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Something distinguishes Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine from every other Catholic cathedral in the nation: It's the only one named for Mary Magdalene.

The Catholic diocese here has been under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalene, a devoted follower of Jesus, since the late 1800s, long before she captured the popular imagination through books such as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

The cathedral's name was changed to Madeleine, the French spelling of her name, in 1916 by Bishop Joseph Glass, who visited her reputed burial place in France.

It's not clear who chose Magdalene as the diocese's patroness. Monsignor Joseph Mayo, cathedral pastor, said it came from the archbishop in San Francisco in the 1870s.

Diocese archivist Gary Topping speculates that the first bishop, the Most Rev. Lawrence Scanlan, chose St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is July 22, to give early Utah Catholics something to celebrate at the same time the Mormons celebrate Pioneer Day, which is July 24.

So who was Mary Magdalene?

New Testament Gospels indicate she was Mary, perhaps from the Galilean city of Magdala. Jesus cast seven demons from her, and she became a disciple who was at the foot of the cross when he died. Though Gospel accounts differ, one records her as the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, earning Mary Magdalene the title "apostle to the apostles."

Though Catholics long had considered her a saint because of her conversion and devotion to Jesus, a tradition developed in the early church that she had been a "fallen woman," a prostitute.

Early Christian leaders taught that she was the unnamed woman whom Luke described as bathing Jesus' feet with her tears, drying them with her hair and anointing them with oil.

That connection endured for many centuries and is replete in the art of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. In stained glass and in murals, Magdalene is pictured with flowing, long hair. In the center of the east transept window, she encounters the resurrected Christ. In the west, she anoints his feet with oil.

The church no longer holds that she once was a prostitute nor that she was necessarily the woman who bathed Jesus' feet. It also rejects notions put forth by some scholars of early Christian writings that Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene to lead the Christian community or that the two were married and bore a child (as speculated in Brown's wildly popular novel).

Such ideas are derived from early writings that the church rejected when assembling the books of the New Testament.

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