A New Way of Looking at Mary, in the Heart of Nazareth

by Giampiero Sandionigi |  December 3, 2013

An aerial view of the International Mary of Nazareth Centre. The complex, highlighted in colour, stands next to the Basilica of the Annunciation (Cimdn photo gallery)

The dome of the modern chapel built on the highest terrace of the Centre.

The bright interior is open to groups of pilgrims...

... and the Chemin Neuf Community for their daily prayer.

A group of visitors watches the multimedia show on the role of Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation.

The remains of some of the walls of a 1st century Jewish home at the entrance to the Centre.

Luc Lagabrielle. (photo G. Sandionigi)

On Casa Nova Street in Nazareth, almost opposite the entrance to the upper basilica of the Annunciation, an old building, dating back to the eighteenth century, is home to the International Mary of Nazareth Centre, inaugurated in January 2012 after a lengthy gestation. The place speaks about Jesus, taking Mary as the starting-point.

There used to be a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition on Casa Nova Street in Nazareth, almost opposite the entrance to the upper basilica of the Annunciation. The purpose of the building, dating back to the eighteenth century, changed a few years ago and today is home to the International Mary of Nazareth Centre, inaugurated in January 2012 after a lengthy gestation.

The centre is a project by the French Marie de Nazareth Association, which aimed to create a new opportunity for evangelization, a place that spoke about Jesus, taking Mary as the starting-point. Another 11 similar centres ought to be opening in different parts of the world. It seemed completely natural to start from here, where the Son of God became flesh thanks to a young Jewish virgin.

“It is an ecumenical project open to all the Churches,” Luc Lagrabrielle, in charge of the Centre together with his wife, Marie Christine, explains to us. “This place came into being with the blessing and the support, although not financial, of all the heads of the Churches of the Holy Land (Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran). The founders did not want this to be a museum, but also a place of prayer, thanks to the presence of a community that lives here, being responsible for running it and welcoming pilgrims.”

For this reason they contacted the Chemin Neuf community, an ecclesiastical group founded in France in 1973 in charismatic milieus by a Jesuit, Father Laurent Fabre. Today, Chemin Neuf has two thousand members in 28 countries: they are priests, consecrated people, married lay people or celibates, as well as a larger group of volunteers.

“Here at the Nazareth Centre,” says Luc, who is one of the members of the community, “there are about ten of us. We look after the pilgrims. For Mass we go to the nearby Basilica, because none of us is a priest. Our chapel is used by the community for the community prayer and by any groups of pilgrims that ask to celebrate Mass there. We would like to provide a way to study the mystery of the Incarnation in greater depth. In the future, we would like to offer spiritual retreats: we should all reflect more on the fact that this is where Jesus lived for 30 years of his life.”

The doors are naturally also open to the Christians, Jews and Muslims of the Holy Land. “So far,” adds Lagabrielle,” we have had many Jewish visitors. The Muslims seem less curious, but making up for this, classes from Christian schools come to visit and their pupils include several Muslims.”

The Centre is not, however, a house for spirituality following the most classic model. The premises cover 4,000 square metres on several levels.

There is a terrace with a panoramic view of the nearby Basilica; a large coffee shop where groups, reserving in advance, can have lunch; a gift shop; the large bright chapel, built from scratch on top of the old building; a room where on some monitors three videos dedicated to the Virgin Mary are screened; Mary the Jewish woman, Mary in the Qur’an and The figure of Mary for the Oriental Churches.

The highlight of the Centre is the hour-long multimedia show, in ten different languages, a narrative which, going through the Old and the New Testament, puts the mystery of Jesus Christ at the centre and how Mary plays a part in this. To keep visitors’ attention high, the story is divided into four parts, each of which is set is a different screening room, through effects of colour, music and sounds.

Booking is recommended to visit the Centre in groups of pilgrims (the contact details are on the dedicated website). There is no entrance ticket but a donation should be made.


The Nazareth of Jesus comes to the light once again!

In the Holy Land every time that there are excavations for a new building or to renovate an old one, it is not improbable that some interesting discoveries are made. This is what happened here too. When digging was in progress for the underground technological installations of the International Mary of Nazareth Centre, there first came to the light walls from the Mameluke period (13th century) then portions of older walls which marked out the courtyard and four rooms of a 1st century AD home. It was certainly a Jewish home, which can be deducted from the presence of stone plates, which the Jews alone used to obey the strict religious laws on ritual purity. It is a house that Jesus himself could have seen and perhaps even visited in the 30 years he lived in Nazareth and which now visitors to the Centre have before their very eyes right at the entrance.

An underground cistern and a storeroom, to store the food and water needed for a family, were found in the courtyard. There is another element of great interest for scholars: a second storeroom under the floor of one of the rooms. It is 4 metres wide and 7 metres deep, divided into three levels.

The archaeologists hypothesize that it may have been a shelter, an underground hiding-place, dug by the family so that its members and perhaps fighters as well could escape from Roman soldiers during the first Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD).

The discovery is important for historians: until recently, similar shelters had been found in Jerusalem and in Judea and it was believed that they dated back to a later revolt, the one led by Bar Kokhba between 132 and 135. The discovery in Nazareth, also replicated in nearby Cana – which at the time was a far more important city – leads to a new perspective: the Jews were equipped to resist the occupiers from the first revolt and even in the villages of Galilee, far from the capital. (g.s.)

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