by Rochelle Del Borrello | Feb 21, 2014
The tradition of nominating a patron Saint for each town is a custom reinforced by the Spanish domination of Sicily which was an already instilled habit employed by the early church to tap into the deeply engrained pagan beliefs of the island. Who needed a pithy nature related god when you could have a tangible super human saint to intervene personally in your life and help protect your own home town.
Sicily’s Saints are a wonderful collection of characters with amazing stories and their miracles will leave you spellbound. There have been saints who have stopped Etna’s lava, saved people from floods, landslides, illness, starvation and pestilence, one even managed to traverse the Strait of Messina on his cloak.
Mind you Sicilian’s are also quite severe with their patrons, if they don’t live up to their role as protectors they can easily be replaced by another, there have been several cases of denominated patron Saints.
The twentieth of February marks the anniversary of the death of San Leone, who is the Sicilian saint with which I have the most affinity, as he is the patron of my current home of Sinagra and protecter of many towns including: Longi, Rometta, Agrigento, Cosenza, Borgo Ottavia (Rome) and has been exported overseas thanks to Sicilian migrants who brought him to Buenos Aires, Cleveland and Kalamunda, Western Australia.
Saint Leone was born at Ravenna and came to Sicily in the Byzantine period of the Holy Roman Empire. Following the establishment of the Benedictine order’s convents in Southern Italy, the Saint came under the tutorage of the Bishop of Reggio Calabria who sent him to traverse the island, helping the poor and sick.
In 760 AD the Bishop of Catania died and by this time San Leone had become famous throughout Sicily, known as ‘the Father of the poor,’ thanks to his benevolent and charismatic nature. In this period the bishops were elected by the people and so after a year of debate, Catania chose him as their new bishop.
What popularized St Leo were the stories of his spectacular battles against the magician ‘Eliodoro’, who became a symbol of the heresy threatening the early church. With more than a hint of anti-Semitism the heretic was a ‘Hebrew’ or ‘Jewish’ sorcerer who sold his soul to the devil in return for all the worldly power he desired and a satanic creature who assisted him with his witchcraft.
With his magical illusions the warlock created trouble in the religious life of the Catanesi. San Leone’s confrontation with the magician let to the saints most impressive miracle. As the pagan disturbed the homily during the mass by braying like a donkey, the devout Leo lost his temper and challenged the idolater to a trial by fire, professing the power of God is greater than the devil.
A bonfire was lit and Saint Leo took hold of Eliodoro and leapt into it. The infidel was burnt to death while the evangelical Leone was unscathed. Apart from this particularly cinematographic battle the saint’s other miracles included destroying a pagan temple with the sign of the cross and healing people until well after his death in 785 AD.
Sicilian Saints are a distinctive mix of tradition, religion and expression of personal identity. Each town proudly pays homage to their saint with characteristic processions, music, dedications and often prepare special food in their honor.
Some key Saints include St Agata at Catania (3rd February), St Rosalia of Palermo (15th July) and the Madonna of Messina (15th August) but these larger celebrations are not for the faint hearted as the extravagant processions are accompanied by crushing crowds. Celebrations in smaller towns will offer you a more intimate interaction with these compelling festivities.
By Rochelle Del Borrello
For some images of this years suggestive festa of San Leone at Longi, Messina take a look at my blog Unwilling Expat.