SAINTES-MARIES-DE-LA-MER, FRANCE – As a chill wind whips their sodden blue robes, a cluster of Catholic faithful wade gingerly into the choppy Mediterranean, carrying the revered relics of two female saints back into the sea that brought them to southern France.
The ceremonial procession from the fortress-like Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer to the sandy beach, 600 meters away, and knee-deep into the water is a centuries-old tradition that attracts crowds of visitors to this small coastal town.
It celebrates the reputed landfall, in the first decades A.D., of the two Saints Mary — Marie Salome and Marie Jacobe — after their flight from the Holy Land, and has been held since the mid-15th century when bones found under the ancient church were declared those of the saints.
The relics are housed in an ornate chest, or reliquary, adorned with wooden statues of the two Marys which members of the Confrerie des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer — the lay brotherhood of the Saints Mary of the Sea — carry on their shoulders, accompanied by three horsemen dressed in the traditional attire of local cattle herders.
About 1,200 people, including hundreds of pilgrims from other parts of France and abroad, watched this year’s annual late October procession, many shouting: “Long live the Saintes Maries!”
Earlier, the reliquary is lowered from the roof rafters of the 12th-century church where it spends most of the year, only descending for its annual return to the sea and two other ceremonies. After the procession, it’s hoisted back up again.
The town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, with a population of 2,500, is the capital of the southern Camargue region, famed for its extensive wetlands, distinctive herds of wild white horses and cattle.
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