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Rome Notes: History of the Holy House of Loreto, New Saints for the Church

Marvelli and Suriano Members of Catholic Action

by Delia Gallagher

This Sunday, Sept. 5, the Pope will make his fifth visit to Loreto, site of the house in which the Holy Family once lived, to beatify three new blesseds of the Church.

The house in question is the one from Nazareth, where Mary was born and raised, and pronounced her “fiat” to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement. It is also considered the house where the Holy Family lived. According to Catholic tradition it was “transported by the angels” around 1291 from Palestine to Dalmatia, Croatia, and is now found at Loreto, on the eastern Italian coast.

I remember an old joke told to me by an evangelical friend at the Vatican: “Some Catholics believe not only that Mary was assumed into heaven, but that her house was too.” Well, not quite.

The story of the house is not one of doctrine, of course, but of long and venerable tradition.

The original house in Nazareth lay protected for many years in an underground crypt thanks to Constantine, who, in 312, built the first Basilica over the holy spot. It remained a place of peaceful pilgrimage through the beginning of the crusades (in 1219 St. Francis of Assisi visited). Defeated in 1291, Christians were forced to withdraw from the Holy Land and destruction of the house by the Turks seemed imminent.

It is then, in May 1291, that the house appeared in a field in Tersatto, Dalmatia, most likely brought by Christians fleeing the Holy Land. It remained in Dalmatia for three years until it was again “transported” across the sea to Italy, first to an area near Lecanati and finally to its last home a few miles away in Loreto.

Whether it is the original house is disputed. However the dimensions of the house, 31 feet by 13 feet, seem to match those in Nazareth and the materials used for its walls are similar to those used in Nazareth and very dissimilar to Italian building materials.

Like the Icon of Kazan, however, the importance of the house lies less in its authenticity than in its history.

It has been a place of pilgrimage for over 2,000 of the Church’s most celebrated members: St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales, St. John Capistrano, St. Clement Hofbauer, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, St. Louis de Montfort, St. John Bosco, St. Thérèse, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Cabrini and St. Gianna Beretta Molla.

At the Vatican, Our Lady of Loreto is credited for restoring health to Popes Pius II, Paul II and Pius IX. More than fifty Popes have testified to the authenticity of the house at Loreto and in 1669 the Litany of Loreto was approved for use in the Mass, one of only five approved public litanies.

Many in the English-speaking world will have heard of, if not been educated by, Loreto Sisters. Interestingly, the Loreto Sisters were formed in Ireland, not Italy, by Irish IBVM (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary founded by Englishwoman Mary Ward) nun, Frances Mary Teresa Ball (1794-1861) who established an IBVM house in 1822 in Dublin and called it Loreto House. The Loreto Sisters, now numbering more than one thousand, have houses and schools on 6 continents and in 16 countries including Australia, the United States, Canada, England, India, Mauritius, and Gibraltar.

Not surprisingly, Our Lady of Loreto, known as the “flying house,” is the patron saint of aviators.


He was a childhood friend of filmmaker Federico Fellini and an employee of FIAT, the Italian car manufacturer, and on Sept. 5 in Loreto, Alberto Marvelli will be named a blessed of the Church by Pope John Paul II.

Born on March 21, 1918, Marvelli lived for only 28 years, when he was killed by an army truck while riding his bicycle on a dirt road in Rimini, Italy.

One of seven children, Marvelli was raised in a deeply religious family, which although well-off, often had little to eat, such was the price they placed on giving food and clothes to the less fortunate.

Marvelli wrote of his mother in a diary entry Sept. 12, 1939, “With what severe efficaciousness she guarded our spiritual and material life. In the example of Christ she was the same with everyone: family, strangers and the poor. No one who knocked at our door was sent away empty-handed. Even when she had nothing and was trying to save, she always found something for the poor.”

Educated by the Salesians in impoverished post-war Italy, Marvelli became active in political and social movements of the time. He joined the Italian lay movement, Catholic Action (see below) and spent his days cycling from school and Mass to the offices where he worked to provide housing to those who had lost their homes in the war.

His diary entries and the witness of those who knew him, speak of a young man with a rich ...

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