By Sister Mary Agatha, CMRI
“The Sanctuary of Loreto more than all other shrines of Mary is rightly and deservedly regarded as illustrious, and to Christ’s faithful it has been, for the last six centuries or so, the object of especial veneration and of highest honor, it being in fact the house in which the most Blessed Virgin Mary was born, and which Divine mysteries have rendered sacred, since it was there that the Word was made flesh.”—Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, April 12, 1916
Of the many Marian shrines throughout the world, the Holy House of Loreto is one of the most ancient and highly venerated, and for good reason. Indeed, it is often referred to as the holiest place on earth, for within these very walls the Almighty Word took human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here, too, our Blessed Mother was conceived without sin and was born. This was the humble home of the Holy Family, who lived so simply that they blended in with the other inhabitants of Nazareth. After the death of St. Joseph, Jesus lived here with His holy Mother, working as a carpenter until He began His public life at the age of thirty. To this day, these rough stone walls give silent testimony to the sacredness of these hidden mysteries not only by their simplicity, but by the very wonder of their presence. For what is most striking about the Holy House itself is that it is located, not in Nazareth, where the Holy Family lived, but in eastern Italy.
The history of the Holy House as a Christian shrine can be traced at least to the time of Constantine. When St. Helena found the humble stone house in Nazareth, which was even then venerated as the home of the Holy Family, she had a beautiful basilica built over it in honor of the Mother of God. Over the next seven centuries, the Holy House in the crypt of the basilica was visited by numerous pilgrims, some of whom left references and descriptions of it in diaries and letters. Even after the upper structure of the basilica was destroyed by invading Saracens in the 13th century, such documents show that the Holy House itself was still secure in the crypt. But after the year 1291, pilgrims visiting the site refer only to the grotto which adjoined the Holy House.
In 1291 the Crusaders in the Holy Land were overwhelmed by the Moslems. Just when the destruction of the Holy House seemed inevitable, it vanished from the crypt, leaving only the empty grotto. At the same time, a small chapel suddenly appeared in a field near the town of Tersatto in Dalmatia.
The local bishop Alexander, who had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, wished to visit the site to investigate its inexplicable appearance, but had been bedridden for months. He prayed to be enlightened as to the meaning of the appearance of the house, for he feared a deception of the devil. One night the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and consoled him, making known to him that the house was the same in which she was born and raised, and in which she conceived the Son of God at the message of the angel. After her Assumption into Heaven, the Apostles consecrated it and often celebrated Mass there. The altar, which was still in the house, had been consecrated by St. Peter, and the cedar image had been made by St. Luke the Evangelist. The crucifix, too, had been placed there by the Apostles. As a proof that all this was true, our Blessed Mother cured him and ordered him to spread the word among the people.
The Blessed Virgin then vanished, and Alexander, finding that he had been restored to perfect health, hastened to spread the good news. As word of the miraculous happenings spread, the local authorities became interested and sent a commission to Palestine within the year to gather information about the House that had been in the crypt of the basilica in Nazareth. This commission, as well as one in 1296 and another in 1524, confirmed that the dimensions of the structure that had appeared at Loreto corresponded to the size of the foundation of the House at Nazareth.
The Holy House was not to remain in this location long, however. The Moslems were also invading Dalmatia, and the House was again miraculously moved. On the night of December 10, 1294, several people living on the shores of the Adriatic Sea woke to the sound of heavenly music, and upon looking up saw a house surrounded with light being transported through the air.
The House came to rest in a clearing in the woods near the town of Recanati, Italy, where it continued to glow with a brilliant light. Shepherds who were watching their flocks nearby came to investigate. Upon finding the House, these simple men entered it and, overcome with a sweet awe, spent the night there in prayer. The next day, they went into the surrounding countryside and spread the news that a small stone house enshrining an image of the Blessed Virgin had appeared in the forest. The people of Recanati flocked to the site, where their devotion was rewarded by many miracles. As word spread of the marvel, more and more pilgrims came from surrounding areas, although they did not yet know the origin of the House. They only knew that an extraordinary holiness emanated from the humble stone structure, and that those who entered its walls often received great graces.
After several months, however, it seems that the powers of hell had become infuriated at the devotion shown by the pilgrims flocking to the sacred shrine, and incited evil men to conceal themselves in the thick woods surrounding it that they might attack and rob those passing through. A number of pilgrims were robbed and some were even murdered, and the people became so frightened that few dared to visit the Holy House.
But God did not allow His Holy House to remain the occasion of such danger for devout souls. In August of 1295 the House was again miraculously moved to a hill almost a mile away, nearer the town of Recanati and closer to the road. The hill was owned by two brothers, who at first received it with great joy and reverence. Before long, however, as the shrine was adorned with richer and more costly gifts, they were overcome by avarice and began to dispute with one another over the inheritance of the holy hill. Blood might have been shed had not God intervened to remove the occasion of their greed by again causing the Holy House to be miraculously moved to its final location, just an “arrow’s flight” away, where it stood directly on the road leading to Recanati — on public property.
More than a year after the Holy House had come to Italy, the people still did not know its identity. But word of the wonders taking place in Loreto had been carried by merchants to Dalmatia, whereupon some persons from that country came to see if it was the same House that had once stood on their land. Upon seeing it, they acknowledged that it was indeed the same House, and broke out in fresh lamentations over their great loss. (It should be noted, too, that for centuries pilgrims came from Dalmatia every year to the holy shrine, begging Our Lady to return to them.) The people of Recanati, however, paid little attention to the Dalmatians, regarding their words as vain babblings, for they knew nothing of the miraculous translation of the House from Nazareth to Dalmatia.
A local hermit who frequently visited the shrine, however, was struck that the Dalmatians had referred to the stone cottage as the House of Our Lady. Wishing to know if this were true, he redoubled his penances and prayers, fervently begging the Holy Virgin to enlighten him in this regard.
As with Bishop Alexander, Our Lady heard his prayer, and appeared to him in his sleep one night, assuring him that it was indeed the House in which she had been born and lived, and in which the Incarnation of the Word had taken place. She also revealed that it was by the “special grace and favor of the Almighty that this heavenly gift was given to the Picentians and Italians, as a solace to their evils, and as a most certain refuge and defense unto all nations in the perils of this mortal life.”1 Before departing, Our Lady commanded him to make these things known to the people.
The hermit quickly spread the news of his vision among the people of the surrounding area. They did not listen at first, but when they reflected that the Dalmatians themselves acknowledged that the House had been taken from them, and that, moreover, it had moved three times within a year in their own vicinity, they decided that the matter was too weighty to ignore.
The governor, having been informed of all this, selected sixteen reputable and devout men to travel first to Dalmatia, and then to Galilee, to investigate the matter thoroughly. Inquiring at Tersatto exactly when the sacred chapel had disappeared, this delegation found that it matched the accounts of its appearance in the Loreto wood. They also carefully compared the measurements of the House, which they had brought with them, to both sites, and in both cases found that the dimensions matched exactly. In Galilee, the foundation could still be seen, and the stone and mortar used, and even the mode of construction, matched those of the walls of the House at Loreto, which, resting on the loose earth of the road, had no foundation. It was as though the House had been cut off level with the ground, as it were by a scythe.2
Meanwhile, the people of Recanati took measures to protect the Holy House from any possible harm, building a strong brick wall of brick to fit snugly around it. When it was completed, however, the workmen were amazed to find a space wide enough for a young boy to walk all the way around the house inside the protecting wall. God made it clear that He, Who had transported the House there without human assistance, did not need man’s help to maintain it. Upon this brick wall, which was replaced in the 16th century by an elaborate marble casing, the local people painted frescoes relating the history of the translation of the Holy House.
In the ensuing years, devotion to the Holy House continued to grow as pilgrims continued to visit the holy site. About the year 1350 a church was built over the Holy House and around it were erected shelters for pilgrims and a hospital for the sick.
In 1464 Pope Paul II, shortly after his election to the Papacy, gave orders to begin the building of a basilica over the Holy House to replace the existing church. On his way to the papal conclave a few weeks earlier he had fallen grievously ill with the plague and, having recourse to Our Lady of Loreto, was cured within the Holy House, where the Blessed Virgin revealed to him that he would be cured and elected to the Chair of Peter. Within a few months, he issued the first papal document which makes mention of the miraculous translation, granting special indulgences to those visiting Our Lady of Loreto on any Sunday and on the feasts of the Assumption, Purification, and Nativity. In this document he makes special mention of “the great, stupendous, and well-nigh countless miracles wrought there by the Holy Virgin’s means, as in our own person we have undoubtedly experienced.”3 These words of the Pope were later inscribed on a marble tablet and displayed upon the wall of the basilica. So quickly did the work on the basilica progress that by his death in 1471, most of the structure was completed. The House was declared to be the property of the Holy See by his successor, Pope Sixtus IV, and the construction of the basilica was completed under the pontificate of Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who commissioned the elaborately carved marble casing which encloses the Holy House. In 1595, Pope Clement VIII ordered a brief history of the translation of the House to be engraved upon the eastern end of the marble wall. Mention of the miraculous translation was added to the Roman Martyrology for the 10th of December in 1667, and in 1699 a proper Office and Mass were approved to commemorate the event.
More than 47 popes have paid honor to the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, and numerous papal documents identify the Holy House as that of the Holy House of Nazareth. In more recent times, Pope Pius X openly showed his great displeasure at a book written to discredit the Holy House. His successor, Pope Benedict XV, ordered the feast of the Translation of the Holy House of Loreto to be observed on December 10 of every year throughout Italy. In 1924, Pope Pius XI enthroned a statue of Our Lady of Loreto in the Sistine Chapel and had it carried with great solemnity to the Holy House. This statue, carved from cedar grown in the Vatican Gardens, replaced the original image which was destroyed in a fire in 1921.
For those who find it impossible to believe that the home of the Holy Family at Nazareth could have been miraculously transported from Nazareth to Tersatto, and then finally to eastern Italy, it can be proved from many historical documents, including those describing many meticulous investigations through the centuries. But the most extraordinary proof is the House itself: this crudely built house of stone has stood for centuries in its present location without any foundation or added support. During World War II, the town of Loreto was bombed several times, and many solid buildings were destroyed or badly damaged as a result. But the Holy House in which the Word was made Flesh in the womb of a lowly virgin still stands, a monument to the greatest event in the history of mankind, and a model of the simplicity and humility that ought to characterize Christian life.
1Loreto and the Holy House, Rev. G. E. Phillips, Benzinger Brothers, New York: 1917
2Legends of the Blessed Virgin, Jacque Alban S. Collin de Plancy, Cox and Wyman, London: 1852
3Phillips, p. 69
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
http://www.catholictradition.org/Mary/loreto1.htm, The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto by Lee Wells
http://www.catholictradition.org/Mary/loreto2.htm, The Authenticity of the Holy House Verified by Fr. Angelo Maria d’Anghiari, originally printed in IMMACULATA Magazine.
http://www.catholictradition.org/Mary/loreto3.htm, The Saints and Loreto by Frank Hanley
http://www.catholictradition.org/Mary/loreto4.htm, Loreto: Sanctuary of the Incarnation by Msgr. Vincenzo Faraoni
–Taken from the Reign of Mary Quarterly Magazine, Issue 128