“Our Lady of Mercy”
VALMALA, ITALY (1834)
On August 2, a bright summer morning, four shepherdesses push their herd of cows at daybreak out onto the road that climbs the mountain. Maria Pittavino (12), Margherita Pittavino (12), Maria Chiotti (12), and Maria Boschero (10) were out of breath when they came to a beautiful basin at an altitude of 1,378 meters. Some testify that Margherita’s younger brother Chiaffredo (8) may have been with them that day, also. In the middle of the green valley of Chiotti, there is a large rough stone where they like to stop and rest.
Suddenly, they were astonished to see before them, standing on the stone slab, a beautiful lady of majestic appearance. She was a young woman of ordinary stature about twenty years old. She wore a long dress with a reddish belt tied to the sides. From the head draped a long, celestial blue veil, held to her neck with a bright yellow button. It covered her head, hair, forehead, and sides of her head, only leaving her face and neck uncovered. Under the mantle is a dark red color all over with a beautiful yellow belt encircling her hips. Her feet fit into simple sandals. On her head is a crown of beautiful high-gloss gems adorned in dazzling beauty.
She does not speak, but her eyes are rich with expression, shedding tears that flow down her cheeks and fall to the ground. She alternates her tearful gaze from one shepherdess to the next. Her arms were outstretched with open hands, a traditional pose of the Virgin Mary. But they were not sure who she was – maybe Saint Anna, perhaps the Madonna. The only words they recall hearing were a request for a chapel to be built on this site.
The four young girls fell into an ecstasy, partly from fear, and remained silent. The Lady disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. The girls returned home – too upset to talk about what they had seen. Despite their reluctance to return to that area, their parents urged them to fulfill their duties with the herd.
The girls admitted that they too fearful to return to that area “because every now and then the same great Lady – who always cries – appears before the four of us.” Mary Pittavino’s father, Joseph, knowing the innocence and honesty of his daughter, decided to accompany the girls to see about this matter, personally.
On August 6 at 10:00 a.m., the four girls, the father, and other people from the village climb the mountain to the Chiotti basin or valley. As they approach the rock boulder, the four milkmaids cry out together, full of wonder,
“There she is, standing on the stone – the beautiful lady. She keeps crying, wears the same clothes and has the same features as all the other times.”
But the people all around them see nothing. One of the girls approaches the boulder, takes one hand and raises the hem of the coat of Blessed Mary. The spectators see the girl’s hand with fingers closed as if she is grasping something – but see nothing else. Joseph Pittavino invites all to kneel and pray. He vows that if he could learn the apparition’s identity, he would build a chapel in that place.
However, one of the villagers present, Bartholomew Valmala Chiotti, turns with confidence toward the invisible Madonna and offers a promise. If she will heal him from his two-year ailment of acute kidney pain, he promises Mary a “gift.” The pain had caused him to walk with great difficulty, hunched over, and with his forehead toward the ground. Instantly, he receives that grace and is able to walk upright with no pain and no further ailment! Everyone observes this miracle! (And he kept his promise to Mary …)
On August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Joseph Pittavino feels inwardly compelled to return to the site of the apparition. He joined other people who had the similar desire to possibly see her and confirm her identity as the Blessed Virgin. As the party of people arrive at the stone in Chiotti, the four shepherdesses all exclaim,
“Here, here she is – the Lady! She is more beautiful than ever! The same crown!”
Although still invisible to the others, they are more certain from the girls’ description that this is most likely the Blessed Virgin Mary. Without speaking, they all kneel. Joseph lights a blessed candle, makes the sign of the Holy Cross, and prays the Holy Rosary. During the fervent recitation of the Rosary, the four shepherdesses are enraptured in ecstasy, holding their gaze upon the boulder and just above it (where she stands). Bystanders witness the illuminating joy and happiness upon their faces, transfigured by their heavenly experience.
After the recitation of the Rosary, Joseph asks the shepherd girls if they still see the Lady. They are amazed that others cannot see her. They respond that the Lady is still there, standing where she always does, her eyes dripping with tears that glisten on her face. Then the girls add some new details,
“We hear voices singing religious songs … what beautiful voices! … I sing pretty … a song that resembles that of the Solemn Mass of the Dead …”
They describe seeing “people moving in the blue sky, passing across the sun” which casts such large shadows that the whole cowherd is in darkness. Then they state that the “beautiful Lady” has gone from the rock.
Appearances of the Blessed Virgin continued for fifty days. Our Lady would appear either standing on the rock, sitting on the rock, or walking on the ground surrounding the rock. But she would always have tears in her eyes. She would make “amorous glances” toward the girls as she walked to and fro over the surface of the rock. Then she actually spoke to Mary Pittavino in the dialect of Occitan during one appearance:
“When returning home tonight, tell your father (Joseph) that I want him to erect a mast in this place where I am. Tell him that under these clods where you and your classmates have seen me walking, he will find sand and stones in abundance, a quantity not only to erect the mast, but enough for still other factories.”
Joseph Pittavino began construction at once – but he still wants to be certain to whom he is dedicating this structure. The girls reply that the Lady is “just an extraordinary beauty” who becomes more beautiful with each appearance and each recitation of the Rosary. Others still argue that this is St. Anna. However, the most common opinion is that this is really the Blessed Virgin.
To solve this mystery, Joseph Pittavino leads the four girls to explore many pictures and depictions of the saints and Madonna that are located in the district of Valmala. None of these images looks familiar to the girls. Finally, one day, in the marketplace of Venasca, there were many paintings on display from a stranger. All eyes of the four girls fixated upon one painting with wonder and joy, exclaiming,
“Here it is! Here is the image that resembles in all respects the Lady whom we have seen so many times on the rock of Chiotti.”
It is the Madonna as she appeared to Anthony Botta on March 18, 1536. This image hangs in the great shrine of Savona with the title, “Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy.” Joseph Pittavino immediately buys that image so that the painter Giuseppe Gauteri of Saluzzo can add it to the constructed pylon or mast.
From that day, the apparitions ceased entirely – as if to signify that Mary wanted to make sure that the right image and title, “Mother of Mercy” would be assigned before she departed. Buildings were added around the pylon “marker” – with a Sanctuary eventually added.
On the first Sunday of August in 1946, Our Lady Queen of Valmala was solemnly crowned by Archbishop Luigi Lanzo Gile, Bishop of Saluzzo in the Diocese. From March 19 to July 30, 1949, the statue of the Mother of Mercy, worshipped at the shrine, was chosen for the Pilgrimage of Mary, and brought into all the parishes of the diocese. In August of 1949, in memory of Pilgrimage, and artistic marble statue of the Heavenly Queen was placed in the forecourt of the Shrine.