Italy is a country of beautiful shrines dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well to angels and various saints. The sanctuaries are numerous, and I presume number in the hundreds. Almost everywhere in Italy, and in some cases not so far from each other, one can visit places of devotion, prayer and inspiration that lift the mind and heart to God. These “santuari” (shrines in Italian), exist throughout the Christian world, of course, but seem especially prominent in Italy, a strongly Catholic country and culture, as far back as the years after Christ’s resurrection. Rome is the place where both Saints Peter and Paul were martyred, and many other saints as well, thus holding a position of special importance to Christians.
At the shrines of Italy are churches to visit, relics to venerate, chapels and grottos in which to pray, perhaps a monastery or two to visit, panoramas to enjoy, grounds to walk and gardens to see. Without wanting to sound crass, Italy does not have a Disneyland, Sea World or other major theme parks, and who needs them, when you have Assisi, Cascia, Loreto, La Verna, Subiaco San Giovanni Rotondo and many other wonderful Catholic sanctuaries? Those who run the shrines tend to think in terms of “tourists” and “pilgrims,” as two slightly different clientele, with “sightseeing” associated more with tourists and “prayerful visiting” with pilgrims, but more than likely tourists can end up as pilgrims and perhaps pilgrims becoming tourists as well.
Included at all the Italian shrines I have had the privilege of visiting are some or many establishments at which to eat and drink, sometimes lodge overnight or longer, souvenir shops for purchases, bookstores and the like. Many people depend on their livelihood from their work at a given shrine.
One such shrine, although quite small, is dedicated to the “Madonna del Capo Colonna” (Our Lady of the Column at the Cape), located a few miles from the city of Crotone, on the Ionian Sea coast of southern Italy, in the region of Calabria. Known as a part of Italy with high unemployment, organized crime and corruption, Calabria is nonetheless a place of natural beauty and deep faith and Catholic practice as well. Capo Colonna refers to the geographical cape (“capo”) that juts into the sea and the lone marble pillar or column (“colonna”), all that remains of an ancient pagan temple. The column dominates the landscape near the ocean to this day and lends an air of mystery to its surroundings.
The Madonna of Capo Colonna shrine is located right on the ocean, at the important pre-Christian archeological area of Capo Colonna. The sanctuary to Our Lady began in the sixteenth century around the time of a Turkish invasion in the area. A “Book of Miracles,” written in the year 1598, records that in 1519 there was a church at Capo Colonna, where a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary was venerated by the faithful.
According to the “”Book of Miracles,” in the month of June, 1519, the Muslim Turks landed at Capo Colonna and tried to burn the image of Our Lady venerated there. They failed in their attempt, however. The invaders also tried to destroy the holy icon by throwing it into the nearby sea, but it was recovered by a sailor. At another invasion in the region 1638, when Turks attempted to enter Crotone, they turned back at the site of the icon of the Madonna.
A later written source from 1777, mentions that at Cape Colonna there were two churches, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and one in honor of Saint Charles Borromeo. The latter church has since disappeared and in the course of the centuries the other small shrine church at Capo Colonna has undergone various changes.
In May of 2012 a new bronze door was added to the church, the work of a Calabrian sculptor, Mario Strati. The door depicts various themes of devotion to our Lady and especially to the image of Our Lady of Capo Colonna.
The interior of the church is dominated by a 1913 hand painted reproduction of the icon of the Madonna of Capo Colonna, located over the high altar. The original of the icon is kept in the cathedral at Crotone, some ten miles away, a city of about sixty thousand inhabitants.
Every year, over the weekend of the third Sunday of May, a procession of faithful comes from Crotone cathedral, heading to the shrine church of Our Lady. At l:00 am on Sunday morning the procession begins with a blessing by the bishop of Crotone, then the recitation of the rosary. Carrying a smaller reproduction of the Madonna of Capo Colonna, the faithful walk by the municipal center of Crotone to pray for government officials. Then the people go to the city cemetery to pray for the deceased, moving on toward the shrine at Capo Colonna.
Praying of the rosary continues, interspersed with various hymns, and the people with the icon reach the shrine of Capo Colonna at about 6:30 or 7:00 am Sunday morning. The Office of Lauds is prayed at the shrine church and then Holy Mass is celebrated by the bishop of Crotone.
The icon of our Lady that was carried in procession returns to the cathedral by boat after the Mass. Every seven years the original icon, much larger than the smaller one, is carried in the procession and this icon goes back to Crotone not by boat, but in a wagon drawn by two oxen. I met a number of faithful in Crotone who make the annual pilgrimage procession to Capo Colonna and consider it an important part of their faith journey.
Without a doubt, devotion to the Holy Virgin of Capo Colonna is very strong in Calabria. The holy icon of the Mother of God is a Syrian-Byzantine icon believed to date back to the fourteenth century. It is important to keep in mind that this part of Italy was referred to in ancient times as “Magna Graecia,” or “Greater Greece,” referring to the coastal areas of southern Italy which were colonized by various ancient Greek city-states from the eighth to the fifth centuries before Christ The fertility of the land and its location as a sort of meeting point of Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician worlds, made the region, now part of Italy, a desirable place for Greek settlements. The fairly close proximity to Greece across the Ionian Sea was also part of the reason Greeks decided to extend beyond their borders.
Crotone and the shrine of the Madonna of Capo Colonna, in Calabria, Italy, are in the heart of a culturally rich and diverse history. The island of Sicily, part of Italy today, was also considered part of “Magna Graecia,” like Calabria.
Adjacent on right side of the church at Capo Colonna were two rooms for hermits, added in 1897. Eventually a flood caused one of the rooms to collapse. The other room can still be seen but is not open to the public. A small octagonal belfry is also to the right of the church, and the overall impression of this shrine on the sea is one of tranquility and beauty in a portion of Italy, that is plagued by poverty and a serious amount of strife.
Higher on a hill above the sea and Capo Colonna is the cloistered Discalced Carmelite Monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary. It began forty years ago, founded from a monastery in Milan, Italy. This vibrant and thriving contemplative community of nuns, now numbering twenty, has young finally professed and new vocations regularly entering.
Where the nuns settled is reminiscent of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, both above the sea and in a fertile property of tall trees, lush shrubbery and colorful flowers. The attractive Calabrian Carmelite monastery buildings, completed in modern times, are in a traditional style of monastic architecture. It was a pleasure to spend some hours there and getting to know the community some at an evening recreation in their large parlor or meeting room. We had plenty of laughs with my less than perfect Italian! I was inspired by their good zeal and obvious love of God, love of the place where they live and love of their neighbors. I believe the sentiment is mutual as well, that they are much loved by the people of the area.
Though not technically a shrine, the Carmelite monastery at Capo Colonna welcomes many people from all walks of life over the course of the year. This is something more official shrines do as well, of course. There are myriads of such places in Italy where people can find spiritual nourishment and encouragement for life’s journey. Perhaps the steady trend toward secularism in Italy and Europe in general be slowed at least some by the many inspiring sanctuaries and monasteries.
Our Lady of the Rosary and of Capo Colonna, pray for Europe and for all of us!