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When you come to visit Mt Etna, do follow the itinerary of the churches buried by the lava. They are fascinating, mysterious places, a little disturbing sometimes but and rich in history. Such as the Sanctuary of Mompileri. It is on the southern flank of Etna, in the territory of the town of Mascalucia. It rises not far from those Monti Rossi craters that – formed by  the eruption of 1669 – destroyed the villages of Nicolosi, Mascalucia and Mompileri.

The lava of that eruption reached Catania, after four months of unstoppable descent, erasing houses, countryside, rivers and even castles. Together with the village of Mompileri, its church was also canceled. It probably was  one of the oldest testimonies of a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in Sicily. The history of this building and its discovery really deserves to be remembered by tourists.

Mompileri, a church against the volcano

The Marian Shrine of Mompileri is mentioned in official documents for the first time in the 15th century. However, for the structure and for the history, it certainly had much older origins, perhaps dating back to the Norman time. Located at the foot of the extinct crater of Mompileri, it was the church of the ancient village of the same name.

Threatened closely by more than one lateral eruption of Mt Etna, in 1537 a lava flow had touched it “literally” leaning against the north wall. The lava also covered a part of the roof. Before the church was destroyed you could admire real lava “stalactites” hanging from the ceiling following this event.

Unfortunately the volcano won the last battle. In 1669, the terrible eruption of the Monti Rossi left no way out for the church. Swallowed, together with the village, it seemed to have been totally devastated and was even forgotten. Until one August day, in 1704.

The excavations and the New Sanctuary

Mompileri shrine 2A woman from the nearby town of Massannunziata dreamt of the Virgin Mary. She would indicate a specific place on the old lava flow and invite her to dig the rock right there. The devoutees of the town, intrigued, decided to attempt those excavations. With great surprise they found themselves in front of the ancient statue of Our Lady of Graces,  intact!

From here began the hard work to bring to light the other parts of the shrine. Gradually, they discovered that the lower part of the building had been miraculously preserved intact. While admiring the underground find, they also built the new sanctuary a few meters off the excavation place.

In 3 months it was completed. The news of the miraculous discovery of the intact statue spread throughout Sicily, precisely creating the cult of the “Madonna della Sciara” (Our Lady of Lava). Even today this act of devotion characterizes the sanctuary of Mompileri.

The shrine today

Today the shrine of Mompileri is a religious destination for many pilgrims, not only Sicilians. In addition to the sacred attraction, it is also a nice place for tourists. Surrounded by a peaceful countryside, it invites to meditation and rest. The charm of going down the steps leading to the “cave” -that is, the ancient church under the lava – is a unique emotion.

Besides the statue of Our Lady of Graces, to which the miracle of the finding refers, you can also admire the heads of another “Madonna” and the Angel Gabriel, probably works by Antonello Gagini. They found them during restoration works in 1955, yet another testimony of how the lava has preserved, rather than destroyed, this monument.

To visit the sanctuary: the reference point is Catania and its airport, if you come from outside. Take the E45 Highway towards Misterbianco – exit San Giovanni Galermo junction. Then take the Provincial SP 88 to Mascalucia and Massannunziata. Otherwise, from the central railway station of Catania take the AST bus line to Mascalucia. Contact the shrine of Mompileri at: 095 791 4117 – 347 370 0375. (the photos are by Grazia Musumeci).

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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