Le Puy is 140km south-west of Lyons. Built in the volcanic crater, it is dominated by two strange stalagmite-shaped rock formations.
On one, 630 metres high, a chapel in honour of St Michael has been erected and on the other, a huge statue of Mary, 16 metres high. The statue is made of cast iron from a cannon captured in the Crimean War.
Christianity came to this area at the beginning of the forth century, Marian devotion, healings and pilgrimages date from as early as the fifth century, and the church of St Michel d’Aguihe dates from 962 A.D.
The site of the present cathedral church goes back to the sixth century, and has welcomed many famous people, including Charlemagne, six Popes, and sixteen European Emperors and Hinds. Among other significant points worth noting about Le Puy are:
- The present church however was built in the twelfth century, restored in the eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth century. It is a striking church, built in Romanesque style, and following the crusades shows unique and impressive signs of oriental and arabic influence.
- The first crusade was said to have been preached first at Le Puy, and Bishop Adhemer, having composed the Salve Regina for the crusades, himself died during the crusade.
- The church itself was an extremely significant place as a Marian shrine and as an assembly point for people making their way to Compostella in Spain.
- Marcellin Champagnat’s aunt was a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph, founded in 1650 at Le Puy, and when the French Revolution forced her to live in the Champagnat home, she became Marcellin’s first catchiest.
- Jean-Francois Regis also used Le Puy as a base for his missions and during an economic crisis encouraged the woman of Le Puy to take up lace-making, for which Le Puy is still famous.
- Jean-Claude Courveille’s family was involved in the effort to preserve the ancient statue of Our Lady, but was burned in 1794.
It was in the cathedral of Le Puy that the idea of the Society of Mary came to Jean-Claude Courveille.
Jean-Claude Courveille was born on 15 March 1787 at Usson, in the diocese of Le Puy – a fairly important township, dependent partly on Forez and partly on Auvergne. He was the seventh of thirteen children born to Claude and Margaret Courveille. His parents sold lace.
Close to the town of Usson, in the ancient sanctuary of Notre Dame de Chambriac, there was a local congregation of religious women dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. One of Courveille’s aunts was a member.
During the Revolution Courveille parents hid in their home the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Chambriac and Jean-Claude prayed before it. At the age of ten he caught smallpox, which produced lesions of the cornea. His mother consulted doctors who told her it was incurable.
After he 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.
“Here is what I want…. I have always imitated my divine Sone in everything. I followed him to Calvary itself, standing at the foot of the cross when He gave His life for the salvation of all. Now in heaven, sharing his glory, I follow his path still, in the work he does for his Church on earth. Of this Church, I am the Protectress. I am like a powerful army, defending and saving souls. When a fearful heresy threatened to convulse the whole of Europe, my Son raised up his servant, Ignatius, to form a Society under His name, calling itself the Society of Jesus, with members called Jesuits, to fight against the hell unleashed against his Church. In the same way, in this last age of impiety and unbelief, it is my wish and the wish of my Son, that there be another Society, one consecrated to me, one which will bar my name, which will call itself the Society of Mary, and whose members will call themselves Marists, to battle against Hell…”
When Courveille went to the major seminary of Lyons, he began to spread the idea, and gathered round him a small group of aspirants, and despite the confusion surrounding the origins of the Society, Le Puy was always looked on by the early Marists as a place of real significance.
In 1822 when the dioceses of Lyons and Belley both seemed to be adamant in their opposition to the Marist project, the Colin brothers sent Jeanne-Marie Chavoin to Le Puy to make inquiries about the possibility of laying the foundations of the Society in this place where the first inspiration had come.
Marists therefore look to Le Puy as the symbolic point of the origin for the whole Marist Family, and while the statue before which Courveille knelt has disappeared, it has been replaced by what is said to be a very exact copy.
This statue is positioned above the main altar is a “black Madonna”, the type of which is found in several other churches.
The “black Madonna” was a symbol of wisdom.
Before leave Le Puy it is probably good to recall the last years of Jean-Claude Couveille.
In 1866 Courveille entered the Benedictine monastery of Salesmes and stayed there until his death in 1866.
Within the Society of Mary, Fr Colin did not mention his name, and his former companions believed that he had died or disappeared. But in 1846 an apostolic missionary, probably Fr Touche, informed Fr Mayet that Fr Coureville was still alive, and told him where he was.
In July 1851 and in February and May of 1852, Fr Mayet obtained from Fr Courveille much valuable information concerning the origins of the Society of Mary, including his “first hand” account (the only surviving one) of the “revelation” of Le Puy.