In the Po Valley, in the north of Italy, in the region of Veneto, at the base of the Dolomite Mountains, where the facial features of the inhabitants begin an almost imperceptible change from Latin to Germanic, there lies the tiny village of Fungi di Costozza.
Fungi di Costozza is a tiny hamlet untouched by the passage of time. In 1342, the Abbey of St. Agostino was erected along what remains the main thoroughfare; the Via della Pace, or Street of Peace. The Augustine monks who constructed the abbey were a disciplined and hard-working sect, and there were many skilled artisans among them. In 1357, they began a project in the hills surrounding the village that was to last for three hundred years.
These hills are characterized by many caves, of all shapes and sizes, and many open on the faces of cliffs that overlook the valley and the tiny village below. Inside of these caves are many intricate carvings in the walls of stone, and these carvings all give praise to the God they served. Each individual cave became a shrine, and all are connected by thin catwalks that skirt the faces of the cliffs. A strong faith in God is required to merely travel from one cave to another, while suspended several thousand feet above the valley basin, on a path eroded by time.
I came to Fungi di Costozza as a boy of nineteen. I was stationed at a small Army post in Vicenza, some thirty miles away, and I spent every free moment exploring the surrounding territory, in an effort to learn the culture of the people, and the ways of their ancestors.I had been educated at a Catholic seminary in Ohio, where four years of Latin had formed the foundation of the academic curriculum, and after having waded through the translation of Cicero, Veres, and the Gallic Wars, I had an insatiable thirst to walk the same steps as had the ancient Romans. Were it not for an act of God, I would probably never have learned of the secrets of the village of Costozza, nor of the story of Sister Mariana di Costozza.
I was sitting in a small cafe along the Street of Peace on a Saturday mid-afternoon, sipping a glass of local wine, and enjoying the attention to which the rare American visitor is treated, when the ground began to shake beneath my feet. Bottles of wine and liqueur fell from their shelves, tables and chairs vibrated across the floor, the chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling oscillated back and forth like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, and the walls shook violently, sending plaster projectiles flying through the room like an exploding mortar shell.The hearts of those in the cafe stopped and their faces drained pale. None of us had ever experienced an earthquake before, but in seconds that seemed hours, we knew that this was exactly what we were now experiencing. We rushed to the street, along with the other townspeople, and the pandemonium reached its crescendo as several frightened apartment dwellers jumped from the windows of third-story apartments; one young woman with an infant in her arms. It ended as fast as it had begun and the street fell silent.
I spoke very little Italian and this new silence should have given me a greater sense of belonging, but it did not. The adults on the street glanced toward one another, some locked in pondered gazes, and in the eyes of all was the presence of grave concern. Without a word, an elderly gentleman started down the street and up a small grade on the streets of cobblestone leading out of town. The people fell in behind, but still not a word was heard - not even from the children.
The silent procession made its way out of town and onto a small path that began a subtle but steady climb into the surrounding hills. I had fallen into line without thought or question, but as the climb became more rugged, the switchbacks more frequent, and the perspiration began to drench my clothing, I began to wonder just where these people were going and what was I doing with them?
After a steady ascent of approximately thirty minutes, we came to a large cave opening that had several layers of terracing below it. There were flowers, plants, and vineyards with ripe, succulent, purple grapes on the vine, on each of the terraces. In the cave opening stood five monks, wearing heavy, floor length woolen gowns of faded brown.The men were smiling as we approached, and one shouted, “Terremoto,” which means earthquake, as we came within earshot.The elderly man leading the townspeople returned the call, “Grande terremoto,” and the monks in the cave smiled in agreement.
We continued our ascent, with four of the five monks joining our group, as we wound our way upward, sometimes in single file, as we negotiated several of the narrow catwalks. We passed several more cave openings, and each time we were joined by several more monks.
By this time my mind was reeling. Where could we be going, and for what purpose? I dare not ask anyone, as no one spoke, and by so doing, I might be discovered and forbidden the opportunity of participating in this solemn and captivating event.
As we rounded the mountain near its top, I realized the end our journey must be near. There was a vast expanse before me. The edge of the path on which I was standing dropped off for thousands of feet, and to my front, across the uppermost portion of the deep ravine, situated near the top of the jagged peak, was a huge cave opening. Several feminine silhouettes, wearing black and white, stood at the cave opening.We pressed on a few hundred yards further and the path opened onto a grassy plateau. It was here that the townspeople gathered, and we sat down in the rich green grass.
Several of the monks and two of the elder men of the town continued on along the narrow path that rounded the cliff, always remaining within our view. Within minutes they arrived at the mouth of the cave and disappeared within, accompanied by what I presumed were Catholic nuns.
I sat on the ground, chewing on a sweet blade of grass, and I began to feel as if I were in Tibet and was about to be granted an audience with the Dalai Lama. I could not imagine anything requiring quite so much secrecy existing in this quaint Italian setting. The men were still nowhere to be seen. One of the monks who had stayed behind walked over and took a seat on the grass beside me. His hands were worn and calloused, but his eyes were young, nearly as young as my own. His English was very good, almost without a trace of accent.
“You are an American soldier?” he asked calmly.
“A very confused American soldier, I’m afraid,” I replied.
“That is understandable, my friend. You have just lived through a huge earthquake, an act of God, and you are then led into the secret hills of Costozza with no explanation. I should think that you would be somewhat confused.”
He went on to explain that he had learned to speak English while living with an uncle in New York City as a child, but when he had decided to give his life to God, he had returned to his native Italy. His name was Brother Giuseppi.
“Why are we here?” I asked, hoping for an explanation, but expecting none.
“You are apparently at the right place at the right time. I cannot believe that Our Father would have allowed you to be here had He not wanted you to view His miracle. You are to be sworn to secrecy, and as long as you live up to your covenant, you shall be allowed to return. Come with me to the home of the sisters, and I will tell you the story of Sister Mariana di Costozza.”
He placed his hand on my shoulder and rose to his feet. I stood also, and we made our way through the crowd of smiling townspeople. As we started toward the large cave, he began to speak.
“When the Brothers of Augustine came to Costozza to build the abbey in 1342, they were assisted by the Sisters of Costozza. Among them was Sister Mariana, who had been orphaned at birth, and had been raised by the sisters. She was very beautiful and was dedicated to the service of others. She took food to the poor, nursed the sick, and never seemed to tire or waver in her humility.”
We were halfway to the opening of the cave. While I was interested in the story, and wondering where it would lead, I was almost too scared to move forward. My head became light from the altitude, and I realized, that should I slip and fall, there would be nothing left of me but the memory. Brother Giuseppi continued to speak.
“In the latter fourteenth century, the despots came to power in northern Italy. The regions were ruled by members of the noble families. Some of the outlying areas were ruled by the wicked sons of the noblemen, who wanted to have their evil sons far away from them. The Scala of Verona sent his third son, Antonio, to the region seat at Abano, where he persecuted the people to increase his personal wealth. He murdered many, kept their personal possessions, and orphaned many children. Sister Mariana became like a mother to these children and treated them as her own.
“The son of the Scala became intrigued by this woman and traveled often to see her. She was polite to him only because he brought food and clothing for her children. She did not, however, return his affections,” said Brother Giuseppi as we continued our walk up the path.
“Antonio decided that he would marry this beautiful nun, but she had no intention of relinquishing her commitment to God. After months of her refusals, the Podesta, as he was called, came to Costozza and offered Sister Mariana one last chance to marry him. When she refused again, he ordered that she be buried alive. Her tomb was guarded by the soldiers of the State, day and night, until the Podesta’s death, one year later at the hands of his father.”
“The legend of Sister Mariana grew. She was considered for sainthood by Pope Leo X in the late nineteenth century. Part of the consideration process was the customary exhumation of the body. This was done in 1900, five hundred and forty years after her death. She was found, to everyone’s surprise, to be exactly as she had been on the day that she had been buried. Her body had undergone no decomposition and it was felt to be a miracle of God.”
“She became Blessed by the church and her body was taken to the abbey. She was placed in a glass casket so all could see and marvel at the wondrous ways of Our Lord. However, when the Nazis took over our country during World War II, it was feared that they would try, in some way, to use the body of Sister Mariana to further their cause. It was then that her body was moved from her shrine in the abbey to this spot, where her place of rest is guarded by the Brothers of Augustine and the Sisters of Costozza.”
We had arrived at the mouth of the cave and proceeded within. Into the walls of the cave were carved intricate images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The cave was lit by candlelight. The candles rested upon holders carved into the stone and recessed into the walls of the cave. We descended into the depths of the mountain on steps that had been hewn by hand into the stone, led by a nun who did not speak.
Deep within the cave, the staircase opened into a huge chamber that was brightly lit by candles. In the center of the room was a glass casket that contained a beautiful woman wearing a white robe. She lay on her back and her waist-length blonde hair was neatly arranged. Her hands were clasped on her chest and they held a single red rose. She seemed merely to be sleeping.
I knew that I was witnessing a miracle but I wanted to explain away divine intervention. It was as if I were coming face-to-face with Sleeping Beauty and perhaps a kiss from my lips would awaken her from her sleep.
Brother Giuseppi quietly explained to me that, following the earthquake, the concern of the townspeople had been for the tomb of Sister Mariana, whom they believe watches over them, and this is why we had immediately come to her shrine.
It was a profound experience that day. I contemplated becoming a Brother of Augustine, to guard the tomb of Sister Mariana for the rest of my days, but it was not to be. I returned often to visit, while I was stationed in Italy, and I was always greeted warmly by the Brothers of Augustine and the Sisters of Costozza.
I left Italy, married, had children, and have yet to return in over twenty-five years. I have never told the story of Sister Mariana di Costozza until now, as I have told it to you.