The Chapel Of Our Lady Of Rugby
In an age when belief in God has become optional, sport has filled the vacuum for some of us so that once a week we can assemble in our chosen “cathedral” to sing and chant our hearts out in the hope of a brief elevation to a higher plane. Indeed who could have attended an international at Cardiff Arms Park and have failed to be converted by listening to the “choir”?
This year the French team will have the benefit of being the home side and can also call on a little divine intervention in a more modest shrine to the sport.
Father Michel Devert
In the tiny, plain chapel of St.Savin in southwest France, God and rugby came together following the tragic deaths of three club members in a 1963 car crash. Father Michel Devert, the local parish priest and a rugby enthusiast, had heard about a stained glass window commemorating the seven members of the Manchester United soccer team killed in a Munich plane disaster. This became the germ of a project to provide a memorial for the young players and a holy place dedicated to the sporting ideals of rugby.
The chosen site was an ancient chapel in the center of the “Ovalie,” the heartland of French rugby. Near the village of Larrivière in Gascony, it sits on a wooded ridge overlooking the river Adour and the great plains of the Landes to the north.
This commanding position had been used by a lieutenant of Julius Caesar to set up a fortification and a series of chapels had stood on the site since the dark ages. It was at that time, as if to foretell its future, that the site was overrun by “les Barbares du Nord,” as the official diocesan history recounts. Not a touring side which would have been very welcome!
The chapel was in a poor state, and Father Devert set about raising the necessary money for restoration. Some leading sides played benefit matches and local clubs put their backs into the construction of an access road.
In 1967 the building was rededicated as the Chapelle de Notre Dame du Rugby and since that time many visitors have brought offerings: a club pennant, a pair of boots, a ball or a jersey. Like revered relics, these have been carefully hung around the walls in glass cases, some with a note or photograph pinned to the front.
Virtually every region in the rugby-playing world is represented. St.Austell rubs shoulders with Argentina and Tahiti among a multi-colored host of French club sides. A collection of exercise books holds visitors’ comments, from when they came to mourn players killed or to pray for the recovery of the injured.
Stained Glass Windows
The stained glass windows are the chapel’s crowning glory, with their unique mixture of religious and rugby imagery. In one, the Madonna and child offer a rugby ball to a crowd of people in their everyday clothes; in another, the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms throws the ball to a line-out. A third shows a flyhalf drop kicking a goal from behind a scrum. In the fourth the Virgin Mary cradles an injured player in her arms.
The stained glass artist was Pierre Lisse, a former captain of Stade Montois, and the windows require a close look to pick out the loving details he has included. Even the referee has his spot with a coat of arms made up from a whistle and the scales of justice.
As if to symbolize the brotherhood of rugby, the depictions of players don’t show them divided into teams but each with different colors as if in a common struggle that transcends team or nationality.
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