Marseille Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, Marseille, Francija

Website of the Sanctuary

+33 (0)4 91 13 40 80

Marseille Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, a Catholic basilica in Marseille. Important local landmark and the site of a popular annual pilgrimage on Assumption Day, August 15.

Year 1214 – a small Chapel on a hill

In 1214 – year of the battle of Bouvines and of the birth of Saint Louis – a priest of Marseilles whose first name was Pierre erected a small sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary upon the rocky triangle forming the top of a 161 metre-high hill facing the town of Marseille, which was very small at the time.

As the hill was called «La Garde», the sanctuary quite naturally took the name «Our Lady of La Garde» So at its origin the chapel had neither apparition nor miracle; it was simply born of a priest’s devotion. See Top 15 Catholic shrines around the world.

The Five Statues of the Virgin

The 13th Century chapel received a wooden statue of the Virgin and Child. And, since the wood was dark, the faithful called it:

Our Lady the brown
One can see an alabaster copy of this statue above the corner where candles are lit in the left-hand side-chapel nearest to the entrance.

Virgin with the ostensory
In 1651 the managers of the sanctuary ordered a statue to be made of silver. One called it the « Virgin with the ostensory » because on the Virgin’s right arm one might place an ostensory to expose the Holy Sacrement to the view of the worshipers.

And, when the Holy Sacrement was not exposed, the ostensory was replaced by the statue of the baby Jesus which, on the engraving, is seen at the feet of the Virgin. However, the statue of Our Lady the brown remained in the sanctuary.

The Virgin with the Bouquet
During the French Revolution, both statues disappeared, the silver one sent for melting down. When services started again in 1807, a devotee of the Virgin offered the sanctuary a wooden statue bought in an auction sale.

One started the habit of putting a bunch of flowers into Mary’s hand and she was called « The Virgin with the Buqueot » This statue now stands behind the altar in the crypt.

The Virgin of Chanuel
In 1837, one ordered from the artist Chanuel a new silver statue of the Virgin. It is the one which now dominates the main altar of the basilica. It weighs 80kg.

She was crowned in June 1931, during solemn festivities which lasted four days and which attracted vast crowds to Marseilles. Forty-nine bishops attended and the pope had appointed as pontifical legate Cardinal Louis Maurin, archbishop of Lyon and former rector of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

La Vierge d’Eugène Lequesne
In the crypt, near the lit candles, there is a copy of this statue. As it is much lighter to carry, it is the one used for the evening procession on the 14th August. Finally, in 1870, the monumental statue which surmounts the bell-tower was erected.

It is not all of a piece but was created in four sections by the Christofle company using a process new to the period: galvanoplasty.

The Crypt of the Marseille Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde

Built in the 19th Century the basilica Notre Dame de la Garde Marseille is on a level with the small chapel built in the 13th Century.

Until 1855, where the Crypt now stands there was only the solid rock from which it was dug. It was completed before the basilica: the first mass was celebrated in it on the 9th September 1861, where as the basilica was consecrated only on the 4th June 1864. See other Catholic sites in France.

There is a great contrast between the basilica and the crypt. The one is a rather high, very ornate edifice, the other very low and bare except for a few columns. The very bareness of the spot makes a suitable surrounding for a very simple prayer.

The drawbridge installed by the Army in 1879 in front of the entrance to the Crypt. to replace the ancient drawbridge which had had to be demolished when the new sanctuary was built, is still in place.

The keepers of Notre Dame de la Garde Marseille raise it every evening and lower it every morning: in this way they are cutting off the sanctuary just as the Army used to cut off the fort. People going up to the basilica by the outer steps pass over this drawbridge often without realising it.

Between 2000 and 2008, under the direction of the architect Xavier David, many restoration projects began on the Notre Dame de la Garde Marseille. Firstly, outside jobs: in particular one had to replace the green stones which, because of pollution, had partly decomposed.

Next there were interior jobs: first the marbles of the basilica and the stonework of the Crypt were cleaned; and the mosaics, some of which had lost their tessellae through the bombing in August 1944, were restored by experts under the direction of Michel Patrizio. And the lighting system was very much improved, bringing out the true value of our magnificent mosaics.

Trains (TGV):
Our preferred option, take the TGV (3 hours from Paris) and you arrive at the newly refurbished Gare St Charles train station in the centre of the city, no messing around with airport transfers. If you’re taking the train don’t forget to stamp (composter) your ticket, using the little yellow machines at the entrance to the platforms, before you board the train, otherwise you may have to pay an on the spot fine. When you arrive, if you’re heading for the Vieux Port, where you’ll find the main tourist office, take metro line 1 (direction La Fourragère).

Plane:
Marseille has one airport (Marseille Provence Airport) which has two terminal buildings, a traditional one for traditional airlines and MP2 for budget airlines.

Navette Bus: Gare Saint Charles / Marseille Airport
Taxis can be expensive so try the navette bus. It leaves every 15 minutes from outside terminal 1 and runs directly to Gare Saint Charles train station, right in the centre of Marseille. An English version of the schedule for the navette bus is available.

941: the Bishop of Marseilles becomes owner of the top of the hill

On the 21st July 1941, in front of the Prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône Department, the act of exchange was signed by representatives of the State and by Mgr Louis Borel who was, at one and the same time, Vicaire Général of the Diocese and Rector of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

France was at that time governed by Marshal Pétain, but as it happened, he never made use of any favour granted by the Government. In fact, the act of exchange was ready in 1939, that is, under the Third Republic, and the signature should have been applicable then. But a new World War had just broken out and this apparently very secondary matter of a signature was postponed. In the event, the State gave to the Diocese the 61.839 sq metres at the top of the hill and received from the bishopric a two-storey house lying in Montevideo Cul de Sac, of a total area of 1,380 sq. mtrs, along with a sum of 35,000 francs. Contrary to what one might think, the State did not lose in the bargain, for, the site being classified, the land on top of Garde Hill has no pecuniary value. The State even benefitted handsomely, for in 1970 it was able to resell very well to a promoter the little house in Montevideo Street which was replaced then by a building several storeys high.

But History sometimes springs surprises. The Army leaves the spot in 1941, abandonning the fortress and three barracks nearby. A year later, in November 1942, the Germans invade the south eastern zone of France. In Marseilles , they take up their positions in a number of places and, in particular, German soldiers occupy the barracks on Garde Hill that the French soldiers have just left! And paradoxically, the buildings- which lost their military status ten years ago- are about to find themselves involved in August 1944 in battles far ruder than those they had known since the 16th century.

On the 25th August 1944 the sanctuary is liberated from German occupation by a section of the 1st Company of the 7th Regiment of Algerian Infantry. A few hours earlier, a tank from the 1st Armoured Division had been hit by a shell fired by the Germans from Notre-Dame de la Garde and its three occupants killed. On the next couple of days, the Germans, stil present in various places in Marseilles, kept up heavy fire on the basilica which they knew was in the hands of the Tirailleurs Algériens. The lower part of the Tower was struck by shells and it came close to collapsing. One can still see some shellmarks on certain oustside walls of the basilica,

Between 1950 and 1961, the Bishop of Marseilles put up two buildings along the fortress walls facing the town: the entrance hall with the shop above it and a building comprising a large hall on the groundfloor and, on the floor above, a place which became first a cafeteria, then a restaurant. Three quarters of the walls of the fort of Francis 1st are still in place. But large parts of them are masked by the buildings which the diocese constructed around the fort. The only parts remaining visible are the large bastion seen on the right when viewing the basilica from the front, and a very narrow bastion round the back of the sanctuary.

The drawbridge installed by the Army in 1879 in front of the entrance to the Crypt. to replace the ancient drawbridge which had had to be demolished when the new sanctuary was built, is still in place.
The keepers of Notre Dame raise it every evening and lower it every morning: in this way they are cutting off the sanctuary just as the Army used to cut off the fort. People going up to the basilica by the outer steps pass over this drawbridge often without realising it… Between 2000 and 2008, under the direction of the architect Xavier David, many restoration projects began on the sanctuary. Firstly, outside jobs: in particular one had to replace the green stones which, because of pollution, had partly decomposed. Next there were interior jobs: first the marbles of the basilica and the stonework of the Crypt were cleaned; and the mosaics, some of which had lost their tessellae through the bombing in August 1944, were restored by experts under the direction of Michel Patrizio. And the lighting system was very much improved, bringing out the true value of our magnificent mosaics.

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