“Our Lady of Montallegro” RAPALLO, ITALY (1557)
On July 2, 1557, a farmer named Giovanni Chichizola was walking on a donkey trail on a wooded hill overlooking the city of Rapallo. Coming upon a cool, shady spot, he paused for his noonday rest. The sound of a sweet voice calling his name startled him to alertness. There, standing close beside him, was a beautiful lady surrounded by an intense light. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and reassured him by saying,
“Do not fear, Giovanni. I am the Mother of God. I have chosen you to be a messenger of my motherly will. Visit the ecclesiastics of Rapallo and let them know that the Mother of God has chosen this place as her perpetual dwelling place and would like a church to be erected here. I leave here a pledge of my love.”
The vision then directed his attention to a small picture propped against one of the rocks where he had been resting.
“Tell the people that this picture was brought here from Greece by the angels. I leave it here as a token of my love for them. Fast on Saturday.”
The vision then disappeared as if carried away in a cloud. The farmer Giovanni studied the icon on the rock. The picture depicts Our Blessed Mary lying on a bier at the time of her passing from this world on to the Heavenly Kingdom. The Holy Trinity is represented by the figures in the central part of the icon. Surrounding the Virgin in a mournful attitude are several saints and two angels. Giovanni attempted to pick the icon up off the rock, but he could not budge it at all. Much to his surprise, a spring had begun flowing from the dry ground by the rock – the exact spot where the Blessed Virgin had appeared.
He went to the village and told the people what had happened. The priests to whom he told his story were skeptical, but because of Giovanni’s excitement they reluctantly followed him to the place of the apparition. There they saw the picture which none of the peasants could lift, and the spring which had mysteriously appeared. One of the priests raised the portrait without difficulty and carried it in procession to the parish church, where it was carefully locked up pending further investigation. But, the next morning, the icon had disappeared from the church – only to be found back on the rock up on the wooded hill.
Once again, the villagers brought the icon back down the hill and to the church where it was displayed all day to the veneration of many. The people were impressed with the details of Giovanni’s experience. At the end of that day the icon was locked away for safekeeping. But they were surprised the next morning to find that it had disappeared again! After a long search, the icon was discovered to be back up on the rock on the hill overlooking Rapallo.
All agreed that these supernatural journeys of the icon were a clear sign and indication that the Blessed Mother wished for the icon to remain in that particular place. They believed that they should build her requested church on that spot so that it could house and protect the treasured icon.
The very next year in 1558, the Archbishop of Turin authorized the building of a church on the “Hill of Joy” where Mary’s visit had taken place. Construction began immediately and during the following year the church opened and was dedicated to Our Blessed Mother. For seventeen quiet years the precious icon was loved and venerated on the Hill of Joy.
In 1574, a group of Greek sailors, sailing from Ragusa, experienced a bad storm while crossing the Gulf of Tigullio. The ship’s captain, Nicholas de Allegretis, together with the crew, promised Our Lady that if they were saved, they would make a pilgrimage to the nearest sanctuary dedicated to her. Upon safely reaching land, they climbed the hill to the sanctuary to fulfill their vow of thanksgiving. It was then that they noticed the treasured icon, recognizing it and declaring that it was formerly venerated in Ragusa – but that it had mysteriously disappeared from there in 1557. The Greeks claimed ownership, which resulted in court proceedings before the magistrate of Genoa. Eventually, the icon was given back to the Greeks for safe transport to its original location in Ragusa.
The icon was taken to the port, boarded on the ship, and placed in a secure location. The ship was well out to sea when the icon suddenly disappeared! Eventually, the captain and his crew learned that the icon had reappeared back in the church on the hill where Our Lady had wanted it to stay. All agreed this time that it should remain there out of respect for Blessed Mary’s wishes.
Every year, the 2nd of July is celebrated as “Apparition Day.” The people of Rapallo travel to the Hill of Joy in a grand procession, carrying an ancient wooden crucifix and a silver shrine with the Mother’s statue. Upon reaching the sanctuary, the first-time pilgrim is amazed by the huge collection of votive offerings and ex-votos, some of them in silver, which decorate the walls, giving proof of prayers answered and miracles worked through the Virgin’s intercession. Records reveal that Our Lady’s intervention brought about deliverance from the plague in 1579, 1590 and 1630. On these and other occasions, the people saw to it that Our Lady was thanked by means of votive plaques, hundreds of which still hang in the basilica. The ex-votos became so numerous that galleries were built to accommodate them. These additions to the sanctuary soon proved inadequate, since the plaques multiplied to such an extent that even the cloister and sacristy were covered with them.
The Sacred Congregation of Rites, in 1739, granted the plea of the city of Rapallo to name Our Lady of Montallegro as its patroness. Once again the shrine found acceptance with the Vatican when Our Lady of Montallegro was crowned in solemn ceremonies on July 7, 1767 by the Bishop of Ajaccio, Corsica.
In the chapel of St. Joseph can be found the spring that began flowing from the time of the apparition. It is said to originate from the rock where the icon was originally found. Today, the rock is found almost concealed at one side of the altar. And what of the water from the miraculous spring? A white marble trough with a faucet is provided for those who want to drink the water or collect it in bottles. Just above the faucet is a small door through which the rock is visible.
Pilgrims can approach the site on foot by way of an old mule track or by cable car from Rapallo. Pilgrims are intrigued with the beauty of the sanctuary and the treasured, miraculous icon – called Our Lady of Montallegro. In the basilica which replaced the original chapel, the celebrated picture is enshrined in a pavilion behind the high altar.
Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of the State of the Vatican, joined in the celebration for the 450th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Montallegro in 2007. The feast day of Our Lady is celebrated with great joy on the first three days of July each year.