Sara la Kali: The mysterious saint loved by the Gypsies

Children gather outside a church, ready for the procession to the sea

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Every year, the sleepy French town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea comes alive with the sound of Gypsy music.

In May, Gypsies from all over Europe arrived in their caravans for the annual pilgrimage in honour of their enigmatic saint: Sara la Kali, or Black Sara.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, literally the Saint Marys of the Sea, gets its name from a French legend. The Marys are mothers of Jesus's apostles and are mentioned in the Gospels as being amongst those who witnessed the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

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They were members of the first Christian community, expelled from Palestine during the Roman clampdown, and put to sea in a boat without oars and without a sail. They drifted across the Mediterranean and came ashore in the place where the town stands today.

On the strength of this story, pilgrimages to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer were popular from the early Middle Ages. The Marys' relics are kept in the High Chapel above the altar in the local Catholic Church.

Black Sara
A Gypsy woman prays at the statue of Sara la Kali A woman prays at the effigy of Sara la Kali

In the 19th Century, the practice began of taking the relics in a procession down to the sea, in remembrance of their journey across the Mediterranean.

But it's not the Marys who are honoured by the Gypsies every May - it's another woman whose name has become linked with theirs. There are no relics for Sara la Kali, nor is she mentioned in the Gospels; she's not even an official saint of the Catholic Church, but her effigy is also found in the local church. The Gypsies are here for her.

Her statue is kept underground, in the church's crypt, an unimposing doll-like, dark-skinned figure. Men and women form a reverential queue in order to have a few moments with her.

They touch her clothes, they kiss her, they leave photos of departed loved ones, they pin notes and trinkets to her clothing. She is dressed in several colourful robes made by Gypsy women and presented to her every year.

On her head is a tiara that twinkles in the light from the hundreds of candles lit in her honour and which throws out an extraordinary heat. It's an intense, emotional encounter.

"She's our mother," says one woman. "When we come here we ask for forgiveness for our sins, and she forgives us. She comforts us and takes our cares away."

But there's a puzzle at the heart of this story. Who is Sara la Kali and how did she become embedded in the story of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer?

One claim is that she was the Marys' servant who arrived with them from Palestine, but there's no mention of her in the Gospels or in the early descriptions of the pilgrimage. Another version is that she was a Gypsy woman living in the Camargue who welcomed the Marys ashore and became their first convert to Christianity, but there were no Gypsies in France until the 15th Century.

Dominic Charmaison is a Gypsy who's been venerating Sara la Kali all of his 56 years.

"My grandmother was devoted to Sara, and now I'm passing that devotion on to my grandchildren," he says hugging them close.

Dominic is a leader in the Gypsy community and is respected for his faith and devotion to Sara. "At home in Arles I've got a shrine to her, but here in the caravan there are just a few pictures," he says producing several large posters.

But even he's unable to give a definitive answer about Sara's identity. His best guess is that she arrived with the Gypsies in the 15th Century having entered their consciousness when they were living in the Byzantine Empire.

'Vive la Sainte Sara!'

Pilgrimage is an important aspect of Gypsy spirituality, and there is evidence that Gypsies have been coming to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to honour the two Marys from the 19th Century. Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela are also popular pilgrimages for them.

Django Reinhardt
  • Romani communities have their roots in Northern India. They arrived in Europe over a thousand years ago. The main groups that are found in France today are:
  • Gitanos. They spent several generations in Spain some fled persecution from Franco's Spain. They're known for their Flamenco music and dancing. The Gypsy Kings (who come from this group) were formed around a campfire in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
  • Roms generations in central Europe. The women are easily recognised by their long, traditional skirts. They have a very distinctive language
  • Manouches/Sinti several generations around Northern Europe. They're also known as musicians, the famous guitarist Django Reinhardt (pictured above) came from this group

In his book I Met Lucky People, Yaron Matras of the University of Manchester says pilgrimage allows travelling people to combine spirituality with the cycle of travelling and coming together for family gatherings.

And indeed, as well as honouring Sara, this pilgrimage is an opportunity for families to have their children baptised, to arrange marriages, and sometimes to settle scores.

This score-settling means that not all locals are happy to see the caravans roll into town.

"I prefer not to risk staying open," says one bar owner as he pulled down the shutters on his bar in the late afternoon.

"There have been fights in my bar, one guy even pulled a knife. Drunk people aren't easy to deal with," he adds.

Shops also close. "I stay open because I'm not afraid of the Gypsies," says one shopkeeper.

"But many do close because of the shoplifting. And it's tiring because you say €3 they try to get it for €2!"

Nonetheless, it was down to one local, the Marquis de Baroncelli, that Sara's pilgrimage exists. He was a champion of marginalised peoples and in 1935 persuaded the Catholic Church to allow the Gypsies to take the uncanonised Sara in a procession down to the sea.

In the early years, the pilgrimages were held without the participation of the church, but since 1965 the procession has been led by the Archbishop of Arles and Aix-en-Provence.

The current incumbent is Monseigneur Christophe Dufour. "In the Catholic faith, some of the most important things are hidden from our eyes," he says, as he blesses children outside the church.

"There's a huge mystery at the heart of faith, and this is a mystery of love. Sometimes we need to touch and see that love, and it can be revealed to us through our saints. That's what you see here today," he adds.

The Mary's relics descending the High Chapel above the altar The Marys' relics descending from the High Chapel

The emotion is palpable during the mass that precedes Sara's procession. Everyone's eyes are focussed on the altar, above which is the High Chapel.

At the climax of the mass, the chest containing the relics of the two Marys is lowered into the church. As it descends on ropes adorned with flowers, the people raise their hands and shout: "Vive les Saintes Maries! Vive la Sainte Sara!"

Sara la Kali emerges from the entrance to the crypt, swamped by her many layers of bright clothing. She's mounted on a wooden platform, and hoisted onto the shoulders of Gypsy men who battle their way through the crowds to carry her down the central aisle of the church and out into the sunshine.

She's taken the short distance from the church down to the sea, wobbling on her wooden platform, held high on the men's shoulders. Thousands of people line the streets and thousands more await her arrival on the beach.

'Icon of love'

She's accompanied by women singing popular hymns, clergy on loudspeakers reminding the crowd of the religious significance of the pilgrimage, Flamenco musicians singing and playing guitar, and men on horseback.

As she arrives on the beach, the crowd divides and she's immersed in the waters of the Mediterranean.

We'll never know the truth about Sara la Kali's origins, but perhaps that's not what's important about her story.

Martine Guillot is a lay member of the ministry team at the church. "In all the stories about Sara, I think the most important thing about her is that she loved and served the Holy Marys, and if she loved them she also loved Jesus," she says.

"She's an icon of love and welcome."

Gypsies have been enslaved, marginalised and persecuted ever since they arrived in Europe from India over a thousand years ago. Just 20 miles from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a memorial marking Saliers Concentration Camp, where Gypsies were detained during World War II.

But this pilgrimage is a time and a place when the Gypsies take centre stage, their culture is celebrated, and the Church validates their faith and welcomes them.

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