were tending their cows in the Alpine hamlet of La Salette, France, approximately 6,000 feet above sea level. Both children had only recently met, the younger of the two, Maximin, was outgoing and friendly. He had insisted on their working together in order to stave off the boredom and loneliness of their tedious job. Melanie Calvat begrudgingly accepted his company. She was known to have a difficult and taciturn nature. She had worked as a shepherd from the time of her tenth birthday, and her master considered her disobedient and lazy. She was the fourth of tenth children, and many people in the village remember her mother as abusive and violent. On this Saturday afternoon in September the children had only been working together for a few days. They had taken a nap after lunch and upon awakening realized that their cows had wandered off. As they scrambled up into the pasture to retrieve them, they saw what seemed to them to be a globe of fire near a little hollow, which looked “as though the sun had fallen on that spot.” Upon closer inspection, the light took on a form and the figure of a beautiful woman weeping could be made out. The woman was sitting on a rock with her face buried in her hands. She saw the children and got up, saying, “Come near, my children, do not be afraid. I am here to tell you great news.”
Reassured and extremely curious, Maximin and Melanie ran over to the woman. They later reported that she was tall and everything about her radiated light. She wore clothing typical of the women of that area; a long dress with an apron, and a shawl crossed over her breast and tied around her back. Her dress, however was studded in pearls, and her bonnet was a strange crown-shaped hat that exuded bright rays. Hanging from her neck she wore a large crucifix with a figure of Christ on it. Beneath the arms of the cross there were, to the left a hammer, and to the right, pincers. An even brighter radiance emanated from this crucifix. There were garlands of roses around her head, the edge of her shawl and around her feet. Throughout her conversation with the children the woman continually wept.
“If my people will not obey, I shall be compelled to loose my Son’s arm. It is so heavy, so pressing that I can no longer restrain it. How long I have suffered for you! If my Son is not to cast you off, I am obliged to entreat Him without ceasing. But you take no least notice of that. No matter how well you pray in the future, no matter how well you act, you will never be able to make up to me what I have endured for your sake.”
Then the woman pointed out how no one in the village took Sunday off from work. She added, “The cart drivers cannot swear without bringing in my Son’s name. These are the two things which make my Son’s arms so burdensome.”
She went on to say that if the village continued to act impiously there would be a great famine coming and it would be the people’s own fault. She added that if the people would change their ways, the rocks would become piles of wheat and the potatoes would sow themselves. Melanie later reported that since the lady was speaking French and she was not familiar with the French word for “potato,” the lady stopped what she was saying and added, “Ah, but you do not speak French!” and she continued her dialogue to them in the local patois. She then gave each child a secret that the other could not hear. She questioned them on whether they said their prayers. When they answered “no,” she said, “Ah, my children, it is very important to say them, at night and in the morning. When you don’t have time at least say an ‘Our Father’ and a ‘Hail Mary.’ When you can, say more.” She continued in a tearful voice: “Only a few old women go to mass in the summer. All the rest work every Sunday throughout the summer. And in winter, when they don’t know what to do with themselves, they go to mass only to poke fun at religion. During Lent they flock to the butcher shop like dogs.”
The lady went on to ask if either of them had ever seen spoiled grain before. Maximin quickly answered, “No.”
The lady reminded him that this was not so, “But my child, you must have seen it once near Coin, with your papa. The owner of a field said to your papa, ‘Come and see my spoiled grain.’ The two of you went. You took two or three ears of grain in your fingers. You rubbed them, and they crumbled to dust. Then you came back from Coin. When you were but a half hour away from Corps, your papa gave you a piece of bread and said, ‘Well, my son, eat some bread this year, anyhow. I don’t know who will be eating any next year, if the grain goes on spoiling like that.’”
Maximin immediately recalled this experience but was astounded as to how this lady could know it.
In French the lady said, “My children, you will make this known to all my people.” She turned from them and started to glide away. She stopped and paused, repeating one more time, “My children, you will make this known to all my people.”
The children returned with their cows at the end of the day. Melanie was not inclined to tell anyone of their adventure with the lady. Maximin however, told his employer all about it. When both children were questioned independently, they told the same story. The priest and the town officials were doubtful. To them, these were just two ignorant children making up a fantasy. But there was something in the tone of the story that affected the people of the town. This lady was not using religious metaphors, she was speaking in an accessible, straightforward manner. When the villagers went to visit the spot where the lady appeared, a spring had started flowing. It was thought at first that this was a coincidence, since it had rained the day before and it was common for small springs to appear for a day or so than dry up. But this spring behaved differently, freely flowing no matter what the weather. People who drank from the spring reported dramatic healing activity. The demeanor of the village totally changed. By 1846, France, once a nation dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was now actively a nation trying to live without religious conviction. In the search for material wealth, spiritual values had fallen by the wayside. Though La Salette had only five hundred inhabitants, they, too, had adapted the slack lifestyle of the bigger cities. The lady was right; religious devotion had become a joke. Recognizing the truth in the lady’s examples of their behavior, the village church started to fill up with earnest worshipers, and most of the village began honoring Sunday as the Sabbath. The spring itself, became a pilgrimage site with devotees of Mary coming from far distances. It is thought that Mary speaking her final words in French was a message to the French nation to reform themselves and their values. La Salette became an approved apparition in 1851.
The seers of La Salette went on to lead troubled lives. Maximin drifted in and out of employment and died by his fortieth birthday. Melanie became a nun. She reveled in the attention she received for being a visionary and felt neglected by the local clergy. In 1879 she published a book alleging what her secret had been. It was a gruesome description of Satan let loose upon the world in 1864 and predictions of mass destruction and the anti-Christ. Because she had fallen under the influence of apocalyptic books and various conspiracy theorists, her book was thought to be purely imaginative and was not sanctioned by the Church. She continually had a small band of followers who believed in these later visions. She died in 1904.
In 1879 a magnificent basilica, Our Lady of La Salette was consecrated on the site of the apparition.