The ancient pilgrimage site at the head of a quiet valley south of Lyons traces its legendary beginnings to about the year 800. According to typical traditions, some children or shepherds discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus near a broom shrub (geneêt) blooming on Christmas Eve. At some point Benedictine monks came here and gave the name Val Fleury ("florwey valley") to this area. They left the statue where it was and built a shrine over a miraculous spring that still runs. The hardwood statue is of Romanesque design, date to the beginning of the twelfth century. his is a Black Virgin, one of many in France and elsewhere, particularly in Europe. The statue has been cleaned and some of its original polychrome has been discovered.
Notre Dame de Valfleury is fist mentioned, however, in 1052, as attached to the monastery of la Chaise Dieu (for Casa Die, "the house of God") in a defdormed French). Secular clergy replaced the Benedictines in 1485, although they continued to be responsible for the pilgrimage until 1687, the date on a plaque in the church.
Vincentians came here in 1687 to staff the shrine and to give missions in the district. When they were expelled during the Revolution, the statue was hidden. Some of the priests attached to the shrine at that time suffered death for their faith. After 1802 the church was restored to Catholic worship and, through the diligence of Brother Antoine Pierron (1757-1833), the statue was recovered and placed in the church. Brother Pierron was responsible as well for the renewal of the pilgrimage. Only a few carved stones remain from the earlier church. The present church building was begun in 1853 and consecrated in 1866. It was built thanks to the munificence of the Vincentian Jean Baptiste Lugan, (1800-1884) pastor from 1840-1856. The work was finished under the pastorate of Antoine Nicolle (pastor, 1856-1871). Lugan willed his heart to the shrine and this donation has been memoralized in a marble plaque on the Blessed Sacrament altar.
In modern times Our Lady of Valfleury is connected chiefly with the work of 'Antoine Hippolyte Nicolle' (1817-1890). Afer his seminary studies and ordination to the diaconate, Nicolle applied to join the Congregation of the Mission. He entered in 1840, was ordained a priest the same year and took his vows in 1842. As part of the devotional life of the time (marked by devotion to the Passion of Jesus expressed in prayerful meditation on his human body, such as the Holy Face, the wounds, the suffering hearts of Jesus and Mary depicted on the Miraculous Medal, and the devotion of the Scapular of the Passion, 1846), Nicolle became attracted to the Holy Agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He had been in Tours, and there participated in the nightly adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, something he easily connected with the night vigil of J esus in Gethsemane. In 1856 he became director of the shrine at Velfleury.
In his role he energetically developed the pilgrimages and in 1860 presided over the solemn coronation of the ancient pilgrimage statue. He also encouraged prayers for the Church in its agony at the time (particularly for Pius IX), as well as for the dying. A prayer group was begun, and the devotion to the Holy Agony spread rapidly. Nicolle later founded a Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Agony, now called the Sisters of Gethsemane. They began oficially in 1864 when he clothed the first religious. Their work concentrates on care of the sick and dying. Nicolle remained as their ecclesiastical superior, but the Sisters are independent of the Daughters of Chairty, the Congregation of the Mission and the Holy Agony devotion. The central house for the Archconfraternity of the Holy Agony is the Vincentian motherhouse in Paris, and its director is the Vincentian superior general.
Father Nicolle began the new community of Sisters in the crypt chapel of the shrine. The crypt has various plaques concerning the erection of the Archconfraternity of the Holy Agnony and of the Sisters. The seventeenth century statue of Notre Dame de Cry, also with a black face, has recently been restored and replaced there.
Nicolle build a large way of the cross on the property, together with a Calvary grotto. Following the fourteenth station, a chapel memoralizes the dead of the two World Wars. There are also some curious grotto-like structures flanking the property, probably intended as stopping places for pilgrims. High on a hildside overlooking the valley is another series of structures, the mysteries of the rosary laid out like the way of the cross.
Since Vincentians have been there, with some gaps, since 1687, Valfleury can claim the title of being the oldest Vincentian house in France, although the buildings are much newer. Besides having the annual pilgrimages, Valfleury also serves as a praish church. Daughters of Charity worked in the hospital, still standing, from 1872. The present town numbers about 500 people.
In the nearby city of Saint Étienne Daughters of Charity began multiple works of charity and education in the 1830's. Although there was no Vincentian house here, Jean Félix Cayla de la Garde, superior general at the time of the Revolution, was forced to hide out here. He eventually escaped to the Palatinate and then to Rome, where he died in 1800.