Heaven’s Bright Queen – Shrine of Our Lady of Puy, Velay, France

Article

The history of the venerable church of Puy presents us with the first instance on record of an Apparition of the Blessed Virgin. Whatever may be the worth of such legends in the eyes of critics, they incontestably assist us in tracing back some of the popular de votions of Christendom to periods of very remote antiquity, and possess a certain weight and value which no unprejudiced mind can disallow. These childish legends, as some regard them, enjoy a marvelous vitality; they have survived through ages of rationalism and revolution, and if our own generation has witnessed such a spectacle as the inauguration of an Image of Notre Dame de France on the Rocher Corneille, it must be owned that the erection of that monument in the year of grace 1860, was but the offspring of a piety which dates its earliest traditions from the Apostolic age. We shall give these traditions as they stand, therefore, regarding them if not as certainly authentic, at least as being entitled to respect and veneration, and certainly as not ranking among the least interesting narratives of their kind. It was in the year 46 or 47 of the Christian Era, according to the French historians, that the first missionaries were sent into Gaul by Saint Peter, and among these Saint George of Velay, as he is commonly called, became first Bishop of that church. One of the new converts, a certain devout widow named Villa, being sick of a fever, invoked the aid of Our Blessed Lady, and was consoled by a vision in which the Blessed Virgin desired her to ascend a certain hill in the neighborhood, then called Anis, or Amcium, which she had chosen as the site of a future sanctuary to be erected in her honor, promising her that she should there be cured. Villa obeyed the command, and made her attendant carry her to the spot indicated, where, being laid to rest on a large stone, she fell asleep, and woke in perfect health.

The facts being made known to Saint George, he proceeded to the spot in company with his clergy, but when they came in sight of the Cornelian Rock, they paused in surprise. It was a hot summer’s day, the nth of July, but Mount Corneille was covered with a sparkling veil of freshly-fallen snow. As they still gazed in wonder at so strange a spectacle, a stag sprang out of a near-by thicket, and, with light steps bounded round the rock, and then galloped back to her woody covert, leaving on the snow the traces of her feet. Saint George directed the area thus marked out to be enclosed by a hedge, and Saint Martial afterwards chose the place to be occupied by the altar of the future church, and left, as a precious relic to be preserved in it forever, one of the shoes of the Blessed Virgin, which he had brought from Rome.

Nevertheless, it was not until the episcopate of Saint Vosy, or Evodius that the church was commenced. Another miraculous cure wrought on the person of a paralytic woman when laid upon the same stone determined him in 221, according to the early writers, to build the church, and fix his Episcopal See at Anis. The authorization of the Pope was necessary, for which purpose Evodius journeyed to Rome, and returned in company with a young Roman architect named Scrutarius. In seven years they completed building the round apse and cupola now occupied by the chapter stalls, and commonly called “the Angelic Chamber.” When it was finished, say the historians, of Puy, the Bishop again set out for Rome, accompanied by his architect, to solicit permission for its solemn consecration, but they had not proceeded half a league, when they met two venerable old men, each carrying a casket of gold, containing relics brought, as they said, from Rome, which they presented to the Bishop, desiring him to deposit them in the church of Mount Anis, which at that moment they assured him was being consecrated by the hands of the angels. They then disappeared, and the Bishop returning, barefoot, to his church, found it illuminated by 300 torches, and the altar still anointed with an oil of delicious fragrance. Two of these torches are still exhibited in the treasury of Puy; the church never received any other consecration, and has henceforth borne the title of the Church of the Angels.

As the population increased, and a city gradually gathered round the foot of the mountain, the apse of Saint Vosy was found far too small for the purposes of a cathedral. In the ninth century the Angel’s Tower was added, and a portion of the transept, then the nave, and finally the great porch, in different styles of architecture, all more or less of the Byzantine character, which, however, harmonize together, and from their unmistakable air of genuine antiquity produce an effect at once devotional and picturesque.

Accepting the chronology of the most incredulous critics, we are, therefore, bound to assign the Church of Puy an antiquity which dates from the third century, from which time to our own day, Notre Dame de Puy has constantly remained a place of devout pilgrimage.

It would surpass our limits to attempt anything like a his tory of this venerable sanctuary; and we can but select a few of the facts of special interest which fill its chronicles. “Puy Notre Dame,” as it soon came to be called, is associated in a particular manner with the story of the Crusaders. When Urban II, visited France to open the Council of Clermont and preach the first Crusade, he came to Puy, and was there re ceived by its famous Bishop, Adhemar de Montheil, who was the first man to assume the Cross, and who accompanied God frey de Bouillion to the Holy Land in quality of Legate of the Holy See. A new door was opened in the wall of the church on this occasion, to admit the Vicar of Christ, after which it was walled up again, only to be reopened when any of his successors in the Chair of Saint Peter should visit the cathedral. Here, at the foot of Our Lady’s altar, Urban II passed the en tire Feast of the Assumption, 1095, praying for the success of his great enterprise, and the deliverance of the Holy Land; and here, before leaving his beloved city, Adhemar de Montheil prostrated on the same spot and then, as by sudden inspiration, arose and intoned an anthem, then heard for the first time, but which each successive generation of Christians has repeated with increased devotion: “Salve Regina, Mater-Misericordiae, vita, dulcedo etspes nostra, salve!” Whether, as stated by the Puy historians, Adhemar was really the author of this anthem, or whether the circumstances under which it was then recited first rendered it popular, one thing is certain, that in the early times it always bore the title of the Anthem of Puy, and that it formed the favorite invocation of Our Lady in use among the first Crusaders.

We must mention one royal pilgrim, to whom Puy stood indebted for the miraculous Image of Our Lady which for many centuries was the object of extraordinary devotion, not only in France, but throughout Europe. It was brought from the Holy Land and deposited in the Basilica in the year 1254, by Saint Louis himself, who at the same time presented to the church a thorn from the Holy Crown. The image was of great antiquity, was carved in very hard wood, and represented the Blessed Virgin seated, and holding the Divine Child on her knees. It was first carried in procession, by way of solemn thanksgiving for the safe return of its royal donor, on which occasion such immense crowds assembled in the steep and narrow streets that serious accidents occurred. In consequence of this, the Holy Image was very rarely afterwards carried in public, and only on extraordinary occasions. At such times the ceremony was performed with the greatest splendor. Four nobles of the high est rank were chosen to carry the image, and four others, styled the Barons of Our Lady, held the canopy. These processions were made to implore the intercession of the Blessed Virgin when the country was afflicted by famine, pestilence, or war. Their confidence in the protection of Our Lady knew no bounds; “Puy was the city of Mary;” and it was the proud boast of her citizens that she had never opened her gates to a conqueror. Again and again the Huguenots laid siege to the place, but whether they had recourse to strategem or violence, their efforts were equally frustrated.

It remains to notice the very remarkable monument erected at Puy in our own time to the honor of the Blessed Virgin. We have already spoken of the Cornelian Rock, or the Rocher Corneille, on which, according to ancient legend, appeared the miraculous snow. Monsignor de Morlhon, the Bishop of Puy, who presided at the jubilee of 1853, conceived the idea of making this rock the pedestal on which should be raised a colossal image of the Mother of God. The rock itself stands 757 meters, or 2,460 feet, above the level of the sea. On such a pedestal, therefore, the image of the Mother of God might be said to overlook the whole of France, the country long since consecrated to her by one of her old line of princes, and which the crimes of later generations have not succeeded in tearing from her protection. It was a noble design and one worthily executed. The first stone of the pedestal which was to be fixed on the top of the rock was, by the judicious arrangement of the Bishop, to have been laid on the day when the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed by Pius IX, but, circumstances having deferred the ceremony two days, the work was commenced on the 10th of December 1854. Then came the war in the Crimea, and the idea was suggested by Marshal Pelissier of applying to the Emperor for some of the cannon taken from the Russians, as forming a fit material for the statue of Our Lady of France. Mgr. de Morlhon summoned courage to make the request on the 5th of September 1855; three days later Sebastopol was in the hands of the Allies, and the cannon taken by the French were, in the following April, granted to the Bishop of Puy by an imperial ordinance. The image was not completed and placed on its pedestal till 1860, when twelve bishops and an immense throng of clergy and the faithful at tended at the ceremony which inaugurated Notre Dame de France. The statue is described as a fine work of art, and measures, with its pedestal, twenty-three meters, or about seventy-six feet. It represents the Blessed Virgin, crushing the serpent’s head under her foot, while in her arms she bears the Divine Child, whose hand is raised as if in the act of blessing France, and by an Episcopal ordinance the anniversary of its erection is to be kept in perpetuity on the first Sunday after the 12th of September.

MLA Citation

  • William J Walsh. “Shrine of Our Lady of Puy, Velay, France”. The Apparitions and Shrines of Heaven’s Bright Queen, 1905. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 July 2014. Web. 22 September 2017. <>