The origin of the construction of the Basilica, a “National Vow”

  • In 1870 war broke out between France and Germany. The Council that was being held in the Vatican at the time was suspended and the Pope, no longer under the protection of French troops, considered himself a prisoner within the Vatican. France was defeated and partially occupied by German troops. The initiative of Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury was a spiritual one. They vowed to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart “as reparation” (i.e. as penance for infidelity and sin) for they held that the misfortunes of France had spiritual rather than political causes.
  • At the end of 1872 Cardinal Guibert, Archbishop of Paris, approved the vow and chose Montmartre. At the end of 1873 he got the French Parliament to pass a law declaring that the Basilica was in the public interest, thereby making the land available for the construction of a church. At the time the construction of a Basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart contrasted with a series of Basilicas dedicated to the Virgin Mary during the same period in Lourdes, Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon and Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseilles. The work was funded from donations - in many cases modest - collected throughout France, the names of the donors being carved in the stone.

SOME DATES

  • December 1870 : following the military defeat of France by Prussia, beginning of the project to build a church in Paris dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as a sign of penitence, trust, hope and faith (Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury).
  • January 1871 : drafting of the “National Vow”.
  • 18 January 1872 : approval of the Vow by Cardinal Guibert, Archbishop of Paris, who insists on its purely religious nature.
  • 1873 : Vote on the construction project at the French Parliament.
  • 1st February – 30 June 1874 : public competition to select the best plan for the construction of the Basilica. The architect Paul Abadie wins the competition.
  • 16 June 1875 : first stone laid.
  • 1st August 1885 : beginning of the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist that has continued to this day.
  • 6 November 1887 : en route to Rome, fourteen year old Thérèse Martin (later Saint Thérèse of Lisieux), devotes herself to the Sacred Heart at Saint Peter’s altar in the Crypt of the Basilica.
  • 6 June 1889 : Charles de Foucauld devotes himself to the Sacred Heart in the Basilica of Montmartre, still under construction.
  • 5 June 1891 : inauguration of the Basilica, of which the great dome is yet to be built, by Cardinal Richard, Archbishop of Paris, to the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart.
  • 20 November 1895 : a 19 tonne bell, cast in 1891 in Annecy, is donated to the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur by Savoy. This bell is the famous “Savoyarde”.
  • 6 April 1912 : the campanile is completed and the lanternon cross is installed.
  • 1914-1918 : the consecration of the Basilica, scheduled for 17 October 1914, is suspended during the First World War.
  • 16 October 1919 : consecration of the Basilica by Cardinal Amette, Archbishop of Paris, presided by Cardinal Vico, legate of Pope Benedict XV.
  • 1923 : at Pentecost, inauguration of the mosaic of Christ in Glory that decorates the apse of the Basilica.
  • Night of 20-21 April 1944 : Perpetual adoration continues despite the bombing that blew out the stained-glass windows of the Basilica.
  • 1st June 1980 : on the occasion of his first apostolic visit to France, Pope John Paul II makes a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur.
  • 4 June 2010-1st July 2011 : Jubilee to celebrate 125 years of perpetual adoration of the Eucharist.

THE NATIONAL VOW, A REACTION TO THE PARIS COMMUNE ? A FALSE IDEA TO BE DISMISSED!

Several tour guides present the project to build the Basilica as a reaction to the exactions committed during the Paris Commune. In order to refute this widespread idea, let us take a closer look at the National Vow.

THE NATIONAL VOW WAS PLANNED AND MADE IN 1870.
At the end of November 1870, Mr. Beluze, a member of the general council of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Lyon, wrote to Adolphe Baudon (1819-1888), President of the Society, informing him of the vow of the people of Lyon and suggesting that a similar vow be made in Paris. Mr. Baudon proposed a campaign to l’Univers, the newspaper of Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), who on 13 December launched a proposal for a construction on the hill of Montmartre.
At the beginning of December, Mr. Baudon wrote to his right hand man Alexandre Félix Legentil (1821-1889), a member of the general council of the Society and at the time a refugee in Poitiers due to the war, to submit the idea to him, proposing that the new church be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The proposal was enthusiastically accepted by Legentil, but he suggested that the sanctuary be dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Baudon and the other members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul were reluctant concerning the change, fearing that since devotion to the Sacred Heart was not yet sufficiently widespread among the French, it would be difficult to raise the funds needed to build the new sanctuary.
On 8 December 1870, Alexandre Félix Legentil, who in the meantime had read the booklet of Father Boylesve, Le Triomphe de la France par le Cœur de Jésus (The Triumph of France through the Heart of Jesus) informed the author of the letter he had just received:
«“Reverend Father, Some days ago I received a letter from Mr. Baudon, president of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in which the following passage drew my attention:
‘ Mr. Beluze (founder of the Catholic Circle of Luxembourg), in announcing to me that the city of Lyon had vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame de Fourvière, in the event that the town be spared, proposed that a similar vow be made in Paris. What do you think? It would be a fine but difficult gesture. However, there is a need for churches to be built in the neighbouring areas and Notre-Dame de la Délivrance would be an appropriate name, if we obtain this deliverance.’
I replied immediately to Mr. Baudon that I was favorable to this idea and that I would subscribe to the construction of such a church, … or to a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
Mr. Baudon insists on a vow to build a church in Paris, to be called either the Sacré-Cœur or Notre-Dame de la Délivrance, and he rightly notes that it would be useful to create a parish in an area where churches are lacking, in order to obtain the indispensable support of the Archbishop.
Be that as it may, Reverend Father, the idea, apart from the details as to its construction, seems a good one: given the present circumstances, it seems to me urgent to spread it. It is all the more important to me as I am exiled from Paris and ardently desire to return there. I long for deliverance and proclaim that it can only come through the intervention of the Lord.
On the advice of my good friend Mr. Bain, I am writing to you to seek your advice and support in spreading the idea I have just outlined and that I do not presume to have invented. You shall see through what means it is possible to obtain subscriptions among those exiled from Paris that you can reach in Le Mans, Poitiers and elsewhere as well as people around the country, because at the moment the cause of Paris is the cause of France.”»

-  Letter of Alexandre Félix Legentil to Father Boylesve, 8 December 1870
Following this letter, Legentil – who promised to his confessor Father Gustave Argand S.J.(rector of the college of Saint Joseph de Poitiers) to devote himself to what he deemed a work of indispensable reparation for the salvation of France – wrote a first version of the Vow to the Sacred Heart (the “Vow of Poitiers”), which sought the deliverance of Paris. He showed it to Monsignor Pie, Bishop of Poitiers and requested his authorization to distribute it. The Bishop declined to back this project destined for Paris but left Legentil free to act as he so desired. Legentil immediately had the text of the Vow printed (mid-December) and distributed it throughout France and also in Switzerland.
The Paris Commune took place between 18 March and 21 May 1871 and therefore Legentil could not have been aware of these events when he published the Vow.

THE TEXT OF THE VOW IN THE BASILICA:

«“In the presence of the misfortunes that have befallen France and the greater misfortunes that perhaps still threaten her.
In the presence of the sacrilegious attacks committed in Rome against the rights of the Church and the Holy See and against the sacred person of the Vicar of Jesus Christ.
We humble ourselves before God and uniting in our love both Church and Fatherland, recognize that we have sinned and been justly punished.
And to make honorable amends for our sins and obtain through the infinite mercy of the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ pardon for our faults, as well as the extraordinary help that alone can deliver the Holy Pontiff from his captivity and put an end to the misfortunes of France, we hereby promise to contribute to the construction, in Paris, of a sanctuary dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”»

The Works Committee of 1872 followed by the vote in Parliament of 1873 continued the idea of 1870 that has now become a “National Vow” and not just a Parisian one.