By Sr. Faustina Olson
The Shrine of the Madonna of Mount Berico, Vicenza Italy, is one of the most renowned pilgrimage sites of Marian devotion in Europe, greeting millions of visitors each year. The Shrine is an oasis of peace and tranquility with breathtaking views of greenery, mountains and waterways. Since 1428, the Madonna has lovingly stood on top of the hill offering solace to sojourners who are seeking her comfort.
Vicenza, named for the victory in 157 B.C. when the Romans drove out the Celtic tribes from the area, is situated in northeast Italy at the base of the Vicentine Alps, between Milan to the west and Venice to the east. The rich soil and abundant pastures make ideal conditions for the numerous horses, cattle and sheep that populate the land. To the west, Vicenza is not far from Padua (famous for St. Anthony of Padua) and was once under its governance for protection purposes. Vicenza is also blessed to possess a relic of the Holy Thorn, a gift from King Louis IX of France in 1261 to the bishop of Vicenza, the Blessed Bartolomeo da Breganze. It is located in the splendid Dominican church of Santa Corona built in the 1261 to honor the Holy Thorn. To the north are the Swiss Alps, bordering Switzerland and Austria, displaying some of the most resplendent views on earth. There are thriving forests with valuable lumber and abundant chestnut trees, whose fruit is known as the “flour of the poor”, and many farms to sell the chestnuts to augment their income.
Between the years of 1404 and 1428, according to the city documents, a resistant pestilence infected the whole area around Vicenza, taking many victims and causing fear of the plague to creep across the city. Vicenza was shaken and tormented almost continuously by the sickness and was being decimated of its population.
In March of 1426, in spite of the fearsome plague, Vincenza Pisani trudged ½ mile up the Hill of Monte Berico to bring lunch to her husband who was tending his vineyard, as was her routine. Vincenza was a faith-filled 70-year-old woman who was known for her charity and for her devotion to Our Lady. As she climbed the hill, a beautiful Lady appeared to her and said, “I am the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ who died on the Cross for the salvation of men. I beg you to go and say in my name to the people of Vicenza that they must build in this place a church in my honor if they want to recover their health. Otherwise, the plague will not cease. As proof of what I say, let them dig here, and from the rock, living water will spring. ” Vincenza was so overcome by the beauty of the Lady that she fell prostrate on the ground. She was filled with joy but was concerned that no one would believe her. She was concerned about she could possibly pay for it. The Virgin Mary replied, “You will insist so that my people do my will, otherwise they will never be rid of the plague – and, until they obey, they will see My Son angry with them. As proof of what I say, let them dig here, and from the rock, living water will spring. As soon as the building begins, money will not lack.” Our Lady then took a small stick and gracefully traced the Sign of the Cross on the ground, sketched the lines of the Church to be erected, and planted it in the ground where the high altar of the Shrine is located today. She then said, “All those who visit this church with devotion on My feast days and on every first Sunday of the month, will be given an abundance of grace and the Mercy of God and the blessing of My Motherly hands.”
Vincenza related the vision to the bishop, to priests and to the people but they did not believe her and the plague continued to swallow its victims. Unable to convince them, she continued her life as before with regular Mass attendance and works of charity toward the poor. On special feast days, she would ascend the hill to pray in the place where the Madonna had spoken to her. Two years later, on August 1, 1428, Our Lady appeared again to her. She repeated the warning and reminded her that the plague would continue until they heeded her previous advice. Again, Vincenza went to the authorities and to the people who were now anxious about the effects of the plague that raged on. Finally, the Bishop recognized the apparitions and this time citizens were so afraid that they quickly heeded the advice. Within twenty-four hours, the city workers and residents, led by the bishop, climbed Mount Berico and began to plan the Gothic church with a monastery for religious to greet the pilgrims. Construction began three weeks later on August 25, 1428, and it was remarkably completed within three months. While they were constructing the building, they struck a rock, "a marvelous and incredible source of water flowed... to the point of flooding the area like an abundant river coming noisily down the mount."
It was reported, that as soon as the church was finished, the plague receded and finally vanished. These events were documented in 1430 by the Notary Publics and can be read in the city library, “Biblioteca Civica Bertoliana”. The Vicenzians were so relieved to be rid of the plague and they were convinced of the truth of the Apparition; devotion to Our Lady of Mount Berico increased daily. Obedience to the commands of the Virgin resulted in the remarkable miracle of eradication of that particular pestilence and it has never returned to the city.
The Sanctuary of Monte Berico is situated at the top of a hill that is part of the vast Berici Hills. Today, the Shrine is a stunning monumental basilica renowned for its grandiose architecture and beautiful art. The church is adorned with awe-inspiring statues, (the majority of which are carved in stone of the Berici and surrounding towns) and paintings such as: “Feast of St. Gregory the Great" by Paolo Veronese; "La Pietà", a 1505 painting by Bartolomeo Montagna; "La Cena" by Paolo Veronese of 1572; the "Virgin among the four evangelists" and the "Baptism of Christ" by Alexander Maganza; and magnificent statues and bas-reliefs that were crafted at the end of the 17th century by Orazio Marinali. The Basilica is the result of two constructions of different styles: one gothic (the first church) and the other baroque. Above the arch that divides the two churches, one can admire the great painting by Giulio Carpioni of 1651, portraying the city of Vicenza at the feet of the Virgin. Inside the shrine, situated on the very place where Our Lady appeared to Vincenza, stands a beautiful 3 ½ foot gold colored statue of Our Lady of Monte Berico, (also known as Mother of Mercy or Madonna del mantle) fashioned in 1430 by Nicolò da Venezia from the soft stone of the Berici hills. The shrine’s archives describe the statue as “an imperious image in marble, painted with skill in various and precious colors.” Curls frame the Virgin’s smiling face as her extended arms enfold some of her suppliant children of all classes under her blue mantle, lined with red and hemmed in gold. Her veil is gold colored and falls just below her shoulders. The inscription on the pedestal of the statue reads “Mostrati Madre” (Show yourself Mother). A beautiful crown, originally placed there on 8/25/1900 by Cardinal Sarto, (the future St. Pope Pius X) adorns the statue’s head and a gold necklace is placed over her shoulders.
The steep ½ mile hike up the hill is adorned with a two-sectioned archway, called the Path of the Porticos. Designed and Completed in 1746 by architect Fracesco Muttoni, the passageway is composed of 150 arches in honor of the 150 Hail Marys of the Rosary, and at every ten arches, there is a space on the wall of which is painted one of the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. The other way to the shrine is by taking the Arco delle Scalette, a picturesque stairway of 192 steps. This was the only way up to the Shrine before the Path of the Porticos was built.
On 9/23/1924, a plaza situated on the northern side in front of the Shrine, called Piazzale della Vittoria, was dedicated. It boasts of full panoramic views of the city of Vicenza and has become a magnet for drawing pilgrims, hikers and sightseers from all areas. The beauty of the landscape exudes peace and consolation, both soothing and comforting visitors. Engravings on the walls of the Plaza indicate the particular views facing that specific direction, such as: Monte Grappa, the foothills of the Alps (Dolomites), the Lessini hills, Venetian Lagoon, Mount Pasubio, Piave River, and many other sites in the Veneto.
Over the centuries, there have been many miracles – and continue to this day - attributed to Our Lady of Mount Berico. Some of these have been testified to by more than 150 votive offerings: “done both on wood and canvas, they recount, in simple somewhat naive style, a striking series of disastrous falls from horses, from windows, into a lake or a river. Not to mention violent attacks, accidents, congenital handicaps and dangerous illnesses. Overall a tide of mishaps, all successfully dealt with by the maternal intervention of the Virgin Mary.” 
Another great miracle occurred in February, 1917 during the first world war, when Vicenza found itself behind enemy lines - only six miles from a raging conflict. “The residents made a solemn vow to the Madonna of Mount Berico, promising that «if our lands are kept safe, we vow to keep the day of Your Birth perpetually holy as a sacred feastday». Since then, because the Madonna answered the prayer of the people of Vicenza and kept the war from reaching and destroying the city, September 8, Our Lady’s birthday, is a local holiday.”
The busy shrine of Our Lady of Berico has now become one of largest shrines dedicated to Mary in Europe. Every year millions of pilgrims arrive at the Basilica of Monte Berico. The Vincenzians look up to the Shrine on the hill, acknowledging the heavenly protection of the Virgin Mary under her watchful gaze. "On the first Sunday of the month we have an average of twenty-two thousand confessions. Sometimes we stay until ten o'clock p.m. in the confessional," stated a member of the Servites of Mary, the congregation which has watched over this beautiful site with its magnificent panorama since 1435.
In 1978, Pope Paul VI honored Our Lady under the title of the Madonna of Berico by declaring her to be the principal patron of the city and diocese of Vicenza. He prayed that devotion to the Virgin Mary would flourish even more. On the 100th anniversary of the crowning of the Statue, August 22nd, 2000, Pope John Paul II imparted a special apostolic blessing to the church and all the people, begging Our Lady of Berico’s intercession.
In the message recalling the centennial crowning, Pope St. John Paul II prayed: "May Mary, Mother of the Lord, who from this shrine became the model and support of the countless priests, religious and lay people, who went to the most remote corners of the earth to proclaim and bear witness to revealed Truth, continue to raise up generous workers of truth and charity; may she inspire in all hearts openness to the divine call; may she give new missionary zeal to the young people of the Churches of the Triveneto… Mary, Mother of Mercy, support us on our way to the heavenly homeland!"
Many hearts have turned to The Virgin Mary at this Shrine where she appeared almost 600 years ago to a faithful 70-year-old woman. With her maternal guidance She lovingly welcomes all visitors and keeps her promise to shower graces upon her children. May the prayer of JPII to the Madonna of Berico echo in our souls:
O Mary, turn your merciful gaze toward us.
Show thyself a mother!
Show thyself the mother of those who suffer and long for justice and peace.
Show thyself the mother of every man who struggles for the life that does not die.
Mother of humanity redeemed by the blood of Christ:
Mother of perfect love, of hope and peace,
Holy Mother of the Redeemer.
Show thyself our mother, the mother of unity and hope,
While with the whole Church we cry out to you again:
“Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.”