St. Rosalia of Palermo

(Died 1160?)

Holy people have a fondness for breaking away from the crowd to be alone with God. Our Lord himself set the example of temporary retreats into the silence of the desert, or even into such quiet places as the garden of Gethsemani.

In the fourth century there was a great upsurge of interest in what came to be known as the religious life. The trend began in Egypt, spread through the Mideast, and thereafter into western Europe. Although the great religious orders, eastern and western alike, sprang from this drive, it began as a movement of individual “anchorites” or hermits. Experience would prove, however, that it was wiser for monks and nuns to have a community religious experience before they started “hermiting”. So even in later centuries a religious man or woman who has received basic training in the contemplative life can be given permission to live apart from his or her community in a private hermitage.

St. Rosalia was a medieval Sicilian hermitess or ancress, (i.e., a female hermit or anchorite). Churches dedicated to her in Sicily date from as early as the 13th century; unfortunately, what we know of her actual life is based mostly on legends. Even the legends tell us precious little. For example, if the tradition that she was the daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Quisquina, hints at her family’s social background, the inscription on which it is based is not considered trustworthy.

We can only say, therefore, that this young Sicilian woman decided at a critical period in her life to become a hermit. Most likely it was after she had first lived as a nun in a Greek-rite convent, of which there were many in Sicily. The initial hermitage she occupied was at Mount Coscina, near Bivona, Sicily. After spending some time there, she moved to another cave in Mount Pellegrino. Mount Pellegrino is an eye-catching dome of limestone, three miles north of Palermo. Our hermitess passed the rest of her life at this seaside promontory.

When she died, around 1160, she was even buried in the cave. Buried with her were some devotional items, including a primitive sort of rosary. As the centuries passed thereafter, water dripping through and dissolving the limestone gradually formed a stalagmite, which completely covered and concealed her tomb.

If the cave’s saintly occupant had been known at all at the time of her death, by 1624 she seems to have been long forgotten. That year the plague became violently epidemic in Palermo. This plague was probably the “Black Death”, the bubonic or pneumonic pestilence. According to the story, Rosalia appeared in a dream to one of the sick citizens, urging her to persuade the authorities to break open her calcified grave and carry her relics to Palermo. Following through, the citizens of Palermo unearthed her relics and bore them in solemn procession to Palermo. Upon their arrival, the plague promptly ceased.

The Panormitans, grateful for the intercession of Rosalia, voted her as their municipal patron saint. Pope Urban VIII confirmed their choice in 1630 when he added the name of Saint Rosalia to the Roman Martyrologv, the Holy See’s official catalogue of saints.

Palermo’s enthusiasm for Santa Rosalia has not ceased since then. Both of her hermit caves have been turned into devotional chapels. The relics themselves repose in the Chapel of Saint Rosalia in the Palermo cathedral. Her sarcophagus is surely richer than the ancress herself would have chosen! It is made of pure silver, 1400 pounds in weight. Understandably, it is exposed to public view on only three liturgical occasions during the year.

In the past century thousands of Sicilians have emigrated to other continents in search of a better living. One thing they have taken with them is devotion to their beloved hermitess. They have often given their daughters and granddaughters her name at baptism. People of other national backgrounds, although they knew nothing of St. Rosalia herself, have also found her name lilting and musical, and appropriated it for their own daughters. May the holy hermitess remember all of them in her prayers.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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