Once upon a time, a couple named Hezo and Ida, from a West Flanders town called Wervik or Wervicq, had three beautiful daughters named Helwigis, Jutta, and Giselindis. These three girls were walking in the forest when they were accosted by three foresters bent on rape, and not picky about whether they killed them in the process. The girls begged to be allowed to pray, and the amused gang let them. They prayed to Our Lady to die rather than be raped, and instantly the ground collapsed underneath them and buried them completely. The foresters were terrified and reported themselves to the authorities. They ended up becoming extremely penitent monks.
This is the sort of thing that happens in some European miracle stories, but this time the authorities reported to higher authorities, who interested themselves in the story. The Count of Flanders, Baudouin V, had a mayor of his household that was called Landry, who had become totally paralyzed. He ended up visiting the giant sinkhole in the forest, and was totally healed in a moment. Baudouin’s wife Adela (aka Adele of France, daughter of King Robert II of France, mother-in-law of William the Conqueror and sister-in-law of the annoying Tostig) was impressed and grateful. So the Countess showed up and had the earth collapse excavated. To everyone’s surprise, the three girls’ bodies were found still incorrupt after two years, looking as if they’d fallen asleep and still kneeling, still with folded hands. They had obviously died instantly.
So Countess Adela had the girls’ bodies buried in a church she built in 1057, out in the forest near the earth collapse area. (The church stayed standing during medieval times, but no longer exists.) It was dedicated to Mary the Thrice Holy Virgin. She also founded an abbey nearby which was called Meyssen, Meessen, or Messines, which was supposed to mean “daughter” in Flemish. The new Benedictine convent started out with thirty nuns of noble birth, and twelve experienced canonesses (I guess to keep an eye on the thirty nuns). The convent and church became the center of a little town, and the shrine was famous for healings.
Countess Adela retired there after her husband’s death, and one night she saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary herself. Countess Adela possessed a splinter of the True Cross (showing that she had some kind of Byzantine diplomatic connections, or that she’d made off with her husband’s relic). Mary ordered her not to keep this relic to herself and the nuns, but to let all the faithful come see it. In the morning, the countess thought this was just a dream and ignored it, but she dreamed it twice more. The third time, Mary told her that she would receive a sign that it was a true command from God. In the morning, she would see a red thread running up to the altar of the church. She was to pick up this cord, wind it around her hand, and follow it with her reliquary wherever it went, until it ran out. That would be the route of the True Cross procession.
Countess Adela found the thread in the morning, and was so shocked and penitent about her disbelief that they say she followed the route on her hands and knees that first time, and the rest of the ladies in the convent followed her, including the normally-enclosed nuns; and the villagers and farmers who saw the procession followed too.
And so, every year on September the 14th, there was a procession along that route on the feast of the Exaltation of the True Cross, and they exhibited the little sacred splinter to the faithful. The procession continues even today. It is called the Grote Keer, or the Great Time, and it’s a nine-days procession. They process every day from September 14 until September 22. The procession route goes all around the town of Mesen for over 6 kilometers. At times the route travels through fields, where each year the farmers harvest a row of crops early to permit the procession to pass. During the Great Time, the church is open for pilgrims to visit.
Flanders ended up going through a fair amount of both prosperity and wars. There were two big Battles of Messines in World War I, and the Germans and Allies blew the heck out of each other across their lines. Finally after weeks and months of secretly planting explosives underneath the hills that the Germans used to fortify their lines, the British forces blew them all up at once. The explosion was heard all the way in London, and the tremors from it were mistaken for an earthquake even by seismologists.
Three German soldiers were found in an underground bunker, dead from explosive shock but without a mark on them. They looked as if they had fallen asleep.
After the abbey died out and various wars had passed through, a smaller church had been built dedicated to St. Nicholas, with a little chapel to Our Lady. The upstairs bits have been reconstructed many times, but Countess St. Adela is still buried in its medieval crypt. The WWI Germans dug up the crypt again, by chance, and set up an aid station down in the crypt with Adela.
There’s apparently a sign that informs you that Corporal Adolf Hitler was treated there.
Not everybody makes good use of a miraculous second chance.
Picture of the modern copy of the medieval wooden statue of Our Lady of Mesen, which was destroyed during WWI.
A picture of Countess Adela and the apparition of Our Lady and the Christ Child, in Mons, at the parish of Notre Dame de Messines.
A statue of Onze Lieve Vrouwe de Mesen, in Mons, at the parish of Notre Dame de Messines, clearly modeled after the painting in the parish. You can clearly see the Christ Child holding the True Cross reliquary.
Weirdly, however, the city-folk have put Mesen totally out of their minds, even though it’s right down the road! The current legend is that the painting comes from Messina in Italy (also spelled “Messine” in French). But there’s poor St. Adela, large as life. It must be WWI trauma. Anyway, the painting used to be out in a cemetery chapel, but was moved inside the church after miracles happened. There’s a parish feast (“Ducasse de Messines”) for Our Lady of Messines on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation; it used to be on July 2, the feast of the Visitation.
A old Flemish novena of Our Lady of Mesen, from a holy card, which notes her in the 19th century as a patron against sciatica and gout:
(English translation via Google Translate and human smoothing:)
Whoever is in any emergency shall have recourse to Mary, and he will read the following prayer for nine days in church or at home, before a picture of Mary, in memory of the nine months that Christ Our Savior spent in the shelter of Our Lady’s virginity.
O blessed Virgin Mary, chosen from among all creatures by God the Father to be the mother of His only Son, Jesus — have pity on me. I ask thee for the unutterable joy which thou felt in thy Heart, and for the manifold graces which thou obtained, when the Fruit of Compassion was placed into thy virgin body. I now take recourse to thee. Stand by me in my emergency. I hope with certainty that thou shalt intercede for me.
Our Lady of Mesen, graciously hear the nine Hail Marys which I am about to read in thy honor. Help me with my request, if this favor will be useful and wholesome to me.
[And then you say nine Hail Marys.]
Novene ter eere van Onze Lieve Vrouw van Meesen
Alwie in eenigen nood verkeert zal zijne toevlucht tot Maria nemen, en negen dagen lang zal hij in eene kerk of te huis, voor een beeldeken van Maria het volgende gebed lezen, ter herinnering der negen maanden welke Christus Onze Zaligmaker doorgebracht heeft in den maagdelijken school van Onze Lieve Vrouw.
O gezegende Maagd Maria! tusschenalle schepselen door God den Vader uitverkoren om Moeder te worden van zijnen eenigen Zoon Jesus, heb medelijden metmij; ik bid U ef om door de nuitssprekilijke vreugd welke Gij in uw Hert gevoeld hebt en door de menigvuldige genaden welke Gij hebt verkregen wanneer de Vrucht van Bermhertigheid in uw maagdelijk lichaam verloefde. Ik neem nu mijnen toevlucht tot U, sta mij bij in mijnen nood, ik hoop vastelijk dat Gij mij zult verhooren.
Onze Lieve Vrouw van Meesen, aanhoor met welgevallen de negen Wees-Gegroeten welke ik ler uwer eere ga lezen, verkrijg mij wal ik verzoek indien nochtans deze gunst mij nuttig en heilzaam is… Amen.
UPDATE: There’s a mysterious group of three virgin saints in Germany whose story and actual names have been forgotten; they’re known as the Three Beten. Possibly they are meant to be these three Flemish girls.
Also, Belgium sits on top of a lot of limestone and a big aquifer, so sinkholes do happen. One recently opened up next to the central train station in Brussels.