The Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary
of Our Lady of Vorbourg
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Clung to a ledge above the Birse, an affluent of the Rhine, the oldest Marian sanctuary
in the Jura Mountains watches over the entrance of the valley of Delémont.
The origins of the castle of Vorbourg are lost in the distant past. It is assumed that
there were fortresses in the area, whose origin probably reach back to the Roman time.
According to tradition it was in the 11th century that a chapel was constructed on the
site of the present-day choir. The castle to which it belonged was the property of the
Counts of Egisheim. Tradition has it, that the chapel was consecrated by Pope St Leo IX,
who was a former member of this family of Egisheim.
During the course of the following centuries castle and chapel were devastated by
different natural disasters, especially in 1356 by the earthquake that destroyed the city
of Basel and by several fires and wars. The original chapel survived the destruction of
the castle and remained a place of worshipping for the faithful under the name of
"Chapel of Saint Himerius" . Therefore you can find inheritances and donations
in its favour in 1417.
In the 16th century the Reformation tries to get implanted in the Jura, fails however to
do so in Delémont. It is unknown whether the sanctuary was spared from the fights or not
: The fact however that the chapel had to be restored entirely and re-consecrated at the
end of the century, leads to the assumption that there was at least certain neglect if not
profanation or heavy looting. On Easter Monday, the 7th April 1586, the suffragan bishop
of Basel consecrates the sanctuary. The document that mentions this event means the real
start of the spiritual radiation of the sanctuary, since it assigns the Mother of God as
its Patron Saint.
The adventures of the chapel however haven't come to an end yet. During the course of the
17th century it had to be restored somehow several times and in 1658 it had even to be
consecrated again after various lootings and profanations by the troops of the War of the
Thirty Years. The people's piety remained loyal to the Vorbourg, though, and the city
council has to follow the necessity to enlarge the building (1669 and 1692). That's the
time the two lateral altars date from (1674 and 1682). Everything indicates that the main
statue, nowadays venerated under the name of "Our Lady of Vorbourg", stood
already then at its place. At the end of the 17th century the sanctuary gets its
present-day physiognomy: afflux of the faithful and people's piety. The commemorative
But then the Revolution followed. After the death of Emperor Leopold in 1792 French troops
occupied Delémont, which becomes sub prefect-district of a department called
"Mont-Terrible" that comprised the area of the former diocese of Basel. The
statue of Our Lady was hidden on 26th November 1793, first in the house of the physician
Wicka, then in a cave near the chapel, where people came to pray secretly, and later in a
crevice close to the farm of Brunchenal. Religious peace recovers with the Concordat of
1802. Since 1800 the veneration of Mary slowly restarted. Finally the statue of Our Lady
was put again at its usual place on the main altar, and the crowds of pilgrims took their
way to the Vorbourg as before.
The most important event was certainly the coronation of the statue of the Mother of God
in 1869; this is the origin of the Weeks of the Vorbourg. The initiative to this is owed
to Bishop Eugène Lachat, who asked Pope Pius IX for permission to crown the statue
solemnly. The Pope consented and granted moreover to all the faithful who came visiting
the Vorbourg on the anniversary of the coronation or on another of following seven days
plenary indulgence applicable to themselves or to the pour souls, provided that they
confess, receive communion and pray for the harmony among the heads of states, for the
extermination of the error and for the glorification of the Holy Mother Church."
This is the document on which the huge pilgrims' assembly in September every year is
based. Proceeding from this first celebration of the coronation, it found its final form
in "the Week of the Vorbourg", that takes place still today: Each day is
assigned to the delegation of one or several of a certain number of parishes that follow
each other during the week of pilgrimage.
From 1949 to 1984 and again since 1995 the care of the sanctuary is entrusted to the
Benedictine monks of Bouveret (Valais). The chaplain in charge is the priest of the parish
of Delémont. Owner is the "Bourgeoisie" of the same city.
Description of the site
There are fifteen stone crosses with the mysteries of the rosary along the road that leads
to the sanctuary. To the left of the stairs leading to the chapel, there is St Ann's Tower
giving evidence of the original function of the chapel as being part of the ancient
castle. In 1664 the first chapel - standing on the place of the present choir - was
enlarged to the dimensions we know today and in 1694 it was joined to the Tower St. Ann.
As we enter the chapel, we are in the part of the 17th century. Behind the lattice of the
choir we can see who we worship here, Our Lady of Vorbourg, the protector of this place,
as all the many ex-votos (votive paintings) given as a sign of thankfulness testify. The
statue dates from the beginning of the 17th century and shows us the Virgin Mary with a
maternal face, a very high and free forehead and an expression of mildness and peace. With
her lowered eyes she is contemplating her child and is offering him the prayers of the
pilgrims. She is holding the royal sceptre; the moon under her feet symbolizes - according
to the text of the Book of Revelation - her peaceful domination over Creation. The child's
face expresses joy and dignity. On the left and on the right there are two relieves
depicting Saint Himerius and the first abbot of St. Gall, Saint Othmar, to the both of
whom the chapel was originally dedicated. Above the Mother of God a small baroque statue
of blessed Pope Leo IX reminds us of what tradition tells us about his visit to this
chapel. The lateral windows of the choir date from the 19th century and show the saints of
the Canton of Jura: Saint Germanus, founder and Abbot of Moutier, Saint Randoald, its
Prior, both martyrs, and the two hermits Ursicinus and Himerius. Below them, windows with
Romanesque arches found there during the restoration in 1970 take us back to the 11th
In the nave there are two baroque side-altars on both side of the lattice. Above the one
on the left there is the sculpture of the grief-stricken Mother Mary holding the body of
her son on her lap (1674), flanked to the left by the proportionally slightly smaller
statue of Saint Veronica holding up the veil imprinted by Christ's face and to the right
by the statue of Saint Agatha. On top there are three standing statues: The child Jesus in
the middle with Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Francis Xavier. The main sculpture group
of the right hand side-altar is the Holy Family (1682), flanked again by proportionally
slightly smaller statues : To the left by a beautiful statue of Saint Ann holding the
child Jesus on her arm with Mary on her side, and to the right by Saint Joachim. Above the
Saint family there is a representation of God Father holding the globe.
The ex-votos spread over the walls of the whole chapel constitute one of the most
beautiful collections of the country, with two hundred and twenty pictures. The oldest,
which is also the largest one, is the painting in the middle of the right hand wall of the
nave. It shows the 15 mysteries of the rosary and the seated Mother of God with the child
protecting a kneeling crowd with the donators in its first row. On the opposite side of
the nave, close to the altar of the Saint Family, there should be mentioned a painting
showing Saint Nicholas of Flüe (1688), and two other paintings a little farther away, one
showing the consecration of the small chapel of the castle by St Pope Leo IX in 1049 and
the other one with the beautiful representation of the town of Delémont of 1671, donated
for the happy ending of a fire. The small ex-votos of the chapel mainly date from the 18th
century; they give us a picture of Christian life and piety through the centuries
testifying however more than anything else the received graces and the pilgrims' fidelity.
The religious congregations of the Jura are represented there well.
In this way Our Lady of Vorbourg watches over the nearby city of Delémont and the Jura as
well as over the country and the whole world.
"We entrust ourselves to your protection, Holy Mother of God".
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