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A JOURNEY TO A SMALL TOWN CALLED GENAZZANO

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REUNIONS

Ann Rennie (O’Neill, 1975) | English and Religion Teacher

Enraptured with the piety of a girl who internalised without question all the stories of the saints, I was happily immersed in fabulous founding fables and the mystical world of apparitions and visitations. The miracle of a flying fresco took hold of my childish heart and a lifelong ambition was born. I knew that one day I would visit this sacred place - a special pilgrimage undertaken by many whose affection for the well-loved school upon the hill is abiding.

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This lovely medieval town is an hour’s bus ride from the end of the A line in Rome. Plain from the outside, the interior of the basilica of Our Lady of Good Counsel is stunning, full of gilt and ebonised wood, large devotional paintings and marble statues. I particularly loved the exquisitely sculpted altar cherubs who looked as though they had been up to some mischief and had only momentarily stopped playing.

The icon is tiny. It has none of the obvious splendour of a Raphael or Murillo in its depiction of loving maternity. Mary is plain and the baby Jesus a chubby bubby with a wizened face who tugs at his mother’s garment. However, its importance is not in the artistic aesthetic, but in its meaning to those who venerate it. There is beauty in this evocation of the blessed union of mother and child; and more especially for Catholics who understand the eternity written in this special narrative.

The story of the advent of the fresco starts in the 15th century when a wealthy widow, Petruccia de Geneo, used all her funds to restore the church that had fallen into dilapidation. She was mocked for her dogged devotion, especially as her money began to run out. According to tradition, on St Mark’s Day, 1467, while the entire population participated in a carnival, a cloud descended from a clear sky. Enveloped in that celestial fleece was a small picture of Our Lady and the Blessed Child which, somehow, attached itself to the church’s wall. The miraculous flight of the icon from Albania is recorded in a huge genre painting at the back of the basilica.

I had to see for myself the place after which the school was named - a visit to satisfy my curiosity and embed my understanding of how a school in colonial Victoria could have possibly been named after a small village in Lazio, Italy. For the first short while of its existence the new convent school in Kew did not have a name, but felicitously happened on one just before its dedication by the Governor, Lord Hopetoun, in 1890. Mother Mary John Daly had been reading to the community a book published by Monsignor Dillon. She particularly wanted a one-word name for the school and all the sisters wanted to have a name that referred to Our Lady of Good Counsel. The first time the word Genazzano was mentioned all the sisters spontaneously looked up from their work.

It was a sign!

Genazzano has been a place of Marian pilgrimage since the 5th century. A number of popes have visited the town and saints, too, have knelt in front of this modest picture: St John Bosco, St Vincent Palotti, St Clement Hoffbauer and the Augustinian priest Blessed Stephen Bellesini whose remains are in a glass coffin in a modern side chapel and who died of typhoid fever whilst ministering to victims of the plague. Genazzano is also the birthplace of Pope Martin V whose papacy effected the end of the Western Schism at the Council of Constance in 1417 and brought about the end of the almost seventy-year Avignon papacy.

Genazzano is a lovely small town with its medieval arch, well-worn buildings and old-fashioned streetlamps, its alleys decorated with householder pot plants and old wooden shutters open to the sun. It has the rich but unpretentious patina of old Italy and one can imagine in the sleepy lassitude of a warm afternoon that the centuries are no longer numbered and that time stands still. There may be modernisation, but it is well hidden in these terracotta hills. For those Gen girls who visit here and stop to say a prayer in the basilica of Our Lady of Good Counsel, it is a reminder of their alma mater and those other remarkable ladies of good counsel, our very own FCJ Sisters.

For those Gen girls who visit here and stop to say a prayer in the basilica of Our Lady of Good Counsel, it is a reminder of their alma mater and those other remarkable ladies of good counsel, our very own FCJ Sisters.