Impressions of Italy: Mountains, Lakes and an Island

Italy is a land of nearly infinite beauty. This reality is always brought home to me when I travel outside of Rome. Rome itself is filled with beauty, of course, especially in its art and architecture, much of it sacred. The landscape of the city may not be very interesting, but walk around and you will find extreme beauty, especially in the hundreds of churches in the city, from the Bernini sculpture of Saint Teresa of Avila in ecstasy to the Calling of Saint Matthew painting by Caravaggio, to mention two magnificent works of art housed in Roman churches.

Step outside of Rome and you will encounter marvelous landscapes that can take your breath away. Recently our Abbot President and I headed north for fraternal visits to some monasteries of our Congregation in Milan and to its north and west, near the Swiss and French borders, but still in Italy.

The monasteries we visited included Viboldone, just outside of Milan, founded in 1176 for the  Order of the “Umiliati” (literally, “Humble Ones”). This Order included monks, nuns and laity, who led a life of prayer and work, especially known for weaving fine woolen cloth and for their innovative gardening techniques. Political realities eventually ended the Umiliati presence at Viboldone. In the 1500’s Benedictine monks were sent there, but they too eventually were suppressed and the monastery lay vacant for many decades.

In 1940 Cardinal (now Blessed) Ildofonso Schuster arranged for the abandoned abbey to be housed by Benedictine nuns, who remain to this day. The twenty-five nuns quietly carry on the Benedictine charism of prayer, work and hospitality.

The beautiful church at the abbey is from the 1400’s and contains frescoes inside from the school of Giotto, one of Italy’s most celebrated artists, who lived from about 1267 to 1337. The Viboldone church frescoes clearly echo the famous style of Giotto. Inside and out, the abbey church is one of the most important medieval complexes in the Lombardy region of Italy. The rest of the buildings are from modern times and without the appeal of the medieval church. The nuns do craft work, publish books and offer hospitality for retreatants throughout the year.

Our next stop was at the monastery of Dumenza, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This community of fourteen monks, after a couple of moves over the decades, now occupies a former summer camping lodge that has been beautifully transformed into a practical and solidly built monastery complex, almost all of it under one roof. They have added some to the buildings, including a pleasant cloister garden. The monastery is set on a hill in a forest overlooking Lago Maggiore, and is surrounded by hundreds of acres of privately owned and state land, making for a very quiet enclave.

The monks at Dumenza engage in a number of works in addition to offering hospitality to guests. They publish, repair and bind books, paint icons and produce other crafts for sale in their giftshop. They also carry out the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass, mostly in Italian, in a very dignified and melodious manner. They are blessed with several excellent singers, which every monastery wants, but does not always have!

The Abbot President and I then visited a small group of monks at Rhemes Notre-Dame, farther north, in the higher mountains of northern Italy, where some snow is still on the ground and the mountains peaks around them covered in snow. This group of three monks is fairly new to the region, having been formed at the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, at Germagno, Italy, that overlooks Lago D’Orta, the smallest of the lakes in northern Italy

The Rhemes Notre-Dame monks are not far from the city of Aosta, famous as the birthplace of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the great Benedictine monk, bishop and Doctor of the Church, who lived from about 1033 to1109. The monks at Rhemes Norte-Dame are also close to Mont Blanc (“Monte Bianco,” as it is called in Italy), one of nature’s most beautiful peaks.

Monte Bianco is in the northwest Alps of Italy, separating the “Valle d’Aosta” in Italy from the “Valle dell’Arve” in France. The year round snow-covered peak of the mountain reaches to 14,500 feet above sea level. Anyone for a hike? Today it is relatively easy to reach the top of the mountain in the state of the art “Sky Way” cable cars, with each car holding some 30 or 40 people, climbing close to the top of Monte Bianco in about 20 minutes. We were invited to do so and the experience was unbelievable. At the top of the mountain is a visitors’ site, with cafes, exhibits, lookout points and possibilities for skiing. The visit there was another chance to marvel at God’s creation on planet earth.

Before our stay at Rhemes Notre-Dame we made a short visit to the Benedictine nuns of “Regina Pacis” monastery, at Saint-Oyen, also in the “Valle d’Aosta.” These nuns occupy what used to be the farm and laundry of the Canons (clerics) of Saint Bernard, who were famous for raising Saint Bernard dogs and often involved in rescue missions at their location farther up the valley, at Saint Bernard Pass.

Unfortunately the Canons of Saint Bernard no longer are in the area, due to diminishing numbers. Wonderful, though, that their former farm has been beautifully transformed into a monastery for some fifteen nuns, coming from the flourishing Isola San Giulio monastery, located on an island in the middle of Lago d’Orto, which we were also able to visit. These nuns are not part of the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation, but are friends nonetheless.

At Saint-Oyen the Canons of Saint Bernard who used to live there raised vegetables and cattle for the needs of the canons and their guests at the great Saint Bernard Pass refuge for travelers. Also, the laundry for the refuge at Saint Bernard Pass was done at Saint-Oyen because nothing will dry, only freeze, at Saint Bernard Pass, year round!

When the nuns came twenty years ago, the Saint-Oyen house was abandoned and in terrible repair. We saw pictures of what it looked like when they scouted out the property. Their workers have miraculously transformed the buildings and grounds. The work of these nuns includes icon writing, weaving, candle-making and other crafts, which they sell in their shop. They offer hospitality to individuals and groups seeking retreats. No Saint Bernard dogs were to be seen, disappointing as that was!

All the French place names, such as Rhemes Notre-Dame and Saint-Oyen, might make one conclude that they are located in France. In fact they are in Italy, but French is widely spoken, in addition to Italian, by most of the people. The Divine Office and Mass at Rhemes Notre-Dame, for example, is prayed mostly in Italian, but always includes some parts in French. It was interesting to be in a very bilingual culture for some days. Monks and others who realized I don’t speak French willingly switched to Italian.

After Rhemes Notre-Dame, the Abbot President and I stayed some days at the Abbey of Novalesa, also close to the French border, in the “Val de Susa,” as it is called, some 60 kilometers west of Turin (Torino).

The monastery of Novalesa (literally, “New light”) is dedicated to the Apostles and brothers, Saints Peter and Andrew. Monks have been there since the late eighth century. There are some beautiful free standing chapels on the property with marvelous frescoes and the main cloister and church are also impressive.

Novalesa Abbey was once part of an important chain of monasteries, situated in a lovely valley with snow covered mountains towering above. The buildings are not enormous, but nicely proportioned for the ten monks there. There is always room for more, and a novice will make vows later this year.

After Novalesa we went to the lakes region again, this time Lago d’Orta, and the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul at Germango, though usually referred to as the “Giardino della Risurrezione” (Garden of the Resurrection). I have known this community since I was a student in Rome in the 1980’s and they continue their joyful life of prayer and hospitality and now number ten monks. The monastery it situated on a high hill that overlooks Lago d’Orta and enjoys a spectacular views. There are also snowcapped mountains surrounding the monastery of Germagno.

Like most monks, those at Germango also live by the labor of their hands, and in this case, by making jams, jellies and liquors for sale in their shop and at select stores. They also offer hospitality for retreats and sharing the life of the monks. Their buildings are fairly recent, some thirty years old, of a fairly simple but quite pleasant design and construction. Since my last visit there some twenty years ago, their olive and other trees, flowers and hedges have really taken off and make a lovely Resurrection Garden! When we were there spring was well underway.

Our final visit, for part of an afternoon, was to a monastery on an island. In the middle of Lago d’Orta is the island of San Giulio, some ten minutes boat ride from the village of San Giulio at the edge of the lake. All through the day small boats transport passengers to and from the island, who visit the historic monastery church and perhaps to the shop where the nuns sell icons, vestments and books. The island of San Giulio is no more than several blocks long and a few blocks wide, but another example of stunningly beautiful Italy.

Today the seventy Benedictine nuns living on the island and belong to a fairly international community, following a strict life of enclosure and prayer in what was once a diocesan seminary. Since the nuns’ arrival in the early 1970’s the slow transformation of the abandoned seminary into a working monastery has been amazing. I could see many changes and improvement since my last visit 20 or more years ago.

The Abbess of Isola San Guilio, Mother Anna Maria Canopi, is a well known author of monastic literature and a spiritual advisor and teacher. She just completed eighty-six years of life and proudly told us so during a brief meeting with her and the Prioress of the abbey.

The nuns are almost the lone dwellers on the island, and particularly so in the winter. During the summer some families, especially from Germany, occupy summer homes on the island. Over the years some of the privately-owned buildings have been purchased by the nuns to make room for their growing community and are used for living and working spaces, such as their fine icon studio.

The newly acquired buildings are linked to the main monastery structure by covered bridges and walkways. There are several enclosed gardens in the monastery for the nuns to enjoy as well. To say the least, Isola San Giulio is one of the most unique and beautifully located monasteries in the world.