#37 A stroll with Saint Leo
The 8th of May marks the big festa patronale at Sinagra, the Sicilian village where I live. Each town in Italy has its own patron Saint, celebrated during the year according to traditions.
Every town and city in Sicily has an intimate bond with its saintly protector, and gradually, through the years, they have become a part of each place's folk culture.
At Sinagra, San Leone has been celebrated yearly for as long as anyone can remember. The two world wars didn't stop; hard times didn't stop it, and changing times didn't fade the local's belief and enthusiasm in their Saintly protector. Saint Leo is also the patron of Rometta and Longi.
It took a global pandemic to end the processions for a while, the chanting and the yelling was put on hold. Covid stopped the people from riding at the Saint's feet, showering him with monetary offerings, and following him as he zig zags the town's small side streets. The town's band was silenced for three years. Last year's celebration was small and subdued.
There still were religious celebrations in Church in his honour, the firing of the canon and the fireworks at night but without the usual pulsating gatherings and festivities in the piazza.
St Leo was stranded in his country church during the pandemic, and his procession to his main home was cancelled. He had to be quietly smuggled back in the dark of night without anyone knowing to avoid crowds.
He's safely back in the parish church now, where the people can see him and pray for his intercession.
At Sinagra, the statue of St Leo is taken on a procession for Easter; he departs his countryside church and strolls around the small hamlets until he makes it to the bridge of the Naso River at Sinagra. When he reaches the bridge, he sprints over the river and into the main square accompanied by pyrotechnics, lights, running locals and yelling men. It's all very spectacular and pretty emotional for those who grew up with the ritual.
My Nonno, who used to live in one of the other towns near Sinagra, used to poke fun at the Singrese, who would run here and there with their Saint. He'd say, those Sinagrese fuiano adestra e sinistra (always running left and right). They do run with him quite a lot.
On the 8th of May at Sinagra, they always run him down quite a steep hill to the small piazza. It's a quaint little celebration, which nobody quite fully understands the origins. But there is a simple devotion and ritual, which is still very strong.
So as the WHO officially proclaims the end of the worldwide Covid pandemic, there will be a revived energy to St Leo at Sinagra and all other Saint Day celebrations throughout Sicily, Italy and Europe.
The Saint's procession is evocative of hundreds of other such celebrations worldwide, in an ancient tradition filled with colour, music and celebratory culture.
Winding painfully slowly down the steep steps outside the Church, the statue of Saint Leo walks over the grey lava cobblestone streets glancing over at the ruins of Sinagra's Castello.
The bell tower clock and partial ruins are all that remain of the medieval castle fort, which has been a regular part of the Sinagrese landscape for generations.
Saint Leo marches down Via Roma, the central commercial hub of the old town now dotted with hollowed-out hovels and decaying ancient palaces slowly filling up with pigeon faeces. And the odd newly restored building in a flurry of colours like a chameleon set in reverse.
This first leg of his procession is taken by dearly departed Sinagrese on their final procession to the cemetery during their funerals.
On San Leone's May feast day celebration, the mood is much less sombre, the procession punctuated by bursts of music from the local brass band.
Chiming bells and sonic booms from cannon shots punctuate the various turns on this wandering passegiata around Sinagra and its surrounding hamlets.
Feast days usually coincide with the dates of the Saint's birth, death or another significant event, such as a miracle associated with the town.
Down Via Veneto heading towards the main square, the urban scape becomes less steep until reaching a plateau in the Piazza San Teodoro.
Continuing straight ahead, St Leo begins Via Umberto Primo, the old civic centre of Sinagra.
At the beginning of the street, there is the antique Church of the Crucifix, with its bell tower dating back to the middle ages.
This Church is intriguing, much smaller than St Michael the Archangel and ultimately older. The locals call it 'the church of the convent,' which indicates the existence of a former religious community.
The Nebrodi area has a history as a home to many religious orders and now lost convents dating back to the Crusades. The Carmelite community was born in Messina in twelve hundred and thirty-eight after arriving from the Holy Land and gradually increased through Europe.
Saint Leo makes his way past the Palazzo Salleo, arriving at the end of Via Umberto Primo. He finishes the last part of his full circle around the town. He is heading back into the Church of St Michael the Archangel, where he is eased back carefully into his comfortable spot at the apex of Sinagra.
The people still wish him a world of good and are content to follow in the footsteps of Saint Leo, giving their praise with one last cry: "E viva San Leone!"
Children ride at Saint's feet as their parent's stuff money into an offertory box. Or discretely hand envelopes into the hands of those moving the statue. Most passengers on the procession are toddlers and cry when confronted by the seemingly monstrous St Leo, complete with a long beard.
The children's anxiety is whipped up to a climax by the confusion of men yelling during the procession.
The real-life St Leo lived during the Byzantine occupation of Sicily in seven hundred AD. His popularity and work with the poor led him to be nominated Bishop of Catania in seven hundred and sixty.
During Saint Leo's Bishophood at Catania, a famous magician named Heliodorus, he bewitched people with fake miracles and illusions. St. Leo urged the sorcerer to repent his heresies and return to the Church.
During church services given by the bishop, Heliodorus entered the Church and created a disturbance with his magic tricks.
Witnessing how the people came under the spell of the sorcerer's charisma, Leo realised the time for gentle persuasion had passed. He emerged from the altar and led the magician out of the Church into the square. Saint Leo forced him to own up to his actions and commanded a bonfire be built.
The Saint wanted to prove faith was more powerful than witchcraft and challenged the magician to jump into the blaze. As they stood together in the fire, Heliodorus was burnt alive. At the same time, Leo remained unharmed, protected by the power of God.
This spectacular miracle brought great fame to Saint Leo during his lifetime. As his popularity increased, his Christian love for the poor and the homeless also became well known. His charitable work with the sick gave him the skills to treat various illnesses, and he became known for his miracles.
The bonfire confrontation with Heliodorus is echoed in the climax of a nighttime Easter Sunday procession at Sinagra, which acts out the final moments of the encounter. In the parade, the Saint's statue runs across the town's main bridge, which is lit up with pyrotechnics; under the red glow of the fireworks, St Leo looks more sinister than saintly.
The strength of patron saints like St Leo has taken many saints on different journeys worldwide. Today every major city and small town in Sicily has a saintly protector, from St Rosalia at Palermo and St Agata of Catania to the smaller villages like Sinagra celebrating their Saint's feast day.
There are hundreds of other saints followed by Sicilian towns and cities, whose stories are as fascinating as the celebrations themselves. All our Sicilian Saints on their walks are interceding for us with God and protecting every soul.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here now.
I'll keep trying to write something worthwhile, well thought out and new here every week, perhaps more often if I get in the zone.
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