My heart is heavy knowing about the loss of life because of the Milicia River spontaneously swelling in Casteldaccia, Sicily over the weekend due to torrential rains. When I heard the tragic news, I immediately thought of the Madonna of the Milicia, the sacred painting, pictured, that is venerated in Casteldaccia and Altavilla Milicia, coastal towns next to where my family lives. I visited the sanctuary a few years ago.
Similar to other Madonnas, the Madonna of the Milicia has a similar story of arrival. In 1636, after having ravaged the coastal villages of Altavilla, a Saracen pirate ship was making its way toward Palermo to raid the city, but for some reason, it couldn’t navigate past Capo Zafferano, to the west. Legend is that the non-Christian ship’s crew was using the sacred painting pictured as a porthole lid, and when they couldn’t proceed west, out of superstition, they threw the painting into the sea thinking it would be best served in Christian hands (and would free them of their navigation troubles). The painting drifted east to Altavilla (to the mouth of the Milicia River), where the distraught townspeople received it with joy. They employed an oxen-pulled cart to show them where the Madonna wanted to reside. That spot is where today, the sanctuary for the Madonna della Milicia houses the painting. Because the distraction it created saved Palermo from the wrath of the pirates, the painting is venerated throughout the region.