The Alsace has many beauties and attractions to boast of. Tourists marvel at the majestic elegance of Strasbourg Cathedral, they are charmed by walking through the cobblestoned streets of the historic old town of Colmar and flock to the wine villages that dot the slopes of the Vosges mountains and delight visitors with their quaintness and delicious wines alike.
But in the Alsace, it is well worth to leave the beaten tracks and look for the little and unexpected sights. Travel through the little villages between Colmar and the Rhine and you will discover little treasures that give you wonderful insights into this region’s culture and history. One of these treasures in the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Widensolen.
Widensolen is a charming and sleepy little village surrounded by fields and the lush green deciduous woodlands named “Kastenwald”. If you follow the Rue de Foret, shortly before you leave the village to the south, you will see the grotto on you’re right, in a lovingly trimmed part of the forest. This is not a memorial. This is an active place of pilgrimage where people from all over the Alsace come to ask the mother of God for her help and intercession, a practice to which the many votive plaques bear witness. There is always an abundance of candles burning here and the inhabitants of Widensolen make sure that there are fresh flowers adorning the cave. Above the entrance of the cave is a statue of Mary – she looks the way Bernadette Soubirous described the mother of God when she appeared to her in the cave in Lourdes in 1858. There is also a little statue of Bernadette herself, kneeling in prayer, her eyes fixed on Holy Mary. The inside of the grotto is the space of the pilgrims where they light their candles, put the plaques and leave fresh flowers for the mother of God. The cave is not natural. It is a manmade stone grotto, erected in 1958 by the curate of the Widensolen parish, Georges Ehrhard, resembling the cave where Holy Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
This part of the Kastenwald, however, has been a destination for pilgrims for centuries, yet the veneration of Holy Mary here is fairly new and recent. Until the early 20th century, the saint venerated here was Saint Germanus of Grandval. He is certainly a saint that rarely rings a bell with anyone outside the Upper Rhine Valley and the border region of Switzerland, France, and Germany. Born into a wealthy senator’s family in Trier about the year 612 AD, he was educated as a monk in the monasteries of Remiremont and Luxeuil. In 640, the Alemannic duke Gundoin founded a Benedictine monastery in the Moutier-Grandval close to Basel and called Germanus to become the first abbot. Gundoin’s successor Eticho (also known as Cathic), however, was a much less pious man – to solidify his power over the Alsace that he had taken from Gundoin’s dynasty, he attacked the nobles of the region, harangued and robbed the farmers and also did not shy at pilfering churches and monasteries. Germanus and his fellow monk Randoald decided to pay Eticho a visit to try and stop him from ravaging the Alsace and Northern Switzerland. The meeting, however, did not make duke Eticho change his behavior. Worse still, when the pious brothers were on their way back to Grandval, he sent his mercenaries after them who mercilessly murdered the Germanus and Randoald.
Whatever source you read, it is claimed that Saint Germanus was laid to rest in his monastery in Grandval along with his fellow campaigner Randoald. During the coil and commotion of the Reformation, their remains were saved and brought to the parish church of Delémont, a small town southwest of Basel where they are still on display until today.
But in Widensolen, people tell a different story. For centuries, a local legend has had it that some of the monks from Moutier-Grandval came to Widensolen in the 8th century to take refuge in the Kastenwald from marauding bands of robbers. They had brought along the relics of St. Germanus and buried him here in the forest. Soon afterward, a well appeared at that very spot and many miracles and healings happened here. The veneration of St. Germanus in the Kastenwald spread rapidly and the well soon became a destination for pilgrims. In the 14th century, the monks from Pairis Abbey in the Vosges Mountains built a small chapel here, next to well. Thanks to an 18th-century map of the French cartographer Cassini, we know of the existence and the location of this chapel. However, it was abandoned in 1746 after two Franciscan hermits who had guarded the chapel, were murdered by unknown killers. In 1788, it was destroyed and replaced by a little house, the walls of which were soon covered over and over with prayers and wishes of pilgrims who still flocked to the place. But also, the little house was destroyed, during World War I. For decades, there was no place of worship in the Kastenwald where the people of the area to take their worries to and pray for help.
It was the curate Georges Ehrhard who eventually revived the pilgrimage tradition in Widensolen. As 1958 was the centennial of the Marian apparitions of Lourdes, he decided to build a replica of the cave in Lourdes and consecrate the Kastenwald to the veneration of Holy Mary. Be it Saint Germanus or Virgin Mary, there is a very special spirit about this place under the softly rustling treetops of the Kastenwald…
If you find yourself on the road from Breisach to Colmar, you will come across a small white road sign pointing to the right, saying “Widensolen”. Divert your journey for half an hour and see a unique part of the Alsatian culture – for the Lourdes grotto of Widensolen truly is one of the hidden treasures of the Alsace.