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from issue no. 08 - 2008

Madonna of the Colle di Lenola, Latina

From violence to charity

Our Lady appeared to a young man who was about to commit a murder. So began the story of Friar Deogratias (Gabriele Mattei) and the shrine of Lenola. It was in the year 1602

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The shrine of the Madonna del Colle 
di Lenola, Latina

The shrine of the Madonna del Colle di Lenola, Latina

On the bulwarks of the Ausoni hills overlooking the plain of Fondi, blessed by its position and an enchanting climate, stands a small Marian shrine with a centuries-old history, though almost unknown outside the local area: the shrine of the Madonna del Colle di Lenola. An opportunity to make it better known was the four hundredth anniversary (celebrated in 2002) of the apparition which gave rise to the Marian cult there and especially perhaps the introduction (a year ago, on 29 July 2007) and advancement of the cause for beatification of the servant of God Gabriele Mattei, who was the beneficiary of that apparition, and whose story, special in the context of Marian apparitions, is worth briefly relating. I do so on the basis of the first history of Mattei and the sanctuary written, “in answer to the request made to me by many devotees of Mary”, by the Dominican Antonio Maria Battista in 1683, a few years after the death of Mattei. This, like the other texts quoted, are now about to have a first critical edition put together by the historico-archival committee set up for the opening of the cause for beatification.
Gabriel was a young man in his early twenties of whom little is known, but obviously he was no plaster saint if he was thinking of committing a murder, along with three other companions from the village, for an insult suffered. It was the night between 14 and 15 September 1602, the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. In torment, he went seeking to find peace of mind and took his guitar with him up in to the hills. Finally, to stiffen his purpose, he invoked the devil, who appeared to him in vision. He then made the sign of the cross and entrusted himself to Mary who appeared on top of the hill and suggested that he change his life. When he reacted with fear similar to that she had felt on beholding Gabriel, she reassured him (as the angel had done for her): “Stop child, where do you go? Do not flee. Trust in my infinite goodness and you will be saved. I am she whom you just now called”. And she invited him to seek out an image of her at an ancient place of worship, now fallen into ruin, from where “I have never taken my gaze off your homeland”. There he was to build a shrine dedicated to her.
The morning after Gabriele backed out of the crime agreed with his companions. The discovery of the sign that Our Lady had indicated now became for him not only the confirmation of the truth of the vision but also the only way to save his skin given the threats of his accomplices who were accusing him of using make-believe to cover his cowardice.
By luck (or rather by grace) the prodigious discovery did occur and led to the repentance of Gabriele’s companions. And, as the Dominican Battista recounts with vivacity, was accompanied by another prodigy: at the same time, in fact, “all the children of the neighborhood, united by a superior instinct, went round the streets in flocks shouting joyfully: ‘Mary has been found, Mary has been found’. The whole village felt moved by those soft voices and full of joy all wondered what the shouts might mean and no one could tell what had happened”. It was immediately understood what had happened when the news spread of the vision and the finding of the image. Everyone flocked to the hill, among them Comparini, the Bishop of Fondi, who was in Lenola for the consecration of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. He was to be the first witness to what happened (Madonna del Colle was to be dear to him till his dying day).
Only a few days later Gabriele put on the hermit’s garb and took the road to Naples and then Spain and France, where, taking with him a copy of the prodigious image, he obtained many miracles and obtained the resources that enabled a start on the construction of the shrine. Gratitude and charity became the motto on the emblem of the shrine: “Charitas semper Deo gratias.” And Gabriele became Friar Deogratias.
The image of the Madonna del Colle

The image of the Madonna del Colle

The time that followed was ordinary time, time of work and time of prayer, necessary for building on the one hand a place that was to offer comfort and shelter for the people and clergy of the area for the centuries to come (since 1620 till now, for example, the summer residence of the seminary and the bishop has been installed in the shelter of the shrine) and on the other the emblematic epilogue of the earthly career of its builder. As the sources make clear he was not unresourceful and for the work he had undertaken he was busy not only in prayer but also in running the “ice factory”, a pit he had dug to be packed with snow, that made a good profit. But this relative prosperity immediately gave rise to gossip – as shown by a fine poem in octaves of 1625 – and in subsequent years Bishop Pinto came to the point of publicly accusing Friar Deogratias of enriching himself from the shrine, although in a written document of 1652 the latter had formally renounced the proceeds, except for what he might require for his own need and to pay “the small remaining debt that Friar Deogratias sustains was contracted because of the needs of the said church, as is well known to all, [...] because it is not fitting that those who did the favor of loaning monies be then defrauded and have occasion of justly complaining against me Friar Deogratias as founder of the said work, because I want to see myself in peace and agreement with all before I die when it please God, for little time remains to me of life. Semper Deo gratias”. Honesty is not always appreciated, indeed, in certain circles especially is considered a sign of weakness, even when not a confession of guilt.
The fact remains that a few years later, during the night of the vigil of the first Sunday of Advent 1656, Gabriele was wounded to death by three men just outside the shrine. The sources tell us nothing about the reasons for the act, presumably due to resentment toward an honest and influential man: perhaps the same reasons that had led him and his companions to plotting a murder more than fifty years earlier. Besides, martyrdom, to be such, must spring from pure hatred, be rooted in the mystery of God, and then we must remember that between Lenola and Fondi stretches the Valley of the Martyrs that tradition tells us was in the early centuries the site where many martyrs gave witness, then becoming – according to St. Gregory the Great – the place of settlement of a monastic community that endured there for centuries (the monastery of Saint Magnus, recently given new life – thanks to the foresight of capable administrators such as Friar Deogratias – not just as archaeological site or feature of the landscape, but as the site of a new monastic experience).
In Lenola one breathes a particular air, which is both the salubrious air of hills overlooking the sea and the salutary air of the desire for the everlasting hills.

You can contact the following addresses to offer evidence and request information:
Postulator of the cause for beatification of the servant of God Gabriele Mattei:

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