This shrine is one of three cathedrals in the diocese, and its history has been a testimony of faith, conversion, reconciliation and peace over the centuries.
The apparition of Our Lady of Boulogne was reported in a manuscript dating back to the late Middle Ages. It’s a simple story, with two versions:
In the year 1104, Countess Ida de Bouillon, the mother of the famous Crusader Godfrey, King of Jerusalem, built a Romanesque church to house the statue. The construction work lasted 200 years and the Gothic choir was finished only in the beginning of 16th century.
In the thirteenth century, it is said that Boulogne was similar to Lourdes in popularity
From the twelfth to the thirteenth century, pilgrims flocked to Boulogne, which became a stop on the road to Santiago de Compostela. One stopped in Boulogne, coming from England or the Netherlands, or returning to Spain or Italy. There exist many records of pilgrims from the famous Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, from Saint Bernard, and, in the Middle East, circa 1050, from the bishops of Antioch and Mount Sinai. Later, in the thirteenth century, King Philip Augustus, Saint Louis, Henry III of England, and Francis 1st also visited the shrine. Many healings obtained through Our Lady of Boulogne were recorded in those times. Chaucer, in his famous The Wife of Bath’s Tale, called Boulogne one of the most important shrines in Christendom. The popularity of the Virgin of the Sea continued to increase until the year 1544, when the church was pillaged and the miraculous statue taken to England where it remained for many years.
At the Time of the Wars of Religion
In 1553, the Emperor Charles V pillaged Therouanne, just outside Boulogne, which was the seat of the bishopric. Consequently the ordinary decided to reside in Boulogne and the church became a cathedral.
The 16th century was the time of the Wars of Religion. In Boulogne, the Huguenots attacked the cathedral, breaking windows, burning the woodwork, mostly directing their efforts to destroying the statue by fire, but in vain. The statue was finally thrown on a pile of manure and then down a well. The very devout wife of a Huguenot secretly withdrew it from the well and hid it in her attic, where it remained for over 30 years before it was returned to the cathedral. The statue was in very bad condition, but the continuation of miracles kept proving its authenticity. In 1630, Bishop Le Bouthiller rebuilt the cathedral.
At the Time of the French Revolution
The cathedral flourished until the French Revolution when the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy brought it under government control. The miraculous statue of "Our Lady of Boulogne" was burnt in 1793. Its right hand, which had broken a little while before, is the sole vestige of the original statue, a piece of the hand can be found inside a copper reliquary under the dome. The cathedral served as an arsenal, warehouse, then sold to foreign traders, it was demolished stone by stone.
A Humble Rebuilder
Beginning in 1820, a priest, Fr. Haffreingue, dedicated his life to rebuilding the cathedral, and he himself served as the architect, finding his inspiration in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and other major Roman basilicas. 160 men worked on the site, with whom he mingled willingly. He wanted the cathedral to be seen all the way from England and that it be like a permanent prayer lifted toward heaven for the unity of Protestant and Catholic communities, in a single church. Fr. Haffreingue was a very humble man. On the outside, in front of the parvis, is inscribed above the central portal “A Domino factum est” (This is the work of the Lord).
At the Time of the Second World War, "The Great Return"
From 1943 to 1948, four reproductions of Our Lady of Boulogne (also known as Our Lady of the Great Return) were made, each mounted on a skiff. They toured nearly 750,000 miles across France, visiting 16,000 parishes and causing a surge of new faith, prayers and conversions in its path.
The statue of Our Lady, carried as it stood in a boat, accompanied pleas for the deliverance of France, which took on a new sense in the context of World War II.
During the diocesan pilgrimages of June and August 2004, the “float” of Our Lady of the Great Return was in Lourdes, from June through August. The spirit of the "Great Return” or "Come-Back," from 1943 to 1948, was the "Reconciliation Between the Nations." In 2008, as the 150th anniversary of the Apparitions of Lourdes was commemorated, this plea for peace was echoed and renewed. In 2008, or in any other year, one can always live this pilgrimage “with Mary, Mother of Christ and Mother of Men, on the path of Reconciliation.”
SBALCHIERO, Boulogne, LAURENTIN and SBALCHIERO, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Apparitions of the Virgin (Dictionnaire encyclopédique des apparitions de la Vierge), Fayard, Paris, 2007.