Unless you’re a Neanderthal, spelunking is an uncommon way to find one’s roots, but my quest took me to a mountaintop cave in Sicily. The grotto was once the sanctuary for Saint Rosalia, healer and beloved patron saint of Palermo.
Convertible top down, my friend Denise and I sped confidently through Agrigento on the western coast of Sicily.
A local resident had tipped us off that the ubiquitous roadside traffic enforcement cameras are non-functioning. We were wasting no time in a quest to research our ancestry and visit the towns of our grandparents.
Walking the streets that our grandparents were from, and thinking about what their lives must have been like made us both pretty emotional at times.
However, soothing those feelings with food was easy. Sicilian food is really good and inexpensive. It was virtually impossible to find a bad cup of coffee, and even the gas stations had full espresso bars. We picked up fresh pressed olive oil in Licata, cannoli in roadside carts, pistachio ice cream in Agrigento, and feasted on fresh sardines in Mondello.
We slowed down in my grandfather’s town of Santa Margherita di Belice.
It is an arid, mountain top location, surrounded by pine forests and vineyards. Avoiding the risk of a speeding ticket proved especially prudent, because instead of becoming an adversary, the sheriff befriended us. It was the handsome, blue eyed 70 something police chief that helped us dig through town birth records.
In addition to a personal tour of the town, he introduced us to a very old woman called Rosalia Rosalia, who after a few suspicious glances, slammed her window shutters tight. Who could blame her? That torturous combination of names would sour anyone.
Apparently Rosalia is a ridiculously common first name in Italy, but the surname is specific to the southern part of the country, particularly Sicily. Wondering why this would be so, I recalled that when we picked up our zippy little convertible, the rental car operator said: “Rosalia is your last name? That is a pretty big deal here in Sicily, because we love our Saint.”
Did an ancestor take our last name to pay homage to the Saint?
Did they think she protected or healed them? Clearly, I’ll never know, but it inspired me to learn a little more and visit the grotto at the top of Mt. Pellegrino in Palermo, Sicily.
Because she was just a kid when she decided to dedicate her life to God, Sicilians have affectionately nicknamed her Santuzza or “little saint”.
Her tale is one of independence, integrity, a love of life and of people. At the age of 12, her wealthy, rose farm owning, aristocratic parents tried to marry her off to an old man. She would have none of it. After hacking off her long blonde hair she escaped to a cave at the top of Mount Pellegrino. Until her death in 1170 she led a hermetic life there, dedicated to god. During her decades there, she developed a following as a spiritual counselor, and the faithful from Palermo would make the trek up the mountain to seek her out.
Her legend as saint and healer did not really start until about 450 years later.
When a plague decimated the population of Palermo, several people reported visitations from her. She commanded them to find her bones and parade them through the city. Eventually, a hunter took her up on it. He retrieved them from the mountain sanctuary, and after repeated pleadings with the Mayor, the procession was allowed. Almost instantly the city was cured.
Every July 15 since then, Palermo comes alive with festivities, fireworks and parades paying homage to Santa Rosalia.
Finding her sanctuary was not easy.
First of all, I have always had a terrible sense of direction. Compound that with the very nature of driving in Italy, and I was flummoxed. A failing GPS system in the car, unfamiliar road signs and wild drivers meant that what should have been a 20 minute drive, took me hours to do. Several times I came within yards of the sanctuary, only to turn back, return to the base to ask someone for directions, and have to drive up to the top of the mountain again.
Persistence paid off and I spotted a grand church facade carved into the sheer mountain face of Pellegrino. It’s impressive and conceals Saint Rosalia’s sanctuary, which is the cave in which she lived.
In a quirky touch at the entrance, a marble head of the saint greets visitors from a hole in the stone wall.
Continuing deeper into the cave are are several rows of church pews and two statues of her. One is a life sized gold and porcelain figure encased in glass and the other a towering backlit replica at the rear of the grotto.
The sanctuary had an almost hip-cool vibe to it. I was not expecting to find in a shrine.
Nothing about the sunny, arid exterior and hustle bustle of the kiosk laden parking lot indicated what was inside. The grotto itself is large – an expanded version of the one that she lived in. Strategically placed mood lighting highlights crevices and stalactites.
It is so moisture laden that the cavern ceiling is covered with metal channels that whisk away condensation. Water droplets perpetually forming on the walls used to drip on the faithful visiting. Now it fills a large cistern filled with currency from around the world.
Sounds echo softly from people shuffling through the sanctuary and talking in hushed tones. The simple, dark and thickly varnished wooden pews contributed to the textured look of the interior.
The sum total is an otherworldly feel that is simultaneously lovely and heavy.
Click through this slider to see more images from Santuzza and my journey to find St. Rosalia.
Eavesdropping on a tour guide revealed the source of little flecks of white dotting the cave walls. What I had mistakenly thought to be paint or mineral deposits were actually pieces of paper with prayers written upon them. Visitors squeeze them into nooks and crannies on the stone walls. There are were so many hopes and dreams, that I was hard pressed to find a reachable space without them.
It was a very interesting environment. The people watching, ethereal vibe and cool serenity sucked me into staying for a long time.
There were brief periods of solitude, but mostly a steady stream of visitors praying and placing secret wishes in the cavern walls. Encased in glass is a golden full size replica of her. Through a slit too small for an arm, petitioners donate jewels, cash and other valuables to accompany prayers for healing. Just outside of the case are abandoned medical devices such as casts and leg braces. These have been left by those who believe that the Saint cured them of an ailment.
I was surrounded by hope.
The wishes in the wall, donations and discarded medical devices were actually a representation of hope. Even though I was physically in a grotto sitting on a wooden pew, in another way I was surrounded by peoples optimistic hope that things can be better. It was easy to transition from that realization to contemplating the nature of hope and it’s connection to healing. Whether it’s god, or prayers or medicine, hope in and of itself helps people heal emotionally and physically. How lovely it was to be surrounded by little remnants of hope left by the thousands of people who visit her each year.
Time spent there with those thoughts made me thankful that through my profession I’m able to participate in people’s journeys to health and perhaps contribute a little bit of hope, one healing treatment session at a time.
With all the sadness and strife that exists on our planet, a little bit more of that could go a long way to healing the world.
Before I left the sanctuary, I spent some time contemplating Saint Rosalia and her life, and personality. She was persistent, dedicated, simultaneously rebellious and loving. I got a much better understanding of how my ancestors may have felt about her. So, before I left, I wrote a little thank you on behalf of the forefather that took her name and, left a another piece of white paper with Santuzza, Santa Rosalia.