by Zsolt Aradi
In the department of Haute Loire in southern France, in the heart of a prosperous plain, the visitor's eye suddenly falls on two rocky hills. On approaching, one sees on the top of one of the hills a gigantic fifty-five-foot statue of Our Lady of France, erected in the nineteenth century during the reign of Napoleon III from the metal of two hundred and thirteen cannons captured from the Russians at Sebastopol. This tall, majestic figure of Our Lady is crowned with stars. She stands atop a globe and crushes with her feet the serpent. She holds the child Jesus in her arm while He extends His blessing to the world.
On the top of the other hill, there is a large Romanesque sanctuary of St. Michel, which rises from the rocks as if it were a very part of the mountain.
In the valley between these two spectacular sights, lies the oriental-looking Cathedral of Le Puy. It has a series of cupolas, Romanesque arches, and in some ways resembles a Mosque. The capitals of the pillars which sustain the vault are as artistic as any of the Basilicas in France; the facade is Moorish. The stairs leading up to the church from the city below pass at once past the druid altar and then rise to the shrine itself.
The image of the Black Madonna of Le Puy is an almost exact replica of the ancient one, which had been dragged about during a mock trial at the time of the French Revolution. This statue was guillotined like Marie Antoinette and then burned. The present statue, made of black marble, represents Our Lady seated on a stool and is about twenty-five inches high. She holds her son on her knees. According to tradition, the original venerated statue was brought to the sanctuary by no less a person than St. Louis, King of France. During the Crusades, he was captured by the Moors in Africa, but the Sultan, as a sign of his esteem, presented to the King of France a cedar wood figure of Our Lady with the Child, venerated also by the Moslems. There is another legend that the statue was carved by the prophet Jeremiah.
Le Puy thus claims to be the most ancient shrine of Our Lady in the world. In any case the origins of the sanctuary of Le Puy go back to the druidic age. Mont Anis, the hill on which the cathedral stands, was the site of a druidic altar and during the Roman occupation, it was replaced by a temple of Jupiter. Very soon after the arrival of Christianity, it is said that a woman seeking relief from a mysterious fever went up to this ancient place of worship. Suddenly, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her and asked that a chapel be built on the site. When the Bishop visited the spot, sometime in midsummer, he found snow on the mountain in a shape, which indicated the plan of a chapel. He fenced the place in with a hedge of thorns and, to his great astonishment, found on the next morning that the bushes had blossomed into flowers. The popular legend asserts also that the Bishop of St. George of Velay was a disciple of St. Peter.
The chapel, however, was built much later. Toward the end of the fifth century, another Bishop of Velay was faced with a similar request: another woman was cured on the mountain and Our Lady, who subsequently appeared to her, asked again that a shrine be erected on the spot.
The church was built but never consecrated by the Bishop because, as in the case of the Swiss sanctuary, Einsiedeln, when the prelate arrived, "he found the chapel ablaze with lights and filled with music, and it was believed that it had been already consecrated by the angels." (H. M. Gillet, Famous Shrines of Our Lady.)
From this time forward, the history of Le Puy is one of glory. By the sixth century, so many pilgrims were flocking to Le Puy that a hospice had to be built. Charlemagne visited Le Puy twice; all the princes of the Carolingian dynasty showered gifts on the shrine. Later, St. Louis, King of France, donated a new statue and journeyed twice on pilgrimages with his queen.
With the exception of certain Italian sanctuaries, no other shrine has received so many Papal visits. Eighteen kings of France, and seven popes, have paid their respects to the Gracious Lady. Among the saints, St. Dominic, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Hugh, St. Joseph Labre, and many others expressed their veneration at her feet. Pope Urban II, addressing himself to the Princes of Europe for the Crusades, dated his Bull from Le Puy.
This extraordinary shrine is connected with various privileges, including special indulgences, which are granted in those years when Good Friday and March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, coincide. Ever since the fourteenth century, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have come on this day. In 1407, there were two hundred thousand pilgrims. In 1502, the three thousand confessors were not sufficient, because in that year pilgrims from Spain, Italy and England, as well as from France, crowded into the city and its surrounding area. Every year, tens of thousands thronged the streets until the Revolution when Our Lady's image was carried off in a manure cart, tried and burned at the stake.
In 1802, however, a new image was carved and the processions and pilgrimages began anew. Le Puy never lost its medieval atmosphere, which is expressed not only through the magnificent setting of its age-old buildings and the cathedral, but through the same powerful faith brought to this site by the pilgrims. None of the more recent and spectacular events in Lourdes have lessened the importance of Le Puy.
The visits of Charlemagne, the seven popes, the kings and the saints live on at this place, not as shadows of the past, but as actual marks of an undying dedication to the Blessed Virgin who chose this part of France to be venerated as "Our Lady of France."
This item 2984 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org