In the 16th century, a group of wealthy women from Palermo gathered in a hidden chapel, called the Oratory of Women, in order to pray for and help disadvantaged pregnant women.
When walking around the sand-colored streets of Palermo’s city center, it’s hard to miss the Baroque-style Chiesa del Gesù, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. But few visitors know that if you keep walking from the Church of Jesus in the direction of the port, you will find on your left one of the city’s best kept secrets: the Oratory of the Dames. Hidden inside an unassuming stone entrance decorated with Marian symbols, the chapel has been at the center of Palermo’s religious life for five hundred years.
This secluded place of worship was built in the 1530s, in the middle of a war between the French and the Spanish, by a group of Palermo’s noblewomen who wanted to provide help to newborn children of women from disadvantaged backgrounds. The women eventually founded a congregation in 1595 called “Congregazione delle Dame del Giardinello al Ponticello,” literally “Congregation of the Dames of the Little Garden of the Bridge.”
Women from the most notable families of the city would meet here every Friday to pray, meditate and provide help for pregnant women and mothers of newborn babies. Help came in the form of financial aid, food, medicine but also clothing for the newborns sewn by the women themselves. The congregation was led by a governor that was usually selected among Naples’ princesses.
Among the notable leaders in the congregation’s history was the first Queen of Italy, Marguerite of Savoy. In the first decades since the foundation of their congregation, the dames commissioned beautiful frescoes from Antonio Grano, one of the most important exponents of Palermo’s Baroque art. His pastel-colored works depict a Triumph of the Virgin as well as six stories from Christ’s childhood such as The Adoration of the Magi and The Nativity. The most important artwork of the chapel, a painting by an unknown author placed above the altar, depicts the “Madonna of Childbirth.”
Another prominent aspect of this chapel is its courtyard, called “giardinello” (small garden) with richly decorated maiolica-style floor and orange trees. It is this small garden that inspired the congregation’s name, “Dames of the Small Garden at The Bridge.”
The chapel was built in one of Palermo’s poorest neighborhoods at the time. The decision to gather here and to provide help for women of all socio-economic backgrounds speaks of the Marian values embraced by the congregation.
The order is still active today. It is still women-only and focuses on social charity, especially helping pregnant women and new mothers.
The chapel is open for Mass on the first Sunday of the month (11:30 am) and during the festivity of the Madonna Of Childbirth on December 18.
Where to find it: From the Chiesa del Gesù keep walking towards the Kalsa neighborhood in the direction of Palermo’s port. In Via del Ponticello n°39 you will find an unassuming building with brown sign reads that “Oratorio della Congregazione delle Dame.” Behind that door you’ll find one of Palermo’s best kept secrets.