In her neo-gothic ”Basilique de la Délivrande”. Calvados department of Basse Normandie, 10 km North of Caen, 2 km from the beach. A 1580 A.D. copy of the legendary 3rd century original, which was destroyed during the Wars of Religion, painted stone.
Our Lady of Deliverance
(Notre-Dame de la Délivrande)
Douvres-la-Délivrande is a small town of little more than 5000 inhabitants named for its Black Madonna. It is she who made it a pilgrimage site for peasants and royalty, saints and sinners since the 7th century. King Louis XI visited in 1470 and 1473, St. Theresa of Lisieux in 1887.
The site was first settled about 200 years B.C.E. Its Celtic name was “delle Yvrande”, i.e. the valley or territory of the Yvrande clan, which later became "Délivrande" in the local dialect and then Délivrance in French. From the beginning it was a holy site dedicated to a Celtic mother goddess, whom the Romans later identified with their goddess Demeter.(*1) A beautiful first century C.E. statue of her was found in 1942. It can be admired in the Musée de Normandie in nearby Saint-Aubin (2-3 km from Douvres-la-Delivrande).
On the facade of the basilica there is a depiction of the early bishops of the region breaking a statue of the Pagan goddess who was originally worshipped on this site, and replacing it with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But now that the said goddess statue has been found fairly well intact (considering how long she was buried) one wonders. Did they really destroy the Pagan statue, or did they follow the example of the Romans, who simply renamed and usurped other peoples’ gods? Many other Christians simply baptized Pagan idols and called them Mary and Jesus. This happened in Chartres, which is not too far from Normandy. In Enna, Sicily a Demeter and Persephone statue stood on the altar in the Catholic church until the late 19th century, to name just a couple of examples. The mother goddess in Saint-Aubin, who apparently lost the child in her lap, looks just like so many ancient Madonnas of the ‘seat of wisdom’ type. One wonders how many of those were baptized Pagan statues.
It says that the first chapel of Our Lady of Deliverance was built by St. Regnobert in the 3rd century. The saint was the closest disciple and successor of St. Exupère, the first evangelizer and bishop of the area. It is said that while Regnobert and his parents were still Pagans, his mother and father would often go worship “idols” on Mt. "Phaunus", while their son preferred a little Christian chapel in the village. Latter place had been dedicated by St. Exupère by turning a Pagan holy site into one consecrated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later, when St. Regnobert himself was bishop, he followed in the footsteps of his spiritual father and turned another important Pagan holy site into a sanctuary of the Mother of God, installing in it the original Madonna of Délivrande. – Again, they don’t sound like idol smashers, but like idol baptizers.
St. Regnobert’s 3rd century oratory was burnt and destroyed by Norman invaders in 830. But as it turned out later, the statue of the Madonna, though darkened by the smoke of the fire, had survived the attack and lay buried under the rubble for three centuries.
One day around 1150, a shepherd noticed that one of his rams kept withdrawing from the herd. He would go to a certain place and strike the earth with his feet and horns, digging until he’d tire and go to sleep on the spot. He wouldn’t eat during this time and yet remained the fattest of the sheep. Eventually the owner of the meadow recognized the strange behavior of the ram as a sign from Heaven and ordered the hole the animal had started to be excavated further. That’s how the statue of the Black Madonna was found. She was carried in a joyful and solemn procession to the parish church and installed there. But soon she miraculously appeared back at the place of her discovery. So a church was built for her on top of the ruins of the original Pagan holy site, where she insisted on dwelling.(*2)
Only a couple of Romanesque arches remain of this church. It was replaced by the present basilica in the 19th century. There Our Lady of Deliverance rests on a pillar on which are carved angels pulling souls out of purgatory. For more on the significance of the pillar see Zaragoza.
On the wall behind the Black Madonna is a case containing a set of hand cuffs. This commemorates a well attested 16th-century miracle concerning a merchant who found himself at sea as the prisoner on a Turkish ship. He prayed to Our Lady for Deliverance, promising he would make a pilgrimage to her shrine if she heard his prayer. Suddenly his irons came free from the wall of the ship and he was able to flee. As promised, he went straight to the feet of Notre Dame de la Délivrande, with a seemingly irremovable iron ring still around his neck. As he prayed, the neck-piece fell to the ground with a clatter.(*3)
The Black Madonna of Deliverance’s feast day is celebrated on the Saturday following August 15th. The shrine and its pilgrims are taken care of by a special order of priests, the Missionaries of the Délivrande. They did a good job spreading her fame. In the late 19th century a bishop from Brittany, a neighboring region, brought a copy of the Black Madonna of Normandy to Senegal and founded a sanctuary in her honor, where she continues to be loved and revered by her African children.
*2: Black Madonnas being found by cattle and insisting on a sanctuary in the place of their discovery are common themes in Black Madonna legends. This particular story is told on: http://www.douvres-la-delivrande.fr/en/tourism-and-inheritance.html and http://lusile17.centerblog.net/rub-images-pieuses-icones--4.html
*3: See article "Cross-channel devotions" http://archive.catholicherald.co.uk/article/7th-may-1999/5/cross-channel-devotions