Our Lady of Boulogne appeared on a small boat in the seventh century asking St. Ide to build a church. In the 13th century it was a place of pilgrimage the size of the Lourdes today.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is located in the Calais Pass, diocese of Arras. This shrine is one of the three cathedrals of the diocese, along with that of Arras and St Omer, its history has been through the centuries a testimony of faith, conversion, reconciliation, peace.
Some manuscripts of the late Middle Ages tell the story of this Virgin, albeit with some variations:
A very beautiful lady arrives by boat from the sea in a small boat without sails. To those who saw her and asked her for her name, She replied that she is the “help of sinners, a source of grace and a source of mercy.”
After that she adds: “I want a divine light to come down on you and on your city…. Friends, build a church in my name”
Another story tells that around the year 636, at the time of King Dagoberto and St. Omer was bishop of this region;
On a late afternoon the inhabitants were gathered in a chapel covered in reeds and branches, located at the top of the city, when the Mother of God appeared inviting them to go to the shore of the sea, where they would find a boat.
They went and found a boat without a sail, without oars without logs in it and carrying a wooden Virgin, about three feet high and holding tenderly the baby Jesus in her left arm.
Both with an extraordinary expression of calm, peace and happiness. (Source: Cathedral website)
By 1100, the Countess of Boulogne Ide, who later became St. Ide, built a Roman church. The work lasted 200 years. The Gothic choir was finished at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
In the following centuries Boulogne became a tap on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, especially for pilgrims from England or Belgium, Spain or Italy.
The cathedral of Our Lady of Boulogne after various vicissitudes was completely destroyed during the Revolution French when churches and convents were declared state property. The furniture was sold and destroyed. The statue was burned down in 1793. The cathedral became an arsenal, a storage facility, and then sold to foreign traders in the city, who demolished it piece by piece.
The right hand of the statue, however, having fallen previously, remains the only original piece of the statue, which is still preserved in a reliquary under the dome.
In 1820 a Benedictine abbot (Abbot Haffreingue) felt an inner call to rebuild those ancient walls of the church. He devoted his whole life to the reconstruction of the shrine, to bring it to its former glory, but it can be said that this was realized only between 1943 and 1948, when 4 images of the pilgrim Madonna of Boulogne crossed all of France, stopping in 16,000 parishes.
With the money donated by his family, he bought the land and rubble of the cathedral and to commence he at first built a small chapel. A generous donor donated a sum of 48,000 francs and after that sum, many more were donated from all over France and even England. The pilgrimages to the shrine began again, and the donations increased even more. But Abbot Haffreingue was very modest and had it be written outside the cathedral, under the central portal “A domino factum est”: This is the work of the Lord.
From 1943 to 1948 four reproductions of the Virgin of Bologna, also called “Madonna of the Great Return”, each mounted on a car, traveled 120,000 km. Across France they visited 16,000 parishes, awakening the faith, prayer and conversion of many.
The statue of the Virgin was taken on a maritime pilgrimage by boat during World War II to beseech an end to the conflict.