Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – Provence – France
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is both the place of pilgrimage for the Camargue gypsies as well as the name of the village parish church. This village is steeped in history, dating back to the days of the early Christians. A strong association exists in this village with two St. Marys and St. Sara who is believed to be their servant. There have been much studies and speculations as to how the two Marys arrived in Provence and as with the tales and stories of the saints and early disciples, many of the legends have been embellished over the years.
We are told that the existence of Christians in Provence take into account historical facts such as the persecution of Christians in Palestine in the ancient days and the rapid manner in which Christianity spread in the first century, as evidenced by the missionary activities of St. Paul. It is believed that many of the persecuted Christians were put on transport boats and cast off as far away as possible with no hope of returning to Palestine. Many of these boats landed around the Mediterranean and those who survived went from town to town preaching the Good News. It was the practice during those times for followers and disciples to want to stay close to Jesus. Mary Jacob and Mary Salome were two such followers and believed to have been arrested. Along with many others like Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and Maximus, they were put on boats with no sail or oar. Paintings in the church depict the 2 Marys in their boat as well as other saints. Guided by providence, their boat landed on the shores of Provence. There is no written records of the lives of the two Marys in Provence and their bodies were only rediscovered in 1448 when King Rene ordered some excavations below the church.
A similar tale tells the story of Sara, and again there are various versions of how she came to exist in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. One version claims that she was a servant to the two Marys and another belief was that she was not Palestinian, but was from the Camargue, of noble descent and Queen of her tribe. According to this belief, Sara was in fact the one who welcomed the two Marys when they landed and she subsequently coverted to Christianity. The annual gypsy pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer venerates the two Saintes Marys and also St. Sara who is patron saint to the gypsies.
The interior of the church is stark and quite dark as well. The interesting part is the crypt where it is believed the two Marys lived. It is quite dark in here, with the only light being those put out by the candles. It was rather hot too when we were there and the low ceiling and lack of ventilation ensured that the hot air was trapped down there. At the far end of the crypt, to the right of the altar, is the statue of St. Sara. She is draped in colorful coats and decorated with jewels. It is an honour to Gypsy families to be able to dress St. Sara, somewhat like an offering to express gratitude or to ask for favours or blessings.
Whatever the truth is of the existence of the two Saint Marys and Saint Sara, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a unique church to visit.