A short distance south of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a shrine called the Milk Grotto, on a street of the same name.
An irregular grotto hollowed out of soft white rock, the site is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike. It is especially frequented by new mothers and women who are trying to conceive.
By mixing the soft white chalk with their food, and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they believe it will increase the quantity of their milk or enable them to become pregnant.
Rows of framed letters and baby pictures sent from around the world to the Milk Grotto testify to the effectiveness of the “milk powder” and prayer. (The powder is available only at the shrine; it may not be ordered from overseas.)
Spilt milk turned stone white, tradition says
According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt, they stopped in this cave while Mary nursed the baby Jesus. A drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and it turned white.
The grotto has been a site of veneration since the 4th century, the first structure being built over it around AD 385.
From as early as the 7th century, fragments from the cave were sent to churches in Europe. The site was recognised by a proclamation of Pope Gregory XI in 1375.
The Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto in 1872. The people of Bethlehem and local artisans expressed their love for the site by decorating the shrine with mother-of-pearl carvings.
In 2007 a modern chapel dedicated to the Mother of God was opened. It is connected to the Milk Grotto church by a tunnel, which enabled the addition of a further chapel in the basement.
Other sites in the Bethlehem area:
Church of St Catherine of Alexandria
The escape to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15
Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
Open: 8am-5pm (Sun closed noon-2pm)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)