Collaborative writing by Jeannine Lafrenière and Sue Moerman
My pilgrimage to Italy was coming to an end on that day in May 2005, and I’d seen enough churches, basilicas and chapels to last a lifetime. The tour group had been dropped off in the centre of Erice, Italy, and given several hours of free time to do as they wished. et, here I was, turning away from the other members of the group and being drawn down a street to the left. I found myself standing in front of yet another church and, even though I was reluctant to enter, I was somehow incapable of resisting. I toured the church and left wondering why I had felt the overpowering need to enter in the first place.
As I was walking away, a young church guide asked me, “Did you see the statue?” When I said I had, she looked at me and said smilingly, “No, you haven’t seen Her.” She took my hand, and led me directly to a statue of the Virgin breastfeeding the Infant Jesus. It was the first time I had ever seen this representation of the Virgin and Child.
I gazed in wonder at the statue and was overcome with emotion because I could feel the intense love Mary felt for her Child and the absolute trust this Infant had placed in his Mother. It was at this moment that I knew I had to carry forward the message that, first and foremost, Mary was a mother.
Little did I know that I was about to embark on a spiritual journey that would have far-reaching effects on my own and the lives of thousands of others.
Back home, still deeply affected by my experience, I felt compelled to make it possible for others to share in this remarkable experience. As a counsellor to young people I knew that more and more of today’s youth were distancing themselves from a Church which, they felt, didn’t really connect with them. I wanted the young to have the opportunity to experience what I had. My task now was to find a public setting in which a statue of a breastfeeding Virgin could be displayed.
It took until September 2007.
I began by approaching priests in my home area of Ottawa-Gatineau, and then expanded my search to churches across Québec. While certain members of the clergy were supportive of my endeavour, I was turned down repeatedly. A Virgin with breast exposed would not be acceptable in churches.
Then, I met Father Marc Lahaie in Saint-Georges-de-Champlain, Québec, where my mother lived. Impressed with my fervour and determination to succeed, he took up my cause and six months later, I learned that the statue would be welcome at a private high school in Shawinigan, the Séminaire Sainte-Marie.
Ten days after finding a home for the statue, I found a sculptor named Emmanuel Auclair, an artist at l’Atelier Silex in Trois-Rivières and art teacher at the Cégep de Drummondville
Initially, Emmanuel saw the project as a technical challenge. He would need to develop an original sculpture based on my vision. I was not asking for a duplicate of the statue I’d seen in Italy. Instead, I wanted an authentic representation of the time in which Mary lived and that the love between a mother and her child be palpable.
He couldn’t have been a better choice to recreate the vision of maternal love that I sought. Emmanuel was the proud father of a new baby girl. From the Internet he researched historical pictures of the Mary’s time and from watching his wife and child together, he was able to create an authentic reproduction of the Virgin breastfeeding the Infant Jesus. He pictured the Virgin stopping to feed her Infant beside a grotto on the mountainside.
“I wanted to show the Virgin in a natural state. The position of her legs shows that she is not perfectly comfortable”.
Working in his spare time, it took Emmanuel one year to complete the sculpture, but the realism is striking and I was overjoyed with the result. The sculpture represents exactly what I had hoped for.
Collecting the money to pay for the project was the next hurdle.
A friend of mine, Mr. Christian Muckle, President of Cégep de Trois-Rivières, with the support of the Chair of the Board, Mr. André Gagnon, managed to gather funds from all the post-secondary institutions of the Mauricie area and from two Québec ministries – the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport and the Ministère des Transports.
Again, a wonderful priest I met in September 2009 came to my rescue. Father Marcel Perron, a priest, teacher and retired director of the Séminaire Sainte-Marie, listened to me and said, “The Virgin has given me so much, I would like to give back to her. I’ll help you get the money to honour her.” Over the next 6 months, he not only helped collect money, but also reassured and supported me.
The remainder of the money came from students at the Séminaire Sainte-Marie, “l’Âge d’Or de St-Georges-de-Champlain”, from my mother, and others.
When the sculpture was unveiled in May 2010, exactly five years from the beginning of this quest, the Séminaire was no longer just a high school, but a preschool, elementary and high school, meaning that every day, as the children of all ages enters the building, they get to see the statue. The students attending the unveiling ceremony were clearly moved; one child was heard to say, “Mon Dieu, ella a l’air de tellement aimer son enfant.” (“My God, she looks like she really loves her child.”)
L’Abbé Perron was on hand that day to bless the statue but, sadly, he passed away three months later.
In the fall of 2010, another project was born – the picture-cards of the “Virgin breastfeeding the Infant Jesus – Homage to Motherhood”. This project was realized in two stages. In September, the son of my friend Olivier Turpin, a graphic design student from Gatineau, accompanied me to Séminaire Sainte-Marie to photograph the sculpture. From the various photos taken, I selected the one for the picture-cards.
Then in October, I approached Diane Lemay, a teacher of Ethics and Religious Culture at the Séminaire Sainte-Marie, to have her classes write captions for the picture-cards. Shortly after, Ms. Lemay was approached by l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières to undertake a research
project on reading. Combining the two projects, the University supervised the background research that facilitated the students’ efforts in writing the captions.
These 12 and 13-year-olds first researched articles and poems relating to religious art then, with the sculpture on display, they wrote of the emotions and impressions inspired by the sculpture. The captions were so well done that I couldn’t choose just one. Instead, three captions were chosen and the three captions appear on the backs of the picture-cards. I am convinced that the students had really been inspired by Mary and the Child.
According to Jean-Francois Royal, Director of the Musée des religions du monde, at Nicolet, Québec, a representation of the Virgin breastfeeding her Child is extremely rare.
Although depictions of the Virgin breastfeeding her Child are very rare, I was surprised and delighted to find one in Gatineau, Québec. When I arrived at the Servantes de Jésus-Marie to request that I be remembered in the community’s prayers, I was shown a photo of the statue venerated since the establishment of the Congregation.
Mr. Royal noted, “We speak of the many virtues of the Virgin, but we forget that, above all, she was a mother.
Since the end of August 2018, the sculpture has been displayed in the Service Centre of the Our Lady of the Cap Shrine in Trois Rivières, Québec, Canada. Reverend Father Pierre-Olivier Tremblay, O.M.I., rector of Our Lady of the Cape Shrine and Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese of Trois-Rivières, played a pivotal role in the sculpture’s relocation, with the help of an anonymous donor who covered the moving expenses.
All the profits of the purchases of prayers-cards depicting the sculpture entitled “Virgin breastfeeding the Infant Jesus – Homage to Motherhood” are to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the natural structures located in healthcare facilities by the Forget For A Moment Foundation.