Even though Brittany is most definitely in France, I never quite feel like I’m in the same France as the rest of the country. The people of the region seem to have a hunger for learning from new things and people around them and a generosity and warmth that Paris and more urban centers can’t touch.
Brittany is a bit like that regardless of where you go. Although I had been there before, it had been many years and Auray wasn’t one of my stops. What a hidden gem — I LOVED Auray. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had incredibly knowledgeable guides, were able to zip around the city on a segway, had an opportunity to meet with the local mayor and attend a private organ concert at the Basilica directed by the Director of Sacred Music Bruno Belliot. (be sure to see our write up and photos on the concert).
We started our glorious day taking in the history of Saint Anne of Auray and its sanctuary with the local tourism board rep Emelie Lesper, who had a wealth of knowledge about the area. Sites to see in the historical center include the town hall, Auray Castle, Holy Saviour Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel, Saint Gildas Church, The Chapel of the Holy Spirit, the prison, the Belvedere and the Loc Promenade and the Chapel of the Eternal Father.
Notice how many chapels and churches there are on that list and it’s not even complete. You could say that everywhere in France there are oodles of churches, cathedrals and bascilicas, however Auray has a very special spiritual past. As the spiritual capital of Brittany, Saint Anne of Auray has been the largest pilgrimage site in Brittany for more than four centuries, with 500,000 visitors each year.
Each year on July 25 and 26, the Great Pardon takes place and a half million people participate in spiritual celebrations, processions, vigils, masses and more. For the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela, Saint Anne of Auray is a rest stop on the way. In addition to being a spiritual retreat, there’s a rich history to the area as well. From stunning architecture and tranquil verdant gardens to museums, chapels, hamlets and churches, there’s plenty to keep you engaged for several days.
As you walk through the city, you’ll fall upon The Memorial, which is in memory of the 240,000 Bretons who died during WWI and the National and French-Belgian Cemetaries, which are home to the tombs of 2,103 soldiers. You can’t walk far in Auray without running into something on Saint Anne — her statue, made of Kersanton granite and weighing 12 tonnes, stands tall in the gardens. She appears to be worshipped by many and it’s not just the locals who recognize the numerous miracles she performed in her life.
The fountain is the first apparition of St. Anne to Nicolazic. Although she didn’t live for long, what she accomplished during her short life is said to be nothing short of miraculous. The Basilica was built in 1872 to replace the 17th century chapel built by Nicolazic and its design is said to encompass both gothic and renaissance styles.
A statue of St. Anne holding a torch stands at the top of the monument and inside the church, stained glass windows depict the apparitions, the pilgrimage, the life of St. Anne and the mysteries of the Rosary.
The centerpiece of the altar of devotion, dedicated to St. Anne, represents the lives of Anne and Joachim, and is classified as a historical monument. On the right stands a statue of Nicolazic, and on the left, a reliquary-monstrance offered by Anne of Austria and Louis XIII, in thanks to the birth of their son Louis XIV.
Why all the statues, the stained glass, the basilica, the fountain, the books and the videos? It’s hard to imagine that one person could have done so much to earn such acclaim and dedication, but if you’re religious and know your history, you know that her story runs deep.
So, who was this remarkable woman and why does she matter to so many people? St. Anne was the wife of St. Joachim (also noted above), the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was not a catholic but a Jew, who lived in Sepphoris near Nazareth in Galilee, then in Jerusalem in Judea.
St. Anne was known for performing miracles and the cult of St. Anne grew in the East first, in the spreading of the cult of the Virgin Mary, most particularly in the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple.
St. Anne was venerated and prayed to in a significant number of places of worship, basilicas, churches and chapels over the centuries. Among these number, in Rome, the parish church of St. Anne in the Vatican, in Jerusalem, the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, in Congo in the Church of St. Anne in Brazzaville, in Asia, Burma and Ceylon. In France, the first sanctuary dedicated to St. Anne was the ancient cathedral of Apt in Vaucluse, in the 11th century.
In Brittany and particularly the Auray region, the cult of St. Anne is historically connected to the first evangelization of Armorique, in the 7th and 8th centuries. According to some theories, “Ana” was the name of a Celtic deity worshipped previously in this area, which would seem to have favoured the spreading of the cult of Mary’s Mother. The diocese of Vannes has celebrated St. Anne from as far back as the early 15th century.
St. Anne has become the patron saint of Brittany and hence the reason why she is so honored in Auray and Brittany in general. Almost all Breton churches have their statues of Saint Anne and many chapels, villages and localities are under her patronage. The Bretons, over the centuries, have introduced many religious festivals (pilgrimages) that include a dedication to St. Anne, the most important being that of Sainte-Anne d’Auray.
Whether you’re religious or spiritual but not religious or not, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by the spiritual presence in Auray. Even those who are atheist and agnostic will likely be inspired by people’s fascination of St. Anne’s life.
Admist Auray’s borders, I found peaceful time to reflect, not because I have followed St. Anne’s life or ever done a pilgrimage to a holy place that honors saints. I find that spiritual places, whether or not there’s a direct connection to something in my life, remind me of the things that are important. In the ever so peaceful courtyard, I could be present with the history of Auray, St. Anne and her life, everything she stood for and the role she played in Brittany’s history.
Inside, candles diffused the light while adding colorful yet calming energy. Here people lit candles, paid respects and prayed. There’s a magic to the place that can’t quite be described in words, but it’s as if you know that a spiritual presence from as far back as the 6th century is in your midst.
The experience couldn’t have been more perfect. I started my day in the Basilica with a mid-day reflection break in the Basilica’s courtyard, and then visited Auray’s natural and beautiful surroundings by food and segway (be sure to read our post on Auray culture and history), before ending my evening with an organ concert at the Basilica (catch our article which includes a snippet of video of the sacred music we heard).
Also check out our Brittany/Normandy food & wine section (and posts), as well as our general section on Brittany/Normandy. And, of course for the passionate about all things France, we have quite a bit of content in our France section as well as Paris.
9 Rue de Vannes
Note: My trip was hosted by the French Tourism Board, however all opinions expressed are entirely my own.