One cannot dispute that there are certain things one must see Paris. The Eiffel Tour, Notre Dame, Le Louvre -- you get the picture. Of course, just as in many European cities, there are plenty of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and chapels to see in Paris. In my year living there, I rarely tired of visiting such sites, enjoying the grandeur, the pipe organs, and the stained-glass. Needless to say, I have seen many “authentic” crowns of thorns, a handful of blood-stained shifts worn by Crusaders, and numerous relics of saints representing various body parts.
One day, my devout Irish Catholic father called me and asked me to do something for him. He asked me to obtain a Miraculous Medal for him before I flew home to the US for Christmas. He was battling prostate cancer and had heard that the Miraculous Medal cured cancers, but was only available in Paris. Without telling him that I thought it a little strange that it could not be obtained in the US, I agreed to do my best. Fully expecting that the Notre Dame Cathedral gift shop sold this medal, I put it off until just a couple of days before my flight home.
I remember the day I finally undertook my task. I worked in my office tying up loose ends because my holiday was fast approaching. Even though it was mid-December, I was still wearing an autumn weight jacket because even though it was dark early the temps remained mild. As I made my way to Notre Dame, I was surprised how cold the early evening was. I simply was not dressed for it, so I was determined to get to the cathedral, get a medal, and then go home. It was a good plan except for one thing; the gift shop clerk told me that the only place the Miraculous Medal is available is on Rue du Bac, and then she scribbled down an address for me.
Puzzled, and slightly annoyed by the necessary detour, I made way to the given address on the Left Bank. The destination was not so much a church of any kind. It was a thrift shop. Standing outside in the thickening snow, I saw no sign of a church just next door or across the street, and so I went inside the thrift shop. In the shop is a counter for dropping off used clothing items and that’s it. Armed only with my bad French I was in no way equipped to explain that I was searching for a medal that cures cancer, but I tried. To this day I am certain that the clerk in the thrift shop thought I was in need of a winter coat, and to that point his judgment was on point although not appreciated at that time. Are you keeping score? I made a promise to my father, I’m not really sure what it is exactly that I am looking for, I procrastinated and now I am running out of time, I am lost, the language barrier is preventing me from explaining myself intelligibly, and it is snowing.
In a sudden moment of clarity between two different languages, someone told me to go down the street to #140. Respectfully refusing the offer of a hat and scarf, I took to the street again. By now the snow-layered Rue du Bac was taking on the look of my mother’s decorative winter village, with a narrow road lined with little shops that glow of soft lighting and were filled with warm, happy people inside. I trudged along, hanging my head down to protect my face from the wet snowflakes. I walked all the way to the end of the road where Rue du Bac meets the grand shopping venue that is Boulevard Saint Germain. On either side of Rue du Bac is the famous Bon Marché department store. Did I miss #140? I doubled back walking slower this time, and then I noticed it -- a modest doorway just behind Le Grande Epicerie at Bon Marché. It looked like a small car park, but certainly not a church of any kind. A relatively small and unpronounced marker near the arched doorway read “Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse”. Inside the archway was a narrow and long open air courtyard with a few people coming and going. A memorial wall ran the length of the space, constructed of bricks engraved with names, dates, and messages in a variety of languages. The further in I walked, the easier it was to realize that a chapel sat in the back of the courtyard making it clear to me why I could not see it from the street. Inside the chapel itself, the atmosphere is bright with reflective white and light blue accented by reflective gold. Sisters in the mezzanine were reciting the rosary. Because I ducked in from the falling snow, it all felt like a vision of Christmas purity to me.
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal stands on the site where an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to Sr. Catherine Labouré in 1830 and imparted instruction on the design of the medal. Now canonized, the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Labouré is on display in the chapel today. Pilgrims from all over the world visit this modest chapel, and yet I had never heard of it and never read about it. Indeed, the gift shop sold the elusive miraculous medals, as well as rosaries, postcards, and books.
I found peacefulness at the chapel. It could have been relief that the scavenger hunt was over. It might have even been that there was no crowd to contend with at this place of pilgrimage. I know part of it was a sense of completion of the promise made to my father. Whether a believer in miracles or not, I recommend visiting 140 Rue du Bac on your next visit to Paris. A quick spiritual pause while touring the Latin Quarter or shopping at Bon Marché will make a good memory.