Latitude: 48.135994. Longitude: -4.262185. At the western side of the little Breton village of Saint-Anne-la-Palud in Plonevez Porzay, Finistere, Bretagne (Brittany), 4 miles northwest of Locronan, is the large 19th century Gothic Catholic chapel and pilgrimage centre dedicated to St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. The chapel (Kerk) is actually a basilica, and is located on Sainte-Anne la Palud road. There have been several chapels on this site – the first founded by St Guenole in the 6th century may have been nearer the shoreline, in the marshes. To the south of the chapel on Sainte-Anne la Palud road, is St Anne’s Fountain (Fontaine de Sainte-Anne), which has been visited for its miraculous properties for hundreds of years by the faithful from the local area and further afield. A few hundred meters to the west is the coast and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean.
Legend tells us that St Anne or Ana was an Armorican (Breton) woman of noble birth who journeyed to Judea where she gave birth to her daughter, Mary. She is said to have been transported there by angels. Later, she returned to Brittany (after Jesus’ birth) and died there? But this Legend seems to be purely a Mythical one, or it was adapted from the Life of another Breton saint Anna (Ana). In Ireland the Celtic goddess Annu (Danu) of the Tuatha De Danann, seems to have metamorphosed into St Anne. Annu was celebrated in May, according to Colin Waters (2003).
The first pilgrimages to Sainte-Anne la Palud may have began way back in the 5th or 6th century at the behest of the two local saints: Corentin and Guenole. Land for the building of the first chapel dedicated to St Anne was given to St Guenole by King Gradlon. The present-day chapel dates from 1864. In more recent times: from the 17th century onwards pilgrimages have become more prevalent as have the ‘pardons’ in honour of the saint which take place in the sanctuary of the chapel in late July (small pardon), culminating in the ‘Great Pardon’ on the last weekend of August, each year. Then the procession through the village begins and is always well-attended by the local community. During the ‘Great Pardon’ a painted statue of the patron saint, made of granite and dating from 1548, which is much venerated here, is held aloft and carried on its processional journey through the village from the Chapelle Ste-Anne to the 17th century Calvary and, eventually to the Fontaine de Sainte-Anne.
Michelin (1983), says with regard to the pardons: “The Breton pardons are above all a manifestation of religious fervor. They take place in the churches and chapels, sometimes consecrated by the tradition of a thousand years. There the faithful come to seek forgiveness for their sins, to fulfill a vow or to beg for grace. The great pardons are most impressive, while the smaller, though less spectacular, are often more fervent. It is well worth the tourist’s while to arrange his trip so that he may be present at one of them. It is also one of the rare occasions when he will see the old customs, perhaps slightly modernized. The procession, which begins in the afternoon, is the most curious ceremony: candles, banners and statues of saints are carried by men and girls; with pilgrims singing hymns, priests, the Blessed Sacrament, and sometimes even several bishops. After the procession, the lay festival is given free rain. As a rule this is a rather ordinary fair. Modern dancers are taking the place of the gavotte but bagpipes and bombards still hold their own against accordions and jazz. Sometimes there are wrestling matches, for wrestling is a traditional sport of the Breton peasants.”
Michelin Guide (1983), says with regard to St Anne, the patron of Saint-Anne la Palud that: “The Cult of Saint Anne was brought to western Europe by those returning from the Crusades. Her eager adoption by the Bretons was in part due to the popularity of the Duchess, Anne of Brittany and her later renown. Patroness of Brittany and mother of the Virgin Mary, Saint Anne was originally invoked for a good harvest. The most famous pardon in Brittany, that of Ste-Anne-d’Auray, is dedicated to her, so is the very important one of Ste-Anne-la-Palud and hence the local saying, “‘Whether dead or alive, every Breton goes at least once to Saint-Anne.”‘ A doubtful legend makes St Anne a Cornouaille woman of royal birth who was taken to Nazareth by angels to save her from her husband’s brutality. After having given birth to the Virgin Mary she returned to Brittany to die. It was Jesus who, when visiting his grandmother, called forth the sacred spring of Ste-Anne-la-Palud. The statues usually portray her alone or teaching Mary to read, very often wearing a green cloak symbolizing hope for the world.”
C. P. S. Clarke (1919), says: “St. Anne was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The only authorities for her life are the references in three of the Apocryphal Gospels. Her name does not occur in Christian literature until the fourth century. She is said to have been the wife of a rich man named Joachim, but was childless for many years. One year when they came to the Temple for the dedication festival Joachim was upbraided by the high priest for his childless condition. Cut to the heart, and not daring to face the taunts of his neighbours, he disappeared into the wilderness for forty days, and gave himself up to prayer and mourning. Meantime St. Anne remained in Jerusalem. Each had a vision of angels promising a daughter, who was to be called Mary, and was to be dedicated to God from her birth. Many miracles were attributed to her in the Middle Ages, but the observance of her festival was not imposed by authority until 1584. Feast-day July 26th.”
Rev. Alban Butler (1936), says under the entry for July 26 that: “The Hebrew word Anne signifies gracious. St Joachim and St Anne, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are justly honoured in the church, and their virtue is highly extolled by St John Damascen. The Emperor Justinian I built a church at Constantinople in honour of St Anne about the year 550. Codinus mentions another built by Justinian II in 705. Her body was brought from Palestine to Constantinople in 710, whence some portions of her relics have been dispersed in the West. F. Cuper the Bollandist has collected a great number of miracles wrought through her intercession.”
David Hugh Farmer (1982), says of St Anne: “Relics of her were claimed by Duren (Rhineland) and Apt-en-Provence, by Canterbury, Reading, and Durham. The most famous shrine in her honour in England was at Buxton. The Cult has left literary record in three Middle English Lives. It was, and still is, especially popular in Brittany and Canada. Feast 26th July (with S. Joachim); in the East, 25th July.” Henri Queffelec (1972), says regarding Anne Le Berre: “Anne is a name which is given to both men and women in Brittany. St Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the Patron Saint of Brittany and the object of special veneration, called pardons in villages like Sainte-Anne-d’Auray and Sainte-Anne-la-Palud.”
Fontaine-de-Sainte-Anne or St Anne’s Fountain is about one-hundred metres to the south of Chapelle-Ste-Anne – at the south-side of the road, beside a wooded area. This originated as a spring of water which flowed at the bidding of Jesus, according to the Legend, when he apparently visited, with St John, his grandmother’s place of birth, or maybe she was still living when he came to visit her? The spring or well has been the site of miraculous cures down through the centuries and a place of pilgrimage for the faithful since very early times. It has been claimed that many, or all diseases, were able to be cured by the waters of the holy fountain, but rheumatism being one in particular. Madness and evil were also healed and warded off by the water. A statue of St Anne, on a plinth, with a young Mary at her side stands looking down over the well basin, the present structure of which dates from 1871. The local church pardons process here to the Fontaine-de-Sainte-Anne every year in Late July (small pardon) and the last weekend in August (the Great Pardon).
Sources and related websites:-
Butler, Alban (Rev), The Lives of The Fathers , Martyrs And Other Principal Saints, Volume III, pages 839-40, Virtue & Company Limited, London, 1936.
Clark, C. P. S., Everyman’s Book Of Saints, A. R. Mowbray & Co Ltd., London, 1919.
Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Michelin, Tourist Guide – Brittany, London & Clermont Ferrand, France, 1983
Queffelec, Henri, Un Recteur De L’ile De Sein, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1972. Originally pub. in French Language (1945) by Éditions Stock.
Waters, Colin, A Dictionary Of Saints Days, Fasts, Feasts And Festivals, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire, 2003.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2018.