The Piton de la Fournaise culminates at 2’632m. Such a big valcano brings many stories to such a little island. Probably the most well-known story is the one of the little parish church of Sainte Rose. Sainte Rose is a small town located in the southern part of the island, on the road known as the lava road. It has, over the years, often been destroyed by the eruptions.
On the 24th of March 1977, the volcano erupts.
On the 8th of April at 7pm the lava reaches the village of Bois Blanc, located on the municipality of Sainte Rose. The villagers quickly realise the danger, as it is very close. At 11pm 900 people are evacuated. The next morning a new eruption quickly destroys the road. The lava is going at a speed of 70km an hour. This time 1500 people are evacuated, several houses are burned and the lava flow finally ends up in the ocean on Easter Sunday. The 13th of April, 3 days later, a new fracture happens, this time very close to the little town of Sainte Rose. The eruption is violent and the gazes are strong: birds are falling asphyxiated from the sky. The lava flow arrives in front of the town church. It is stopped a first time by the door of the church. After a while the door fails and the lava enters, stained glass windows explode, benches are burned. But suddenly, the lava stops, just a few meters inside the church. The rest of the lava goes around the little building, leaving it mostly intact. The church is spared and will later be renamed Notre Dame des Laves, Our Lady of the Lava. For many, a miracle has just taken place.
The joke often told in relation with this miracle, is that many do not understand why the police station also was spared.
The church was restored and new stained glass windows were installed. They were made by a local artist, Guy Lefevre, and show the story of the church and the arrival of the lava in very vibrant colours.
Linked to this story is another volcano tale. If you look closely on the left picture above you can just notice a Madona with an umbrella: La Vierge au Parasol.
The little fun fact of today’s story: an umbrella in French is ‘parapluie’ – litteraly ‘for the rain’. In creole they use the old french word ‘parasol’ which means ‘for the sun’ – that is the word used in French today for a beach umbrella. When you see the picture below, you understand what I mean.
So, our little Madonna – now, I have trouble finding out if the one in the church is the one of the story or if there is another one somewhere at a shrine in the nature. She has been moved around quite a bit over the years.
Here is the story.
In 1896, two ladies put up a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on the side of a road called ‘la Route du Brûlé’, I suppose it is what is known today as the Lava Road. The statue was supposedly erected to protect the crops from the vicious and violent eruptions from the volcano. Later a man created a little umbrella, so Our Lady would be protected from the weather conditions. It is said that the next year during an eruption the lava stopped some meters from Our Lady and for no obvious reason the lava separated in two sparing the statue. The myth of la Vierge au Parasol started to make its way.
In 1960 a first pilgrimage is organised on the 15th August, Assumption day (the Assumption of Mary to Heaven), a big feast of Catholics. Unfortunately in 1961 the statue is this time destroyed during an eruption. A couple of years later, ready for August 1963 a new statue is erected not far from the old spot. She is a bit bigger than the original but the Madonna still carries an umbrella (commissioned by one in the original families who sat up the statue in 1896). In 1998, on the 150th day of the eruption remembered as the ‘eruption of the century’, the lava flow stops, one more time, not far from the statue. However she will be moved in 2002 when a big front of lava comes to close for comfort. She was then cleaned, repainted and relocated next to the church of Sainte Rose. As far as I can tell she was moved one more time back to her original spot in 2011, but I didn’t notice her on the way to Sainte Rose, so she might well now be the one standing in the church and taken out for processions and the very popular pilgrimage of the 15th August every year.
There are geological reasons as to why the church was spared. But the story is none the less sweet.
Awesome pictures on fournaise.info from the 1977 eruption, if you want to see more.
I have done my best to cross reference all the info in this post. But myths and such stories often have many variations, mostly from being alive in the collective memory. Most of the information I got from the leaflet available in the church, from what the ladies holding a small shop in the church told me and on the internet. I tried to name all the www sources somewhere along the line in my post – apologies if some are missing.