St. Mary Magdalene, St. Martha and St. Lazarus were perhaps the first Catholics in France when they brought the Catholic faith to Marseille early in the year 42 AD after being forced to flee the Holy Land because of persecution. Though the faith in France has endured many trials: wars, heresies, floods, famines, plagues, luxury seeking and power grabbing, it remained steadfast and ardent. Innumerable personal shrines still standing near the countryside roads are evidence of this. The devotionals, often adorned with flowers, can by found in the niche of a stone wall or over a doorway of the village bakery, or on wooden posts on the side of the road.
In central-south France, in a volcanic region located 2,000 feet above sea level sits the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame of Le Puy. Le Puy en Velay is situated in a picturesque valley at the base of Mount Anis three miles from the Loire River and close to two smaller rivers, the Borne and the Dolaison. Looking upon the town, red roofs cover the scene and the valley is dotted with lush greenery. The landscape is rather peculiar as the terrain is marked with hardened magma (a mixture of molten or semi-molten rock) that form rounded hilltops known as puys and the roads are steep and treacherous in spots.
It can be argued that the oldest recorded apparition of our Lady was at Le-Puy, France in the year 70 A.D. In the year 46, St. Peter sent missionaries to France, among whom were St. Front and St. George of Velay, who became the first bishop of that area and gained many converts. It is interesting to note that St. George had died en route with St. Front to his Episcopal See and was buried by his holy companion. St. Front trekked back to the Holy Land to inform St. Peter of his death and St. Peter gave him his staff and told him to place it on St. George’s grave. Hiking back to the burial site, the saint humbly fulfilled the command of the first pope whereupon St. George was raised to life and lived another 40 years.
In approximately the year 70 AD, a widow named Villa, recently converted to Catholicism, was feverish and prayed to Our Lady for help. The Blessed Virgin, of ravishing beauty and bearing great majesty, appeared to her amid a multitude of angels and saints and told her to climb a hill, Mt Anis, promising to cure her. She obediently ascended the hill with her attendant and fell asleep on a stone. When she awoke she discovered that she was perfectly cured. St. George learned of the miraculous event and eagerly hiked up the hill with his clergy on a hot summer day in July to investigate the site. When he reached the extraordinary stone, he was astonished to see the hill was covered with a newly fallen blanket of white, glistening snow a few inches deep. Staring at this spectacle, they saw a deer dart out of a thicket and bounded around the stone, leaving its footprints. St. George ordered a hedge to be planted along this wondrous line and they inexplicably blossomed overnight. St. George made plans to erect a sanctuary on that site, but he died before he was able to begin the construction and the church was not built at that time. An old note indicated that the saintly bishop brought a sandal belonging to the Blessed Virgin and bequeathed it to the future church.
Two centuries later, a paralytic woman was healed on that same stone and the Virgin Mary indicated to her that a chapel be built there. The Bishop, reportedly St. Vosy, responded enthusiastically to the request and found a young architect named Scutarius to erect the church, which was completed in seven years. In the year 430, the bishop commenced the journey to Rome to obtain the Pope’s permission to consecrate the church but was met on the way by two venerable old men who each carried a gold coffer. They presented the vessels to the bishop and informed him that they contained precious relics from Rome. The mysterious men asked him to place them in the Church on Mount Anis and enlightened him that the Consecration of the Church was in process at that very moment by angels. He hurried back to the church and beheld a great light. Upon entering, he witnessed 300 flaming torches and smelled the sweet fragrance of oil with which the altar was recently anointed. The church never received another consecration and since then it has been called the Church of the Angels. According to an old account, many treasured relics graced the church such as: the Lance that pierced Christ’s side which was won by the first crusade; a piece of the True Cross, a bit of the Sponge, a cup from which the Lord Jesus drank, the cloth of the Last Supper, a sleeve of Our Lady’s gown, some fringes of Our Lord’s robe, a tooth of St. Mary Magdalene, a bone of St. Lazarus, a pitcher from the wedding of Cana, some white hair from St. Louis IX, and even the pectoral, fringes and bells of Aaron.
Pope Urban II visited the Shrine in 1095 to plead for Our Lady’s special help in the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Turks. On the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he prostrated himself before the Blessed Sacrament and prayed most of the day for the success of his great endeavor. The Bishop of Puy, Adhemar de Montheil, the first man to bear the Crusader Cross, also prayed there before he left his beloved city to take up his post in the crusades. Suddenly, divinely inspired, Bishop Adhemar rose and chanted a hymn for the first time and it became the song intoned by the soldiers of the First Crusade, victorious in its efforts. Today the well-known hymn is titled “Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae” (Hail, Holy Queen) but was known as the Anthem of Puy for many years.
Due to the increasing crowds of pilgrims seeking the Virgin’s intercession, the Cathedral was enlarged several times. This is manifested in the different styles of architecture but which maintains a predominantly byzantine look. There are 137 steps leading up to the church and the streets are very steep, making processions difficult and tiring. The Rector of the Shrine admits that the climb is not easy but directs people to walk up unless they are handicapped where they can park their vehicle in a small lot.
The very saintly King St. Louis IX, a Franciscan Tertiary, arrived in 1254. He presented the Shrine with a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and also a very ancient statue of cedar wood of the Blessed Virgin with her tender child seated on her lap. There was a grand procession with the statue, attended by many people, in thanksgiving for the safe return of the holy king from the crusades. There is much debate about the origin of the statue, but there are some records that claim it was carved by the prophet Jeremiah as an image prophesying the advent of the Divine Messiah through the Virgin Mary. Jeremiah “placed it in a chapel, with an inscription in Hebrew, announcing to future ages the birth of Christ and his holy mother.” Though the origin cannot be verified, for centuries the popular sentiment was that it had been crafted from the hand of Jeremiah. Grateful to Notre Dame de Puy, before departing, St. Louis established the Franciscan custom at LeVelay of praying the Angelus three times a day.
In the late 1700s, the anti-Catholic French Revolution (1787-1799) swept through France in a frenzy, destroying many churches, statues, images and holy items. Unfortunately, Notre Dame Le Puy Cathedral was not spared and almost all of the sacred articles were destroyed. In 1793, Revolutionaries confiscated the ancient statue of the Madonna with Child; the image was put through a mock trial, dragged through the streets, decapitated and then burned. Fortuitously, by the grace of Our Lady, a man named Faujas de Saint-Fons had created a detailed drawing and description of her in 1777. A replica based on this drawing was presented to the Shrine in 1802 and the processions, never losing their fervor, began anew.
In the jubilee year of 1853, bishop De Morlhon, along with a few other priests, were inspired to fashion a grand image of the Mother of God and place her on Rocher Corneille, the rock where the miraculous snow appeared centuries before. His plan was to set the first stone in place on December 8, 1854, the date of the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX, but the placement was delayed two days due to circumstances beyond his control. On a rock 2,500 feet above sea level stands the bronze statue, Our Lady of France, crowned with stars and holding the child Jesus with his hand extended in blessing and her foot on a serpent. It was sculpted by M. Bonnassieux, a fundamentally Catholic artist, who had refused a commission to make a statue of Voltaire. Weighing about 110 tons and just over 50 feet tall, the statue is made from the metal of 213 pieces of artillery donated by Napoleon III, taken by the French in the Crimean war. The “Salve Regina” is etched on the base of the statue. It was finally presented to the public on September 12, 1860 amid waving banners, festive processions and joyous singing with hundreds of thousands in attendance. A Pontifical Mass was offered on “Place de Breuil” where St. Vincent Ferrer had preached. Gathered were bishops, cardinals, 1,500 priests, seven hundred brothers, 1,000 sisters of different orders and innumerable faithful. The weather had been windy and rainy, but soon after the unveiling of Our Lady of France, the sun pierced through the clouds lighting her in golden glory as the crowd shouted “Vive Notre Dame de France!” The Salve Regina was then sung by 100,000 voices.
Healings and miracles have been reported throughout its history attesting to the fact that Our Lady continues to intercede for us and aid us in our distress. In fact, the Marist Order was born there,
“After Jean Claude grew up, he had a great desire to study to become a priest, but his bad eyesight made it impossible for him to study. On 26 April 1805, when Jean Claude was 18, his father died and just four years later on a pilgrimage to the miraculous statue of Our Lady in Le Puy, the young man of 22 bathed his eyes in the oil of the votive lamps which surrounded the altar. He was suddenly cured and enjoyed excellent eyesight ever since. Each year afterwards he returned in thanksgiving to the same statue in Le Puy, and so it was three years later, on 15th August 1812, that he heard “not with the ears of the body, but with those of the heart”, the call of Mary which asked for the foundation of a religious society which would bear her name and whose members would be called Marists.”
Notre Dame de Le Puy is also a well-known starting point for the great St. James Compostela pilgrimage. For more than 1,000 years they have gathered at the 7:00 a.m. Mass before starting off on their 450 mile journey.
A special jubilee has been bestowed on Notre Dame de Puy in the years when The Annunciation falls on Good Friday. Pope John XV declared that each such date would be marked by a Jubilee. The Jubilee Indulgence is the equivalent of a Plenary Indulgence and forms the most important part of the celebration. The first such anniversary occurred in 1065. In 1407, 200,000 pilgrims attended the jubilee and in 1502, 3,000 priests was not enough to hear the confessions of the vast throng of faithful. Not too long ago in 1932, The Jubilee attracted over 300,000 pilgrims. The next Jubilee year will be in 2016 and then will not occur again until 2157, 141 years later.
For 1,600 years the Sanctuary has received a multitude of saints, grand personages, and humble souls begging Our Lady for Her intercession including: seven popes, eighteen kings and queens, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Odilon, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Dominic, St. John Francis Regis, St. Hugh, St. Joseph Laboure and many others. Charlemagne visited at least twice; in 1420 the future King Charles VII visited when he was still a teenager and before the historical events which involved his crowning in Reims due to the blessed assistance of St. Joan of Arc; St. Joan of Arc’s mother prayed at the Shrine before her daughter commenced her military efforts.
The current rector, Pere Emmanuel Gobillard, encourages the devoted pilgrims to imitate millions of others having confidence in Our Lady. In his own words, “Millions of suppliant pilgrims have been hastening to beg her, through her intercession, to present their prayerful petitions to the Lord. The lighted candles and the books with requests for prayers and Masses to be said, are a sign of this. Let us not be afraid: following their example, let us kneel humbly before her and entrust her with our sufferings, our joys, our hopes, for she is the one who listens: at the annunciation she listened to the angel and accepted the Word of God, who dwelt in her.”
Salve, Regína, Máter misericórdiæ
Víta, dulcédo, et spes nóstra, sálve.
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy
our life, our sweetness and our hope!
 French Cathedrals, Monasteries and Abbeys: And Sacred Sites of France, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Century Company, 1909 pg. 116
 A pilgrimage to Auvergergne, from Picardy to LeVelay, Louisa Stuart Costello, London : R. Bentley, 1842; pg. 154
 A pilgrimage to Auvergergne, from Picardy to LeVelay, Louisa Stuart Costello, London : R. Bentley, 1842; pg. 156
 Fr. Jean Claude Colin was the founder of the Marist Order and whose cause for beatification has been introduced.