The first recorded apparition of Our Blessed Mother after her glorious Assumption took place in what is now southeast France. This happened around the year A.D. 70 in the rugged mountainous region of Le Puy-en-Velay.
In this first apparition, the Blessed Mother appeared multiple times in the dreams of Villa, a very sick widow who had begged the Blessed Mother to heal her from her illness. Mary instructed Villa to climb Mt. Anis — a large flat-top mountain that towers above the region.
As the sick Villa could not climb Mt. Anis herself, she had a friend carry her to the summit. Once on the summit, Villa fell asleep. In her slumber, she dreamt of a beautiful lady surrounded by angels. Villa inquired the name of the beautiful lady the angels surrounded. The angels informed her that she was "the Mother of God."
Villa, upon waking from her sleep, found she was completely cured of her illness. She attributed her cure to the intercession of the Mother of God.
The website Roman Catholic Saints further explains how pilgrims came to view the site as sacred:
When she awoke, the woman had, in fact, no more languor or fever. Filled with gratitude, she lost no time in running to the bishop and relating to him with her own mouth the message of the angel.
It seems that the Mother of God desired that a church eventually be built there, for when Villa told Bp. George of her miraculous cure, he climbed the mount himself with some of the clergy to see the place. Arriving at the very spot, St. George (the bishop) was startled to come upon an impossible sight. Even though it was the middle of summer, the peak of Mt. Anis was inexplicably covered in snow. Then, as they marveled, a stag came from out of a thicket and stood before them, marking with his careful steps the outline of the rock upon which Villa had recently been cured. Saint George had a fence built around that rock to preserve the place, but it was not until a much later date that the spot became the location of a new church altar.
It would take more than a century after these miraculous events for a church to be built on Mt. Anis. Pope Callistus granted his approval for the Church's construction during his pontificate, and the local bishop, St. Martial, completed the first church in 221. Bishop Martial said that this first church on the site was consecrated by a full choir of God's heavenly angels, who anointed the altar with aromatic oils. In the aftermath of the angelic visitation of the new Church, Bp. Martial would christen the new sanctuary "the Church of the Angels."
After Bp. Martial's death, he would be elevated by the Church to be a saint and Le Puy-en-Velay quickly became a favorite pilgrimage site in Europe.
The list of famous pilgrims to this first apparition site of the Mother of God over the centuries includes almost all of the famous men and women in the history of the Church. To name just a few: the emperor Charlemagne, St. Dominic, St. Anthony of Padua, Pope Urban II, St. King Louis IX, St. Vincent Ferrer and many, many others.
Bishop Adhémar de Monteil is said to have sung the Salve Regina in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Puy after having a mystical experience on the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption in 1095. He was one of the bishops to participate in the very first crusade.
The bishop said that during the course of his fervent prayers offered in Puy for the success of this first crusade, God the Holy Spirit gave him the inspiration for this angelic hymn. The first name for this hymn was not Salve Regina but the "Anthem of Puy," popularized immediately after its composition by those very first crusaders.
The French Revolution brought tragic consequences to the sacred sanctuary of the Mother of God in Le Puy-en-Velay. The revolutionaries prohibited any pilgrims from visiting the holy apparition site of the Mother of God during the long turbulent years of revolution. The atheist revolutionaries also destroyed many of the holy relics bequeathed to the pilgrimage site in prior centuries.
Le Puy's greatest loss took place in 1793 with the wanton desecration and burning of the statue of Notre-Dame du Puy, which had been ripped out of its niche in the cathedral.
The statue destroyed by the revolutionaries was an ancient one that depicted a tranquil Blessed Mother with the Christ child on her lap. It had been a gift for the pilgrimage site of Le Puy by St. King Louis IX upon his return from his third crusade, about 1270.
The ancient statue of Notre-Dame du Puy, gently offering the Christ child on her lap to the world, was disrobed of her lavish garments by the revolutionaries, dragged through the streets of Puy, guillotined and then finally burned. The demonic spectacle, trashing the ancient sanctuary of Puy, knew no limits.
In the aftermath of the wanton destruction, Puy returned to being a pilgrimage destination but would never be restored to its pre-French Revolution numbers.
Despite the horrible impact the French Revolution had against the Church in France and in the world at large, Our Blessed Mother did not let the losses of the French Revolution thwart her plan to bring her Son Jesus to the world.
On Feb. 11 in 1858 — just 65 years after the pilgrimage site of Le Puy was desecrated in France — Our Lady appeared to the young Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. In the course of these apparitions in Lourdes to the young Bernadette, Mary repeatedly said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Moreover, through Mary's inspiration, the spring dug by Bernadette's hands in the grotto during one apparition continues to freely flow today unabated. Thousands, if not millions, of miraculous cures have taken place at the waters in the grotto at Lourdes in subsequent years. Today, Lourdes is France's most-visited pilgrimage site.
In 1917 — 124 years after the pilgrimage site in Le Puy was desecrated by revolutionaries — Our Blessed Mother would appear numerous times over the course of a year to three young shepherds in Fatima, Portugal. These apparitions culminated in the Great Miracle of the Sun on Oct. 13, 1917.
In the aftermath of this celestial event witnessed by tens of thousands, many would read the messages the Blessed Mother gave to the three young visionaries at Fatima, repent from their sins, pray daily the Rosary and make atonement for the conversion of sinners. Fatima in subsequent years would quickly emerge as Europe's premier pilgrimage site.
In the course of 2016 — the year before the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions — more than 5.3 million pilgrims visited Fatima. This was a massive demonstration that, despite the secularization of Europe and negative forces downplaying the practice of the Faith, millions — if not billions — still believe!
Would that all humanity come to know Christ and His Church through the tender care of the Blessed Mother! Bp. Joseph Strickland recently tweeted on this theme:
Let us make "to Jesus through Mary" the theme of 2022. Pray the Rosary & ask the Immaculate Virgin Mary to guide you closer to the mysteries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mary will never fail to guide us away from sin & closer to Truth Incarnate, her Son Jesus Christ.
Although Our Lady of Puy is unknown by most Catholics — and in this protracted COVID winter few are making pilgrimages of any sort — the faithful when offering their prayers can still make a pilgrimage to Puy in their minds and hear the strong voices of those first crusaders who, centuries ago at Puy, sang and popularized the Salve Regina.
Even in one's own home, from one's own armchair, the disciple can ponder in the tranquil image of Notre-Dame du Puy — the Christ child sitting securely on his mother's lap ready to embrace the world: Our Blessed Mother's gift of her Son Jesus to redeem humanity.
Puy, the site of the very first Marian apparition, may be off-limits to those without a so-called vaccine passport. But no one can hamper the man of faith making an interior pilgrimage in his heart to this sacred place. Do so in this COVID winter, and place your supplications before the Mother of God.