A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Town of Le Puy in Early Marist History

Part 1 of 2

Forty years after he heard Mary’s call to form the Society of Mary, Jean-Claude Courveille wrote to Gabriel-Claude Mayet in February 1852. He gave this account of what he “heard” from Our Lady:

“Here is what I want. I have always imitated my Divine Son in everything. I followed Him to Calvary itself, standing at the foot of the Cross when He gave His life for man’s salvation. 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 to battle against hell, one consecrated to me, one which will have my name, which will call itself the Society of Mary, whose members will call themselves Marists” - (Origines Maristes II, Doc 718).

Jean-Claude Courveille began his seminary studies at Le-Puy-en-Velay, in the diocese of St Flour. A re-drawing of diocesan boundaries meant that Usson-en-Forez, his home parish, now belonged to the diocese of Lyons. So it was that he arrived at St Irenaeus seminary in Lyons on 1 November 1814 for the beginning of a new scholastic year. He was 27 years old, older than most of the other seminary students, with a lively, charismatic personality. “… he stood out from the rank and file as an angel of piety and a paragon of punctiliousness” (Hosie, p. 39). His spiritual director “allowed him the unusual privilege” of receiving Communion every day. Courveille introduced the idea of a religious congregation consecrated to Mary to some of his colleagues, bringing together a small group of those interested, and it was from there that the Marist project began to have life. “Tall, graceful, elegant Courveille with his smouldering eyes and vibrant voice was the unquestioned leader of the embryonic Marist group and the inspiration of its meetings” (ibid).

Black Madonna and Child above the main altar in Le Puy Cathedral

Fr Courveille disappeared from the Marist scene in 1826. Some of his former companions in the seminary thought that he must have died. In fact, diocese after diocese expelled him because he was a serial and serious sex offender. He battled to bring his behaviour under control and was accepted into the Benedictine novitiate at Solesmes in the summer of 1836. There he lived an exemplary life and became a well-known preacher. He died at the age of 79 in 1866.

The early Marists considered Le Puy to be very significant in the congregation’s history. There was no doubt in their minds that it was in Le Puy that the first inspiration to begin the Society of Mary had been received.

In his account of the beginnings of the Society, Fr Étienne Terraillon said that “the first idea of the Society of Mary is due to Our Lady of Le Puy”.

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