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When Saint Rosalia helped Palermo fight the plague



V. M. Traverso - published on 09/08/21

After the faithful organized a procession with the Saint’s bones the pandemic started to fade.

Visitors to the Sicilian city of Palermo can’t miss the sanctuary built in honor of the local patron Saint Rosalia. The towering shrine was built inside a natural cave located on Monte Pellegrino, an imposing hill overlooking Palermo that inspired many writers and artists including the 19th-century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first evidence of a Christian temple in Monte Pellegrino goes back to the 12th century. However, it was not until the 17th century that a full-blown shrine was built. 

A vision of St. Rosalia

According to a local legend, the shrine was built after St. Rosalia helped Palermitans fight the plague. In 1624, a boat bearing gifts for the Viceroy of Sicily came from Tunisia and anchored in the port of Palermo. Officials warned the viceroy that people on the foreign vessel were probably infected with the plague and suggested a period of quarantine for everyone on board. But Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto ignored the warnings as he was eager to receive the exotic gifts. A few weeks later, the government officially declared a pandemic emergency in Palermo. The plague had made it into the city. 

saint rosalia
The shrine of Santa Rosalia was built after Santa Rosalia helped Palermitans fight the plague.

Girolama La Gattuta, a local woman, climbed Monte Pellegrino and had a vision: St. Rosalia appeared and disclosed the location where her bones had been buried. A few weeks later, an expedition was sent to dig in the spot indicated by the woman. To everyone’s surprise, some bright white human bones were found amid rocks. A few minutes after the discovery, a strong smell of flowers started to inundate the mountain. The bones were taken down to Palermo and their origin certified by Archbishop Giannettino Doria. 

The towering shrine was built inside a natural cave located on Monte Pellegrino, an imposing hill overlooking Palermo

A shrine was built in gratitude

A year later, on June 9, 1625, the city organized a procession in honor of Santa Rosalia while carrying her bones. The devastating pandemic started to fade and a few months later Palermo had successfully put an end to the plague. In a sign of gratitude, the city built the gorgeous shrine that still towers over Palermo today. 

Visiting the shrine is a unique experience. The small unassuming facade reveals an elaborately decorated church and convent excavated 82 feet into the mountain. Marble statues, altars and crucifixes stand out from the jagged rock walls making it seem as if the church developed naturally from the inside of the mountain. Far from being just a tourist attraction, the sanctuary is an active place of worship with thousands of people ascending the mountain each day to pray. Every year, on September 4, the day of the feast of St. Rosalia, tens of thousands of people walk up to the church barefoot to show their respect to the saint who helped fight the plague.

saint rosalia church
The small unassuming facade reveals an elaborate decorated church and convent excavated 82 feet into the mountain.

The shrine is open to visitors every day between 8 am and 8 pm with public transport buses running regularly from downtown Palermo. Mass is celebrated at 9 am, 11 am and 6 pm between Monday and Sunday and at 11 am and 6 pm on Sunday. 

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