A Visit to the Virgin Mary's House

Pilgrims from all over the world venerate Mary at the site where she may have spent her final days

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By Julie Rattey

The invalid German nun had never traveled outside of her home country. The daughter of 18th-century peasants, she was no scholar. Yet, awaking in a trance, she was speaking in a language no one knew.

A linguist was called on the scene. The nun, he revealed, was speaking Aramaic. And she was describing the house where the Virgin Mary spent her final days.

This was not the first vision of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, who conversed with the Child Jesus and received the stigmata. But it was the first time that many began to give credence to her descriptions of a house near Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) where Mary spent her final days — descriptions she had previously given in her own dialect.

What she described, recorded in a book called “The Life of The Blessed Virgin Mary,” was a small stone house, built by the Apostle John who, according to popular belief, brought Mary with him from Jerusalem to Ephesus. The house had a fireplace, apse, round back wall, a bedroom for Mary, and a spring that ran into her bedroom. After Mary was taken to heaven, said Emmerich, the house was turned into a chapel.

Sure enough, a late-19th century expedition to Nightingale Mountain (near Ephesus) revealed a site with holes in the ground for a cistern and a well, along with a destroyed chapel whose foundations likely dated from the first century. In the minds of many, Mary’s house had been found.

Today pilgrims from all over the world travel to Bülbül Dag (Nightingale Mountain) to see the site where Mary may have spent her final days. They come as faithful Catholics, as Christians, as Muslims (who revere Mary as Jesus’ mother), as curious tourists. They come to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, to attend Mass in the chapel built at the site, to drink the waters of the spring, and to leave heartfelt petitions — on handkerchiefs, scraps of paper, even leaves — at a wall constructed for the purpose.

One cool morning in October around 8 a.m., visitors are already spilling out of buses, passing the ancient cistern and making their way up a path lined with olive trees and other lush greenery, beyond which lies the Turkish coast and the Aegean Sea. A white arrow points the way in Turkish, French, and English to “Mary’s house.” A few minutes later, the restored stone chapel is in view.

It is humble and small, with three false archways on the façade and small windows cut high on the sides of the building. A large tree encircled with a stone bench spreads some shade over the entrance. A Sister carrying a wooden staff and clad in a robin’s-egg-blue habit adjusts the ropes at the entrance of the chapel and strides away. Inside, visitors are greeted with a plaque commemorating papal visits to the site (Pope Benedict XVI’s, in 2006, was the most recent) as well as, hanging in the corner, crutches and other supports left by people who claim to have been healed.

Inside, visitors kneel in the stone and brick interior, eyes closed reverently in prayer; others linger on the worn orange and beige carpet by the small altar before moving along into what was Mary’s bedroom, examining objects such as a Rosary given by Benedict XVI. Feet shuffle. Offering coins clink. The stubby red candle at the front of the chapel flames still and bright. Depicted in a humble statue backlit at the altar, Mary holds out her arms to the visitors, her eyes cast demurely to the earth.

One young woman rises from a kneeler, tears gleaming in her eyes. Another stands at the altar, slightly bowing several times in quick succession. Two Sisters in blue robes enter and begin praying the Divine Office. Their praying voices whisper, chant, sing. They pray in monotone, then let their voice drop at the end of each phrase. The effect is sighing, solemn, almost unearthly. In their robes they rise, sit, bow, in a pre-determined pattern. After some time they fall silent, the only sound they make that of book pages turning. A light wind rustles the trees outside, mingling with the low whispers of a few pilgrims at the altar. No other sound is heard.

Outside the chapel, down a short flight of stairs, stands a stone wall with several recesses offering access to water from the spring, which is said to have healing properties. The rest of the wall is devoted to petitions, which are stuffed and hung and tied together in such profusion that, from a distance, they give the appearance of a shag carpet. Visiting the petition wall is a highlight for many pilgrims.

“It was moving to be able to see where the Virgin Mary had her remaining days,” reflected Charles Bentley, a student at Catholic University of America, after visiting the site, “and to see the wall with all the dreams and prayers and wishes of all the thousands of pilgrims and devout followers that came. That part actually was what really impressed me, to see that, and to see this tiny little room where so many people have passed through and reflected and prayed.”

Jennifer Brinker of St. Louis, Missouri, had a very special prayer in mind when she placed her petition in the wall at Mary’s house: one that has been in the hearts of many women — both Christian and Muslim — visiting the site.


“I had heard that this was a site where women who hoped to have a child someday came,” says Brinker. “It really meant a lot,” she said, her voice wavering with emotion. “My husband and I would love to have children someday, so to be there in that presence where our Blessed Mother spent her last days was very moving. So hopefully….”

Her expression is wistful, the knowledge of what joy it would be to hold her own child evident in her youthful face. It is an expression that, more than 2,000 years ago, likely passed over the face of another young woman — this one from a small town called Nazareth — waiting for a child, waiting for a miracle.  CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.