During these times of COVID-19, many people are turning to Saint Rocco for protection. He is one of the most venerated saints in Irpinia— a quarter of the towns in the Province of Avellino have some sort of devotion to him. But who is Saint Rocco?
Saint Rocco protects against the plague, disability, and natural disasters. He was born at Montpellier, France, and was the son of a noble governor of that city. According to legend, his birth was attributed to a miracle as his mother had been infertile until she prayed to the Virgin Mary. Saint Rocco possessed a birthmark of a red cross on his chest that grew as he grew. He was also noted as being extremely pious, even in his childhood.
When his parents died, he distributed his belongings to the poor and set out as a mendicant pilgrim for Rome. He arrived in Italy during an epidemic of plague and tended to the sick in public hospitals in places such as Acquapendente, Cesena, Rimini, Novara, and Rome. Legend has it that he effected many miraculous cures by prayer, the Sign of the Cross, and the touch of his hand.
While ministering in Piacenza, Saint Rocco fell ill and was expelled from town. He retreated into a nearby forest, making himself a hut out of boughs and leaves, which was miraculously supplied with water by a spring that arose in the place. A dog belonging to a local nobleman supplied him with bread and licked his wounds, healing them.
Upon returning incognito to Montpellier, he was arrested as a spy and thrown into prison for five years, until he died on August 16, 1327. August 16 is Saint Rocco’s feast day.
Saint Rocco and Guardia Lombardi
Full veneration to Saint Rocco in Guardia Lombardi dates back to 1656 when the Bubonic Plague and a drought swept the town, killing 1100 of its 1475 residents. The plague in Guardia lasted from approximately July 15 to September 30, 1656— roughly 77 days. The drought had already gone on for about two years.
In 1655, Don Nunzio Di Leo, the town’s priest, wrote in his will that he was leaving 20 ducats (about $3000 today) to construct a chapel in Saint Rocco’s honor. Unfortunately, Don Nunzio died from the plague on September 12, 1656 as he contracted the plague while ministering the sacraments to those who were already afflicted.
The first procession in honor of Saint Rocco took place in 1656 when townspeople decided to pray to him to beg for rain and to end the violent plague.
Per Don Nunzio Di Leo’s wishes, the townspeople built the chapel at the entrance to town, near where people would walk to get to the Beveri Fountain. People would go to get water and stop at the Chapel to pray until 1957, when it was torn down to make way for a housing project.
The official word was that the chapel itself had fallen into disrepair and could not be restored. Pieces of the chapel were used to help build streets and were also simply thrown away. Town history refutes the idea that the Chapel had fallen into disrepair, as it was a local custom for the townspeople who lived near the Chapel to participate in a full-on cleaning of the Chapel beginning a month before the Saint’s feast day in August.
To calm townspeople’s anger over the Chapel’s demolition, authorities promised a monument in the Saint’s honor in the newly-named “Piazza San Rocco.” However, the townspeople didn’t like this statue because they say Saint Rocco looks more like a war veteran than a saint who roamed the forests. Piazza San Rocco was completed in 1993.
When the chapel was being torn down, Saint Rocco was “promoted” from the protector of the town to a town patron, along with Pope Saint Leo IX and Saint Gaetano. The townspeople still consider him Guardia’s protector and this is how he is venerated in Guardiese communities in the United States.
According to town historian, the late Salvatore Boniello, “since St. Rocco was chased from town, Guardia saw a steady and continuing decline.” In fact, Guardia’s peak population was during the 1950s, with 5,232 citizens in 1951. By 1961, the population dropped to 4,028. Today, the population is just under 2,000 citizens.
St. Rocco in Irpinia
As mentioned above, Saint Rocco is venerated elsewhere in Irpinia, with many different celebrations in his honor.
In Solofra, there is a church in his honor that was built to invoke his protection of the town’s tannery workers, as their job led them to contract boils.
In Flumeri, the town’s famous Giglio is in St. Rocco’s honor. It is made out of straw ad the tradition goes back to pre-Christianity when the Giglio was in honor of the goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of agriculture. During the 1600s, the population of Flumeri dropped from 600 to 240 people because of the Bubonic Plague. The citizens prayed to St. Rocco and they felt he saved them from total disaster as both the plague and earthquakes were happening in the area. According to legend, a man named Rocco Maglione, during the month of July during this time, was bringing his heard overnight from San Nicola Baronia to Ariano Irpino and met a man near the gates of Flumeri who was looking toward the town. Rocco asked the unknown man what he was doing out at such an hour (around 3 AM). The man replied, “I am watching over this town and those who live there.”
In Carife and Frigento, processions to St. Rocco are marked with “Mezzetti”—these are a type of bucket filled with grains that were intended to “give” to Saint Rocco to either thank him for his intersession or to ask him for help. The Mezzetti are heavily decorated, often with ribbons, figures of the Saint, and even handmade lace coverings.
In Bagnoli Irpino, the “vacca di fuoco” is the annual ritual in honor of St. Rocco: there Saint Rocco is considered the protector of the shepherds. The townspeople build a papier mâché cow and fill it with firecrackers and fireworks. It is then set on fire to celebrate the saint.
In Castel Baronia, a bonfire is lit in February in honor of St. Rocco.
In Morra de Sanctis, there is a blessing of food for animals in his honor.
In Villamaina, there is the raising of a greased pole, “Il palo della cuccagna”, in his honor. Following a religious procession in St. Rocco’s honor, people are invited to climb of a greased pole that is several feet high. Until the 1990s, at the top typical products like prosciutto and cheeses from the area were hung as a prize.
Below is a full listing of the towns in Irpinia who have a devotion to Saint Rocco:
- Bagnoli Irpino
- Castel Baronia
- Guardia Lombardi
- Morra De Sanctis
- Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo
- San Sossio Baronia
- Santa Paolina
- Sant’Angelo all’Esca
- Savignano Irpino
- Sorbo Serpico
- Villanova del Battista
And below is a selection of videos featuring devotions to Saint Rocco throughout the region!
O Great St. Rocco, deliver us, we beseech thee, from the scourges of God; through thy intercession, preserve our bodies from contagious diseases, and our souls from the contagion of sin. Obtain for us salubrious air; but, above all, purity of heart. Assist us to make good use of health, to bear suffering with patience; and, after thy example, to live in the practice of penance and charity, that we may one day enjoy the happiness which thou has merited by thy virtues. St. Rocco, pray for us (say three times).