In the week that precedes the celebration Gitans
arrive evenings to the fortified chapel
of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, accompanied by violins and guitars. A large
central candle is lit among a multitude of smaller candles that each person
holds high in their hands. Prayers are fervent, invocations are recited,
and children are presented to the statues
of the saints.
During the pilgrimage in May, catechism is taught in caravans and heartfelt
conversions are made. Many Gitans use the pilgrimage as a family
assembly and as a time to baptize their children in the church
of Saints-Maries de la Mer. At night Gitans visit the crypt of Sara, always
there to support them in this antique sanctuary of the Carmargue. Indeed,
Saint Marie-Jacobé and Saint Marie-Salomé also have a place
in their hearts. They acclaim them during the descent
of the shrines to the sea, hoisting their children to the statues,
that they may place their hands and lips to the statues. But it is Sara
that is their "saint."
Each person adds a candle to the white fiery forest that spreads in
the crypt of the chapel. Near the statue of Sara-la-Kâli,
notes with intentions are placed, as are the linens and clothing of children,
humble jewels, and naive messages. Abandoned crutches lean against the
wall in a corner of the crypt. And then robes are placed on the statue
that accumulate day to day.
In the 15th century, Gypsies arrived in
France, appearing as penitents, claiming to be condemned to wander by the
world in expiation of their sins. To support their claims they carried
letters from Pope Martin V. During the Middle Ages, they faithfully made
pilgrimages to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.
For reasons which are obscure, the legend of Sara was adopted by the
local chapel of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, although she was never conferred
sainthood by the Catholic Church. The first historical mention of Sara
is found in a text of Vincent Philippon written in 1521, The Legend
of the Saintes-Maries, and whose hand-written pages are now located
in the Arles library. In the legend, Sara lived and traveled through the
Camargue to provide for the needs of a small Christian community. The practice
of begging for alms performed by Sara gave early writers a reason to make
Sara a Gitane.
Known as the patron of Gypsies, Sara is
an historical enigma that is difficult to solve. A Carmargue tradition
holds that she was the servant of Saints Marie-Jacobé and Marie-Salomé
in Palestine, and their companion on their journeys in the Rhône
river area of France. Another tradition, ascribed to by Roma, holds that
Sara was a Gitane, living on the Provençales banks, rescuing
the Saintes-Maries from a storm at sea.
Other stories have been equally proposed. One says that Sara was an
Egyptian, abbesse of a large convent in Libya. Another story says that
Sara figured prominently among a group of Persian martyrs, with the two
Maries and Marthe, who arrived in Gaule by ship. Finally, an apocryphal
text from the 11th century, shows us a Sara discovering, with Marthe and
the two Maries, the empty tomb of Jesus, and leaving to announce with the
Apostles the news of the Resurrection of the Christ.
An ancient Provençal tradition describes the early Christian
figures of Mary, sister of the Virgin, and Mary, mother of St. James and
St. John, together with their black servant, Sara, and others. According
to tradition, they miraculously escaped persecution in Judaea about the
year 40 and landed in Saintes-Maries de la Mer in a frail craft. Their
relics were put in a local oratory, which was replaced in the 12th century
by the present fortified church.
In truth, no one knows who Sara really was, or how the cult of Sara
came to Saintes-Maries de la Mer, where pilgrims came to pray well before
the French Revolution. For Gitans, she is Sara-la-Kâli, a
Gypsy word that means both Sara the Gitane and Sara the Black.
Gitans themselves do not ask questions about Sara's
authenticity. By the thousands they follow a solemn
procession on the 24th of May, after the descent of the shrines
of the saints from the chapel to the sea. The narrow streets of Saintes-Maries
de la Mer overflow and Camargue gardians on horseback accompany
the statues of the Saintes-Maries and Sara into the sea, the frail statues
carried by specially chosen men. Arlésiennes honor the escort
as well, but it is the Gitans that sing hymns untiringly and shout thousands
of times, "Vive Saint Sara!"