The day has finally arrived!
Here we are, at the 'raison d'etre' of our trip: Le Puy en Velay.
Le Puy is the original birthplace in 1650 of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who founded Elms College. The source of the source.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, who were originally hospital and teaching sisters, were founded here by Jesuit John Peter Médaille, and were the first congregation placed under the patronage of St. Joseph. They were dedicated to serving the needy, orphans, prisoners, the sick and the destitute, and the community had rapid growth.
Our bus driver Hakim brought us from Lyon to LePuy this morning, where we were met by Sr. Jacqueline, an SSJ from the Le Puy congregation. We spent all day with her: she was charming and funny and a joy to be with.
Immediately we headed off on a full day of exploring this amazing and beautiful ancient walled city.
Our first stop was merely steps from our hotel - the Saint-Laurent church. It was founded by the preaching brothers of Saint Dominique, following their patron's visit to Le Puy. The staid building was built in the 14th century, and since it was outside the city walls, it was often the first landmark seen by the many pilgrims arriving in Le Puy.
The church has had many "misfortunes," such as roof collapses, and pillaging by the Hugeunots, and splaying pillars(!), and so much of it has been repaired, rebuilt, or replaced. But parts are still original, such as the keystone in the choir, which depicts Saint Laurent carrying the grill on which he was to be martyred.
The walls of the nave are decorated with a series of paintings depicting the saints of the Dominican order, by Guy Francois. This early 17th century master worked in LePuy, and introduced an artistic style inspired by Caravaggio into France.
The stained glass windows are relatively small and modern and not as spectacular as the ones we have been seeing. I think after all that Gothic grandeur in Paris, Chartres and Lyon, this little church seemed pretty drab to most of us!
We were off immediately to the next location, as we have been all week. (There was to be NO down time in Sr. Eleanor's "boot camp"!)
The SSJ Motherhouse and Archives
We were off to the place that was most meaningful to us: the original mother house and archives of the SSJs, housed in what used to be the chapel of the Visitation sisters. It is right down the hill from the Cathedral.
We saw many touching things here. One of the most dramatic was a huge painting depicting the early sisters taking vows with Bishop de Maupas and Father Medaille, with St. Joseph looking down on them from heaven. There were also photos, and statues, and samples of historic writing.
In a glass case, there was a document signed in 1650 by the original six sisters: Francoise Eyraud, Clauda Chastel, Marguerite Burdier, Anna Chalayer, Anna Brun, and Anna Key. Sister Eleanor said a prayer to them, and gave thanks for starting the congregation with their common vision.
We all signed the guest book before we left, and noted the signatures of SSJs from all over the world who had preceeded us.
A few steps away was one of the most revered places in the SSJ history - the original kitchen where those first nuns basically lived when they first started out. It was rustic, and dark, and cold - made of large reddish blocks of stone. But there was a big stone fireplace, and we could imagine those sisters more than 350 years ago, huddled around the fire to keep warm, and making their famous lace by the light of the fire. Many of us felt their presence.
We left reluctantly, to start the long climb up the hill to the cathedral. It is an incredibly steep and long incline, and someone asked Sr. Jacqueline if there was an easier way to get to the top than to walk. "Of course," she said. "We shall walk very slowly."
The old town at the base of the cathedral is a web of small streets and shady passageways, and many of the houses have recesses holdling statues of the Virgin Mary or one of the saints.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Le Puy is one of Europe’s oldest, most famous, and most beautiful pilgrimage shrines. The original church on the site was completed in the year 430, and the current basilica is a composite construction dating from the fifth to twelfth centuries. While primarily an example of Romanesque architecture, the massive cathedral shows strong Byzantine and Arabic influences in both its construction and decoration.
Historically, the Cathedral and its predecessor, an early shrine on the summit of mountain, drew thousands of pilgrims. The original cathedral stands on the location of an ancient megalith, which was reputed to have curative powers though the Blessed Virgin Mary. Legend has it that a local noblewoman suffering from a malignant fever had a vision in which she was told by voices to go to the top of Mont Corneille and lie on a large rock dolmen. She was cured here, and had a vision in which Mary instructed her to tell the local Bishop to build a cathedral on the spot.
Bishop Vosy climbed the hill, and even though it was July, he found that it was covered in snow. A deer was walking in the snow, and its tracks around the hilltop outlined the foundations of the future church. The Bishop was apprised in a vision that the angels themselves had dedicated the future cathedral to them, whence the epithet "Angelic" given to the cathedral of Le Puy.
The great dolmen was left standing in the center of the Christian sanctuary, which was constructed around it; the "fever stone" was re-consecrated as the Throne of Mary. It became the focal point of the shrine to which all the fever sufferers in the province flocked, and with Chartres was the oldest Marian sanctuary in France.(The hymn Salve Regina was written here by Bishop Adhemar de Monteil.)
The cathedral forms the highest point of the city, and we had seen it towering above everything from many vantage points in Le Puy.
The facade, striped in layers of white sandstone and black volcanic breccia, is reached by a flight of 60 huge steps, (though after the long and arduous climb to the top of the hill, it seemed more like 600!!!)
The striking colored stone is connected to remains of fortifications of the 13th century that separated the cathedral precincts from the rest of the city.
The cathedral front is awe-inspiring, and has huge beautiful Romanesque porches across the front. It has three or four levels of arched windows and doors, which look like they have been piled one on top of the other.
But just when we thought we had reached the top of the stairs and crossed through the first frontage, we realized that the steps continued!
But before we continued the climb to the entry door, we saw the famous 10th century cedar doors, which lead to two small chapels. They are carved with intricate biblical scenes and Cufic characters.
After conquering the remaing steps - some of us more slowly than others(!),we stepped inside the beautiful cathedral.
At one end is the Baroque high altar dating from 1729, with lots of gold and decorative elements. Above it, the famous "Black Virgin" is standing and holding near her waist a black- baby Jesus. She wears an elaborate golden filigree crown on her head, as does the baby Jesus. The statue is sometimes dressed in different robes according to the liturgy - from a red robe embroidered with eucharistic symbols of vine branches and wheat, or a white one embroidered in gold.
The Black Madonna
These medieval statues of Mary depict her with dark skin. There are 500 of them in Europe, and at least 180 in France. Some statues were originally light-skinned but have become darkened over time, but others have always been dark. They may symbolize her suffering.
Many of us sat in the front pews and said a prayer, as we did in all of the churches and cathedrals we visited. From this perspective it was really striking to see directly in front of the altar was a modern cubic altar made of onyx with bronze medalions.
In a side apse, there is a six-foot-long slab of black stone - part of the 'fever stone' that is according to tradition, the origin of the cathedral and the Marion worship here. Sr. Jacqueline told us that it is still reputed to have healing properties for those who stand on it, so several of us did so, and we said a prayer to Mary for our healing and that of our families and friends.
One of the most spectacular things in the cathedral is the huge magnificent pipe organ in the back at the end of the nave. It was installed at the end of the 17th century. It is placed one bay forward from the back wall, so that it can be seen from both sides.
To this day, Catholic pilgrims starting their journey to Santiago de Compostela gather here to be blessed each morning. The cathedral has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1998, as part of the "Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France".
Behind the cathedral and through small twisting cobblestone streets is the nearby cloister. The four galleries of the cloister were constructed during the same era as the cathedral.
It is a sublime open air space, from which you can see the upper part of the cathedral, the nave, the cupola, and the bell tower. In the distance, you can see the giant statue of the virgin Mary.
The cloister is Romanesque art at its best, supported on monolithic columns with intricate iron gates. The double arches are gorgeous, made of red, ochre, white, and black diamond shapes and mosaics. It is said to be similar to the mosque in Cordoba, Spain, possibly inspired by pilgrimages to Compostella.
An elaborate frieze runs above the arcades, and includes such amazing carvings as a depiction of Eve struggling with an eagle, and a lion with the acanthus symbolizing victory over evil.
The columns' 150 capitals are of particular interest, and earns this cloister its fame as one of the most remarkable in the western Christian world. They include an angel stealing a soul from two demons, a monk and abbess fighting over a crook, two lions chained together, doves drinking from a chalice, and a race between two male and one female centaurs.
The making of bobbin lace, the regional speciality, most likely was brought here from Spain or Italy. It had a huge place in the history of the SSJs as well as a huge impact on the economy of the city. In 1639, it was prohibited by the Toulouse Parliment, but Jesuit missionary Jean Francois Regis had the law overturned. He was canonized in 1737 and named the patron saint of lacemakers.
The lacemakers hold a pillow in their laps, which is basically a big pin cushion. The lace design being worked on is pinned to the pillow, and threads held on wooden bobbins are passed around the pins.
In a local shop, we were curious about interesting looking bottles of some kind of liguor. Sr. Jacqueline told us it is famous in this area, called "Verveine du Velay." Its secret recipe contains 32 local herbs, including lemon verbena, and it is known as a digestive liqueur. She warned us that it was bitter, but a couple of us were brave enough to buy small bottles to take home as souvenirs.
Dinner with Sr. Jacqueline
You can't go anywhere in Le Puy without seeing two narrow rock mountains, one topped with a church - St. Michel - and the other with a huge statue of the Virigin Mary. Both are illuminated at night, and are spectacular.
Saint Michael’s rock (Rocher Saint-Michel), topped with its 1,000-year-old Romanesque chapel, seems to erupt out of Le Puy-en-Velay, jutting up about 400 feet above the small town below. The church at the summit of the basalt volcanic obelisk was built starting in the year 962, and has always been accessed only by climbing the 268 steps spiraling around the rock. The chapel is an irregular shape, which closely follows the summit’s contours, and the steeple appears as a perfect continuation of the rock’s lines. It is a popular beginning point for French pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
Statue of the Virgin Mary
Behind the cathedral, the huge iron Notre Dame de France (Our Lady of France) statue stands on top of Rocher Corneille. It is 23 meters high, and weighs 835 tons. It was erected in 1860, and a crowd of 120,000 pilgrims came to its inauguration.
The statue was cast in iron, made from 213 cannons donated by Napoleon. Our Lady holds the child Jesus in her arms, and wears a crown of stars. It is painted a brick red color to blend in with the city's red clay roofs.
Visitors can climb the mountain up 262 steps, and can climb up inside the statue to the level of the neck via a narrow spiral staircase. There is a hole through which you can look down on the cathedral and the surrounding town.
There is also a statue of St. Joseph which is almost as tall as our Lady of France, but it is much less noticable from the town center. It is actually in a suburb of town, and sits on top of a castle built on a volcanic column. It was built in 1911 of reinforced concrete, and depicts Joseph with Jesus as a child standing on a carpenter's bench.
Pilgrims to Le Puy
No French pilgrimage was more frequented in the Middle Ages than to LePuy. Famous personagaes who came here include:
- Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans
- Charles the Bald
- Philip Augustus
- Louis IX
- King of Aragon
- Philip the Bold
- Philip the Fair
- Charles VI
- Charles VII
- the mother of Blessed Joan of Arc
- Louis XI
- Charles VIII
- Francis I
- St. Mayeul
- St. Odilon
- St. Robert
- St. Hugh of Grenoble
- St. Anthony of Padua
- St. Dominic
- St. Vincent Ferrer
- St. John Francis Regis
Because of its place of religious significance, several congregations of women religious in addition to the SSJs also originated in Le Puy:
- 1221 - Dominicans of Mère Agnès.
- 1618 - The teaching Sisters of Notre-Dame.
- 1624 - The religious of St. Charles.
- 1650 - Sisters of St. Joseph.
- 1659 - The Visitation of St. Mary.
- 1667 - The Instruction of the Infant Jesus.
- 1673 - The Sisters of the Cross.
Two important congregations of men also originated and had their motherhouse in the diocese of Le Puy:
- 1821 - The Brothers of the Sacred Heart, founded with the object of giving commercial instruction.
- 1850 - The Labourer Brothers, or Farmer Brothers, of St. John Francis Régis were founded by Jesuit Père de Bussy, and possess seven model farms for the education of poor children.