Reprinted From This Week’s
Hometown Oneonta, Freeman’s Journal
Inspired by a 2017 visit to the shrine at Lourdes, France, a devout Jim Belleau of Oneonta prayerfully offered to organize seminars to explore the meaning of the Virgin Mary’s 18 appearances in 1858 to a 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, “unless you have somethng better for me.” Belleau believes that “something better” is coming to pass.
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – “It was an amazing moment.”
It was October 2017, and Jim Belleau was in his third or fourth night of his second visit to Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in France.
“We witnessed this procession,” the Principally Prints owner recalled the other day. “It was a warm night. The moon was out. And, for an hour, I had just witnessed 12,000 people singing the Rosary and holding candles.”
He had attended a mass, in Italian, at the Grotto, and was walking back to the hotel, crossing the 124-acre main square – it can accommodate up to 100,000 visitors; now it was completely empty – with the cathedral-like chapel behind him.
“I turned toward Mary,” he said, a famed statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, crowned, “and I got down on one knee. And I placed the rest of my life at her service. I said literally that.”
At the time, he’d had an idea: to organize spiritual seminars to Lourdes, and he explained that to her. “Then I said one final thing: Unless you have something better.”
On April 15, 2019, he was working in his shop on Chestnut Street. “It came across Facebook, live.” Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral – literally, “Our Lady’s cathedral” – was on fire.
“I watched it while I was working,” said Belleau, who has been involved in spiritual pursuits since 1983. “Whenever something appears conflictual, that’s a signal for me to step out of the way … I was intrigued. I wasn’t alarmed.”
Three days later, “I got my internal answers: That this wasn’t an accident.”
Jim Belleau was born in Salem, Mass., in 1956, and raised in a Catholic home in a French-speaking section of town. He attended nearby Merrimack College, then finished at Emerson College, training to be a cinematographer.
Age 25, he met a woman at a wedding he was photographing in Ipswich, Mass., and followed her back to Oneonta. “I never went back.”
Soon, he had three jobs, as a darkroom technician and obituary writer, a wedding photographer and, then, walking down Main Street, “I saw this picture framing and print shop. Wow, that’s interesting. I walked in.”
He asked the woman behind the counter, “Do you need anyone to work?” “Yeah,” she replied, “I’m moving to Arizona in two weeks and I haven’t told the boss.” He began his apprenticeship, and ended up buying the business on July 1, 1985, 35 years ago this month.
In those early years, “Literature was my North Star.” He became acquainted with David Kherdian, the Armenian American writer and poet, who ran a used bookstore in Oneonta in the early 1990s. “He put remarkably great books in my hands,” Belleau said.
“…and then I got a copy of ‘The Song of Bernadette,’ by Franz Werfel.” Through Werfel, “I understood the inner working of what Mary is doing – steering the behavior of society to accomplish her goal.”
Her goal, he believes, is for society to “turn toward women,” who would make society “instantly more humane. And that means more sustainable.”
“I don’t practice religion,” he said. “However, I am delighted to be a Catholic. I could not think of anything better. It’s such a rich tradition.”
Through his explorations, “I connected with the feeling of wonder, without needing an explanation. My life started containing wondrous events.”
In the 1990s, he began a videography business. He contracted with SUNY Oneonta philosophy professor Ashok Malhotra to create three fundraising videos for the schools Malhotra’s Ninash Foundation was building schools in rural India.
“I went on a wild international four-year tour of the world because of that,” he said. “I was at the Taj Mahal on the last day of the century and the first day of this century.”
Back in Oneonta, he explored healing through guided prayer, “working with people who had extreme conditions, cancer, head injuries.” Cira Masse, SUNY Oneonta professor Steve Markuson’s wife, was responding positively and, in 2003, “out of the blue, she gifted me a trip to Lourdes.”
“It was a pretty miraculous way to get a trip,” he continued. The group went to Paris for five days, arriving in Lourdes on Aug. 15, the peak of the annual pilgrimage.
Like anyone else, he had received emotional wounds over his life.
“When I was at Lourdes, all of those wounds were healed – in one week. I experienced a miracle.”
He absorbed the ambience of Lourdes, where on Feb. 11, 1858, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous reported the first of what would be 18 apparitions of Mary, the Biblical mother of Christ.
As his five days there came to an end, “it suddenly was just delightful. It was like a perfume that was suddenly in the air at all times. I suddenly felt safe.”
He continued, “It was so natural … And so I became what could be called a powerful creature – a healed Catholic.”
Belleau had visited a cathedral for the first time – Notre Dame de Paris – in 1978, and had begun to study that architectural form. Now, back in Oneonta, he renewed his interest with Henry James’ “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” – “that was the book that really lit me up.”
He learned that cathedral roofs, like Notre Dame’s, are not structural at all. Despite the fire,
the walls, supported by flying buttresses, “didn’t move a spec.”
A cathedral is “an objective work of art,” he said, but it acts to “trigger any one individual’s mind into the majesty of His own being.” He refocused on Principally Prints, aiming to set enough aside for his next visit to Lourdes.
After witnessing the Notre Dame fire, Belleau waited. A month, six months. “In December, my day job becomes very busy … When one is working that hard, one’s internal resistance to guidance can be lessened … Real perceptions start to come in.
And it came to him: A design for a renovated Notre Dame de Paris.
“A gentle but very vivid impression of the first design dropped into my mind. It was fun … The next day it started to come (into focus) and I was stunned.
“I started immediately taking the design elements seriously. Six major elements in the design; they just came rapidly in a two-week period.”
What followed were a series of coincidences that reinforced Belleau’s belief that his 2017 prayer as Lourdes – “…unless you have something better” – was being realized.
On Jan. 11, he received an email from Carol Howe, a developer of the online “A Course in Miracles,” “someone I’d never met.” His name had appeared spontaneously in her mind: “How can I help you?”
“Her job was done,” said Belleau: “To eliminate any doubt I had in the project.”
He found an architectural illustrator – Chris Hand at Red Point Builders, Cooperstown – who agreed to work with him on a computerized schematic. On Feb. 11, “while I was waiting to meet with him, I realized: It was the anniversary of the first apparition at Lourdes.”
When he first began seeking corporate support from illumination companies, he received his first reply within minutes. “This guy” – he turned out to be a Lourdes’ enthusiast – “lit up on the most authentic way. His emotional self went through the roof.”
For now, the particulars of Jim Belleau’s plans for Notre Dame are closely held. He will provide the name, “Mary’s Design,” and will further say, “the design turns her into the beacon for the 21st century.”
We, and the world, will just have to wait.