This Shrine is known as the Lourdes of Corsica.
"This place of worship shines all over Corsica. People come from the four corners of the island for celebrations.”
- Rector du Sanctuaire - M. L’abbé Michel Magdeleine
Our Lady, Queen reigning in heaven, is gloriously triumphant and still remains a kindhearted and compassionate mother to all. She does not forget her maternal role, but continues to intercede for all her children in need. There are numerous Shrines around the world arrayed in dazzling splendor that attest to this fact. They indicate particular miracles, favors and/or blessings that she has bestowed on her children, assuring that her generosity will not be forgotten. The Shrines point to her solicitude and tender care that she lavishes on all who call upon her – many of those favors known only to individual souls in the depths of their hearts. All the Shrines are magnificent in their own way - though they may differ in degrees of grandeur.
Our Lady’s presence in Corsica is evidenced by various shrines: Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy in Ajaccio, Our Lady of Pancheraccia, and, subject of this story, the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Lavasina. Corsica is thought to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean, located close to the island of Sardinia and home to countless churches and chapels - many of them dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Corsica is renowned to be the place of birth and exile for Napoleon Bonaparte – but more importantly it is the home to many martyrs and saints, such as: Saint Devota and Saint Julie, both killed during the persecutions of Diocletian and patrons of the island, St. Laurina, St. Partheeue, St. Vindemialis and St. Florentius. The history of Corsica is fraught with many tribulations: raids by the Moors, takeovers and ruled by many different peoples and nations: Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Vandals and Ostrogoths, Byzantine Empire, Lombardy, various Italian city-states and currently, France.
Corsica’s title of “the scented Isle” earns its name from the robust fragrance of the yellow Maqui flower, which covers almost a quarter of the island and is used to make perfumes. Its aroma floats sweetly through the air permeating the land and drifting out to sea with a scent all its own. Corsica is the most mountainous Mediterranean island (2/3 of the island is covered by mountains) and the fourth largest in the Mediterranean, containing dense forests (covering 1/5th of the island) and rugged mountain peaks arrayed in sparkling snow most of the year, reaching nearly 10,000 ft. Years ago the island produced sheep, honey, resin and wax. The island, app. 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, boasts of 620 miles of coastline and 200 beaches. There are three main climate zones: the coastal zone, which maintains a typical Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters that harbors forests, woodlands (mainly oak) and shrubs; the more temperate montane zone situated further down the slopes which is cooler and wetter than the coastal zone, and home to most of the island’s dense forests with vegetation more typical of Northern Europe than of the Mediterranean; and thirdly, the mountainous, high alpine zone with few animals and plants living above the tree line. This inhospitable zone is completely uninhabited by humans.
The Corsican natives, whose ancestors were Italians, are nearly all Catholics. In the mid 8th century, Pepin the Short donated territories, including Corsica, to the pope and laid the deeds and the keys to the cities on St. Peter’s tomb. As such, these territories were considered to fall under the temporal power of the pope of which he was the temporal sovereign. Noting the Island’s early history of Christianity, the author Ughelli, in his “Italia Sacra”, says of the old Corsican city Mariana: “It received the Catholic faith, and has had its own pastors, ever since the times of the Apostles”. In the mid 1550s, seeking to reinvigorate the faith, Blessed Alexander Sauli, (known as the "Apostle of Corsica"), stirred the people with his fervent preaching of love for God and renunciation of the world. He encouraged the islanders to live a more earnest religious life as well as founding a seminary on the model of those decreed by the Council of Trent. Blessed Sauli dedicated himself to pastoral work, while encouraging frequent communion, the Forty Hours devotion, and successfully founding schools for religious instructions. His catechetical gifts revived the flagging faith and were instrumental in keeping Catholicism alive all these centuries later.
Catholicism was fully entrenched in the hearts of the islanders. Heavenly miracles were not foreign to the populace. With prayers on their lips, love for Jesus Christ in their hearts and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, they were acquainted with spiritual favors and disposed to believing in signs sent from heaven. The Daneses, a family of sailors who traded wine between Rome and Corsica, lived in the 17th century near the fishing port of Lavasina, located on the northern peninsula of Corsica. Devoted to Our Lady and strong in their faith, they were fair in their dealings and compassionate towards their neighbor. A problem arose when another family owed them money but was unable to pay their debt. In lieu of cash, they offered to give the Daneses a painting of the Virgin Mary as payment in full. Since this kindhearted family loved the Blessed Mother, they gladly accepted the offer.
The painting, often referred to as The Tableau and whose artist is unknown, is a 16th century copy of a large canvas commissioned for St. Appollinaire church in Rome. It was carefully packaged and shipped from Rome to the Daneses. When the canvas arrived, it included the exact amount of the debt owed. Learning that the debtor did not send any money, and after ascertaining all the details while communicating with the Vatican, they realized that this was a miracle from heaven. In order to honor the miraculous painting, the Daneses housed it in a small chapel on their property that had standing room only for twenty people. The Tableau depicts the Virgin kneeling and hugging the Child Jesus while she covers him with her veil. In the background are St. Elizabeth kneeling, the child St. John the Baptist holding a cross and St. Joseph.
In 1675, Sister Maria, a humble Franciscan Tertiary, intensified the wonder of this Divine Favor from heaven. A few years prior, she contracted a painful malady in her legs, causing them to shrink and fold under her and causing her continuous tremendous pain. In 1675 she asked to be taken to Genoa, where she could receive better medical care. Providentially, the boat that she was traveling on met with a fierce storm and was forced to take port in Lavasina. Having heard about the miraculous painting, she asked to be taken to the little Shrine where she could honor Our Lady. Upon arrival she began to pray and asked that the oil from the lamp in front of the picture be brought to her. With some children in her company, they all sang the Salve Regina and then she rubbed the oil on her legs. She was instantly cured of this excruciating malady and astounded the sailors who carried her to the small Chapel. They were so astonished at what they witnessed that they very quickly spread the astounding news and soon all the islanders were discussing the prodigy. The bishop, Mgr. Giustiniani, ordered an investigation into the matter and asked for a report to be written specifying all the details. He believed this to be a genuine miracle from the Blessed Virgin Mary and ordered a larger church to be built, one that would properly honor the miraculous painting and the phenomenon of the cure. Two years later, in 1677, the chapel was erected and the sanctuary was adorned with the Miraculous Tableau. On September 8th of the same year, the birthday of the Blessed Virgin was officially celebrated with a solemn Mass. Soon, devotees from all around Corsica hurried eagerly to visit Our Lady’s new place of honor and the “pilgrimage to Lavasina” was born.
Another miracle was granted to Corsica through the intercession of Notre Dame des Graces de Lavasina (Our Lady of the Graces). In 1779, a catastrophic drought struck the island, and a procession was ordered to beg Our Lady of Graces for rain. She heard her children’s pleas and sent abundant rain to end the scourge of the drought, causing her children to rejoice with ever increasing trust in her intercession.
Countless miracles are evidenced by a vast display of ex-votos (religious offerings given in order to fulfill a vow) offered in gratitude to the Virgin by those who were healed or had their prayers answered. The devotees not only wish to give thanks for these divine favors, but also desire to attest to the veracity of the Heavenly Mother’s solicitude and tender care for her children. As Canon Ange-Felix Renucci, (chaplain of the Convent) declared in 1941: “To deny it (the miracle), it is to my weak opinion, to want to deny the evidence. A multitude of ex-voto proclaim the sovereign intervention of the Queen of Heaven in the most serious dangers in favor of her.” Canon Runucci relates three miracles:
1. In 1884, Marie-Josephine Sbraggia was a blind woman for many years. Undaunted, she walked barefoot to the Shrine on the 2nd Sunday after the octave of September 8th and approached the miraculous image in the sanctuary, and with great faith, pleaded to Our Lady for her sight. After her fervent prayer she arose, and suddenly realized that she could see! She never again had any problems with her eyes and returned to the healing Shrine every year on September 8th to give thanks.
2. The widow Madame Blanche-Marie Viscovali, living in Northern Corsica, was mostly paralyzed and able to walk only a few steps with the aid of crutches. She was stricken with a grave illness and received the Last Rites. Though it would cause her great suffering, on May 16, 1897 she asked to be taken to Notre Dame des Graces de Lavasina, in order to pray to the Madonna for a cure. There she received Holy Communion and she immediately felt that she was healed. She gave thanks to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, rose and began to walk without any help. She placed her crutches in the church as evidence of her miraculous cure and gratitude to the tender solicitude of the Heavenly Mother.
3. Laura Oliva, married to Dr. Pieri who was a surgeon at the Marseilles hospital, contracted intestinal tuberculosis and was examined by twenty doctors (including her husband). They concluded that there was no cure for her ailment and they could not help her. Her uncle, Abbot B. Fayet, prayed unceasingly to all the saints in heaven for her cure. Her condition continued to worsen daily. Even though she had a swollen stomach, she lost a lot of weight and was in agony. For two years her temperature maintained a steady 104° (or above). Finally, her uncle’s friend, Father Rossi, suggested making a pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Lavasina on her behalf. Abbot Fayet reluctantly agreed, thinking that there was no other hope left. He left his niece in terrible agony and was very distressed to leave her in such an alarming state. He arrived at the Shrine on September 8th and offered Holy Mass for her cure. He later realized that when he was offering the Holy Sacrifice at that moment, Laura was writhing with intense abdominal pain. Two days later he arrived at his niece’s house, expecting the worst. However, when he opened the door, his niece fell into his arms, totally healed. The Abbot’s testimony was written in 1909 and he stated that Laura had two children after her cure.
Over the centuries, the Shrine has experienced continued growth in its edifice; particularly under the guidance of the Franciscans who, in 1859, accepted responsibility for the shrine from Bishop Casanelli d’Istria. In veneration of the Franciscan Founders, they installed two stained glass windows: one of St. Francis and the other of St. Clare. They purchased a high altar, currently in use; covered the interior walls with pink and white marble veneer and constructed an attached convent. In 1883, the Processional Statue that represents the miraculous image was obtained. In 1896, the Corsicans living in Venezuela donated an image of the Tableau carved in Carrara marble that now adorns the Shrine’s outside façade above the entrance door.
In 1903, Corsica was severely distressed when an anti-religious government voted to expel all religious orders from the island. This caused great sorrow among the predominantly Catholic citizens and their displeasure and grievances were expressed in various ways, causing the government no little grief. The expulsion would last for ten years, whereupon the government sought to ease tensions and allowed Religious orders to return. On the solemn feast of St. Francis, October 4th, 1913, the Franciscans formally returned to care for the Shrine.
The end of WWII witnessed an increase in the numbers of devoted pilgrims flocking to Our Lady of Graces Shrine to offer Our Lady thanks and pleading for her intercession for various cures and other needs. In 1947, a soaring bell tower, measuring 98 feet tall, was built next to the church to thank Our Lady for her help in liberating Corsica from the rule of Italy. This predicament began on September 8, 1942, when Mussolini and his fascist party led the Italian Military to gain control of Corsica. However, when Mussolini was imprisoned in July of 1943, 12,000 German troops came to Corsica to take over the occupation. The French Resistance army would not surrender and battled valiantly. Finally, freedom was procured for Corsica on October 4th, 1943. “During the night of 3 to 4 October, the last German units evacuated Bastia, leaving behind 700 dead and 350 POWs.” The Corsicans believed this to be Our Lady’s mighty victory and as a result, the bell tower, which houses a beautiful carillon of five bells, was built as an ex-voto, honoring Our Lady for her powerful assistance. The tower was erected using the drawings for a lighthouse, but the builders chose a white statue of the Blessed Virgin to radiate her own immaculate light, whose brightness far outshines a lighthouse lamp. The statue is turned toward the sea of Cap Corse and reveals her protection to the passing sailors as her title indicates - “Star of the Sea”.
On May 18th, 1952, with the approval of Pope Pius XII, a great celebration was held when Bishop Jean-Baptiste Llosa of Ajaccio, solemnly crowned Our Lady of Graces of Lavasina and the Child Jesus in the presence of 30,000 people. For the 300th anniversary of the Sanctuary, the miraculous image was restored to its original beauty causing the colors to gleam more clearly, and was relocated over the high altar on September 7, 1977. In May of 2002, the 50th anniversary of the Coronation of Our Lady of Graces, there was a celebration with a commemorative Mass and a procession with the image transported on a decorated float accompanied by many of the faithful.
The popularity of the 350-year-old Shrine continues to draw pilgrims who come for various reasons: to ask for cures, to offer thanksgiving, to enjoy the beauty of the church and the surroundings, or to “come away and rest awhile”. They also devoutly approach a niche near the Miraculous Image to receive healing oil that is taken from a vial that rests under the image. Small bottles of oil, signs of devotion, are also available for devotees who are seeking cures or solace.
Annually, on September 7th and 8th, the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, there is a grand celebration in honor of Our Lady of Graces of Lavasina. On the vigil of the feast day, there is a splendid torchlight procession attended by the bishop of Corsica and accompanied by 3,000 devotees who follow the statue to the seaside situated close by. After a talk by the Bishop, they return to the church to attend a solemn Mass of the Nativity of the Virgin. On the Feast day itself, several Masses are offered in the morning as well as another procession, and concludes with an additional Mass in the evening.
Corsica remains indebted to the assistance of Notre Dame de Graces. Her National Anthem indicates the country’s love for Our Lady and the reason for the popularity of the Church of Notre Dame de Lavasina. It is titled “God Save You, Queen” and was written in 1675 by St. Francis De Geronimo, a Jesuit priest who worked many miracles in Italy. Since the hymn reflected Corsica’s Catholic culture, the citizens adopted it in 1735 as their National Anthem when the country proclaimed independence from the Republic of Genoa. The last stanza was added later, and refers to victory against the enemies of Corsica. It is well loved and sung frequently at public events. Here is the anthem in its entirety:
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_occupation_of_Corsica - The Italian occupation of Corsica was related to the Nazi Germany dominion of Europe over which Adolf Hitler ultimately exercised control
 https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/item/how-is-lighthouse-light-magnified\: Because of its highly increased intensity, this beam of light can travel a very long distance.