An annex to the priory St Germain de Montague, founded in the XIth century by the Augustinian canons, could be found on the hill of Saint Julien des Causses (the Ermitage). According to popular tradition, it was a house used for aged and disabled monks from the priory of St Germain. Today only the chapel remains.
The sanctuary was damaged in December 1561 by the troops of Jacques de Cambis, Baron of Alès, who had joined the Reformation movement. In 1629, during the Siege of Alais by Louis XIII, a section of the army led by the Protestant chief the Duke of Rohan took possession of the hermitage summit.
The Augustinian Canons having left the priory, the 17th Century saw its complete ruin. In 1675, with the approval of the Bishop of Nîmes, a hermit by the name of Frère Jean Salomon came to live in the dilapidated buildings. It was at that time that the spelling of “Ermitage” (as in the dwelling of a hermit or eremite) was adopted.
More is known about the history of the site from 1681 onwards and we borrow the following lines from a historical note written by Louis Archet and Jean Trouillas, and illustrated by Maurice Archet in 1930:
“The church, belonging to the parish of St Jean du Pin, was tended by Brother Joseph Veyron and Brother Jean Baptiste. In 1682, the Bishop of Nîmes assigned to the former the role of receiving the abjuration of the Protestants. This duty was later taken over by Brother Jean Joseph Amans Delpuech, prior of the Dominican monastery in Alès. In 1718, Brother Esprit Boyer of the Third Order of White Friars came to rebuild the monastery and chapel. He left a Latin inscription on a corner of the chapel wall testifying to his devotion: In translation it reads
“This edifice was built in bygone days under the protection of the canons of the order of St Augustine. The date of this construction is lost in the darkness of time.’
In 1719, Monseignor d’Avejan, the famous bishop of Alès, gave Brother Boyer permission to celebrate Mass there and in 1736 this edifice, of which he was the servant and which was rebuilt by his piety and work, was conceded to him for life.”
This same Brother Boyer, who was regarded as a “saint” because of his devotion to the plague-stricken victims of Alès, was apparently an important noble man who had led a noisy and agitated life at the court of Versailles. He had come to hide beneath the rough monk’s habit of the order of the White Friars in the ancient Ermitage of Alès. The only person who knew of his true identity was Monseignor d’Avejan and he took that information with him to the grave. In 1720, Monseignor d’Avejan designated the chapel of Saint Julian as a station (or place of pilgrimage) to gain indulgences of the jubilee at the start of Innocent XIII’s pontificate.
Brother Esprit took over from Brother Esprit Boyer but unfortunately he did not inherit his predecessor’s qualities. He found the taste of the water in the reservoir too brackish and too frequently replaced it with wine!
On the 21st August 1766, whilst on a pastoral tour of the district of St Jean du Pin, Monseignor de Beauteville, bishop of Alès, appointed Canon Claude Sugier of the cathedral in Alès to carry out a visit of the Ermitage.
In his pastoral letter of 31st December 1772, Monseignor de Beauteville appointed Brother Hilarion to take up residence and carry out religious duties at the Ermitage together with Brother Pierre Joseph who was already established there.
The old chapel and the surrounding buildings were restored. The slopes of the hermitage prospered thanks to the hard work of these two diligent and persistent monks and the richness of the soil abundantly rewarded their efforts.
In 1789 the Revolution took possession of the old monastery. As was the case for many others, the monastery was plundered and sold as “National Property” to a certain Captain Mathey for the paltry sum of forty sols (20 francs) an the 23rd of Primaire in year VI of the revolutionary calendar. It was sold again that same year to Mr Labaume. It was later purchased from him by Mr Ausset for the sum of 200 francs. He benefitted from it for a little longer than his predecessors and turned it into a summer residence and transformed the chapel into an oval lounge.
However, by the 10th August 1872 the Ermitage was once again the property of the clergy, thanks to the zeal and dedication of Abbot Bourely who bought it back from Mr Ausset for the sum of 4000 francs and a rent of 200 francs for as long as he lived which proved to be only another eleven months. The following year, Abbot Bourely added to the purchase of the old monastery the various properties around the chapel for the sum of 2300 francs and a rent of 30 francs for life. To the delight of the people of Alès (spelled Alais at that time), this happy news was published in the local periodical “Tablettes d’Alais” a few days later.
In 1854, while cholera was killing many victims in the area, Abbot Bourely vowed to ensure, as soon as circumstances would allow, that the old chapel would be once again be a place of devotion to the Virgin Mary if Alès was not struck by the plague of cholera. Alès was saved from the epidemic.
Abbot Bourely’s vow was accomplished on the 8th December 1872 when the sanctuary was blessed and consecrated to Our Lady and the following day numerous pilgrims attended Mass there. From then on the chapel was called Notre Dame des Mines (Our Lady of the Mines). Abbot Bourely wrote to Monseignor Plantier, Bishop of Nîmes, and received the following reply:
“Amongst the rocks that overlook your church there is a blessed summit where your chapel stands and which, thanks to you, is again a place of pilgrimage. Your desire to crown the top of the chapel with a statue of the Virgin Mary, under the name of Notre Dame des Mines, does credit to your piety towards Mary and your project is wholly timely. I am more than happy to give you my blessing and support.”
The whole town undertook a pilgrimage on the 27th September 1873 and it was estimated that more than twelve thousand souls took part.
On the occasion of this pilgrimage the parish priest of the Alès Cathedral, Monsieur Boissin, donated the Cross of the Calvary which is situated just outside the sanctuary. Abbot Chabot gave a brilliant speech to the large number of pilgrims gathered on the mountain. That evening the whole mountainside of the Hermitage was lit up by the lights of the pilgrims.
The blessing of the statue of the Virgin Mary, situated just above the chancel of the chapel, and of the Great Bell took place on the 31st May 1874 and drew a crowd of thirteen thousand. A large number of miners from the region attended the ceremony.
The 5.15m bronze statue was a gift from the two administrators of the foundry in Alès. The Great Bell, weighing 1100kg was presented by and dedicated to Madame Tabarre and Monsieur Tubeuf, President of the parish council of Rochebelle and Mayor of Alès. The bell bears the name Marie-Alexandrine.
Between 4th November 1875 and 26th November 1876, some Camaldulite monks occupied the Ermitage. Their stay was followed by a congregation of monks of the Sacred Heart who left after the death of their superior to return to their community in Grenoble. Only Father Arsène remained until his death. His remains are buried in the chapel.
The construction of churches around Alès (St Jean du Pin, Rochebelle and Tamaris) and all the associated worries eventually brought on the deterioration of Abbot Bourely’s health. He died “in the arms of the Lord” on 19th August 1878 aged 66. His funeral service was an absolute triumph and according to his wish he was buried in the chapel of the Ermitage that he had loved so much. (Since the renovation work in the chancel, his tombstone has been set against the wall.) He bequeathed the sanctuary of Notre Dame des Mines to the clergy of the parish of Rochebelle.
Abbot Lallemand continued his predecessor’s good work. In July 1893 he founded the Civil Society of Notre Dame des Mines to put the sanctuary, so dear to the people of Alès, out of danger of renewed despoilment for once and for all. In his letter dated 4th August 1893, he informed Bishop Gilly of Nîmes of the formation of this society which met with the bishop’s approval. This civil society proved its worth in 1906 as it preserved the Ermitage from the Inventaires. (In France at the time of the separation of the Church and the State an inventory of all properties was drawn up to ascertain ownership.)
On the 21st May 1936, the present bronze bell was installed and was “baptized” Marie-Jeanne-Joséphine. The previous bell, Marie-Alexandrine was cracked and was sold to a collector in Alès in 1998.In 1968 a wider road was built allowing quicker and easier access to the Ermitage. It facilitated the installation of radio and television aerials near the sanctuary. Some time later the local council laid out a car park and esplanade with a panoramic viewpoint. The number of pilgrims walking up the hill diminished whereas the number of tourists who came to admire the view of Alès and the Cévennes region increased. The construction of the wider road marked the end of the goods-lift which had previously linked the Ermitage to Saint Raby below.
Since then, a team of volunteers from the parish has been working on the renovation of the chapel with great enthusiasm.
In 1972 major work became necessary; bad weather, snow and above all the wild storms -which are common in the area- had seriously damaged the apse of the chapel and the statue above it. The whole town was urged to help and an Association for the Restoration of the Ermitage was created. A fund raising operation was set up. Restoration work began at last and a solid wooden frame was built at the base in order to support the statue. “La Bonne Mère” of the people of Alès was saved! (“La Bonne Mère” is the nickname given to the famous statue of Notre Dame de la Garde which overlooks Marseilles.)
NOTRE DAME DES MINES