History of the Madonna del Sacro Monte and Her Shrine in Novi Velia
The Santuario della Madonna del Sacro Monte, or Shrine of Our Lady of the Sacred Mountain, on Mount Gelbison, outside of Novi Velia, Salerno, has for centuries been a place of pilgrimage from the southern Italian regions of Campania, Basilicata and Calabria.
Mount Gelbison, 1705 meters or 5,594 feet above sea level (probably deriving from the Arabic ‘Gebel-el-son’ or ‘Mount of the idol’) was home to a temple built by the Oenotrians to honor the false and demonic pagan goddess Hera. Later, with the spreading of Christianity, it is thought possible that Basilian Monks (monks following the Rule of St. Basil who had fled persecution in Greece, settling in Italy) inhabited the various caves of the mountain in the 1000s, to better live their eremitical-contemplative religious life.
The first extant document referring to the place, a diploma given by Ruggero II the Norman to Leonzio, Abbot – or head – of the monastery of Grottaferrata in 1131, calls it ‘rupis sanctae Mariae’ (the Rock of Holy Mary) in the fief of Rofrano, on the other side of the mountain.
Tradition holds that local shepherds wanted to build a church in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to more conveniently assist at Mass as they guarded their flocks. After a number of attempts were made to erect the church in various places on the Mount, but that the days’ work would be seen to be undone the next morning. An escaped lamb climbed to the highest point of the mountain, where the shepherds followed. At the edge of the cliff, they saw on the eastern part a wall with a statue of Mary in a niche. They went to inform the bishop of Capaccio, who with two other nearby bishops went to investigate and to venerate the Queen of Heaven, having the intention to bless and consecrate the place. While they were about to do so, a voice was heard by all present which rang out: “Locus iste sanctus est, et ab angelis consacratus” (This place is holy and has been consecrated by the Angels). The Bishop stopped and with head to the ground, thanked Mary for being worthy of raising a throne of grace to Her in his diocese, and of ordering celebrations. The people were filled with holy fear, and adored the mysteries of God, rejoicing in having a shrine distinguished from others by such a miraculous favor.
The Shrine was entrusted to Celestine Benedictine Monks in 1324. In 1808, by royal decree (anticipating the extinction of the Celestines in 1810) it was returned to the bishop of the Diocese of Capaccio, which is today the Diocese of Vallo della Lucania, who appointed Don Gennaro Caiafa, the pastor of Buonabitacolo, the first secular rector.
But the real revival of the Shrine began in 1880, during the episcopate of Bishop Pietro Maglione. He appointed Canon Nicasio D’Ambrosio as the rector, who would work to bring about the coronation of the statue. The Vatican Chapter delegated Bishop Maglione to solemnly coronate the statue. This took place on August 15, 1889.
Canon Luca Petraglia (1869-1947) was rector of the shrine from 1907-1946. He oversaw the finishing stages of the construction of the new church, which was consecrated on September 7, 1916 by Archbishop Paolo Jacuzio, and the new belltower on July 16, 1930 by Bishop Francesco Cammarota. In 1933, Canon Petraglia published “Sacro Monte e Santuario di Novi,” a text which described the natural surroundings of the Mount, and the history of the Shrine. Canon Petraglia, kept company by a domesticated wolf he named Bruno, and a fox Geppina, dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the shrine.
Annually, pilgrims from throughout the Cilento and beyond, would first arrive for the opening of the Shrine on Whit (Pentecost) Tuesday. The shrine would close for the winter on November 18 (changed in 1924 to the second Sunday of October). In 1933 there were about 200 organized pilgrimages a year, mostly from the provinces of Potenza, Cosenza, and Salerno. It is interesting to note that veneration of Our Lady of Sacro Monte is a regional (or multi-regional) devotion, unlike the usual patronal devotions of individual towns in Italy.
Pilgrims would come by foot, a penitential journey involving walking between 2-6 days, to ask for favors, or to give thanks for blessings received. When they reached the Shrine’s ‘Cross Square’ or Piazza della Croce, a priest would meet and bless them and lead them to the door of the church where he preached a sermon to them. There, they knelt at long last before the Madonna, in tears, beating their breasts, and kissing the walls of the church, and prepared to receive the sacraments.
Countless pilgrims continue to arrive annually to visit the Madonna del Sacro Monte, although more often arriving by car or by bus than by foot. Arriving at the Shrine, pilgrims lovingly sing the same hymns as their ancestors. Wherever emigrants from the Cilento have settled in the world, they have brought with them their devotion to the Madonna, most notably in Jersey City (now Clifton), New Jersey, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania.