La Rochelle is between one and a half and two hours' drive from Saint Laurent. The most direct route is via Les Herbiers, Chantonnay, Ste Hermine and Marans; but if you wish to take in, say, Mervent on the way, you would probably go by way of Pouzauges, La Chataigneraie and Fontenay-le-Comte (Mervent is a little way off the road between La Chataigneraie and Fontenay). When you get to La Rochelle, the easiest thing is to go first to St. Éloi (see directions below), leave your vehicle there, and walk into the city centre (it is not very far). The address of St. Éloi is: 3 rue des Sauniers. Telephone: 46 27 12 21. You should certainly telephone the Sisters beforehand if you wish to celebrate Mass at St. Éloi.
To get to St. Éloi, coming from Nantes, when you get into the outskirts of La Rochelle, you will pass under a major road. From then on, watch for the sign for the station ("Gare") to the left (it is about the fifth traffic signal you encounter); turn left here, and follow this road to a traffic signal (perhaps the first or the second?) where there is an Esso filling station on the left. Turn left here up the Avenue de Rompsay. The Rue des Sauniers is then the first road right.
In the Saint-Éloi neighbourhood, a charitable person gave St Louis Marie the use of a little house situated between two gardens. This was his hermitage, where he loved to go to rest from his labours in solitude and recollection. It was probably here that he wrote his Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and his Rules. In the little oratory there is a small sculpture which was found on the site when it was being rebuilt, and which is thought to be his work. At the bottom of the garden is the gate (now bricked up, but marked with a wooden cross) by which he would have gone to Le Petit Plessis.
This was a small farmstead used as a country house by the Jesuits. There was a chapel here which was probably open to the public, where Louis Marie would probably have gone to say his Mass. It was at the Petit Plessis that he met Marie-Louise Trichet and Catherine Brunet on 15th April 1715, two weeks or so after their arrival in La Rochelle from Poitiers (he was away giving a mission when they arrived). Le Petit Plessis was at the site of No. 89 Avenue de Rompsay.
Take the Avenue de Rompsay back to the traffic lights; go straight ahead here, until you see the Porte Royale ahead of you at a fork in the road.
On 11th May 1711, St Louis Marie left Luçon to go to La Rochelle, where he arrived tired after the long journey on foot. The first inn he tried refused to open its doors; the second was more welcoming. But when he and Mathurin sat down to a frugal meal, Mathurin was overcome with scruples: "Who is going to pay for this, Father, because you have no money?" St Louis Marie replied, "Don't worry about it; God will provide." The next morning they had nothing to pay the bill of 12 sous. "I will pay you later," said Louis Marie; "In the meantime I will leave you my staff as a pledge." And without any more ado, he set off to the Hôpital St Louis to say Mass. After his thanksgiving he went to visit the sick, giving each one a word of encouragement. While he was doing this, Providence provided all that was needed. One of those present, a Mlle. Prévôt, spoke to her confessor, Fr Collusson, about the missionary. This Jesuit, a professor at the seminary, appreciated Louis Marie, and advised his penitent to welcome the missionary and his companion, and to help them with alms. Mlle. Prévôt paid the debt incurred at the inn, and recovered Louis Marie's staff. It was probably near the Porte Royale that this happened.
Take the left fork at the Porte Royale (the Rue Gambetta), until you come to the Rue St-Louis; here turn left. A little down the road, on the left is the Hôpital Saint-Louis.
As soon as he arrived in La Rochelle, Louis Marie was presented to the Bishop, Mgr. de Champflour, by Fr Collusson. The bishop gave him full faculties and sent him to preach a mission at Lhoumeau. But first Louis Marie gave a sort of mission at the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The crowd was so great that he had to preach in the courtyard. This hospital became a truly holy place for the Montfortian family: St Louis Marie often preached here, and the first Montfort Fathers were often the chaplains here; Marie-Louise Trichet and Catherine Brunet, the first Daughters of Wisdom lived here, and Catherine Brunet is buried in the chapel, as is Mgr. de Champflour. The Sisters at St-Éloi have a key to parts of the hospital, which had a community of La Sagesse until just a few years ago. You can go into the chapel, where Catherine Brunet (Sr de la Conception) and Mgr. de Champflour are buried beneath the step of the sanctuary; and, with the key, you can go up to see Marie-Louise's room which looks out on the courtyard where St Louis Marie preached (it is the one to the right of the chapel as you face it from the road).
On leaving the Hôpital Saint-Louis, turn left down the Rue St-Louis and walk down to the Quai Maubec; there turn right. After a little while you will see ahead of you the church of Saint-Sauveur. It was near here, at the lock bridge, that two Fathers of the Company of Mary, Frs. Dauche and Verger, along with four other priests, were murdered by the crowd in 1794, during the Revolution, as they were, supposedly, being taken to be transported for refusing to swear the civil oath of the clergy. A plaque commemorating these priests is to be found in the Cathedral (see below).
In the Spring of 1712, Louis Marie wanted to embark at the Port of La Rochelle, to go to the Ile d'Yeu for the mission there, but, according to Le Crom, he heard of a plot to hand him over to Guernsey pirates; at Sables d'Olonne, the sailors refused to go for fear of pirates; he had to go to Saint Gilles, further up the coast, to get a boat, and even then was nearly captured by the pirates.
Walk back along the side of Saint-Sauveur towards the Hôpital, and turn left up the little road at the back of Saint-Sauveur, then right into the Rue St Michel. On the right is the Protestant Temple, where, it is said, Louis Marie preached (in those days it was a Catholic church). Continuing past it, you enter a pedestrian area; turn right then immediately left and you are in the Rue des Dames. The first street on your left is the Rue de la Rochelle.
It is thought that this is the street where some men lay in wait to attack St Louis Marie. One day, he had castigated three men who had come to mock at the Word of God. In revenge, they hatched a sinister plot. Towards the end of the mission for the men of La Rochelle, Louis Marie had to go one evening to see a sculptor (called Adam) with whom he had placed some orders. The three plotters heard of his plans, and lay in wait for him in a narrow, dark, little frequented street. When St Louis Marie reached the street, with M. des Bastières and Brother Mathurin, he stopped, saying that he was absolutely unable to enter the street. None of them understood this phenomenon, but they had to make a long detour to get to the sculptor's house. Some years later, M. des Bastières, in an inn in Poiré-sur-Vie, in the Vendée, overheard a man telling of how he had lain in wait in vain, from 7 o'clock to 11 o'clock in the evening, for Fr. de Montfort to come along.
Walk down the Rue de la Rochelle, and straight on, across the Rue des Merciers and the Rue Saint-Yon, until you come to the Rue Chaudrier, where the Cathedral is straight ahead of you on the other side of the road. Turn right and cross the road to reach the facade of the Cathedral facing the Place de Verdun.
In the Cathedral, on the left is a chapel dedicated to St Louis Marie, with a window depicting the great mission of 1711. At the top of the window, in the oval panel, St Louis Marie is surrounded by crosses; this recalls the alleged miracle of the crosses in the air. At the end of the missions, two crosses were to be erected: one in stone at the Porte Dauphine, and one in wood at the Porte St Nicolas. A huge crowd had gathered for the erection of the crosses, when cries went up: "A miracle! A miracle! We can see crosses in the air!" Neither M. des Bastières nor St Louis Marie saw anything, but, according to Grandet, more than a hundred people saw these crosses.
On the right-hand side of the Cathedral, on the archway of the second chapel from the back, is the plaque commemorating the martyrdom of Frs Dauche and Verger and four other priests, mentioned above.
When you come out of the Cathedral, the street leading off the Place de Verdun on the right, opposite the bus-stands, is the Rue Gargoulleau. A little way down here, on the left, is the municipal library, which was formerly the Bishop's Palace (a plaque announces this). It was here that St Louis Marie was presented to Mgr. de Champflour on his arrival in La Rochelle.
As you stand in the Place de Verdun, to the right of the Cathedral is the Hôpital Auffrédy, so called from the name of its founder. It was run in the 18th century by the Brothers of St John of God. It was here that St Louis Marie was taken and operated on, when he fell seriously ill at the end of the mission in Mauzé in 1713. The surgeon, the celebrated Pierre Seignette, was astonished to hear the missionary singing "Long live Jesus! Long live his Cross!" as he applied the scalpel. Louis Marie begged the doctors not to spare him, and promised them his prayers. He was ill for two months, but at the end of that time, was back on his feet to give two retreats in the parish of Courçon and at the Hôpital Saint-Louis.
This hospital was also the scene of the labours of Brother Pierre, who escaped the massacres in St Laurent in 1794, and spent the rest of his days working here before he died at the Hôpital Saint-Louis.
Leaving the Cathedral, continue on up the Rue Chaudrier along the side of the Place de Verdun, into the Rue Albert Premier. The next street on the left is the Rue Rambaud, where, in July 1712, St Louis Marie agreed to give a retreat to the Hospitalières de St Augustin, on condition that, for the evening talk, the chapel should be open to the public. Among the great crowd which came was Mlle Bénigne Pagé, who had accepted a "dare" from her friends to come in all her finery to laugh openly at the missionary. Instead of castigating her, Louis Marie gave her a look of compassion and began his sermon. Along with everyone else there, Bénigne Pagé was moved to tears by his words, and afterwards had a long conversation with St Louis Marie, after which she resolved to "leave the world". She entered the Poor Clares shortly afterwards in the next street on the left as you continue up the Rue Albert Premier, the Rue des Saintes Claires. The event inspired Louis Marie to write Cantique 143: "Gloire au Seigneur! Le monde vous perd, ô ma Bénigne..."
Opposite the Rue des Saintes Claires is the Rue du Collège, where, between the College chapel and the Rue des Cordouans, was one of the "petites écoles" established by St Louis Marie in La Rochelle, this one for girls.
Continuing on up the Rue Albert Premier, on the left as you approach the Place de la Porte Dauphine is the Ecole de la Providence. In the chapel here St Louis Marie first met M. Vatel, the first priest to join his Company of Mary, in February 1715. M. Vatel was from the Diocese of Coutances, and had been trained for the priesthood at the Seminary of the Holy Spirit in Paris, where he had met Fr de Montfort in 1713. At that time he had even had thoughts of joining the missionary, but once ordained priest, he forgot about this, and decided to go to the foreign missions in the Antilles. Before leaving he had obtained all the faculties he could from the Archbishop of Paris and his own metropolitan, the Archbishop of Rouen. Then he set sail. The ship he was on had to put in at La Rochelle; in the meantime, M. Vatel had become worried whether the faculties he had obtained were of any validity in the Antilles, so he decided to consult Mgr. de Champflour, Bishop of La Rochelle, when the boat put in there. On landing, he heard that Fr de Montfort was in town preaching a retreat at the Chapel of the Sisters of Providence; he decided to go and consult him, and at the same time to ask for some of his canticles. He found St Louis Marie's sermon disappointing until, suddenly, the missionary stopped and announced, "There is someone here who is resisting me; I feel the Word of God coming back to me. But he will not escape me!" M. Vatel understood the saint was referring to him, and afterwards went to talk with Fr de Montfort. Louis Marie was just in the process of reading a letter telling him that a priest who had promised to help him could not do so. Seeing M. Vatel, he said, "Good, here is a priest who has let me down, but God has sent me another. You must come with me, Monsieur, and we will work together." "But that's impossible," replied M. Vatel; "I am going to the foreign missions; I have already made arrangements with the captain of a ship, who has lent me 100 écus to buy missals and Mass vestments." "You are in a mess!", replied Louis Marie; "Let's go and see Mgr de Champflour." On the way, Louis Marie confirmed that M. Vatel's faculties were invalid, an opinion seconded by the Bishop when they arrived. The Bishop gave him the 100 écus to pay off the captain of the ship, but the captain was furious at losing his chaplain; Louis Marie had to go aboard to calm him down. In the end Adrien Vatel joined St Louis Marie, and worked with him for the first time at St Amand-sur-Sèvre. He died in Rennes in 1748, after 33 years as a member of the Company of Mary.
It was also in this chapel that St Louis Marie received the vows (at first strictly private, but later to have a "religious" character) of the first Daughters of Wisdom, Marie-Louise Trichet and Catherine Brunet, and gave the La Sagesse habit to Marie Régnier and Marie Valleau on 22nd August 1715.
Leaving the Ecole de la Providence, looking left up the street, you may see the Porte Dauphine where one of the Mission crosses was erected in 1711; but turn right, back down the Rue Albert Premier to the Rue Alcide d'Orbigny on the left (first left?). Walk along here until you come to the Place Cacaud. In the far right-hand corner of the square is an old building, now a sort of warehouse, which was formerly the Church of the Jacobins (Dominicans). It was here that St Louis Marie preached the three missions of La Rochelle in 1711, the first for the men, the second for the women, and the third for the soldiers. He was helped in these missions by his brother, Fr Gabriel- François Grignion, M. des Bastières and several Dominican Fathers, including Fr Le Compte (Provincial) and Fr Doiteau, and perhaps by the Jesuit Fr Collusson. M. Claude Masse, an officer, has left us a drawing of the procession which took place at the end of the mission for the women on 16th August 1711. This drawing is kept in the archives of La Rochelle. St Louis Marie is marked "T" in the drawing; his brother is "S"; while "F" (top right-hand corner) is Brother Mathurin, keeping order and directing the singing. A working model based on this drawing is to be seen in the Maison Longue at St Laurent-sur-Sèvre. The probable route of this procession was: the Eglise des Jacobins - the Jesuit chapel - the Governor's Palace - the Church of Notre Dame. This latter church is the one at the left-hand side of the square as you enter it from the Rue Alcide d'Orbigny.
Another of the "petites écoles" founded by St Louis Marie was close by, in the Rue du Bravo Rondeau, at the East end of the Eglise des Jacobins; this one was for boys.
To return to St-Éloi from here, go past the church of Notre Dame, cross over the Avenue des Cordeliers, walk along the side of the Place des Cordeliers to the Rue St François; turn left here and walk up the street to the Porte Royale, then continue on to the Avenue de Rompsay and the Rue des Sauniers.
How you approach this area depends on whether you wish to see the Grotto of Mervent first, or Saint-Pompain.
1. If going to Mervent first, you could take the road for Pouzauges from St Laurent-sur-Sèvre, then from Pouzauges to La Chataigneraie, via Réaumur and Cheffois; alternatively, you could take the same route as for Saint-Pompain as far as La Foret-sur-Sèvre (6 km after Cérizay), then turn right for La Chataigneraie. At La Chataigneraie, take the road to Fontenay-le-Comte. Approximately 10 km after La Chataigneraie, you turn left to visit Vouvant (if you wish); then return to the Fontenay road. Another 5 or 6 km along, you will see the turning on the left for Mervent (it may also indicate La Grotte du Père de Montfort, or La Pierre Brune). Then follow the signs for La Grotte. There is a roundabout at one point, but La Grotte is still indicated. At a certain point, you come to a small cross-road in the middle of the forest; the road right is indicated for the Pierre Brune; the road left has a no-entry sign; while the road ahead appears to peter out in a small clearing or car-park, in which there is a stone cross. This is where you park for Fr de Montfort's cave hermitage: you walk past the cross and down a fairly steep rocky path to the cave. When you leave, look for signs to Mervent village, then head for St Hilaire-des-Loges or Coulonges. At St Hilaire-des-Loges, you should pick up directions for Saint Pompain.
2. If you are going to Saint-Pompain first, take the road for Mauléon and Poitiers out of St Laurent. Just at the other side of Mauléon, at a roundabout, take the road right (the D744) for Niort, then continue towards Niort through Cérizay, Moncoutant and Absie. 18 km (just over 11 miles) the other side of Absie (still on the road to Niort), you come to Coulonges-sur- l'Autize. As you drive through, watch for the sign on the right to Saint- Pompain, which is another 5 km. To get to Mervent from Saint-Pompain, you take the road for St Hilaire-des-Loges, and then, as you leave St Hilaire, you see the right turn signed for Mervent. The easiest way then is probably to go through Mervent village and watch for signs to La Grotte (du P. de Montfort). If then, you wish to visit Vouvant on the way back, follow the signs to Fontenay and La Chataigneraie on leaving the Grotto, then take the La Chataigneraie direction.
Saint-Pompain can certainly be seen as one of the "cradles" of the Company of Mary, since it was here that Frs Vatel and Mulot stayed for six years after the death of St Louis Marie, before being persuaded by Mother Marie- Louise to go to Saint-Laurent in 1722.
St Louis-Marie had no desire to go to Saint-Pompain, but Fr René Mulot, whose brother was the Prior of Saint-Pompain and who had himself retired there because of ill-health, was so insistent in his requests for Fr de Montfort to come and preach a mission there, that in the end, St Louis Marie said to him, "I agree to go to Saint-Pompain, on one condition: that you agree to follow me and to work with me for the rest of your life." "But you cannot be serious," replied Fr Mulot; "what would you do with such a missionary as me?" "It doesn't matter; follow me!" said St Louis Marie; "All your infirmities will disappear the moment you begin to work for the salvation of souls. If you agree, I will preach at Saint-Pompain." This encounter took place in Fontenay-le-Comte, where St Louis Marie had returned a few weeks after the mission there, to preach a retreat. Fr Mulot agreed, went with St Louis Marie to help him in the mission at Vouvant, which opened a week later; and after this mission they went together to Saint-Pompain, probably with M. des Bastières, to open the mission. It lasted two months; resulted in the "conversion" of the Prior (who was perhaps too concerned with his own success and somewhat worldly); and ended with a great procession to Villiers-en- Plaine for the start of the next mission there. For this procession, to show the Protestants of Villiers-en-Plaine, who were very numerous, that the Catholic Church also held the Bible in great reverence, St Louis Marie carried the Bible solemnly under the canopy usually reserved for processions of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr René Mulot had already begun to feel better, and he was true to his word, becoming the successor of Fr de Montfort and first superior of the nascent Company of Mary.
Two Confraternities were founded at Saint-Pompain during the mission: one for young girls, the "Society of Virgins", and the other for men, the "White Penitents", who numbered just 33 in honour of the years passed on earth by the Saviour. After the mission of Villiers-en-Plaine, St Louis Marie returned to Saint-Pompain about the beginning of March to preach a retreat to the White Penitents, and, at their request, he sent them on a pilgrimage from Saint-Pompain to Notre Dame des Ardilliers at Saumur, to pray for missionaries for the Company of Mary. Frs Vatel and Mulot accompanied the pilgrims, while St Louis Marie waited for their return before himself making the pilgrimage to Saumur, and then repairing to St Laurent for what was to be his last mission. The pilgrimage from Saint-Pompain to Saumur has been revived by the Montfortian congregations in the last few years, taking place in Summer.
After the death of St Louis Marie at St Laurent just a few weeks later, the two priests, Frs Vatel and Mulot, were completely at a loss to know what to do. They retired to Saint-Pompain, where they spent two years helping in the parish before once again taking up missionary work. In a way, they were tricked into starting again: the parish priest of Les Loges (which you pass through going from Saint-Pompain to Mervent, close to St Hilaire-des-Loges) asked them in Lent 1718 to come to help him prepare his parishioners to make their Easter duties, but, without telling the two priests, he had announced that they were to preach a mission! Neither had preached missions before (when they worked with St Louis Marie, they were only required to hear confessions); so they contented themselves with giving some readings in the pulpit with a few short reflections; but this was a great success, and they were thus encouraged to start preaching missions, which from that time on they never ceased to do. They continued to live at Saint-Pompain, where they were joined by others: Cyprien Aumond, Hilaire Touton, Jacques le Valois, and a certain Fradet, whose names appear, along with those of Adrien Vatel and René Mulot, in the parish registers preserved at the Mairie in Saint-Pompain. There also appears six times the name of Mathurin Rangeard as godfather. He is the only Brother of whom there is certain trace at Saint-Pompain; probably he taught there, at least until 1722, when the "Mulotins" (as the followers of St Louis Marie were known there) moved to St Laurent at the insistence of Mother Marie-Louise of Jesus.
In the church today there is a statue of St Louis Marie fixed to the pillar where stood the pulpit from which he preached; the pulpit itself is now in St Laurent at La Sagesse. There are also two pieces of the Mission Cross erected at the end of the mission, one of them in the cross which hangs on the wall opposite the statue of St Louis Marie. Of the presbytery where the "Mulotins" stayed, almost nothing remains today. But the Montfortian presence persists, since the present parish-priest is a member of the Company of Mary.
St Louis Marie preached a mission in Mervent about July, 1715, during which he restored the Church which had been in a very bad state. It was probably then that he found his cave, which he converted into a hermitage for himself with the help of many of the local people. This is how Besnard describes it: "He found there a well-secluded place. On the two sides, two mountains, with the river running between, and a hidden rock with a deep cave. This place seemed to him entirely suitable for building a hermitage, and he resolved to work at it incessantly. He had no sooner begun than a crowd of people of the neighbourhood came to help him with the work; one day there were more than a hundred there. The materials were soon assembled. There was stone and water on site; lime, sand, tiles, bricks and wood (in a word all that was necessary and more, and all given freely) were brought up. The hermit apostle could pay only with his person and he did not stint himself. None worked with more energy than himself. He worked so hard that he dug out of the rock a space big enough to contain a little bed, a table and a chair. There was an excellent spring at the back of the cave, and he made all the arrangements for a fountain. He planned even to build a chapel and to erect a large cross; but his constant labours gave him no time for this; and the fruits he never ceased to produce show clearly that, even though he built himself places of solitude, he was not called to live a solitary life."
Louis Marie had made a request for permission to the guardian of the royal forest, M. Fagon, and had obtained the approval of the Bishop of La Rochelle. However, to keep out the wind, he had undertaken some improvements: a wall about 18 metres long in front of the entrance to the cave, which required the removal of some chestnut stumps; and he planned to have a garden above the cave and to tap the spring a little lower down. These improvements were the cause of a court-case which was brought against him on 28th October, by the sub-delegate for Waters and Forests (Charles Moriceau) and the Royal Procurator (Jean de la Haye), for having, without authorization, "constructed a wall and taken the eighth part of one arpent" (an arpent was about 35 to 50 ares; an are is 100 sq. metres, the hundredth part of a hectare). There was no fine, but the wall had to be demolished, and St Louis Marie was forbidden access to the cave after this.
Mervent represents for us that fundamental and indestructible attitude which St Louis Marie had evinced in himself in his letter no. 5, of 6th December 1700: "I feel ... a secret love of retirement and the hidden life, to empty myself and fight against my corrupt nature which loves to be in the limelight." Note too the Prière Embrasée no. 25: the true missionaries dwell on the mountain..., and Cantique 157, almost certainly written about the cave at Mervent.
In the cave at Mervent today are a statue of Our Lady and one of St Louis Marie; this latter is said to have been made by a Daughter of Wisdom. In 1897, M. Biré, senator for the Vendée, had another statue of St Louis Marie placed on top of the rock containing the cave; made of stone, it was sculpted by M. Renaud-Bizet of Luçon. A granite altar was also placed in the cave in 1886. Down the steps leading from the cave into the valley, is a chapel which is open at certain times in the Summer, and beneath it, some basic accommodation for three or four people, which is available sometimes for Montfortians. The keys can be obtained either at St Laurent (the Saint- Esprit) or from the parish-priest at Saint-Pompain.
St Louis Marie preached a mission here towards the end of 1715, accompanied for the first time by René Mulot. Here he was given, it seems, two small pieces of land by "Madame la lieutenante", a house (but with very onerous conditions attached) by Mme de la Brûlerie, and a "little house" by a "good woman" (see St Louis Marie's Will). This "good woman" is identified by Fr Pierre Eyckeler, SMM, in his book "Le Testament d'un Saint" (1953), as Renée Arcelin. The house given by Madame de la Brûlerie is in the Rue Grande, just around the corner from the church, with its garden adjoining the church. The other was at the bottom of the little street which passes out under the Postern Gate (La Poterne); but it seems to have disappeared with the building of the dam which has widened the river here. It seems clear that at the time of the mission in Vouvant, St Louis Marie had the intention, or at least the idea, of establishing his Company of Mary here.