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17 May 2016 / Culture

Tiny House of Virgin Mary

The Western Coast of Turkey is awash with historical sites and no more so than the ancient ruined city of Ephesus, the country's third most visited tourist attraction. However, hordes of international and local travellers often overlook an equally important site, close to Ephesus that is the House of the Virgin Mary.

The tiny house, a significant place for both Christians and Muslims alike, is believed to be the last known place that Mary, mother of Jesus, resided in her final years. While a famous pilgrimage for Christians, it is also revered by Muslims as Mary (Meryem Ana in Turkish) was mentioned in the Koran, the Holy Book of Islam.

The legend of the house, whose true historical meaning swirls around in the midst of time, has been somewhat backed up, but never confirmed, by the Catholic Church, given that several Popes have visited the site. The house is also maintained through donations and funding from the Church.

Historians do accept that at some point Mary, as well as two Apostles, Saint John and Saint Paul, spent time in the nearby city of Ephesus, but the very existence of Mary's House and its eventual discovery are more akin to miracles that perpetuated in earlier times.

The Nun’s Vision

The existence of Mary's House first fired into the public conscience in the 19th century by German author Clemens Brentano. He was a visitor, in the earlier part of the 1800s, to the home of a bedridden German-based Augustine nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich.

Emmerich, who lived in the rural communities of Dülmen, was mostly confined to bed for much of her life, but she had the unnerving skill of relating the last days of Jesus through a series of visions. These caught the attention of noble figures that visited, and therefore gilded Emmerich's reputation.

Among them was Brentano, who settled in the community for five years and saw Emmerich every day to write and record her visions. On her death in 1824, Brentano prepared a book about his writings, entitled The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Visions of Anna Catherine Emmerich for publication. He died in 1842, and his book was published in 1852.

The book related Emmerich's visions of the detailed descriptions of St John building a house for Mary while he stayed at Ephesus. It recalled where the house was located, its environment, how the house was built in rectangular blocks of stone, the shape of its chimney, its doors, the flat roof and its high windows.

Discovery of the Virgin Mary’s House

In 1881, Parisian Abbe Gouyet, working off Emmerich's descriptions found the House of the Virgin Mary, but he didn’t publish his story, and his journey went unnoticed. Then ten years later, two missionaries, Father Poulin and Father Jung, at the behest of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, using Emmerich's guide, found the house.

The priests were shocked to discover residents of the nearby village of Sirince had venerated the building, now a roofless ruin, for years. Those same residents were latter-day descendants of the citizens of Ephesus.

To maintain the house, the Catholic Church commissioned Sister Mandat-Grancey from 1891 to 1915 and since the early 20th century, Christians have made a pilgrimage every August 15, the date of Mary's Assumption. While the Catholic Church has never confirmed or denied Emmerich's visions or indeed recognised Brentano's works, it shifted the emphasis of the Blessed Virgin's Dormition from Jerusalem to Mary's House at Ephesus.

Its importance was given greater significance by visits of Pope Leo XIII in 1896; Pope John XXIII in 1961; Pope Paul VI in 1967; Pope John Paul II in 1976, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. The last visit was by the present Pope Francis in 2014. Pope Pius XII reconfirmed and made permanent by Pope John XXIII in 1961, raised it in stature as a Holy Place in 1951.

Visiting the House of the Virgin Mary

The approach via a winding mountain road eventually leads to the house that also contains a baptismal pool and a seating area in the grounds. Humble in nature, the house is little more than a small chapel with the construction potentially dating back to apostolic times. On entrance, a single room contains an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the centre.

It is possible, Mary slept in an adjoining room, and reports suggest water flowed under the structure, resulting in a drinking fountain to the outside of the house. Visitors pick up a candle on entry and walk towards the statue while the well tendered gardens naturally allow time for reflection. As with visits to all religious sites, a conservative dress sense is required.

Wishing Wall and Three Fountains

A wishing wall close to the house has a timeless tradition of typing a personal item to it while making a wish while further along the path, embedded in a stonewall are three taps giving spring water. Urban legends suggest that each tap signifies a blessing of health; wealth or fertility and visitors are encouraged to drink from the taps. However, they are not labelled so be careful if you are not open to receiving all three blessings!

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