It’s generally agreed that the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in south west France is one of the great sacred sites of France. But then what? How do you class a sacred site?
There are many criteria: number of pilgrims, the relics that a particular cathedral or basilica holds, or perhaps some of the Villes Sanctuaires (Sanctuary Towns) of which there are 19 listed. Or perhaps a small chapel you discovered where a sense of peace or completion flooded over you.
Many of the great sacred sites of France were part of the great pilgrim routes that criss-crossed the country. You can still walk them today from different parts of France to the Pyrenees and beyond that to the goal of St. James of Compostella in Spain.
So many of the great sacred sites of France might just be a personal choice. Some of those included here are indeed great sacred sites of France. Others are my own personal discoveries.
I have not included the great cathedrals of France; that’s another story.
Let me know of any sacred sites that you find; France is a big country!
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, Haute-Pyrénées in Occitanie
Lourdes is in south west France, bordering on the Pyrenees. The city rose relatively late to become the second most-visited Christian pilgrimage site in Europe after Rome. Now it attracts around five million pilgrims a year and comes top of many people’s list of the great sacred sites of France.
In 1858, the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary 18 times. Mary told Bernadette to drink the water from a small spring which would cure various illnesses, and so the story goes, it came to pass. The Catholic church has officially recognized 69 miraculous healings.
Known also as the Domain, the area surrounds the catholic shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. The site includes the grotto, churches and basilicas, Sanctuary Baths and various office.
More about Lourdes
Basilica of St. Thérèse, Lisieux, Normandy
Less well known than many religious sites, this is the second pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes, attracting over 2 million pilgrims a year.
Saint Thérèse (1873-1897), born Céline Martin, became a Carmelite nun at the age of 15, along with 2 older sisters. Her simple life was a model of 19th-century decency and modesty, and it was the small acts of kindness that were all important. Named Thérèse of the Child Jesus, she was also called The Little Flower.
She was a prolific writer and is best known for L’histoire d’une âme (The Story of a Soul), a collection of autobiographical manuscripts published two years after her death. The book inspired various Popes to speed up her beatification (usually granted 50 years after death) and canonization on May 17, 1925. Though five years after France’s great heroine, Joan of Arc, was made a saint, the more popular Therese had a greater ceremony in St. Peter’s. Her Saint’s Day is October 1. She’s the patron saint of aviators, florists, illness and missions.
Saint Thérèse has particularly eclectic followers, from Edif Piaf to Delia Smith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, originally called Agnes, explained her choice of the name Teresa: “I chose Thérèse as my namesake because she did ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
Construction of the Basilica of St. Thérèse in Lisieux started in 1929 and finished in 1954. It was consecrated on July 11 that year and became a world wide centre for pilgrims.
The largest church built in France in the 20th century, it dominates Lisieux from its hillside site. It’s 90 metres high and incredibly ornate inside with neo-Byzantine style décor. There’s an exhibition inside on Sainte-Thérèse’s life and the Carmelite Order.
More about the Basilica of Saint Thérèse
The magnificent Mont-Saint-Michel stands on an island just off the Normandy coast, the abbey a magnet for pilgrims since the Middle Ages. They called it ‘St. Michael in peril of the sea’. Easy to defend even during the Hundred Years’ War, it remains a magical rocky island topped by a great abbey.
Mont Saint Michel Abbey is one of the oldest in France. In the 8th century the bishop of nearby Avranches claimed that the Archangel Michael had tasked him with building the abbey and the project began. From 966 onwards, the powerful Dukes of Normandy lent their considerable support and finances, and Mont St Michel grew in power and influence.
Its buildings were magnificent, climbing up the hillside to the abbey; its library full of priceless illuminated manuscripts, its buildings busy with scholars. Perched high above the pinnacles, arches and roofs, a statue of St Michael, the weigher of souls, looks down over the achievements of mankind.
Over 3 million people visit a year and Mont St Michel is overrun in summer, so try to go out of season. It’s easy to access since a huge €209 million scheme to ease the flow of water and stop the silting up of the river that flows into the bay, take away the old causeway and create a bridge across the sea was completed in 2014. Now you park around 1.5 miles away, and take a shuttle bus to the mount. You can also walk across the bridge, or book a special horse-drawn carriage.
UNESCO World Heritage Site. More about Mont-Saint-Michel
Rocamadour in the Lot, Occitanie
Rocamadour is a dramatic site. The sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary dominates the village built on the banks of the river Alzou. Enter the village through the Figuier Gate and walk along the only street.
A series of 216 stone steps leads up to a small square where 8 chapels and churches make up the religious complex. The main building is the chapel of Notre Dame chapel, rebuilt in 1479. The reason for the visit? A black Madonna, carved in the 12th century from walnut. Below the basilica lie the remains of Saint Amator (Amadour), the reason for pilgrimages from the 12th century to today walking on the Way of St James.
More about Rocamadour
Abbaye de St. Foye, Conques in the Aveyron department of Occitanie
Conques, now a UNESCO World Heritage site was one of the main stops for medieval pilgrims on the Way of St. James.
Totally rebuilt between 1045 and 1060, the Abbaye de St. Foye is one of the oldest abbeys on the route to Santiago in Spain. It’s a remarkable building in a beautiful and very small medieval stone village, seemingly tucked away. It’s difficult to imagine the thousands of pilgrims flocking here in the Middle Ages to see the treasures.
The arm of St George the Dragon Slayer might be a bit much for modern pilgrims to take seriously, but the golden reliquary of the remains of St. Foye, a young girl tortured to death for her beliefs in the fourth century is quite extraordinary.
Read more about the Abbaye and the medieval village of Conques.
St Guilhem-le-Désert in the Hérault, Occitanie
The strange name, Saint Guilhem-le-Désert, derives from the founding of an abbey in the 9th century in the uninhabited alley of the Gellone river. Its fame as a pilgrimage site came with the belief that the Abbey of Gellone possessed a relic of the true cross. With fame came pilgrims on the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostella. A village grew up around the abbey to meet their needs with many of the old buildings still standing in one of Plus Beaux Villages de France.
As with so many religious establishments, its downfall came with the French Revolution. Some bits survived; a large part of the 12th-century cloister was exported to the USA. You can see it in the Met Cloisters Museum in New York when a new gallery with a protective skylight opens on October 7th, 2021.
In summer pilgrims give way to music lovers who fill the abbey and the chapel of the Penitents for some top concerts.
More about St. Guilhem-le-Désert.
Vézelay in the Yonne department in Burgundy-Franch Comté
The Romanesque Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene is one of Europe’s great abbeys. It must count in any list of great sacred site of France. It’s a huge structure, built in the 9th century by the Benedictines and dominates the hill above the small town of Vézelay. Its fame came with the news that a monk called Baudillon had brought relics of Mary Magdalene from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in the Var in one of those strange medieval exchanges of relics from one church to another.
It became the starting point for one of the famous pilgrimage routes to Santiago, The Way of Vézelay (the Via Lemovicensis). In 1146 it became a rallying point for further sacrifices when Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade with King Louis VII of France. Now bare and silent, it’s difficult to imagine the thousands of pilgrims who waited in the huge entrance chamber to go into the Basilica itself.
Apart from its stunning architecture, it has one further claim to fame. At midsummer the light floods through the window onto nine spots in the nave that converge onto the altar. Surely by design.
Vézelay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More about Vézelay here.
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône, PACA
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of the Camargue, a strange, wonderful and remote part of France cut off in the Rhône delta. The name comes from the three Marys who first witnessed the empty tomb of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Saint Mary of Jacob and Saint Mary Salome fled Palestine and landed here, the legend goes, in 45AD. There was another on the boat: Sara, sometimes called Sara-la-Kali, a servant to the other three.
Two pilgrimages celebrate the Marys in October and December. But they are relatively small. The major celebration is in May when thousands of gypsies from all over Europe come to the town to honour Sara. On May 24 and 25, they take the statue of Sara from the 12th-century church down to the sea and bring her back again. It’s colorful and musical and quite different from most celebrations of saints.
More about Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
More Great Sacred Sites of France
Grand Synagogue de Lyon, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
During the early 19th century, thousands of Jews came to France and the idea of a Grand Synagogue in Lyon was born. In October 1853 Emperor Napoleon III created a Consistory which gathered together the Jewish communities of seven departments. Various sites were looked at then in 1862 the city offered an old salt warehouse on quai Tilset. A young Jewish architect, Abraham Hirsch (1828-1913) was appointed and work began a year later. Hirsch went on to become the official architect of the city of Lyon. The synagogue opened in 1864.
The city was part of the Zone libre in World War II, and the synagogue played its part in sheltering Jews from all over France. But it didn’t escape and was attacked in 1943. On June 13, 1944, French soldiers arrested everyone in the synagogue. They were finally sent to Auschwitz on Jul 31, 1944.
Today the synagogue, a large and imposing neo-Byzantine building is the most important of five synagogues in central Lyon.
More about the Grand Synagogue of Lyon.
Grand Mosque of Paris – Mosquée de Paris
You’ll find the oldest mosque in mainland France in the Latin Quarter in Paris. The Grand Mosque was built between 1922 and 1926 after World War I to remember and commemorate around 100,000 of France’s Muslim soldiers died in the fighting. In World War II the mosque offered fake Muslim birth certificates to Algerian and European Jews to escape German persecution.
It’s a magnificent building dominated by a 33-metre high minaret, a highly decorated prayer room and a patio with sculpted arcades running around the sides. If you’ve visited the Alhambra in Granada it’ll seem quite familiar. There’s also a hamman, restaurant, tearoom and a shop which is just like entering a souk.
More about the Grand Mosque of Paris
My personal choice of the Great Sacred Sites of France
Abbey of Jumièges, Seine-Maritime, Normandy
Normandy had a large number of the great sacred sites of France. Of over 120 abbeys in the middle ages around 60 survive today in some form. Of these, my favorite is the now ruined abbey of Jumièges on a bend on the River Seine.
Founded in 654, the Benedictine monastery was rebuilt in the 10th century and was consecrated in 1067 in the presence of William the Conqueror who had returned from England. Fame and fortune created a centre of religion and learning producing major clerics like Robert Champart who became Bishop of London then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051.
Jumièges survived the centuries, but fell, as so many religious institutions did, at the French Revolution. The monks were scattered and the buildings attacked. Today it’s one of the most romantic ruins in France, a peaceful place which you can walk through accompanied just by the sound of birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the trees.
I first visited on a cold November morning when the mist was rising and it was deserted. I fell in love with the place immediately. So it’s on my personal list of sacred sites.
More about Jumièges.
Read about other great sites and attractions in Normandy.
Basilica of St. Julien in Brioude, Haute-Loire, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
The Auvergne has some wonderful Romanesque basilicas and churches. The most striking one is the Basilique Notre Dame du Port in Clermont Ferrand. But I have included St. Julien in Brioude as it’s the nearest to my house and it’s less well known.
It was built in the 11th century and enlarged in the 13th on the site of a sanctuary dedicated to St. Julien. The Roman soldier converted to Christianity and was martyred as a result in 304. St. Julian has typical Auvergne Romanesque architecture: solid as the rock of ages as befits this remote, volcanic region. But inside it’s gloriously colorful. Wall paintings on the walls; a 16th century floor of basalt and quartz stones and a superb 12th-century frescoes in the Chapel of St. Michael. There’s a typical chevet (an arch at the eastern end of the church) and wonderful sculpted capitals.
More about Brioude.
More about the remote and beautiful Auvergne.