André and Gilberte2Not long ago I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting the couple in the picture. The man, André Philippe, had a most dreadful experience during the Second World War. His family hid a Canadian aviator who had parachuted out of a crippled bomber. They contacted the resistance network. A double agent gave them all away. His father was shot. His mother died in a concentration camp. He (just 17) and his brother were sentenced to hard labour. Conditions grew increasingly harsh. He ended up on a death march to Dachau. At the gates to the camp their guards fled, afraid of the approaching Americans. André made his way back to his home town where he was eventually taken in as a lodger by a farmer’s widow. The widow had two daughters. He married the younger of the two, Gilberte Degeimbre. Gilberte is now the sole survivor of a group of five children who experienced repeated visions of the Virgin Mary in Beauraing in 1932-33. She’s now a feisty 92 year-old. I wrote up my notes of the encounter (see more below). Here is a link from last year, when she celebrated the eightieth anniversary of the first vision.

Gilberte Degeimbre’s recollections. Degeimbre is the sole survivor of the five children who saw altogether some thirty-three apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Beauraing in 1932-33

The day it first happened (29 November 1932) two children, a boy and a girl, had gone to the convent to fetch their sister, who had half-board there. The children took along a friend and her nine year-old younger sister, Gilberte. This was at six-thirty in the evening, the time when the boarder was allowed out. Gilberte’s mother was very strict and this evening ‘outing’ (the walk to the Convent and back) was allowed within strict time restraints. Just after the boy knocked at the convent door (the door is still there) he turned and saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary hovering above the railway bridge (also still there). The other children turned and saw the same apparition. When the boarder (also a Gilberte) came out she saw the same apparition of a woman in white. The lady was radiant (‘brillante’). The children were afraid and ran away. She appeared to them again the next day and at the same time. Having first appeared over the railway bridge she also appeared at their level, first by a holly bush (still – just- there) and then by a hawthorn bush beside the road (still there). She was hovering again, with her feet hidden in a cloud. She was all in white and utterly radiant. She was wearing a white veil, though her face was exposed. The veil flowed back off of her head and curled around her shoulders. Rays of light radiated away from her head. Her hands were joined together in the praying position. She turned her head and looked down at the children. She smiled at them and, as Gilberte put it, thereafter she wasn’t afraid.

Her mother was deeply embarrassed and savagely critical of her daughters. She had lost her husband, their father, the previous year. She urged them to admit that they were lying. She would sometimes wake them up in the middle of the night (two in the morning) and urge them to tell the truth. She told them she could arrange things with the town. They would leave Beauraing and go somewhere else. If only they would admit that they were lying. When the two daughters persisted, she told them she wished they were dead. Gilberte described the period as one of immense suffering. André added that his mother-in-law was a fundamentally good person, ready to admit her mistakes. Years later he had had to convalesce at his mother-in-law’s house and had taken advantage of the situation to ask her why she had been so hard and cruel to her children. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It was just like that.’ The implication was that she had behaved that way because somehow it was pre-ordained that they had to suffer. The suffering was a necessary part of the overall experience. Now, Gilberte says, she increasingly understands her mother’s behaviour. ‘It was probably better that way, anyway,’ said André. Imagine if her mother had believed her daughters. Everybody would have said that the family was doing it to generate publicity for themselves.’

Gilberte could not describe the ecstatic state the children experienced during the apparitions because, she said, there were simply no words to describe the deep and immense feeling of joy. It was indescribable in human terms. She said that after the apparitions were over she felt as though she were in a deep, dark well. During the sightings the children entered some sort of a trance. When the lady appeared they fell heavily to their knees (according to witnesses) and yet for the children it felt as though they were kneeling on cushions and there were never any cuts or bruises on their knees. One of her uncles, a big, strong man, held her under her arms and told her that he would prevent her from kneeling and yet when the apparition occurred he, too, was flung to his knees by an irresistible force. Sceptical before, afterwards he became a believer.

The sisters at the Convent were angrily dismissive of the idea of apparitions. At first they told the children to stop with their outlandish claims but when they wouldn’t the sisters closed off the garden where the alleged sightings had occurred, locked the gate, unleashed two vicious dogs in the grounds and arranged for the boarder to be accompanied home alone at five-thirty. Still the children came and, standing in the road outside the garden, continued to experience the apparitions. Gilberte recounted how the dogs would bark and snap at them through the gate, but when the apparitions occurred the dogs would lie down and become docile. ‘They believed!’ she said.

Despite the dismissiveness of the church authorities and of their angry parents, the children became celebrities. A curiosity of the affair was that only they, the children, could see the apparitions. Crowds flocked to witness and wonder at the children’s behaviour. The sisters at the Convent, still believing that the children were making things up, began to question them separately, getting them to talk about their experiences after each apparition and trying to find contradictions in their accounts. This they were never able to do. A team of medical experts gathered (130!) and the children were subjected to experiments of various sorts. During one apparition doctors held burning matches to Gilberte’s hands as, in her trance-like state, she prayed. Afterwards, they took her into a room where all the medical experts were gathered. First they stood her on a chair, but she still wasn’t high enough. Then they stood her on a table, with the doctors crowding around her. She was terribly intimidated. They ordered her to hold out her hands. Her heart raced. Her hands, she knew, were dirty. She was afraid that they would see the dirt and argue that this was proof that she was not to be taken seriously. They examined her hands minutely, asking her to turn them over and over again. Only many years later did she learn what they had done to her whilst she was in her trance. There were no traces of burns or soot. The flames had done her no damage. With her sister it was even worse. They had stabbed her cheek bone repeatedly with a pen knife. Again, the girl hadn’t reacted at all whilst in her ecstatic state and afterwards they had found no evidence of any injury. One of the kneeling boys had his calves repeatedly pinched. Again, he didn’t react during the apparition and there were no bruises on his calves afterwards.

The children were separated and were not allowed to talk to one another. At home, Gilberte was not even allowed to say good morning or good night to her older sister. After one apparition the oldest of the children was told by the woman that the next day she would give each of the children a secret. Interrogated after the apparition, she told the sisters what the woman had said. The sisters and the experts kept this information to themselves. During the apparitions the children prayed out aloud all the time, saying ‘Dearest Mary, Save Us! and such like. The next day, during a new apparition, one of the children suddenly fell silent and behaved as though she was listening to something, and then fell into tears. She was followed by another girl and then by Gilberte herself. Afterwards, during the ‘interrogation’, each of the children explained that they had been given a secret, thus corroborating the story of the child questioned the previous day. Gilberte cannot know whether they were each given the same secret or a different one. She suspects the latter. The children could never reveal their secrets to one another, let alone anybody else, but they did share information about the number of words in their secrets. The numbers were different, so Gilberte suspects the secrets were also different.

Beauraing was a small agricultural town. Gilberte’s mother was a farmer’s widow. There was never any talk of apparitions. They hadn’t heard of Lourdes or Fatima. What happened just happened. It was a terrible time for Gilberte. It was a time of great joy, of ecstasy, but also of great suffering, both because of her mother’s behaviour and that of those who doubted the children’s account but also because of the crowds of believers and disbelievers who mobbed them and, above all, because of the absence of the ecstasy in between the apparitions.

André told me that sometimes they went to a chapel near Namur that King Albert and Queen Paola used occasionally (and anonymously) for retreats. Once, their stays coincided. The King asked to see Gilberte. When she saw him she said she was awfully impressed to be meeting the King and the Queen. Albert smiled. ‘And what should I say about meeting you?’ he said.