According to tradition, Saint Paul arrived in Messina to preach the Gospel, and the population welcomed him with enthusiasm, thus obtaining many conversions. In 42, when Paul was about to return to Palestine, some Messinesi asked to accompany him in order to get to know Our Lady in person. So a delegation of Messinesi went to Palestine with a missive, in which many fellow citizens converted to the faith of Christ, professed their faith and asked for the protection of Mary.
Mary welcomed them and, in response to the letter, sent back a letter of her, written in Hebrew, rolled up and tied with a lock of her hair. The delegation returned to Messina on 8 September 42 carrying the important letter: in it Mary praised their faith, mentioning that it pleased her their devotion and assured them of her perpetual protection. The lock of hair is kept in the Cathedral of Messina and exposed on the day of Corpus Christi set in the tree of a small galleon built in silver, which represents one of the examples of the protection of the Lady for Messina. (see image on the left)
The cult of Our Lady of the Letter, however, only became established in 1716, the year in which the monk Gregorio Arena brought a translation of the letter of Mary from Arabic into Messina. Since then, the city of Messina has celebrated the festival on June 3, with a crowded procession of the silvery litter of Our Lady. The tradition of the names Letterio and Letteria (abbreviations, respectively Lillo and Lilla) derives from the cult of Our Lady of the Letter, spread above all in Messina and the Province.
The text of the letter delivered to the Messina delegation reads:
«Most humble servant of God, Mother of Jesus crucified, of the tribe of Judah, of the lineage of David, good health to all the Messinese and Blessing of God the Father Almighty. It is clear to us, through public instrument, that all of you with great faith have sent Legates and Ambassadors, confessing that Our Son, begotten of God, is God and man and that after his resurrection ascended into heaven: having known the way of truth through the preaching of Paul, the chosen apostle for whom we bless you and your city, and of which we want to be its perpetual protector.
(From Jerusalem 3 June year 42 of Our Son. Indiction 1 moon XXVII) »
The phrase VOS ET IPSAM CIVITATEM BENEDICIMUS (“We bless you and your city”) is now written in large letters at the base of the stele of Our Lady on the extreme arm of the port of Messina. It should be noted that the text of the letter has an inconsistency in the date, since at that time Christian dating did not yet exist.
The devotion in Palmi (Reggio Calabria)
In 1575 an epidemic of plague broke out in Messina which caused the death of over 40,000 people. The citizens of Palmi welcomed those who fled the Peloritan city and also, through its sailors, sent aid through through various kinds of food and oil. After the calamity, the city of Messina wanted to donate to the ecclesial authorities of Palmi, as a sign of gratitude for the help given, one of the hairs of Our Lady that were brought to the Sicilian city together with the blessing letter.
In 1582 a reliquary containing a Holy Hair of the Virgin arrived at the Marina di Palmi. From that moment, veneration towards Our Lady appealed with the title “of the Holy Letter” began also in the people of Palmese and her black Effigy enclosed in a silver mantle similar to that venerated in the Peloritan city was adopted.
The Sacred Congregation of Rites, by Decree of 12 September 1733, elected Our Lady of the Letter as the main patroness of the city, fixing its Divine Office and Holy Mass on the last Sunday of August. Hercules Michael Ajerbi of Aragon, bishop of the Diocese of Miletus, on March 22, 1734, granted 40 days of indulgence to all the priests of Palmi who, after the recitation of the Divine Office, had devotedly read the Letter of Mary to the people. Pope Pius VI, on January 26, 1776, also gave the indulgence.
The devotion in Finale (Palermo)
The cult of the Our Lady of the Letter arrived in Finale (PA) through the family of Ventimiglia, marquises of Geraci, feudal owners of the Madonie, also including the fief of Finale.
This village was the summer residence of the noble family. This devotion to Our Lady is actually due to the kinship with the noble family of Moncada who were very devoted to the Madonna. Tradition has it that in marriage the promised bride of the Moncada family brought in the dowry a painting depicting the Lady of the Letter.
VIDEO PILGRIMAGE – DOCUMENTARY:
Sito dedicate alla Madonna delle Lettere – http://www.madonnadellalettera.it/.
Palmi (Reggio Calabria)
- Photo di Palminellafede – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35381535