France’s love for Our Lady dates many centuries before Loures and La Salette.
The first recorded apparition of Our Blessed Mother occurred in the year 40. She was still alive at the time and living in Jerusalem, meaning the apparition was an act of bilocation. She had made a promise to the apostle, James the Greater, telling him that she would visit once he started his journey of carrying the gospel message to the ends of the earth.
James was in what is now Spain and Our Lady bilocated there to make her promised visit. Appearing on a marble column, she commissioned James to build a church on the site. Today, the Cathedral of Zaragoza surrounds the chapel of Santa Maria del Pilar, Our Lady of Pillar, which was a pre-Assumption apparition and is the only act of bilocation attributed to her. All of her other appearances have occurred after the Assumption.
Many of us are aware of the famous apparitions that took place in France during the 19th century, including Lourdes and La Salette, but not many of us have heard of Our Lady of Puy. This is where devotion to Mary in France was born and where, more than 1800 years later, it thrives. You see, this is considered the site of the very first apparition anywhere in the world of Our Blessed Mother after her Assumption.
Somewhere around the year 46, Saint Peter sent missionaries into the land known as Gaul (future France). St. Frontonius was the bishop sent by Peter to Gaul, and in due time he consecrated St. George to succeed him. Sometime after the year 70, one of St. George’s converts, a widow named Villa, became seriously ill, and St. George told her to ask the Blessed Virgin for help.
Villa did as directed and Our Lady appeared to her and told her to climb Mount Anis, a place she wanted a church built in her honor. The hill was named Puy and on top was a large flat rock, probably made from lava. Villa’s servant carried her up to the top of Mount Anis and laid her on the rock. Villa fell asleep, and when she awoke, she was completely cured.
Villa had “dreamed” that a heavenly woman was standing near her surrounded by angelic spirits. When she asked who the Lady was, they told her the beautiful woman was the “Mother of God.”
There is some disconnect with the timeline of the very early years after the first century. But it seems to be factual that on July 11, 250, the oldest sanctuary dedicated to the Mother of God was built on the spot of Villa’s miraculous cure. The exact date of the church being built surrounding the sanctuary ranges from the starting year of 250 all the way to completion in 430.
According to legend, the local bishop received a message from Mary with instructions to build a church on the hill. The story goes that when the bishop climbed the hill the ground was covered with deep snow even though it was July. A lone deer walked through the snow, tracing the ground plan of the cathedral Our Lady wanted to be built. The flat rock that Villa had been cured on was left and consecrated as the “Throne of Mary.”
Suffice it to say that news of the “peculiar happenings” at the Puy spread everywhere and people began coming to the spot from all over. The landmark known as “the Puy” quickly became so well known the town itself became known as “Puy.” By the 6th century, Emperor Charlemagne and many French kings had made pilgrimages to Puy to pray to Our Lady.
Throughout history, many miracles have occurred at Le Puy. Not only is it the site of the Blessed Mother’s first apparition after the Assumption it is considered one of the most famous and beautiful pilgrimage shrines anywhere in the world.
Today the church is known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation (French; Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy), more commonly known as Le Puy Cathedral. It has been a center of pilgrimage since before the time of Charlemagne (6th century), both for Crusaders on the way to the Holy Land and — even today — as one of the starting points of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Although the apparition was never investigated with the modern protocols, the site has the traditional approval of the Church. In 1051, Pope Leo IX wrote, “In this sanctuary on Mount Anis more than anywhere the Blessed Virgin Mary has received veneration, honor, and the love of a great many believers in the country.”
Lastly, in 1254, King St. Louis IX gave the cathedral an ebony image of the Blessed Virgin clothed in gold. Since then, the site is also known as the home of the Black Virgin of Le Puy-en-Velay.