Saint Rosalia Patron Saint of Plagues
When we first came to Sicily, we went to my paternal grandmother's village - Calatafimi. – stumping grounds of Emperor Frederick II and Garibaldi. We looked up relatives, but sadly most had migrated to the United States, as we were quickly told by the villagers. The townspeople could even spot me, by the kind of Sicilian I spoke. They advised me, I spoke an Ancient Sicilian dialect seldom used anymore, and that my ancestors had left Sicily one hundred years before.
I could see remnants of what had been. In my mind's eye, I could see Garibaldi eating at one of my ancestor’s thirteen flour mills. I could see my grandfather, only now very young and handsome, attired in his finest suit, asking for my grandmother's hand in marriage. It was all here, and I was in love.
There was lots of music! We were blessed to witness Feast Days being celebrated throughout Sicily. The festas, with their flower adorned litters carrying a statue of the Blessed Mother or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or one or the other of the Sicilian Saints, were festive - festive to the max! I can still hear the trombones thumping and the villagers marching to the beat. They were honoring their Church, and if there was great food being sold by the vendors of the push carts, even better. How great can it be!
There is a tradition that points to Rosalia was brought up at the famous Sicilian royal court and was a maid of honor to Queen Margaret of Navarre. On the oldest icon of the little Saint, dating back to the 12th century, her name appears as “Rusolia”, whose common interpretation is that her name is a combination of two flowers, “ROSA” and ”LILIA" –(Rose and Lily).
Some historians and researchers have posed the question: Is Santa Rosalia a Basilian Nun or a virgin hermit. Those who are more disposed to the idea she was a Basilian Nun, gathered that assumption from the pictures depicting her vested in a Basilian habit. Others claim that she is depicted so, because she frequented the Basilian monastery in order to receive the Sacraments.
As we said, Rosalia decided at a critical period in her life to become a hermit and live a life of prayer. The world as she knew it, held no attraction to her. She wanted to devote her life to Our Lord Jesus.
She gathered a few possessions--a wooden crucifix, a silver Greek cross, another of terracotta, a string of one large and 12 small prayer beads, and retired to a cave in Quisquina, amidst rocks and boulders, the better to be assured of peace and solitude with her Savior. There in the warmth of her love for our Beloved Lord, she made the decision to live the solitary life of a hermit. She abandoned the world in order to follow Jesus to the absence of all others. Painters of the 15th century depict her praying and in communion with the Heavenly Host.
After spending years at the cave in Quisquina, her life as a hermit there ends and we find our little Santa in the caves of Montepellegrino. What made Santa Rosalia make the decision to move from her hermitage in Quisquina? Some historians point to the violent rebellion of the Sicilian counts and barons against the Normans. Although William I put down the rebellion, Rosalia’s father was killed, and that left Rosalia and her family in dire straits.
All their property and holdings were confiscated. That left Rosalia Without her father’s land, on which she had her hermitage, she had no recourse but to move to Montepellegrino, where other hermits had caves for dwellings. There is a beautiful painting showing an angel leading Rosalia from her hermitage in Quisquina to the quiet she so desired in Montepellegrino. Here she could be safe - just Rosalia and her Lord.
Rosalia chose a cave in the center of what appears to be an amphitheatre with a border of ragged rocks and imposing boulders. She was truly a rose and lily among the thorns that greeted her and held court for her the few years she lasted there. Only the sounds of sweet, chirping birds and the symphony of the sea’s splashing waves against the rocks below melodiously lulled her to sleep when evening pulled down its shade to reveal a panorama of stars – her Lord showering her with His majestic creation.
The hymn for the Vespers of our saint’s Feast Day goes like this:
“This cave is your home and the forest offers you your food, the rocks welcome you and the rain quenches your thirst, while the sky gives you a taste of the joy of eternal life.” Hardships her companions, she found solace and joy only in the great desire she felt to meet the Lord here on earth, the Lord she had lived for and sought with all her heart.
Writing about Santa Rosalia, the word of the Lord came to us. (Luke 5:39) “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus replied, ‘If they were to keep silence, I tell you the very stones would cry out.’”
Her cult began almost immediately after her death. There is the icon of Martorana, which dates back to 1170. It is considered the first icon we have of her. Other images can be found at S.Steffano at the Quisquina, Ragusa Bivona and other places where the celebration of the Feast Day on September 4th points to the antiquity of her cult.
Palermo's enthusiasm for Santa Rosalia has grown over the centuries. Both of the caves she lived in have been turned into devotional chapels. The most popular is the cave on Monte Pellegrino, way up on a mountain, only a short distance from Palermo. The relics themselves were put on a prominent altar to the side of the main altar in the Cathedral of Palermo where they remain to this day. They repose in the Chapel of Saint Rosalia in the cathedral. Her sarcophagus is surely richer than she would have wanted. It is made of pure silver, 1400 pounds in weight. Her shrine there is one of the most popular places visited by the people of Palermo.
The main celebration in honor of the miracle of sparing the city of the plague is still held each year from July 13 to July 15. It is still a major social and religious event in Palermo. There is much festivity involved, including processions through the streets of Palermo. There is another tradition, which takes place on September 4, when the actual feast day of Santa Rosalia is celebrated; a tradition of walking barefoot from Palermo to Monte Pellegrino is continued by a large group of people, many of them young. This is a distance of 13 kilometers.
There are many artifacts in the cave of Monte Pellegrino. The most fascinating series of reliquaries can be found in the museum which is connected to the gift shop at the Shrine. We were intrigued by all that we saw there, which we are sharing with you, but the most interesting was a T-Shirt from St. Rosalia Church in Brooklyn.
Both the Benedictines and Greek religious have claimed her as a nun. The Basilians, in their Martyrology, claim her as a member. She is often represented as a Basilian nun with a Greek cross in her hand. There is some evidence that she may have been associated with a Greek convent because there is a wooden crucifix in the Byzantine Archabbey of Saint Savior in Messina inscribed "I, Sister Rosalia Sinibaldi, place this wood of my Lord, which I have ever followed, in this monastery."
St. Rosalia is not only the Patron Saint of Palermo in Sicily, but also of El Hatillo Municipality, in the state of Miranda, in Venezuela, South America. The reason we tell you this is, although she is partial to Italians and Sicilians, she is not beyond answering a prayer request from non-Italians. The Venezuelans are proof positive of this. Bottom line, she is a Saint of our Church, and therefore, is there for you and me. Use her, and all the Saints. Pray for their intercession. They will bring your request to Jesus. He will answer your prayers.
We love you!! God bless you!!