Not far from the Fort Saint Jean, located on the small hilltop of Saint Laurent, now called La Tourette, the Saint Laurent Church is overlooking the Old Port. Located in the 2nd arrondissement of Marseille, it is the parish of the Panier district, which was traditionally the fishermen's district. It has been the fishermen's parish since the 12th century, it is the only medieval parish church that has remained to this day.
The story of the Saint-Laurent Church began in 870 AD, when Bishop Babon decided to build a fortified wall to protect the city from invasions. Several centuries later, as the city prospered, St. Laurent Church was built using pink stones from the Cap Couronne quarry. It was later discovered that it was built on the site of an ancient pagan temple in honour of the god Apollo. It became the 4th parish of Marseille. In a simple Romanesque-Provençal style, with modest dimensions, its simplicity and absence of any sculpted ornamentation recalls the style of the Cistercian abbeys of Le Thoronet, Sénanque and Silvacane, also known as the "Three Provençal Sisters". It consists of 3 naves, each separated by large square pillars. It was only in the 13th century that it became the parish for fishermen in Marseille. Then, in the 17th century, the Sainte Catherine chapel was built by white penitents because the Church had become too small. Juxtaposed with the Church, the Sainte Catherine Chapel opened its doors in 1604.
Later, in 1668, the part of the Church overlooking the sea was demolished to allow the construction of the Fort Saint Jean. The bell tower was rebuilt as it is today. In 1720, with the arrival of the Great Plague, the Bishop of Marseille celebrated a mass there to protect the city.
Then, at the time of the French Revolution, the Church was robbed of all its gold and silver treasures in order to transform them into coins. And a few months later, in March 1794, it was used as a military warehouse. It was reopened in 1801.
Fortunately, during World War II, the Church was partly spared from the bombardments, unlike the rest of the Old Port district. It faced significant damage. Reconstruction work was conducted gradually and was completed quite recently.
The Saint Laurent Church today
Today, the Church is part of Marseille's history. Many waves of immigration, especially of Neapolitans, gave this neighbourhood and this parish a strong southern influence. Thus, every year for August 15, the inhabitants of the district as well as the parish priest meet to take out a golden wooden statue representing the Virgin Mary. This one is taken to the nearby Cathedral of the Major to be blessed and to participate in a procession through the alleys of the Panier. This traditional event is reproduced year after year by the descendants of the Neapolitan fishermen who initiated it. This Italian-style procession in the heart of Marseille is unique and attracts more and more tourists every year.
Classified as a Historical Monument in 1950, the Saint Laurent Church has recently been renovated and is now regaining its former glory. You can also attend the Sunday Mass which takes place every week and pray in Marseille.
The visit of this historic church is really worth it. With its direct access to the MUCEM from the Esplanade de la Tourette and its breathtaking view of Fort Saint Jean and the sea, visiting this church is a walk that you will particularly appreciate. You can eat nearby because the Voûtes de la Major are just next door!