Words from Sicily: A stroll with St 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 who is celebrated during the year according to traditions. Every place has an intimate bond with their saintly protector and gradually through the years they have become a part of each places folk culture

At Sinagra San Leone has been celebrated every year for as long as anyone can remember. The two world wars didn’t stop it, hard times didn’t stop it, changing times didn’t fade the locals 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, the chanting and yelling. To stop the people from riding at the saints feet, showering him with monetry offerings, following him as he zig zags the towns small side streets.The towns band has been silent for two years.

There still will be the masses in his honour, the firing of the canon and the fireworks at night but without the usual gatherings and festivities in the piazza.

Last year St Leo was stranded in his country church, 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.

Not only St Leo but all the Saints day celebrations all over Italy and Europe have been silenced for two years in a row.

Let us pray the Saints will be allowed out to perform their rituals next year, because we miss them.

Viva Santu Lio!

For now there are no gatherings or processions of any kind. Today in the central piazza it was very sad indeed. There was no one around only one sad market stall that was selling little toys and the usual array of dried nuts like pistachios, chickpeas and candy that the Sicilians call simenza or calia according to their provincial dialect.

So I thought it would be a good idea to relive the experience of Saint Leo’s procession around the medieval streets of Sinagra. From an old diary entry of mine, I found the perfect way to remember this day and hope the day will return when the Sinagrese can celebrate once again as we can’t have our Saints silent and still forever.

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 stable part of the Sinagrese landscape for generations.

The Saint’s procession is evocative of hundreds of other such celebrations all over the peninsula, Europe and the world. In an ancient tradition filled with colour, music and celebratory culture.

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 the same taken by dearly departed Sinagrese on their final cortege to the cemetery during their funerals.

On his 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 which 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 reaches the beginning of 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 medieval period.

This Church is intriguing, much smaller than St Michael the Archangel, and ultimately more suggestive. 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 time of 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. Heading back up 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 of: “E viva San Leone!”

Children ride at the 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 of the 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 St Leo lived during the Byzantine occupation of Sicily in the seven hundred. His popularity and work with the poor led to him to become Bishop of Catania in seven hundred and sixty.

During Saint Leo’s Bishophood at Catania, there was a famous magician named Heliodorus, who 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 fake miracles and 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 was wanting to prove faith is more powerful than witchcraft 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 of treating various illnesses, and he became known for his miracles.

It is the bonfire confrontation with Heliodorus which is echoed in the climax of a night time Easter Sunday procession at Sinagra which acts out the final moments of the encounter. In the parade, the Saint’s statue runs across the main bridge of the town 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 to different journeys throughout the world. Today every major city and small town in Sicily has a saintly protector. From St Rosalia at Palermo, St Agata of Catania, to the smaller villages like Sinagra who celebrate their Saint’s feast day.

In elaborate processions, in honour of the guidance, the Saint has given to the city and its people. There are literally hundreds of other saints followed by Sicilian towns and cities, whose stories are as fascinating as the celebrations themselves.

3 thoughts on “Words from Sicily: A stroll with St Leo

  1. Great Post, Rochelle. Antonio Casella Perth WA

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    1. Thanks Antonio, happy you enjoyed it. Can’t wait to see all of the Saints moving again, it’s so sad to see them so silent. Hope you are well😊

    2. Thanks so much Antonio. Hope you are well😊
      Here’s hoping all of the Saints get moving again, it’s so sad to see them being so still.

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