The Santuario Madonna dell'Alto
December 16, 2011

The Santuario Madonna dell'Alto (Sanctuary of the Madonna up High), in the town of Petralia Sottana, Sicily, was erected at the peak of Monte Alto at about 1819 meters (5968 feet) above sea level. There are no official records on the origins of the sanctuary, but historians believe it was constructed by Beato Guglielmo Gnoffi of Polizzi. Some believe that the church with a small adjoining house was already in place when Friar Guglielmo Gnoffi decided to settle there.

Documents on the site date back to 1454. Inside the sanctuary, located on the main altar, is a statue of the Madonna of 1471, signed by Domenico Gagini on the pedestal. This statue was the work that made Gagini famous and soon the church became a popular destination for pilgrimages.

The arrival of the statue, according to legend, took place under special circumstances, it is said that the sculpture had been found inside a box, that landed on the beach in Cefalu. The box was put on a cart pulled by oxen and taken to many different localities. But the cart would not stop at any of these places, until it came to Petralia Sottana. It was here that the oxen halted and would not move again until the box was removed and placed inside the church.

The Sanctuary has, for many years, enjoyed a strong devotion, especially among the inhabitants of Petralia, Calcarelli, Nociazzi and Polizzi.

Similar looking to a castle overlooking the valley below, two pilgrimages are held here annually: the first, on the first Sunday in July, is organized by the Parish of Calcarelli. In this pilgrimage, certain sacred rites are followed by a procession along the paths of the mountain. The devotees of Calcarelli are not granted the right to carry the statue of the Madonna in the procession because it is a privilege that belongs only to the faithful of Petralia Sottana.

The other pilgrimage, whose date is established annually, takes place in the first fortnight of August, and is organized by the Parish of Petralia Sottana.

The people of Polizzi (Polizzani) claim a significant role in the construction of the sacred building on top of Mount Alto. It resides on the border with the territory of Petralia and its people (Petraliesi), and was considered a "stronghold" disguised as a holy place. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century was the solution to the discord found with a final reunification of territorial claims. It was then that the Santuario Madonna dell'Alto became an integral part of the territory of Petralia.

The permanent loss of this part of the territory by the Polizzani allowed the Petraliesi to undertake many building renovations and additions. In 1749, for example, a convent was built adjoining the original church, used as a hermitage, and in the same year Don Antonio Pucci built a marble niche where the statue was placed.

In 1797 Don Gandolfo Bartuccelli decorated the church with a marble arch and through the cooperation of the priest Domenico Spinosa, the altar was covered with marble, and between it and the part of church reserved for the faithful, was placed a wrought iron gate of high quality work by local craftsmen.

In the same period we had in Petralia Sottana the foundation of the Congregazione di Maria Santissima dell'Alto (Congregation of Our Lady of the High Saint) by the initiative of P. Raimondi. The recent history of the Sanctuary has seen the creation of a special committee that deals with the people and has produced striking works of embellishment and restoration of the Church and all the adjacent rooms.

In 1971, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the statue of the Madonna (1471 -1971), a road was built of clay, which gave pilgrims the chance at last to reach the sanctuary by car. This was the first mechanized means to achieve the top of the mountain.

In the 2006 movie Nuovomondo (Golden Door) by Emanuele Crialese, Sicilian peasant and Petraliesi Salvatore Mancuso takes a pilgrimage to the top of Monte Alto to the Santuario Madonna dell'Alto. He has made a vow and has a question to ask the Madonna. Should he go to America? To keep this vow and to ask his question he sets off on foot to the mountain top. Following the sacred rites and religious traditions, he carries a small stone in his mouth as he ascends the mountain. Arriving at the Madonna, he sets down the stone at the altar and asks his question, awaiting the divine answer. Soon his son Pietro arrives and hands him a postcard that just arrived from America. It shows a farmer standing next to a gigantic carrot. America is, after all, the land of plenty. The Madonna has answered his question and Salvatore's journey begins.

Monte Alto and The Sanctuary Madonna dell'Alto