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The Church of the Three Saints

Listed under Sacred Spaces in Provence-Cote d'Azur, France.

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‘Saint Marys of the Sea’ is a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast which has been venerated as a holy place by a succession of cultures. Once a sacred site of the Celtic threefold water goddess, the holy spring was known as Oppidum Priscum Ra. Replaced by a 4th century BC Roman temple dedicated to Mithras, the site was later taken over by the Christians and then became, sometime in the early 1400’s, the most sacred place of the Gypsies. Dating from the mid-12th century, the fortified Romanesque church enshrines three wooden statues. According to legend, after the resurrection of Christ, Mary Magdalene, Marie-Salome, Marie-Jacobe, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea and a black servant girl named Sarah were forced to flee from Palestine by boat. Following a perilous journey across the Mediterranean the boat landed near the present day village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Over time, Marie-Salome and Marie-Jacobe, became objects of veneration by the local people. The church enshrines three statues, one for each of the Mary’s and the other of Sara-la-Kali, whose origin and identity are unknown. Gypsies believe Sara to have been a local queen who welcomed the travelers from the Holy Land, while other sources suggest she was an ancient pagan goddess or a black Egyptian woman who was the servant of Christ's mother Mary. The three statues are the focus of the highly attended Pelerinage des Gitans, or 'Pilgrimage of the Gypsies', held each year on May 24 and 25. During the pilgrimage festivities, the statues are brought from the church and venerated by the ecstatic Gypsies. On the afternoon of the 24th, the statue of Sara is carried on the shoulders of the Gypsies in a procession to the sea. The following morning, the two Marys are placed in a small boat which is then put into the sea. In the afternoon a farewell ceremony is given to the saints, the gypsies begin to depart, and the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer returns to its quiet life.

Church of the Three Saints on the Sacred Sites Website.

Written by  Martin Gray.

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