Honoring Mary Magdalene

Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (Photo by Don Knebel)

One of the most beautiful buildings in Jerusalem honors a woman falsely labeled a prostitute almost 15 hundred years ago.

According to the Christian New Testament, Mary Magdalene (Mary of Magdala) supported Jesus’ ministry financially and witnessed his crucifixion and burial.  Some Biblical accounts say the risen Jesus appeared first to her.  In 591 A.D., Gregory I, the Bishop of Rome (Pope), preached a sermon claiming, without any legitimate basis, that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  That claim gained acceptance within the Roman Catholic Church, but was rejected by the Orthodox Church, which recognizes Saint Mary Magdalene as “Equal-to-the-Apostles.” 

Mary Magdalene was the patron saint of Russian Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the mother of Czar Alexander III.  In 1881, a year after his mother died, Alexander visited a Russian Orthodox mission in Jerusalem and was persuaded to build a church honoring his mother on the western slope of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane.  The church, featuring seven gold onion domes, each topped by an Orthodox cross, and a sandstone exterior finished to resemble marble, was built in 1888 and dedicated to Mary Magdalene.  The interior includes a large painting illustrating a legend that Mary Magdalene appeared in Rome before Emperor Tiberius, protesting the killing of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.  Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria who converted to Orthodoxy when she married Alexander III’s brother Sergie, commissioned the church’s artwork.  When Sergei was assassinated in 1905, Elizabeth became a nun and founded a Moscow convent.  In 1918, Elizabeth and Sister Barbara, a fellow nun, were among those tossed into a mineshaft and killed by the Bolsheviks.  The bodies of these now sainted women lie in marble sarcophagi in the church.  The church is also home to about 30 nuns of the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene, established in 1936.

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