Today, 12 May 2012, is the memorial of St Gemma of Goriano Sicoli, the patron Saint of that Italian township in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. The memory of her holy life has been kept alive over many centuries due to the annual festival in her honour and the accompanying rituals.
St Gemma was born around 1372-1375 at San Sebastiano dei Marsi, and lived there until an epidemic of some kind made her an orphan. From her home town she went to seek out her godmother at Goriano Sicoli, and lived there for the rest of her days. She grows into a beautiful young woman, not just on the outside but also on the inside due to her ardent love for God. To earn a living, Gemma works as a shepherdess.
It was while pasturing the sheep that the next part of Gemma’s story starts. Attracted by her beauty, a local nobleman – Count Roger of Celano – tries in vain to win her interest. Given her beauty, he was probably not the first to try, but he was the one who had the boldness to attempt to seduce her. He failed, but something dramatic and Godly must have happened for him to do what he did next. Whatever happened in those moments gave Gemma the courage to ask Count Roger to build her an anchoress’ cell attached to the church of St John the Baptist. He complies.
Gemma may have already had this deep desire for solitude and prayer. There again, she might also have realised that the only way to prevent her beauty from inflaming other men with desire was to seek a holy enclosure like this. Perhaps both things happened, and more. When the cell is built, with its little window to receive the necessities of life from the street side and its window that looks directly towards the altar of the church, Gemma enters and spends the next 40 or so years of her life there in penance and prayer.
As Gemma’s holiness grows, the locals begin to realise what a treasure of grace God has given them in her. They begin to bring to her their troubles and concerns, and she prays for them. Whatever bread is given to her, she shares with the poor who also come to her window seeking the solace that only people close to God can give. When Gemma dies around 1426 -1439 the bells of the whole region are rung to tell everyone of the news. Miracles begin to happen when people seek St Gemma’s intercession.
In the years that follow the local Bishop investigates and finds that Gemma’s body is incorrupt. Over the centuries that follow the locals have recourse to Gemma in their needs, and in thanksgiving for graces received they develop the yearly festival in her honour. The festival has two major elements: A pilgrimage from San Sebastian to Goriano Sicoli with a young woman in traditional dress (representing Gemma) to replicate Gemma’s journet and the welcome of the town. The baking of bread by the local women in vigil during the night, which is then blessed by the priests and distributed to everyone.
During WW2 St Gemma came to the aid of Goriano Sicoli more than once. When a soldier decided to use the church building as a weapons depot, St Gemma appeared to him and told him to go away. A little later in the War, the town was about to become the location for the front line of the war. With confidence the locals prayed to St Gemma, asking that the town be spared, and 2 metres of snow fell causing the front line to go into a different direction. As late as 2009, a rather big earthquake hit the region and only the church and the place where the fiesta bread is baked were damaged. Those with faith believe that St Gemma did a deal with God, and offered these buildings in exchange for the preservation of the rest of the town.
St Gemma takes her patronage of this township seriously, and shows that her love for its people remains active even almost 600 years later. We, too, seek the prayers of this woman of great intercessory prayer and generous love.
St Gemma of Gorano Sicoli, pray for us.