Saturday, March 21, 2009

Our Lady of Sichem (Montaigu) and Lanherne Carmel

Picture below represent the image of the original replica of Our Lady of Sichem statue venerated at Lanherne Carmel and carved from the piece of ancient oak-tree where Our Lady's statue miraculously appeared in Sichem, Belgium, and was venerated since then. Needless to say, as it often happened through God's merciful Providence, the oak-tree at Sichem, before the statue miraculously appeared there was the site of some pagan practices.

Lady Lovel richly endowed the first Teresian English Carmel foundation in Hopland, Antwerp not only financially but also with donation of beautifully embroidered vestments, church ornaments and sacred vessels. Many of these treasures were in use in Lanherne, when the convent was transferred there during French Revolution. Lady Lovel also presented new foundation with the image of Our Lady of Sichem, curiously embroidered and set in an ebony case. Our Lady of Sichem, or of 'Montaigu', the title more commonly used to-day, has been venerated in Belgium from time immemorial. The parish of Montaigu was established in 1910; previously the whole district was called Sichem (Zichem). Fr Charles Van de Veyvere, who was a refugee in Cornwall during the Great War, wrote to Lanherne, September 12, 1916, in answer to an inquiry from the Mother Prioress: 'Sichem is a little village about three miles from Scorpen Heuvel (French Mantaigu). It possess a statue of Our Lady, the object of veneration of the faithful, and at certain times the centre of pilgrimages. The veneration of the statue and pilgrimages are documented as early as year 1304.

The shrine stands on the summit of a hill, a steep climb from Sichem on one site and Diest on the other.

A statue of Our Lady was very early placed in a niche cut out of the oak-tree which once crowned the top of the hill. A legend has it that a shepherd noticed a statue of the Virgin and Child that had fallen out of an oak tree. This oak had a cruciform shape and the statue was too heavy for him to lift back into the tree alone, and his master had to come help him replace the statue in the branches of the oak. A small sanctuary was built beneath the tree in 1306 where there was no houses around it and remained in this spot until it was destroyed by the Spanish in 1568 during religious wars. The shrine was rebuilt in 1602, from which time the miracles began to proliferate as Our Lady manifested her pleasure or granted many favours, and the statue soon came to be venerated as miraculous. In 1584 the statue was stolen, but recovered later at Diest. During the Lent of 1602, Godfrey Van Theinwinckel, Cure of Sichem, built a small shrine near the oak-tree wherein the miraculous statue was venerated. Meanwhile, through pious thefts, the tree was beginning to disappear. To prevent this, it was cut down in 1604, and sawn into three unequal parts. Of these the largest was given to the Archduke, the other portions being carved into replicas of the original statue of Our lady of Sichem, one of which was presented by Lady Lovel to the English Carmelites.

Due to the increase in popularity of the shrine, a splendid new church was built in 1609-27 on a different site, by Archduke Albert, with the town built symmetrically around it.

This new church contains a large replica of the oak above the high altar and the statue of Our Lady of Sichem enshrined there.

Many faithful affected with various afflictions implore the Virgin of Montaigu for intercession, in the hope of miraculous cures, but as well, a large communal procession is snaking its way from the town towards the shrine, replete with banners of various confraternities.

We can only ponder what is happening at Sichem shrine and basilica nowadays, are devotion and pilgrimages in honour of Our Lady of Sichem still continue? The Feast of Our Lady of Sichem is observed locally on the 3rd of January.

The photo of Basilica as it looks today.

Text based on various sources, including "English Carmelites in Penal Times" by Sr A. Hardman