The tiny town of Genazzano is perched on the southern slopes of the Prenestini Mountains, overlooking the Sacco River Valley. Located just thirty miles southeast of Rome, it was at one time a celebrated shrine of Venus and a favourite vacation retreat of the ancient Romans. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the temples fell into ruins and in the fourth century, a shrine dedicated to Mary, Mother of Good Counsel, was built over the remains. Over time, the church was also abandoned and fell into disrepair. The story might have ended there had it not been for the faith of a pious widow and the miraculous arrival of an ancient icon, Our Lady of Good Counsel.
Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel
Petruccia Noteria was a faith filled woman and a tertiary of the Order of St. Augustine.1 Her husband died in 1436 and as they had had no children, she lived alone and devoted herself to prayer. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Petruccia in a vision, and she asked her to undertake the mission of restoring the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel.
This was a large – and very expensive – undertaking. Petruccia’s husband had left her enough money to live comfortably, but she didn’t have the kind of money needed for a project of this magnitude. She asked other people in the town to join with her in restoring the church, but no one was willing to get involved. “Convinced of her mission and confident that Our Lady would provide the means for her to accomplish what had been asked of her, Petruccia donated all her goods to pay for the restoration of the sacred building with the hope that others would join her in the pious undertaking as they saw it being realized.
“The work began and the rough beam walls of a side chapel were raised. But no noble souls joined in the enterprise. Instead Petruccia met with scorn and ridicule. Even some who formerly had called themselves her friends now reprimanded or laughed at her in public: ‘What imprudence! And at her age!’ ‘Who does she think she is – another St. Francis?’ ‘She must be mad! Who needs another church? The times have changed. The crazy visionary needs to wake up and see that the past is gone.’ ”2 They made fun of her, “laughingly referring to the unfinished work as ‘Petruccia’s folly’.”3
“Petruccia faced this laughter and scorn with a supernatural courage and confidence. She smiled at her detractors, continued her pious works and prayers, and replied to their taunts: ‘My dear children, do not put too much importance on this apparent misfortune. I assure you that before my death the Blessed Virgin and our holy father Augustine will finish the church begun by me.’ ”4
Our Lady of Shkodra
Meanwhile, across the sea in Albania, an ancient icon was enshrined in a church nestled beneath the ancient Illrian fortress of Shkodra. “This church was a center of special devotion because of its beautiful painting of Our Lady. The icon [known as Our Lady of Shkodra] hung on the wall over the main altar. Because of the ‘motherly expression and uplifting sweetness in her gaze’, the Zoja e Bekueme (the Blessed Lady) was regarded by Albanians as ‘an angel come to life’. The fame of this painting and stories of protection received by numerous petitioners drew large crowds to the church.”5
But the safety of the icon was soon put at risk. In the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Turks had invaded Albania, and the last stronghold of resistance was Shkodra. During the siege, two men escaped and stopped at the shrine to pray to Mary to ask for a safe journey. According to tradition, Our Lady promised them “her picture would not be desecrated and ordered them to prepare for a journey and to accompany the fresco wherever it might go. The picture detached itself from the wall, and the two friends followed the fresco, which was wrapped in a white translucent cloud, to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. [The men] continued to follow it across the Adriatic, walking miraculously on the water, until they reached Italy. Having reached Italy, the image suddenly disappeared from their sight.”6
Our Mother of Good Counsel
On that same day – April 25, 1467 – the people of Genazzano had gathered in the city square (where the Church of our Mother of Good Counsel stood) to celebrate the feast day of St. Mark. Around four o’clock in the afternoon, “a white luminous cloud drifted down over the village. From it the chords of a beautiful music seemed to emanate. The cloud descended on the church of the Mother of Good Counsel and poised over the wall of the unfinished chapel of St. Biagio.
“Suddenly, the bells of the old tower began to ring by themselves, and the other bells of the town rang miraculously in unison. The cloud that enveloped the fresco descended and hovered a short distance away from the wall of Petruccia’s church. The cloud faded, and revealed a beautiful fresco of the Blessed Virgin and Child. A crowd gathered, and people began to cry out: ‘A miracle! A miracle!’ ‘Long live Maria! Our Mother of Good Counsel!’ ”7
Soon, there were reports of miraculous healings, conversions, and favours granted. Almost overnight, funds poured in to complete the work of restoring the church. When the two men from Shkroda heard the rumours about the miracles, they immediately headed to the town. There they discovered their beloved icon, and from that moment on, they made Genazzano their home.
Devotion to the Miraculous Icon
Today, the miraculous icon continues to amaze us. “In a thorough, detailed study, Joao S. Cla Dias writes, ‘…the fresco has unexplainably remained suspended in the air close to the wall of the chapel in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel for over five hundred years’. Cla Dias’ work contains several documents about the miraculous character of the image itself, including the amazing fact that the painting is not mounted or attached at the back. There are also indications that the image appears to bear different expressions according to particular situations.”8 Much of the church was destroyed during World War II, but the icon remained intact and in place.
The Augustinians were the first to spread devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel; they placed their entire order under her patronage during the time of the Counterreformation (1560-1648). Since then, many confraternities have developed under Mary’s patronage. “An undated prayer card in our Marian Library tells us, ‘As can be seen from the register at the shrine [in Genazzano, Italy], Benedict XIV, Pius VIII, Pius IX, and Leo XIII are enrolled as members of the organization then known as the Pious Union of Our Lady of Good Counsel. ‘It was Leo XIII who chose the motto for its members: Children, follow her counsels, [and] Pope Pius XII placed his pontificate under [her] maternal care.’ “9 The Jesuits also have a devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel, and Pope Leo XII added the invocation “Mother of Good Counsel, pray for us,” to the Litany of Loretto.
Perhaps most importantly for members of the laity, Our Mother of Good Counsel has become a symbol of lay responsibility in the Church. After all, it was a laywoman, Petruccia, who responded to Our Lady’s request that she restore the church that had fallen into ruins. Not only did Petruccia give everything that she had to bring about its restoration, but she also prayed continually for the church. Thus it seemed natural for the Catholic Women’s League of Canada (formed in 1923) to choose Our Lady of Good Counsel as their patroness.
Over the centuries, many prayers have been written, asking Mary for advice on how to live a Christ-centered life. Perhaps one of the most beautiful prayers is found in the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Good Counsel: “Lord, you know that our thoughts on earth are full of fear and uncertainty; through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from whom your Son took flesh and blood, send us the Spirit of counsel to teach us how to know your will, and to guide us in all we do. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 A tertiary is a member of the Third Order of a Catholic religious order. The ‘third order’ refers to an association of people who live according to the ideals and spirit of a Catholic religious, but who are not members of the first order (male religious) or second order (female religious). Members of third orders may be lay people or ordained men or women who don’t take religious vows but who participate in the good works of the order.
2 Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D., “The Valiant Woman, Petruccia,
and the Image of Our Lady of Genazzano,” available from
http://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/a004rp.htm; Internet; accessed 14 April 2016.
3 M. Jean Frisk, “Our Lady of Good Counsel,” available from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/olgc.html: Internet; accessed 13 April 2016.
4 Horvat, “The Valiant Woman, Petruccia, and the Image of Our Lady of Genazzano.”
5 Frisk, “Our Lady of Good Counsel.”
6 Horvat, “The Valiant Woman, Petruccia, and the Image of Our Lady of Genazzano.”
8 Frisk, “Our Lady of Good Counsel.” Frisk explains, “Measuring approximately 15-1/2 inches by 17-1/2 inches, the painting is a fresco executed on a thin layer of plaster or porcelain not much thicker than paper. One writer describes it as a fresco painted on a material resembling egg shell. It appears suspended in mid-air in its frame, with approximately an inch of space between it and the wall behind it. The only support is on the lower edge where it ‘rests on a small base on one of its sides, i.e. from the center to the extreme right’. (Joao S. Cla Dias, p. 42) The work itself probably originates as a fourteenth century Umbrian work.” João S. Clá Dias, EP is a religious Brazilian and founder of the Heralds of the Gospel, a private association of the faithful of pontifical right. The association is “comprised of various forms of consecrated life,” and its mission is “to bring the message of the Gospel to all men, but especially to young people, by touching their hearts by means of beauty ‘that will save the world’.” (from Heralds of the Gospel, available from heralds.ca).