Chapel built after death of three local players
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
(Caption: La Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Rugby, or the Chapel of Our Lady of Rugby, is in a small town south of Bordeaux. It was refurbished in the 1960s to honour rugby players.)
BORDEAUX, France -- Minus their injured captain, and with only one victory and a tie, the French rugby team (Les Bleus) did not win the 2013 Six Nations Championship, and this despite the fact that in a small town south of Bordeaux, parishioners had gathered for prayer in a chapel dedicated to the oval ball.
Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Italy, and France meet annually in the tournament for European bragging rights. The Welsh claimed the 2013 title with a 30-3 romp over the English March 16.
"There's a powerful force that the French can count on (for next year): divine intervention," reported the BBC's Chris Bockman Feb. 23 on a Radio Four program titled, "From Our Own Correspondent."
The refurbished, elegant La Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Rugby, or Our Lady of Rugby Chapel, in the town of Larrivière-Saint-Savin, awaits both supporters and faithful.
Bockman described his surroundings as he walked into the chapel: there's a "statue of the Virgin Mary being handed a rugby ball by a young boy."
During the 2013 Six Nations, even the most diehard French fans were shell-shocked after Les Bleus catastrophically imploded during three losses: to Italy, Wales, and England. In a fun twist, though, the annual Six Nations grudge match between France and England was nicknamed Le Crunch.
"We are in a process of defeats," said France head coach Phillipe Saint-André after the third loss. "If there is a scapegoat, it's me and nobody else."
However, Frenchmen's hearts were stirred by a dramatic come-from-behind 13-13 tie with Ireland March 9. Frederic Michalak's late conversion after Louis Picamoles's try in the 74th minute gained Les Bleus their first point of the tournament.
The French finally chalked up a 23-16 victory against the Scots March 16. After trailing 6-0 at half-time, three Frederic Michalak penalties led to Wesley Fofana's second try of the competition in the 66th minute.
The winning margin came when a hard lateral from Yannick Nyanga found Fofana on the right and he forced himself underneath the posts for the try.
France still finished at the bottom of the Six Nations' table, but the match truly was a moral victory.
"In the first half we dominated possession but we couldn't get on the scoreboard. The first try allowed us to relax," said Fofana.
It was back in 1964 that a dream to set up Our Lady of Rugby was born. Father Michel Devert led a three-year crusade to have a place of worship rededicated after three rugby players from the local club, Dax, were killed in a car crash.
He eventually convinced his bishop that an old Roman chapel could be refurbished to honour the sport's deceased players and protect present players from harm.
The hilltop chapel's highlight is its wholly unique stained-glass windows designed by former Mont-de-Marsan team captain Pierre Lisse. One pane, "The Virgin at the Line-Out," depicts the child Jesus, cradled by His mother, pitching a ball to six clamouring players below.
Another Lisse creation shows the Virgin taking care of an injured player; the third window depicts the game's pilgrims. Numerous visitors have brought offerings: pennants, boots, balls, and jerseys fill tasteful glass cases.
The major annual event at Our Lady of Rugby is the "Whit Monday" pilgrimage the day after Pentecost Sunday. Players, officials, and supporters gather for Mass and a picnic.
"Often an additional Mass is held (before) a tournament where French honour is at stake," added the BBC's Bockman.
Rugby is king near Bordeaux; many top-league French players grew up in the area. Even local cafes have names such as "Fair Play" or the "Oval Ball."
Local priest Father Gilbert Lavigne spoke of his passion for L'Ovalie. He prays for individual players and their safety but never for a French victory.
"God believes it's up to the players to do the hard work," he asserted in French.
What will happen to Les Bleus in the 2014 Six Nations tournament? Only Our Lady of Rugby knows.