After my stint in Toulouse, I stayed with the Dominicans in Marseille on the southern coast of France. Marseille has a beautiful location right on the sea. In recent years the city has been inundated--overwhelmed might be a better word--with immigrants from North Africa.
One of the most recognizable sites in Marseille is the church of La Bonne Mere. It is a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary built on top of one of Marseille's tallest mountains. It has served since it's construction as a beacon for French sailors returning back to shore. The Church is filled with tokens of thanks of sailors saved from storms and rough seas attributed to the intercession of Mary.
I went to Marseille with another French Dominican who studies Canon Law with me in Rome. When he was a student in Marseille, he got to know a Catholic family who have an apostolate in one of the housing complexes in Marseille. He took me there on New Year's Eve. The housing complex reminded me a bit of the old Cabrini Green in Chicago--mile after mile of high-rise housing complexes with little to no commercial real estate in sight. In Marseille, they are filled almost entirely with immigrants from North Africa. They are not the safest places in the world. The complex we went to had a group of young men out front sitting together over a fire. Apparently these are spotters, who look out for rival gangs and the police. They are usually the ones who get shot in the occasional acts of gang retribution.
Near one of these high rises, there is a community center built by a Catholic family (and given some assistance by the government). It is staffed by young Catholics who volunteer a year of their time to live there and carry on the apostolate. For New Year's we had a mix of young Catholics and the homeless from the area. It's a small effort, but a wonderful example of some of the vibrancy in French Catholic evangelization and mission.
The story of the Dominicans there is interesting. The current Dominican church in Marseille was built by a prominent Catholic family. At some point the French government in one of its many eruptions of anti-Catholicism took the church. Apparently, the same family bought it back from the government and gave it back to the Dominicans--essentially paying for it twice.
There is also a very ancient tradition that Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus, went to southern France following Christ's resurrection, near Marseille. The relics of Mary Magdalene were found and turned into a shrine. Apparently, recent tests of the bones suggest that they were of a middle-aged woman from the 1st century. Mary lived up in a cave in one of the mountains, and there a shrine was built. The Dominicans have had care of the shrine for several centuries. (Mary Magdalene is one of the patronesses of the Order.) Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, anti-Catholic forces climbed up the mountain and destroyed the large shrine that was there. The current shrine is much smaller than the former one. It is a quite and prayerful spot (after a very long climb up the mountain).
Here are some pictures from Marseille:
Here are some of the shrine of Mary Magdalene and environs: