Monte Vergine (MONTIS VIRGINIS), an abbey in the province of Naples, Italy, near the town of Avellino, commanding a magnificent view of the Mediterranean along the Bays of Naples, Salerno, and Gaeta, and inland as far as the Abruzzi Mountains. Monte Vergine was formerly known as Mons Sacer because of a temple sacred to Cybele that stood there; also as Mons Virgilianus, from the legend that Virgil retired thither to study the Sibylline books. St. Felix of Nola is said to have taken refuge there, and in the seventh century St. Vitalian of Capua erected on the hill a chapel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, called “Sancta Maria de Monte Vergine”. Whatever the origin of the name it is certain that a pagan shrine existed there, and the ruins of the temple of Cybele lie all about the hill. In 1119 St. William of Vercelli built a monastery of strict observance and perpetual abstinence on Monte Vergine, and in 1149 his successor Blessed Robert, with the approval of Alexander III, gave it to the Benedictines. According to Castellain, St. William was canonized by this pope, and his feast is kept on June 25. As early as 1191 the abbey is spoken of as belonging “ad Dominum Papam specialiter”. It received throughout the Middle Ages many marks of consideration from the kings of the Two Sicilies, within whose domains there were at one time no less than one hundred monasteries of this branch of the Benedictine order. After many vicissitudes, laxity of rule threatened ruin to the abbey, and in the sixteenth century Clement VIII charged Blessed John Leonard. founder of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, to restore the monastic spirit. The new constitutions were approved by Paul V in 1611, and included among other things a regulation that the monks of Monte Vergine should use the Camaldolese Breviary. The habit of the monks was to be white, and they were to wear a white scapular.
From the beginning the abbey seems to have been freed from diocesan control, and its abbots had the faculty of conferring the four minor orders and confirmation. Between 1440 and 1515 it was held in commendam by five cardinals, and in that year was united with the Hospital of the Nunziata at Naples. The governors of the hospital sent as their representative to Monte Vergine a sacristan who interfered with the discipline of the place, and from this indignity the monks were freed by St. Pius V in 1557. In 1579 Gregory XIII gave them charge of St. Agatha’s in Subura, Rome; Paul V made it a privileged abbey, and it remained in their care until Gregory XVII gave it to the Irish students (see Irish College in Rome).
The monastery chapel contains an ancient Byzantine picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said to have come originally from Antioch. The dark features of the Blessed Virgin standing out from a background of bright gold have won for it from peasants and pilgrims the name of “Schiavona”. The story runs, that the head of the picture was cut from its frame by Baldwin, the Latin Emperor of Jerusalem, to save it from desecration, that it was found among his possessions by his grand-niece Catherine of Valois (who lies buried in the chapel), and that she gave it to Monte Vergine. The lower portion of the picture as it exists in the shrine was added at a later date by the brush of Montana di Arezzo. The church is also said to contain relics of the bodies of the young men, Sidrach, Misach, Abdenago, who were saved from the fiery furnace. These relics were brought from Jerusalem by Frederick II. Pentecost and the eighth of September are the two great days of pilgrimage and rejoicing at Monte Vergine. The nearest town is Mercogliano and on these days its population is more than doubled. The present abbot is Msgr. Victor Corvaia, O.S.B., born at Palermo, June 19, 1834, succeeded January 18, 1884. The chapter consists of 15 canons. The abbot’s jurisdiction extends over 7 parishes forming part of four communes in the border provinces of Avellino and Benevento. There are 27 chapels within the prelacy, and the population of 8070 souls is ministered to by 31 secular priests and 18 regulars.
J. C. GREY