Ismerie was a Muslim princess, daughter of the Egyptian Sultan. She became Christian in
the XII° century through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Her history is at the origin of the
main sanctuary of Our Lady of Liesse (happiness), near Laon in France.
The patronage of Ismerie is a testimony of the spiritual and peaceful approach of Mission Ismerie, of the historicity of the phenomenon of the conversion of Muslims to Christ, and of the particular vocation of France in the welcoming of the Christians coming from Islam and in the apostolate towards Muslims.
Ismerie was very beautiful and very erudite about Islam. Her father, the Egyptian sultan Al-Hazan (or Al-Hafdhal according to other sources) sent her to convert three French knights, Hospitaller of the order of St John, who had been captured during a crusade and taken as prisoners into Cairo. The Sultan wanted them to become Muslims.
“Between those knights were three brothers (...) born in the diocese of Laon, in the county of Laon. The eldest was lord of Eppes, the second lord of Marchais and the third had no lordship but was very devotee and very valiant knight." “Thus, those three brothers mentioned here were brought and introduced to the great sultan of Egypt” “But the three knights were very wise and answered the reverse of what he said (…). That is why he, moved by courage, proud and malicious, sent them into prison, in a tower, big and squared, at the bottom of a pit, vile and dirty and very dark, to the custody of a pitiless Saracen, ordering him not to give them anything else than bread and water (…).” “Then, after they have been imprisoned in such horrific prison, the sultan began to wonder how he could bring them to renounce to their faith in Jesus-Christ and to believe in his god Muhamad (…).” “When the sultan realized that he could do nothing against them, he called his daughter Ismerie, the fairest maid of all Egypt, very graceful and pleasant, full of morality and virtues, and told her that she had to convert the knights to her faith, through her words and her prayers (…).”
But it was the knights who, talking to Ismerie of the Virgin Mary “ who gives such a great joy to the heart ”, caused her own conversion: she required them to sculpt a statue of the Virgin Mary, but this later made the statue appear miraculously.
“Then the eldest of the knights answered her: O young lady, nothing is impossible to our Lord. (…) Our God intended to share our humanity, he came on earth to show us how we should live. A fair maid called Mary carried Him nine months in her womb (…)” “I beg you, my lords, tell me who is this lady Mary.” “Then the maid asked them if they had an image.”
During the night, appeared in the cell of the knights a mysterious and miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus child (in black wood, thus the name of “black virgin” given to the statue). They showed it to Ismerie.
“As for now this image will be called Our Lady of Joy, as it brings and will always bring joy and jubilation in the heart.” “And when Ismerie saw the statue, she became suddenly full of love for Our Lady. (…) I want to serve this Lady all my life, and her son too (…). And I will promise you to get baptized and be a good Christian.”
During the night, the Virgin Mary visited her in her dream. She inspired her to free the knights and convert to Christianity. Ismerie made the three knights to escape, and, bringing the statue, they return all together to the knights’ native county, near Laon.
Ismerie was baptized under the name of Mary in the year 1134, by the bishop of Laon. She married Robert d’Eppes, one of the knights, and lived with him a life of devotion and charity. Then she entered a convent where she was an example of virtues. The other knights married and had a life of devotion. They are meant to have been buried in the Abbey of Saint Vincent, in Laon.
History of Ismerie derived from a text of Bruno Maës, Notre Dame de Liesse, huit siècles de libération et de joie, Éd. O.E.I.L., 1991 Quotations from a XV° century manuscript, oldest copy of the history of Our Lady of Joy, studied by Count Jehan d’Hennezel d’Ormois in Notre-Dame de Liesse, sa légende d’après le plus ancien texte connu (1939)
From Ismerie to Our Lady of Joy
A chapel was built to house the miraculous statue and became a place of great popular devotion to Our Lady of Joy, with pilgrimage and many miracles. The place, that was called Lience, changed into Liesse (Joy), and still bears this name todays. Our Lady of Joy became a patron of the Capetian Dynasty, and therefore patron of France. A basilica was built and the kings of France, up to Charles X, went in pilgrimage to Our Lady of Joy, whose sanctuary was close to Reims, the city of the Coronation (amongst them, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, who obtained the birth of Louis-Dieudonné (given by God), i.e. Louis XIV).
Nowadays, as Ismerie and the three knights, may Our Lady of Joy always “bring joy and jubilation in the heart” to the converts from Islam and intercede in their favor, as their former religion condemn them, theoretically, on a doctrinal point of view, to death: « "[Our Lady of Joy] is helpful to those who are wrongfully condemn to death, when they require her from the heath, as for the three knights.”
Tradition and history
According to the tradition of the sanctuary Our Lady of Joy, three knights from Picardy, the lord of Marchais and the two brothers of Eppes, were fighting in the Holy Land with Foulques of Anjou, in the first half of the XII° century. They were captured by the Saracens in Ascalon, near Jerusalem, and brought to Cairo, to be introduced to the Egyptian sultan, El-Afdhal. Those knights belonged to the Order of the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem. They were imprisoned for two years and nor the promises nor the threats managed to conquer their faith. Ismerie, the sultan’s daughter, was to lead them to Islam. But it was the knights who taught her the Good News of Christ. Thus, she heard them speak of the Holy Virgin and wished to see an image of her. One morning, the knights found near them a small statue of the Virgin Mary brought by an angel during the night. While visiting the prisoners, Ismerie required and obtained the miraculous statue. Touched by the grace, the princess converted and decided to leave for France with her three godfathers and the statue. The chains fell and they were free … After a long journey, the exhausted fugitives went to sleep. When awakening, they recognized their homeland and perceived the miracle. They had a great joy: the Holy Virgin brought them home, near Marchais! Ismerie wanted then to take the miraculous statue, but it was so heavy that she had to put it down. The knights tried also to take it, in vain. They understood that the Holy Virgin wanted to be venerated in such place, whose name was Liance. They made the vow to build there a church that will be called “Our Lady of Joy”, in memory of this joyful liberation.
Such narrative is certainly based on an historical element. In the beginning of the XIII° century, maybe before, Robert of Eppes married a Saracen. In 1236, one of his sons, John, is called “son of the Moorish”. Another lord of Marchais, Gervais, was called “the Saracen”. It can be stated that the narrative preserves the memory of the crusade of the three knights(*), John, Hector and Henri, sons of William 1er, lord of Eppes, of the unusual wedding of one of them with an oriental woman and of the miraculous action of the Virgin Mary. It is also stated that the canons of the cathedral of Laon built in 1115 a chapel in the village of Liesse (or Liance), in the department of Aisne, some kilometers from Laon, on a land depending of the lordship of Marchais. They used materials remaining after the building of their cathedral. The building was the rebuilt in 1384 and 1480, then enriched by gifts from high-ranking pilgrims.
In such place, a virgin in dark wood was the core of a famous pilgrimage. Due to such influx of faithfuls, the canons of Laon had to rebuild the chapel in 1384. From the XV° century, the kings and queens of France came here too, as they maintained regular links with the original cradle of the monarchy, Laon, Soissons and Reims.
Thus, Charles VI went to Liesse in 1414. Louis XI went there four times. In 1602, Mary of Medicis came there to thank the Virgin for the birth of the future Louis XIII and gave to the sanctuary the black and gold retable, the jasper colonnade and the triumph arc flanking the main altar. Louis XIII and Anne of Austria came several times to require an heir. In memory of their coming, they offered a large picture representing them kneeling in front of the Nativity. The king dedicated the kingdom to Mary. In 1652, Louis XIV came to thank the Virgin for the favors granted to his mother regarding his providential birth, reason for which he had been called “Dieudonné” (Given by God).
Furthermore, during great calamities, some cities made a vow to Our Lady of Joy. Thus Dieppe, in 1630, offered to the sanctuary, a silver vessel engraved in golden letters “public vow of Dieppe”.
During the Revolution, the miraculous statue was pitifully burned and the ex-votos confiscated, but the church was spared, and some pious hands managed to hide the ashes and coals of the statue.
The worship resumed in the XIX° century and the Marian devotion regained its development in the diocese of Aisne. A new statue was solemnly coronated in 1847 with the benediction of Pope Pius IX. Sculpted in ebony, it appears that it is a bit further from the original, that was of a very simple style. It holds in its pedestal the ashes and coal saved during the revolutionary auto-da-fe.
During the first world war, Liesse was occupied by the Germans. The place undergone some degradations, but the statue has not been destroyed. After the victory, Bishop Binet, of Soissons, placed his diocese under the patronage of the Virgin Mary. In 1921, he left Soissons by feet, surrounded by 5000 veterans, and crossed the battlefield of the Chemin des Dames to arrive in pilgrimage in Liesse.
In 1934, the pilgrimage of the eighth century of the sanctuary gathered more than hundred thousand of people, with the presence of a Pope’s legate.
The Order of Malta considers nowadays Our Lady of Joy as one of its main sanctuaries, regarding the qualification as Hospitallers granted to the three crusader knights source of this story.
Crusade’s era is bygone. What lesson can be learned from such story now that Islam is established in Europe? What is the link between such new situation and the conversion of a young Muslim girl meeting pious knights in the XII° century? What link can be established between this medieval story and our pilgrimages to the miraculous statue? The former Muslim Ismerie, welcomed in France, received the Christian name of Mary and was baptized by Barthelemy of Jur, bishop of Laon. Then she lived a holy life near her husband and his mother in Marchais. If there is a miracle of Liesse, it is also in the joy of a prophetic union gained over adversity by the power of faith. That is what the Virgin Mary intended to tell when her statue became so heavy in order to significate the place where she would be praised in memory of such happy ending.
The continuous prayers and pilgrimages to Our Lady in Liesse, as those of the prisoners in Cairo and of our kings, show us the way to take. It is the way Mission ismerie choose.
« And a great sign was seen in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. » Saint John, Apocalypse 12
According to Patrick Decléty, diacon
(*) This happened during the second crusade (1147 – 1149) preached by Bernard of Clairvaux. The German army of Conrad III took a path alongside the river Danube, followed by the Franks army of Louis VII in June 1147 with certainly our three knights. The French – German rivalries and the relationship difficulties with the byzantine emperor Manuel Ierweakened the operation. Louis VII finally joined Conrad in Jerusalem to achieve his pilgrimage but the two of them were drawn into an attack against Damas even though three quarters of the 200,000 men that left Europe had already disappeared… The Atabeks of Mosul resumed the jihad and controlled Syria while the chiefs of the Latin States allied with the byzantine empire. The Fatimids Vizirs maintained their power by calling upon the Franks or the Syrians. Ultimately, Saladin (a Kurd) became Vizir and managed to join Syria and Egypt, enforcing then Sunni (1169).
Saladin attacked first the Franks positions and isolated the Latins through an alliance with the Seljuks in 1179 and with the Byzantines and Cyprus in 1180, while the Byzantine empire, threatened in Europe by the Hungarians, the Serbs and the Normans of Sicilia abandoned its former allies. He then signed a truce with the Latins in 1180, as he controlled Alep and Mosul.
During such period, some dissents were mining the kingdom of Jerusalem from the interior. The succession of king Baudoin I, leper, was challenged without any exterior rescue. His sister, Sibylle, and her husband, Guy of Lusignan, were soon coronated. Raymond III count of Tripoli, who had been ousted, turn to Saladin, who, in first instance, refuse to join him. But Renaud of Chatillon plundered an Arab caravan in 1187. Then Saladin proclaimed the holly war. During the battle of Hattin, almost all Francs knights were captured. Renaud of Chatillon and 200 Templars and Hospitallers were exterminated, sergeants and soldiers slaughtered or sold as slaves. Saladin took the strongholds and authorized, in counterpart of a ransom, the return of a part of the survivors to Europe. On October 2nd, 1187, in Jerusalem, Balian of Ibelin obtained a capitulation authorizing the redemption of a third of the population; but 10,000 inhabitants were deported as slaves. The kingdom of Jerusalem was reduced to Tyr and Beaufort, and, in the North, only Tripoli, the Krak des Chevaliers, Antioch and Marguat. It was the triumph of Saladin.
It is in such critical context that our three knights benefited probably of a pardon and were allowed to come back from their prison in Cairo. Ismerie’s attitude shows that relationships between natives and crusaders allowed exchanges and even marriages. The escape may then be attributed to a negotiation launched by Ismerie herself or to the intervention of the Virgin Mary, that shall not be excluded regarding the heavy tensions. The miracle is also the wedding itself between such princess and a Latin knight.
Regarding the conditions of the “direct return “near Marchais, this can also come from a miracle or from the will not to expand on the topic of the disastrous ending of the adventure that Saint Bernard had generated in the region with his speeches. He had participated to the creation of the abbey of Vauclerc on 1134 (Vauclair, anagram of Clairvaux) upon the request of Barthelemy of Jur, bishop of Laon, to whom he was related. At the end of his life, in one of his major works (De la Considération, 1152), Saint Bernard wrote about the failure of the second crusade: "I prefer to see the whispers of mankind speak out against me than against God”.« .
As the conclusion of the crusade remained certainly a painful issue, the families and the local memories couldn’t give a triumphant tone but preferred a message about the evangelic power of love.
To support and accompany the Muslims on their way and the former Muslims converted to Christ – they exist, are already there and will be more and more numerous – to give to the public a just and impartial information about Islam, to propose Christ to Muslims.