In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (2023)

Whether you believe she was a repentant prostitute, the wife of Jesus, or the Apostle's apostle, Mary Magdalene and her story have captivated the nation since Dan Brown published "The Da Vinci Code" in 2003 — and that includes the millions of Catholics not one and Orthodox in Chicago who have worshiped the saint for centuries.

I fell in love with her two years ago when I was seeking out women theologians to help me through a time of grief. I learned that she was never a prostitute (Pope Gregory the Great made it up). She learned the koans of Jesus faster than the men, crashed a party to anoint her "beloved" and refused to break down at the disciples' mockery of her. That's my kind of girl.


Then I found out about her French connection. According to legend, Mary Magdalene fled persecution after Jesus was crucified. She, his mother, Mary Salome, and others left the Holy Land in a makeshift boat and landed in a fishing village called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in southern France. Tradition has it that Mary Magdalene spent the last 30 years of her life in and around Marseille, where she preached and baptized believers, until she retired to a grotto in the mountains of Sainte-Baume.

In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (1)

Two years later, France also called me. I could play pilgrim: visit the relics of her famous skull and imagine her face. I could climb a mountain to touch the cliffs of their sacred dwelling—the highlight of every devotee's journey. That was also in Provence, which meant lavender. Wine. Cheese. Sun.


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I joined a tour booked by Stays in Marseille for 10 days in October.

I would be in good company. About 18% of the 87 million tourists who visit France each year come for spiritual or religious reasons, and the number is growing, according to data from Future Market Insights, a New York-based research firm. The high season for Maria Magdalena trips is around July 22nd, her feast day.

"A pilgrimage to Mary Magdalene is a pilgrimage of the heart," said Ariana Brackenbury, who leads sacred pilgrimages in France.

In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (2)

You don't need a tour to see the Shrines of Mary Magdalene — although solo travelers often need a car — but I chose to travel with Magdalene Sacred Journeys, a tour group led by Veronique Flayol since 2004.

"I was born in St. Maximin, where she spent the last 30 years of her life and is buried at the foot of Mount Sainte-Baume," Flayol said. "This is my universe."

She and her husband—she taught, he drove—led our intimate trio to visit the St. Mary Magdalene Basilica at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, which houses her skull and bones; Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to witness a coastal procession in honor of Mary Salome; and toSainte Baume, the holy mountain.

In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (3)

We also made our way into Cathar country - the Cathars believed Jesus and the Magdalene were married - including the walled city of Carcassonne and Rennes-le-Chateau, home to the Church of Mary Magdalene governed by "The DaVinci Code “ became famous.

We opened the visit with a stop at St. Mary Magdalene Basilica in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. In the crypt, behind iron bars, rests a gilded reliquary which the Catholic Church believes contains her skull, which the researchers usedreconstruct her face.Amidst the thick silence of the cold, dark tomb, I could hear my own heart beating.

(Video) Mary Magdalene and the Return of the Divine Goddess with Tricia McCannon | Sacred Stories | Sacred U


In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (4)

Later, en route to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue, we stopped to see the region's famous pink flamingos and white horses. By the time we made it into town, swept by the Mediterranean Sea, the parade for St. Mary Salome was on. Apparently, all of the city's residents poured into the streets, waving banners and singing traditional anthems. We followed them through the winding streets to the beach, where priests marched into the rushing sea to bless the statues of the saints. Locals believe the Magdalene and her companions docked in this area.

At Rennes le Bains, we watched people swim in waters that healed them right in front of the ruins of Roman baths. And in Rennes-le-Château, with its own church of St Mary Magdalene, we marveled at the religious confections of the controversial priest François-Bérenger Saunière, who was suspended from the priesthood for allegedly selling masses and selling the church's books. Despite this, Saunière used some of the money to build the church and encoded secret messages in the artwork.

Then finally the mountain. It rises from an ancient forest where some believers say fertility goddesses once lived. The Dominican Order has long looked after the site and built a chapel and hostel nearby. The site is only accessible by car, and hiking is the only way to get to the cave at the top. It's a 45 minute walk, canopied by hickory, yew, linden and other trees and dotted with plenty of rest areas so you can take your time, picnic or meditate.

During the ascent, the path changes from earth to stone. The Dominicans placed plaques and statues of the Holy Family along the way, as if pumping them up along the way. But nothing prepares you for the cliff.

At the top is the Pietà of the Grotto of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Marthe Spitzer's stunning sculpture of Mary cradling the body of Jesus while the Magdalene weeps at her feet. As you walk 30 steps to the ledge, gaze at the haze over green trees, and let the wind lift your hair, you'll know why believers believe angels lifted Mary Magdalene to heaven.

In Search of Mary Magdalene: A French pilgrimage brings believers to the shrine, the dwelling place of a holy disciple (5)

My hands trembled in the cave, whether with magic, divine love, or the thought of carving a chapel in the rock, I don't know. The energy is palpable. Drops of water from the walls splash and echo. Just behind the marble altar, a gilded box contains fragments of Mary Magdalene's shin. Flayol pointed out the artwork on its blue pedestal, which depicted the fugitives with a body lying on the bottom of the boat. Locals believe what others call heresy: that it represents the body of Jesus.

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At the end of the tour, I boarded a train back to Marseille and checked into the Hôtel Maison Saint Louis Vieux Port, a stone's throw from the famous Noailles market. I went toThe Sherazade Baths, a hammam, for steam, a black olive body scrub and a massage. I wandered through Noailles, the Arabic market, high on turmeric and cinnamon and in love with hand-woven baskets. On my last night, I landed a coveted reservation for a five-course meal at La Mercerie.

A whirlwind, for sure. But my soul was nourished.

Whilst in Saint-Maximin our group stayed at a family run three star hotel called the Hotel de France and dined at the sister restaurant Côté Jardin. The hotel is charming and efficient, the food divine. If chanterelles are on the menu, don't skip them. We also stayed at Alet les Bains at the Hôtel l'Evêché, a charming 14th-century former convent. However, does not take reservations, as the owner informed us at the time the house was sold.

You can travel to these sites by flying to Marseille, Aix-en-Provence or Toulon, but you must drive to get to the grotto site. My group met in Marseille, which has no direct flights from Chicago. I decided to fly to Paris and take the train to Marseille. Trains are daily, cheap and easy. Be sure to downloadtrain lineorSNCFapps orOiugos, France's low-cost train service.

To get to La Sainte-Baume:

According to the Dominican Order website (, you should enter these coordinates into your GPS:

For the city: Plan-d'Aups-Sainte-Baume


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For the location: D 80 Nazareth soit Nazareth

There are only two ways to get to the grotto at the top of the mountain. It is not accessible. Entry is free and for just €9 each you can pack a picnic or have one delivered by the hostel. We grabbed a catered lunch at St. Maximin before leaving for our trip.

Room in hostel ( average about 45 euros for one person per night.

Travel Provider:

Magdalena Sacred Journeys (Veronique Flayol,

Mary Magdalene Pilgrimages (Ariana Brackenbury,


(Video) In Search of Mary, Mother of Jesus | Painting the Holy Land: Part 2 | Free Documentary History

Erika Hobbs is a freelance writer.


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