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History of the Sanctuary in Sicily

In Altavilla Milicia, Palermo, Sicily, Italy the best recognized sanctuary is the sanctuary of Maria SS. Lauretana (Madonna Della Milicia).  It is a spiritual sanitarium where people come from all parts to honor Her and ask for her intercessions; in which they find comfort and guidance. 

Maria SS. Lauretana chose this small peasant town to perform Her miracles.  From her sanctuary, She calls Her numerous sons and daughters with renewed and reinforced faith to find God and love so that they may face the challenges of life. 

All members are faithful to the “Blessed Mother” almost every day of the year but especially on Her feast day, September 8th which marks the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  They come to pay homage and to thank Her for Her continued graces and aid. 

You will also find the legendary beautifully adorned “Carro” (Triumphal Cart) which travels through the main streets; pulled by oxen among cheering crowds.  The “Carro” is a symbolic re-enactment of the Triumphant arrival of the painting of our Blessed Mother to Altavilla Milicia.  On the day of the Feast, there is a solemn procession with the Sacred Image where hundreds of overjoyed faithful’s follow the procession in prayer and singing praises.   But perhaps the most interesting event is the “Flight of the Angels.”    During this event, two young children are suspended in the air, via rope, representing the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, re-enact the events of the Annunciation in beautiful verse. 

The people of Altavilla Milicia are very devoted to Mary and show it not only with the words and actions but also by following the teachings of the Gospel and instructions of the Pope.  Their faith therefore is not to be compared with superstitions and fanaticism.   Their priests’ teachings keep them from falling into ignorance and naivety’ which so often is mixed with faith. 

The oldest recorded document on the origin of the Marian Sanctuary of Altavilla Milicia dates back to the year 1623; when the parish church was erected.   It says in the records that the Church had been originally dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi but slowly became more and more a Marian Sanctuary due to the mounting devotion to the Sacred Image of Our Lady, which was venerated there and the numerous reports of miracles.  There are no documents as to the place of origin of the Sacred Image called Maria SS. Lauretana (Madonna Della Milicia).

History of the Painting

How did this painting of Maria SS. Lauretana arrive in Altavilla Milicia?   An ancient oral tradition recounts “On an unknown day before the 6th century, the inhabitants of Altavilla Milicia witnessed a ship experiencing difficulty.  It was passing Cape Zafferano and sailing towards Palermo.   The ship turned it’s bow towards the shore of Altavilla Milicia and the passengers called to the people of Altavilla to come.  Some came running to the shore and the Sacred image was offered to them.   The pirate ship had kept the painting as some kind of lid or covering.  The pirates believed that it was the image that was the cause of their not being able to advance towards Palermo.  So instead of throwing into the sea as they had first thought to do, they surrendered it into Christian hands.  Feeling joyful because of this precious panting the people brought into the small hill which it now inhabits.  The story spread throughout Italy in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds.

More realistically, however, the origin of the Sanctuary is linked to a pirate invading the territory of Altavilla Milicia during the night of June 14-15, 1636.  Palermo, at the time, was celebrating the Feast of Santa Rosalia, who in 1624, had liberated the city from a terrible plague.   The Feast was interrupted by news of Pirates invading Altavilla and the army moved swiftly upon Altavilla Milicia; compelling the pirates to retreat.   It appeared, in following, that the pirates had taken out their revenge upon the painting of Maria SS Lauretana by striking it from behind with an ax.   This news quickly reached the inhabitants of Palermo, who in amends for this outrage committed against the Madonna, and in thanks to her for having saved the city from the pirate attack, spread the word throughout Palermo and a great devotion the Madonna developed.  Just like Santa Rosalia had liberated the city from the plague, Maria SS Lauretana had liberated Palermo from the pirate attack.  Thus, today lives the tradition that Maria SS. Lauretana, before re-entering the Sanctuary, at the end of the procession on September 8th, must pause with her face towards Palermo to signify that today still the Madonna must protect the city of Palermo.

How then did the painting arrive in Altavilla Milicia?   In 1942 Professor Violante confirmed that the painting dates back to the fourth century and is of Catalan origin.   For certain we know that the nearby “Chiesuzza” was dedicated to Santa Maria di Campogrosso and that every year a procession was made with the painting of Maria SS. Lauretana.   The painting is believed to be of the Byzantine style icon collection which was transferred along with the remainder of the crucifix to the Sanctuary.


Altavilla Milicia, Chicago and Arizona societies have celebrated this religious occasion for over 200 years.  The last Sunday of each September is a day of particularly religious significance for the Arizona chapter of Maria SS. Lauretana as it is the day of our yearly celebration to honor our Lady.

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering why there are three images at the top.    Here is the explanation.   The image to the upper left was the original image obtained on the shores of Altavilla Milicia in 1623.   In the mid 1800's, the image was adorned with gold and silver overlay (middle image) and was the image venerated until 1990.  It was at that time that pastor of the sanctuary in Sicily sent the painting in for restoration.  It was decided at that time that the silver and gold overlays would no longer be adhered to the painting and the original image would be left in its original state.  That is now the image that is venerated to this day.    Since the Arizona Chapter had been established in 1983, the image that is venerated today (center) is the same one that pre-dates the 1990 restoration.    Finally, on the right is a rendition conceptualized by it's painter for the Chicago Chapter in 1900 and that is the same painting that is venerated today in Chicago.


Regardless of the image, as Catholics, we know that it is not the image but the representation of the holy person that we honor and venerate.   That said, there was only one mother of Jesus and she is ultimately whom we pray to and ask for intercessions.

Our Board of Directors

Apollonia Scianna


Francesca Barone

Vice President

Sam Scimeca

General Secretary

Rosaria Ippolito


Lina Davi


Sara Accardi


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