Era: 1945 - 1965 Cultural background: Italian Collection: Griffith Italian Museum Theme:Folk Art Religion Settlement
Lady of Loreto statue brought by Calabrian Catholic community. Courtesy Griffith Italian Museum
Griffith Italian Museum: Pioneer Park Museum, Griffith, Australia.
Lady of Loreto statue.
Calabrian Painted plaster statue of the Lady of Loreto mounted on a carved wooden stand with concealed wheels, topped with an arch of electric light bulbs, decorated with plastic flowers. Holy Card depicting the original statue in Plati (captioned, published photograph of the Lady of Loreto statue in Plati) Catholic community.
Painted plaster statue of the Lady of Loreto mounted on a carved wooden stand with concealed wheels, topped with an arch of electric light bulbs, decorated with plastic flowers. Holy Card depicting the original statue in Plati (captioned, published photograph of the Lady of Loreto statue in Plati).
The historical background of why Italians brought The Lady of Loreto to Griffith has its origins in medieval folk Catholic mythology. In 1294 (at the same time as the Crusaders were being expelled from Palestine), near the Italian coast shepherds looking out across the sea saw a house in the sky, flying across the sea, supported by angels. The leader wore a red cape, which they recognised to be St. Michael the Archangel. Mary the mother of Christ and the baby Jesus were seated on top of the house. The house found its final resting spot in Loreto. After it landed, Mary appeared to a hermit named Paul of the Forest and explained the meanings of this event to him.
This is one re-telling of the oral tradition that became a cultural bridge between the colourful traditions of southern Italians, and the bland religion of Australian Catholics in Griffith. The Loreto tradition says that Mary (the mother of Jesus) gave birth to Jesus in the town of Nazareth and died in the town of Ephesus (in modern day Turkey), and that one of these houses was miraculously transported to Loreto. Not surprisingly, Our Lady of Loreto is the patron saint of aviators.
By the twentieth century, the Holy House of Loreto had become an international Marian shrine attracting up to four million pilgrims and visitors each year, with a reputation for a large number of miracles and for easing the suffering of the sick that come to the Holy House of Loreto to seek help.
The above faith story has an historical equivalent that is re-told to the more sceptical present day pilgrims: that the house in Nazareth was partly dismantled and transported by boat by a noble family called Angeli (hence the connection with transport by angels in the faith story). It was then rebuilt, stone by stone, at Loreto. The house in Nazareth reputed to be the one where Jesus was born was a two-chamber dwelling. One chamber is a cave carved from rock, later made into a shrine (the Basilica of the Annunciation). The second chamber was a three-sided stone wall attached to the cavity of the cave. The stone from this wall was removed to build the Holy House of Loreto, (Santa Casa di Loreto). The connection between the two structures (the one at Nazareth and the one at Loreto) is reinforced by the same inscription at each place: ‘Here The Word Was Made Flesh’.
Both the faith story and the historical account recognise that devotion was transferred to Loreto when a house was built in Mary’s honour at Loreto during the Middle Ages.
Interior of the Holy House of Loreto. Photograph Peter Kabaila
The link that brought the fragments of the Italian tradition intact to Griffith was transported as suddenly – some might say as miraculously – as the vision of Mary’s house, flying across the seas to its new location. It was embodied in a plaster copy of Our Lady of Loreto, a well-known statue in Italy. Even in 2004, many years after its transportation to Griffith, the statue still featured in an annual religious festival attended by Calabrian and Sicilian parishioners. To better understand what the statue brought with it, the tradition of Loreto needs to be further explained.
The honoured dead of Christianity, real or legendary men and women known for their piety are referred to as ‘saints’ (holy persons). The Catholic Church long ago established the concept of the ‘intercession of saints,’ the idea that the saints of the Church have ‘the ear of God,’ and that prayers made by them in Heaven are more powerful or efficacious than prayers made on Earth by common people. Highest among the saints is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Prayers to Mary have a long history dating back to pre-Christian European Goddess-centred paganism. Many Catholics address the Virgin Mary with direct prayers and do not ask her to intercede on their behalf. Although this is a common practice, technically speaking, Mary is not a deity but a holy person, and therefore prayers addressed to her are called ‘intercessions.’ In acknowledgment of her widespread popularity and various manifestations, the Church has given Mary patronage over an assortment of occupations and conditions, as if she were a multiplicity of saints.
In folk-Catholic traditions, information about Mary and the saints, and the areas of life over which they assume patronage is generally passed along through word of mouth. But it may also be printed on holy cards that have an illustration of the saint with a short prayer for intercession on the back, or be carried as statues, or exist in sacred sites.
The village of Loreto, rich in symbols accumulated over the centuries, is an important destination of pilgrimages dedicated to Mary. For 700 years the Basilica of Loreto has been on the ancient route followed by the “romei”, the pilgrims directed to Rome. From Ancona to Rome via Loreto there were a series of horse staging inns and taverns, at twelve kilometre intervals to cater for pilgrims.
According to oral tradition, Mary lived and died in a small hut in Ephesus. This became a vital pilgrimage destination. The Loreto legend might have developed when Ephesus became part of the Ottoman Empire and was cut off for pilgrims. For Christians, there was an urgent need to transfer devotion to the West, and whip up religious fervour for the crusades. The testimony of ‘Paul of the Forest’ clearly suggests divine will to embezzle the infidels of such a sacred house. The Santa Casa of Mary in Loreto represented a Catholic outpost in the fight against Islam. Confirmation of this came with the victory of the battle of Lepanto over the Moslems, as it was attributed to the intercession of the Loreto Virgin.
In Griffith, two churches were built between the wars to cater for all Catholics in the district, but Italians were reluctant and irregular participants in their parishes. Some time later, in 1939, under the leadership of an Aeolian priest, Father Bongiorno, the Italian community built their own church at Yoogali. A second Italian church, St Anthony’s, replaced a timber church fashioned from a relocated army chapel in Hanwood. There were a number of morning services on a Sunday, and announcements and sermons were given in Italian and English.
Following irrigation, the growing population of Italians formed their own Catholic communities, bringing their own style of worship and practice, distinct from the former Irish Catholic tradition in the local area. The role of religion has been crucial to a sense of community for Italian immigrants in New South Wales. For many Italians, to be Catholic means to share in the cultural inheritance of their village or area of origin. Some of this Catholic culture indigenous to Italy did not find favour with the Australian Catholic Church. Italians, for their part, found that instead of being something that they could recognise in an alien environment, that Australian Catholic practice seemed remote and strange, lacking in the social life that was part of religious practice in their home country.
Holy Card depicting the Lady of Loreto statue in Plati. Courtesy Griffith Italian Museum
The celebration of Saints’ days, street festivals, and other aspects of what has been termed ‘folk religion’ seemed to be absent in the Australian setting. In Italy these events often were built around an ancient event specific to a village or town, or coincided with the seasonal cycles of rural life. In Australia some of these transported rituals seemed robbed of these rich contextual meanings. Nevertheless, rituals are to some extent moveable entities, and religious practices have provided a sense of continuity, an anchor for values and emotions, for many Italian immigrants
According to a local story related to Kevin Pesman, on arrival, the Calabresi attended the churches infrequently in comparison to the Veneti and Italians from other regions. Unlike the northern Italians who remained a close community of churchgoers, the later immigration wave from southern Italy brought out many people reluctant to participate in the colourless practices of Australian Catholicism. This changed with the importation of a plaster copy of the Lady of Loreto statue. It was carried ceremoniously into the church by members of the Calabrian community and placed on the altar. One of the men then rushed from the congregation and shouted “Viva la Madonna! to which the congregation responded enthusiastically “Viva! Viva!” The arrival of the Lady of Loreto Statue, with all its associated meanings, across the seas to Griffith, sparked a religious renewal among the Calabresi.
Cath Catanzariti’s conversation with Pasqualino Mittiga provided much of the background to the statue. In 1948, Pasqualino’s uncle Saverino Mittiga wanted to reproduce the tradition of the Festa delia Madonna di Loreto from Plati, his town of origin in Calabria. On behalf of the Calabrian Catholic community in Hanwood, he commissioned an artisan in Sydney to make a statue after the original in his home town of Plati, in a church at Parochia Oi Madonna Oi Loreto. A published holy card with a photograph of the statue was provided to the artisan as a basis.
In that same year, the completed statue was delivered to Griffith and the Calabrian community celebrated the feast of the Madonna to celebrate the Catholic mystery of the Assumption of Our Lady (held in September of that year). From 1948 until the late 1960s, the yearly festa was celebrated, coinciding with the feast day in Calabria. There would be a sung mass as soon as the mass was finished there was a two kilometre procession with the Madonna placed on a float, carried by the faithful, led by the priest and altar boys. The procession was heralded by musicians, playing bagpipes (ceramei) and drums. The role of the musicians was to let the faithful know that Our Lady was moving forward. Once the Madonna returned from the procession, she would be left outside the church, draped with a ribbon around the neck. The women would then approach and venerate the statue, pinning cash donations to the ribbon. This was followed by festivities (festa) at which the parish committee would hold a raffle (pesca). The evening ended with fire works.
The veneration of the Lady of Loreto underwent a war-time revival in Plati. Plati oral tradition, as retold in Hanwood, was that the German Air Force had attacked Plati, but bombed the river, which they had mistaken for a major road going through the town. The town was thus saved from aerial bombing raids and the Lady of Loreto was venerated for saving the town. Lady of Loreto, the patron saint of aviators, had saved her devotees and her statue in Plati from enemy aviators. The holy card identifies the Lady of Loreto as the patroness of Plati.
People still remembered observance of Good Friday in Plati’, recalling the torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ after a political trial. The town of Plati’ observed the sombre atmosphere of mourning in respect of the death of Christ. The faithful would assemble in the church at about 9 am to commence a procession with the carrying of a wooden cross. During the procession the Stations of the Cross were re-enacted on a three km journey ending on the hill overlooking the town. The hill was called Calvario; the cross that had been carried would be placed upright with two other crosses places on each side representing the two thieves. On Saturday morning the Madonna, would be carried on a float, clothed in black, to meet her son as a re-enactment of Easter morning with the Risen Christ. A statue of her son, Jesus, would be placed on a separate float. The climax of Easter morning was La Confrontata, at which the floats would be moved quickly as if running towards each other, for an instant, and then separated, before meeting again. La Confrontata was accompanied by outpouring of devotion and of grief for the suffering of Christ and his mother.
After the late 1960s the yearly festa was dropped, possibly affected by a period of rapid social change (reflected in reforms to the Catholic liturgy by the Second Vatican Council), However the festa was revived for a time in c1995 and conducted up to c 2003. This transfer of devotional practice of Mary from Plati in Calabria to Hanwood in Australia has an interesting historical parallel with the transfer of devotion to Mary from Ephesus in Turkey to Loreto in Italy.
This statue is of historic significance as evidence of a transfer of religious tradition from Italy to Australia.
The statue has an aesthetic value in its own right, as a traditional representation of the Virgin Mary. The stand with wheels and arch of electric light bulbs lend a charming naiveté to this otherwise common type of devotional statue.
This statue has research significance for the history of religion in Australia. It has potential for oral history research with Hanwood Catholic Calabrians as a primary source.
The Lady of Loreto statue has spiritual significance as an item of Catholic devotion.
The history and provenance of the statue is well established.
The statue is highly representative of devotional statues used by Italian Catholic communities.
Comparative data on the statue’s rarity is not available; however the statue is certainly locally rare. It is likely to be highly rare in Australia, because its design for mobility and electric illumination is specifically associated with the practice of folk religion (“cult of Mary”) in migrant communities.
The statue has been kept in excellent condition.
This collection has interpretive potential in the study of religiosity in Italian migrant communities.
Cath Catanzariti recollection of interview with Pasqualino Mittiga, Feb 2008.
Cecilia, T 1985, We didn’t arrive yesterday. The Sunny Land Press, Red Cliffs, Victoria.
Cornwall, J 2007, Fruits of Our Labour. The history of Griffith’s Italian Community. Griffith City Council.
Kabaila, P 2005 , Griffith Heritage. Pirion Publishing, Canberra.
Oliver, Robyn, Discussion, recollection of interview with Josie and Val Valentini at the Griffith Show, 1995.
Pesman, R, Kevin, C. 1998 A history of Italian settlement in NSW.
NSW Heritage Office.
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Edited by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
Crown copyright 2008©
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.
Griffith Italian Museum & Griffith Pioneer Museum are managed by Griffith City Council.