On March 22, 1888, the day before the Feast of the Compassion of Our Blessed Lady, two peasant women were shepherding their sheep on the hills in Southern Italy near the village of Castelpetroso. Fabiana Cicchino (35-year old virgin) and Serafina Valentino (34-year old married woman) belonged to Pastine, a hamlet in the diocese of Bojano. One of their sheep had strayed onto a hill nearest Castelpetroso. Fabiana found the lost sheep in a ravine near some rocks. But a strange light was coming from a crack in the rocks. The rays of the bright light formed a clear image of Our Blessed Virgin on her knees with her eyes gazing toward heaven. Her arms were outstretched in an act of imploring and offering of her Son, full of wounds and lying dead beneath her. It was the image of the Pieta.
Mary appeared as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing a deep red dress and a dark mantle. She was a very beautiful, fair-skinned, young woman with disheveled hair and bleeding from wounds received from seven swords. The Blessed Virgin never spoke. When Serafina caught up to Fabiana, she could not see anything.
They returned home, crying, sobbing, trembling, and terrified. People naturally inquired as to the cause of their emotions. But very few believed them, and nobody paid much attention to their statements.
During the Solemnity of Easter on April 1, 1888, the same vision occurred again to these two women in the same location. This time, Serafina also witnessed the apparition. More people became curious after this encounter and began to believe that something was truly happening there. People began to go to the mountain and visit the spot of the alleged apparitions, some 2,600 feet above sea level. First, a child saw Mary; then an avowed heretic witnessed her also. Others affirmed that they saw Our Blessed Virgin bearing her dead Son in her arms.
Pilgrimages began, and within a few days, some four thousand persons visited the spot – which was double the number of those living there. Soon, this place which had been generally unknown, suddenly became the center of attraction to countless crowds from the neighboring countryside. Of those who went, some testified that they saw the Blessed Virgin as Our Lady of Carmel, Our Lady of Grace, and also Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. But most of the time, she appeared as Our Lady of Sorrows. She was usually alone but was also accompanied at times by St. Michael, St. Anthony, or St. Sebastian. Among those who testified to these apparitions was a well-known disbeliever, who received the grace of seeing Our Lady four times in half an hour.
The apparitions were accompanied by another phenomenon; in May of 1888 the body of water at the foot of the mountain began bestowing miracles. Soon, believers from other countries came in masses to behold and experience the extraordinary events and the fountain of miracles. Angelo Verna, a six-year old mute boy, was given a drink of this water by his father and was completely healed by receiving the gift of speech.
The priest in the diocese treated the whole affair as delusional and preached against it. A second priest, Don Luigi Ferrara, was also a disbeliever –until he saw her, too!
“I had many times derided those who visited the mountain on which these wonderful apparitions took place. On May 16, 1888, however, I felt a desire to visit the place. When I arrived, I began to look into one of the fissures, and I saw with great clearness Our Lady, like a statuette, with a little Child in her arms. After a short interval I looked again at the same spot, and, in place of the Most Holy Virgin I saw, quite clearly, the dead Savior bearing the crown of thorns and all covered in blood. Whenever I think of these visions on this mountain, I am moved to tears and cannot speak.”
News of the occurrences reached Msr. Francesco Macarone-Palmieri, Bishop of the diocese of Bojano. While in Rome on business, he updated Pope Leo XIII on the events near Castelpetroso, adding that he should have liked the apparitions to have been confirmed by “some clear sign.” The Pope replied by asking the Bishop if he did not think the apparitionsin themselveswere signs. Pope Leo XIII asked the bishop to return to the site of the apparitions and make a further investigation.
“The Blessed Virgin appeared daily more frequently as the Mother of Sorrows, and, at other times, as Our Lady of Mount Carmel or the Queen of the Holy Rosary. A number of persons affirmed that they saw apparitions of St. Michael, St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Sebastian, together with the Blessed Virgin, and also the Holy Face of Jesus surrounded by angels.
As the event became more widely known and acquired a high degree of credibility, I deemed it expedient to have an account reduced to writing and certified to by the depositions, under oath, of those who had been eye-witnesses of the prodigy. The preparation of this report occupied several months. When it was completed, I took it in person to Rome to submit it to the Sovereign Pontiff that the Holy See might pronounce authoritatively and definitely in the matter.
I, myself, can bear witness that I visited the sacred spot, and, after some time spent in prayer, saw the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin. At first the image of Our Lady appeared faint and indistinct, but at length she appeared in the attitude and proportions of the representation of the Mother of Sorrows published in one of the numbers of the Servo di Maria. Besides myself and the very large number of persons whose names are recorded in the official report, there are the Vicar-General of the diocese, the Archpriest of the Cathedral, and many other ecclesiastics, who also beheld the miraculous Apparitions. With joyful heart, I affirm that the wonders happening in Castelpetroso are the last touches of the Divine Mercy, to call those who have gone far from the right way.”
In November of 1888, Count Charles Aquaderni, director of the magazine,Servo di Maria,went to the blessed rocks with his son, Augusto, who was sick with a serious bone tuberculosis. Miraculously, the boy was healed at the site!
On December 18, 1889, Father Joseph Lais, a physicist, medical doctor, and sub-director of the Vatican Observatory, examined everything and was convinced that no optical illusion could be responsible for what people had been seeing.
“The observations I made of the character of the people lead me to recognize that they are profoundly convinced of the event having taken place. Their simple and ingenuous demeanor does not suggest the suspicion that the fact should be, to some extent, fanciful or the effect of imagination. The natural formation of the rocks excludes the theory of trickery.”
The Bishop of Bojano formed a committee in 1889 to begin collecting funds for a church to be built on the site of the apparitions. Pope Leo XIII blessed their work, imparting the Apostolic Blessing to the members of the committee and to all those who contributed to the fund. The cornerstone for a beautiful Gothic church was laid in May of 1890 in front of 30,000 faithful. The layout symbolizes a heart with seven chapels at its center representing the seven sorrows of Mary, the seven swords piercing her heart.
On December 6, 1973, Pope Paul VI proclaimed the Blessed and Sorrowful Virgin Mary as Patroness of the region – upon a request by the Bishop of Molise. Pope John Paul II visited the sanctuary as a pilgrim on March 19, 1995. A community of friars and sisters has been established since 1993 — called the Franciscans of the Immaculate.