Italy's town of 44 churches

By  Gary May, Catholic Register Special
  • October 16, 2009
{mosimage}MARATEA, Italy  - Fr. Adelmo Iacovino smiles with pride as he speaks of his parish in the Basilicata region of rural southern Italy.

In this community of fewer than 5,000, scattered across and around Monte San Biagio and overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Iacovino oversees 30 churches and chapels. Add another 14 private chapels and a visitor might well marvel at the devotion the people of Maratea bring to their Roman Catholicism.

It is a devotion that also saw the erection atop the mountain 44 years ago of a 21-metre-tall statue, Il Redentore (The Redeemer), which is no less majestic than Rio de Janeiro’s famed Corcovado. Built of cement and faced with gleeming white Carrara marble, The Redeemer stands, its back to the sea 622 metres below, arms outstretched as if to embrace and protect its people.

Maratea, 400 kilometres southeast of Rome, has been dubbed Italy’s “town of churches,” with 44 places of worship spread around its environs. The 31-year-old Iacovino says “about 12 or 13” churches are in use in the town centre while the rest are spread throughout isolated communities.

Regular Mass is held at Chiesa dell’Annunziata (Church of the Annunciation), just off Maratea’s main square, because older church-goers find it difficult to climb the steep streets that lead up the mountain to the mother church, Santa Maria Maggiore. Built in the 15th century, Santa Maria is kept for special occasions such as Easter and Christmas.

Iacovino is eager to show a visitor relics of its links to the martyred saint, Biagio. Pointing to some fragments inside a glass bubble in a vessel, he says, “These are the bones of San Biagio.”

Biagio is Maratea’s patron saint, his life celebrated each May with a procession down the steep slopes of the mountain. The procession carries the silver effigy of the saint, draped in red cloth, from its normal resting place at the Basilica of San Biagio atop the mountain, down a series of switchback curves to the village.

The Armenian-born Biagio was martyred in 316 and, the story goes, his bones left behind in Maratea three or four centuries later by sailors who were barred from leaving port by some mysterious force. Once they gave Biagio’s bones to the locals, they were able to continue their journey.

Today, Biagio’s remains are divided between the Basilica of San Biagio and Annunziata.

How did this little town end up with so many houses of worship? Partially it is due to the many isolated communities of the parish. But author Mimmo Longobardi says it is also because in the past, visiting priests would have chapels built as they passed through on their way to the back-country villages.

Maratea’s links to Roman Catholicism run deep, but Longobardi says the first church, in a grotto or cave on the mountaintop, was established by Basilican monks who brought their Orthodox religion from the East. The region still boasts a strong Greek influence, he says, and is a sort of “transition zone” between the Greek and Latin worlds. It was the monks who established the first town of Maratea.

Iacovino pauses when asked how difficult it is for so few people to maintain so many churches and chapels. He says the townspeople do the maintenance, but admits the cost of light, heat and taxes are a worry. As well, typical of any rural community, the young people drift away to larger centres and rarely return.

“I think in the future there is going to be a big problem,” he says. “Young people aren’t educated to help in the same way as their parents and grandparents. I work with youth groups to teach them the faith and see if we can change that.”

Iacovino and two assistant priests perform 14 regular Masses each week, not including baptisms, weddings and funerals. As well, tourists, attracted by the blue seas, beaches, mountains and culture, come to be wed here.

In mid-summer, Maratea’s population swells to near 30,000 and, Iacovino says, “in summer, more tourists than locals come to Mass. The locals are busy working for the tourists,” he laughs.

Many of the churches boast magnificent architecture and house fine artwork. San Vito is the oldest still standing, dating from the 11th century, with frescoes from the 15th century.

But it is up on the mount, not far from The Redeemer, where Christianity marks its local roots. Longobardi says those early Christians chose a grotto to build their first place of worship, near the Basilica of San Biagio.

It is here where the original town, Maratea Superiore, was established. The townspeople built Maratea Inferiore, halfway down the mountain, in about 1100, to make themselves less conspicuous to passing pirates and thieves.

(May is a freelance writer in Leamington, Ont.)

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