I have been given a friendly passport into the oldest church in the village, the Chiesa di Santa Maria d’Episcopio, or of the Madonna del Carmine, which I chose this morning because it is locked other than for masses in order to protect the art. It is in the Centro Storico, built on the site of an 8th century monastery. Nearby plaques label buildings as xiii and xiv century, but the interior of the church is certainly newer. (Later info dates church as 12th Century.) I don’t have photos of the interior, of course, but overall memories last if details do not.
Back to my story…
I was following the sound of the bells through the maze of alleyways and stair steps when two women approached from another direction. They asked me if I wanted the church and motioned me to follow. They were several steps ahead of me when a growling dog ran out from an entry way and bit the ankle of one of the women. Well now! I’ve been bitten and am really quite afraid of dogs so I went into my Alpha Dog act; pointing at the beastie and firmly saying “No!” as I edged toward the women.
They were still a bit stunned but gathered me to them and we proceeded to the church.
The unbitten women handed me a program and motioned me to follow her to the front into one of the side Capelli.* She was visibly proud of the beautiful altar with a stunning statue of Madonna del Carmelo. I knelt reverently as she did and truly admired the small alcove. Several minutes later she guided me back to the main chapel as she went to sit in an area with several other women who I later identified as the choir.
Two women came in with flowers, disappeared behind the altar and then reappeared and placed the vases near the candles in front. The altar boys wandered casually around and were eventually robed by their mothers
As the small church began to fill, I edged my way to the rear pew where I could observe the correct procedure and gaze at the statuary and the beautiful paintings on the walls and the ceiling. I spent the time before the service counting the population that varied greatly in age and gender. There were fully as many children (ranging from about 6 to 17) as there were adults. I was one of four women over 50. The rest were young couples, some with children, a man with his daughters, a woman with her son and daughter, etc. The ragazzi (boy children) far outnumbered the ragazze (there were only 5 girls), and until the priest appeared I was the only white haired person.
Finally, the priest and three altar boys appeared. They stood at the top step as the choir began singing. The priest waved peremptorily and the choir stopped mid-tune. He repeated the words and tune and motioned for them to begin again. Barely three chords into it they were halted again by his angry motion. The congregation members began smiling surreptitiously to each other as over and over he conducted his personal choir practice. The last time around he shook his head and shrugged as if giving up, let the choir finish its anthem and proceeded down the steps to begin the service.
His homily, though unintelligible in words was by inflection and many gestures obviously an instruction from a patriarch to the recalcitrant children of his spiritual family. They were attentive and respectful for at least 40 minutes. You can imagine how careful I was to follow the lead of the congregation throughout the mass. I was truly frightened that he might call me out!
When he turned to prepare communion I tiptoed out.
NOTE: This wonderful experience provided by a biting dog and a cranky priest. I’ll visit another church next week but I’m not sure it can live up.
*This beckoning motion is the same as in Mexico. Whereas in the U.S., we start with our forearm down and wave out toward our chest or face to indicate that we want someone to approach; this motion begins with the hand up near the shoulder and it then swings down. The first time I saw this I thought the woman was telling me to go away.