The Relics of Saint Marie-Magdalene at La Sainte Baume
Diocese of Frejus-Toulon, Southern France
The region of Provence was evangelized in the first century by Christians from the East.
Tradition has called them the "Friends of Bethany” or as we know them to be Lazarus, Martha and Mary Magdalene who, it is told, came to the south of France in the following way:
In the year following the execution of St James in Jerusalem, the persecutions were amplified. Lazarus and Martha were thrown into prison and Mary Magdalene, having wanted to visit them, was made prisoner as well along with other members Christian community of Bethany: St Maximin, St Marcelle, St Susan and St. Sidonius.
The Jews, being afraid of the crowd if they were to execute the prisoners, placed them in a boat without sail or rudder, and a great ship towed them offshore and abandoned them in the open sea. Singing and praying they found themselves landing on the shores of Gaul at the place called Saintes Maries de la Mer. The trip had been made at a miraculous speed.
They traveled by land to Massilia (Marseille) where they were given a good welcome. They preached the Gospel and Lazarus, in his capacity as bishop, baptized many people. Mary Magdalene retired to a cave in the mountains which was difficult to access; there she lived in severe penance. Martha went to Avignon and Tarascon.
St. Mary Magdalene died near Tégulata (St. Maximin). On the site where the sarcophagus of St. Mary Magdalene was found, during excavations under the Basilica of St. Maximin, tombs from the 1st century made of bricks and tiles were also discovered.
Was St. Mary Magdalene buried in this way and then transferred to the marble sarcophagus in 710? Maybe. The essential thing is the Tradition affirming this and the constant pilgrimages to the Ste Baume, a place venerated by Christianity from the early centuries, before the monks carried some of the relics to Vézelay in Burgundy during the ravages of Provence by the Saracens.
The presence of Lazarus, Martha and Mary Magdalene in Provence was recognized as true and belongs to the Sacred History of France. It was also acknowledged by all of Christendom in the East as well as in the West. People came from all of the countries of Europe on pilgrimage to the graves of "Holy Friends of Jesus".
1st to 5th Century. Oral tradition reinforced by the discoveries of the next century: Written on wax discovered during the raising on May 5, 1280
Invasion of Provence by Saracens.
December 6, 710. Transfer in secret by the Cassianistes monks to avoid the desecration of St Marie-Magdalene’s relics. This date and this transfer will be authenticated by the discovery in 1279 in the sarcophagus of a papyrus with the following text: "The year of the birth of the Lord 710, the sixth day of December, at night and very secretly, under the reign of the very pious Eudes, king of the Franks, during the time of the ravages of the treacherous nation of the Saracens, the body of the dear and venerable St. Mary Magdalene was, for fear of the said treacherous nation, moved from her alabaster tomb to the marble tomb, after having removed the body of Sidonius, because it was more hidden."
For 5 centuries, the location of the body of St. Mary Magdalene will remain unknown.
December 9, 1279. Charles Salerno, nephew of St. Louis and who became Count of Provence and King of Sicily under the name of Charles II, rediscovered the tomb and the relics of St. Mary Magdalene. They were then also recognized by an assembled Clergy of the Dioceses of Provence. At the opening of the sarcophagus all present testify to a ”wonderful and very sweet smell” and are reminded of the perfume which St Mary Magdalene poured on the head and feet of the Lord before his death.
December 18, 1279. Discovery in the marble sarcophagus of a writing on papyrus dated 710 attesting that the bones were those of St. Mary Magdalene in the presence of the Archbishops of Aix and Arles, and many other prelates. The jaw and lower leg bones are missing.
May 5, 1280 During the solemn Elevation of the body St Mary Magdalene, was discovered a tablet of wood smeared with wax on which were the words: "Hic requiescit corpus beatae Mariae Magdalenae”. The estimated age of the tablet is between the 1st and 4th centuries. A testimonial letter destined for the pope was signed by the four Prince Archbishops and three bishops, describing these events and was kept for a long time in the reliquary of St Maximin along with the translations of 1281 and 1283.
1281 The bones except for the head which was missing the lower jaw are placed in a silver case.
April 6, 1295 The skull from the sarcophagus of St Maximin was reunited to its lower jaw at St John Lateran in Rome thanks to Pope Boniface VIII, who published a Pontifical Bulle for the establishment of Dominicans at St Maximin and at La Ste Baume.
1660 The transposing of the relics of St Mary Magdalene to a porphyry urn blessed in Rome by Urban VIII. King Louis XIV personally attended this solemn transposing and made the pilgrimage to La Ste Baume on this occasion. Copies of authenticated documents of the discovery in 1279 and the official acts of the transposing of the relics in 1281 and 1283 have been transcribed and are stored in the archives of the Monastery of St. Maximin and in the seminary of St. Sulpice.
1794 End of the 18th century. The French Revolution has begun. The thief Barras steals by force the cases, the precious jewels and the valuables surrounding the relics. The Spoliation of the relics of Ste Mary Magdalene in the spring 1794. Joseph Bastide, sacristan of St. Maximin removed from desecration the skull of St. Mary Magdalen along with the holy glass sphere (containing earth soaked with the blood of Our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ collected by St Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross). Some other pious people were able to save other parts of the relics. A significant portion of the tibia of the right leg and a lock of the Hair of St. Mary Magdalene will be saved by Madame Ricard who will leave St Maximin for fear of being denounced and pursued. She will flee to Bonnieux and stay with the Anselme family. The relics remained in the hands of the head of the household, Joseph-Hyacinthe-Philippe d’Anselmo and father of Louis-Victor d’Anselme and Marie-Marguerite-Félicité d’Anselme who married Jean-Baptiste Terris on April 13th, 1804. From this marriage was born the last of 11 children on January 20, 1804 who was to become the bishop of Frejus and who was handed the relics of St Mary Magdalene which had been kept by Madame Ricard.
1878 Bishop Terris offers pope Leo XIII a fragment of these relics along with some of St. Mary Magdalene’s hair.
1884 Bishop Terris bequeathed to the diocese of Frejus the relics of St Mary Magdalene (the lower part of the tibia from the right leg and a lock of hair), along with the reliquary which contains them to be kept as much as possible in the grotto of La Ste Baume near Nans [southern France].
Up to date, La Sainte Baume annually attracts more than a thousand pilgrims ascending on foot to the Cave. The relics can also be venerated outside the cave to support the piety and fervor of the faithful.
May 2002 The relics of St Mary Magdalene, currently belonging to the shrine of the Basilica of St Maximin, go on pilgrimage throughout the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon and are venerated fervently in ten major cities. Several thousand persons gather at Pentecost to celebrate the return of the relics to the crypt of St. Maximin.
May 2004 The relics of St Mary Magdalene attached to the reliquary of the Sainte Baume cave go on pilgrimage throughout the diocese and the faithful respond with more fervor than previously with the relics from St Maximin.
July, August 2004 The relics of Saint Mary Magdalene from La Sainte Baume go to Brazil where they were greeted by thousands of people in the cities of Sao Paulo and Fortaleza.
August 2009 The relics go on pilgrimage for evangelization with the new travel reliquary (the folded size fits airline carry-on dimensions) to various cities in the Diocese as well as Toulouse, Lyon and Paris before returning to La Sainte Baume.
Translated from the French by Deacon E. Scott Borgman