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.”