The Sanctuary of Santa Maria a Mare

The Sanctuary of Santa Maria a Mare is a Catholic Church. Through the centuries it was also a monastery and an abbey. It is located on the island of San Nicola.


The mythical origins

The origins of the church are based on a legend, of which we have several versions. All the versions have in common the protagonist: a hermit, who arrived on the island in the 3rd century A.D.

Jesuit Father William Gumppenberg[3] wrote that the hermit came from an unknown place, and during the first centuries of christianity chose the island of San Nicola for his hermitage. His saintliness was rewarded by a vision of the Virgin Mary who, having reassured the astounded man, ordered him to build a majestic temple in her honour. The hermit, being more spiritual than practical, hesitated at the request, also in view of his poverty and that of the islands he inhabited.

So Mary indicated a place where he could dig out the necessary treasures to accomplish the work she had entrusted him. He did not need to dig long before he found a sepulchral inscription, behind which were hidden incredible riches fit for a king. According to the legend, the sepulchre was the mythical burial site of the Homeric hero Diomedes. The hermit took from the treasure all he needed to build the sumptuous temple, thus obeying Mary’s will.

The legend was narrated in greater detail in Benedetto Cocorella’s Cronica Istoriale di Tremiti, written at the end of the sixteenth century. He indicates the year 312 A.D. as the year the hermit arrived on the island of San Nicola.

According to Cocorella, the apparition of the Virgin Mary took place in a night when the hermit was absorbed in his prayers. Mary requested the man to build a beautiful temple in her honour in that rocky land surrounded by the sea he had chosen as his abode, to grant her benediction to anyone who may reach the island to pray and seek for protection.

The man, overwhelmed with joy for such a privilege, remained nevertheless perplexed and pensive; so much so that Mary asked him the reason for his state of mind. He answered that he lived in complete poverty, and that to build such a sanctuary he needed riches. Mary encouraged the man to dig around the place of the apparition. The hermit obeyed as soon as the day broke, and after days of hard work he found a cave filled with precious treasures. He thanked the Virgin Mary and set sail on his boat, entrusting his fate to the calm sea, the sunshine, and Providence.

According to the chronicle, the man fell into a deep sleep, and had a sweet, restoring dream. As he slept, a zephyr led his boat all the way to Constantinople, where he disembarked the next day. There he found a ship, ready with all the necessary material to build the sanctuary. The ship also boarded builders and workers, with whom the hermit managed to build the chapel dedicated to the Madonna.

Once the building had been erected, he still felt his task was not entirely accomplished, and he made it his mission to spread the devotion to Mary among the fishermen, merchants, and anyone who reached the archipelago. Upon their return back to the mainland, everyone would talk about the marvels they had seen and heard on the island, and in a very short time the hermit and his chapel became known, and more hermits came to the island.

The Cronica then narrates that after around six centuries the few hermits left on the island were all very old, and the monks of the Order of San Benedict had heard of the splendor of the place. Desirous to found their own community in such a solitary location, so apt for their ascetic life, they sought and obtained the Pope’s approval and took the place of the hermits.

The Benedictine Monks

According to the Chartularium Tremitense, the first religious centre was established in the Adriatic islands in the ninth century by Benedictine monks, directly connected to the abbey of Montecassino. Allegedly, the early monks from Montecassino lived in absolute poverty.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, the abbey reached the apex of its splendour, and augmented its possessions and riches endlessly. This led to the re-edification of the church by abbot Alderico; the church was consecrated in 1045 by the Bishop of Dragonara.

The magnificence of the time is documented by the presence in the monastery of illustrious guests, including Frederic of Lorraine (the future Pope Stephen IX) and Dauferio Epifani (future Pope Victor III); a bull by Alexander IV dated 22 April 1256 confirms the entity of the goods owned by the monastic community.

The whole complex remained in the possession of the abbey of Montecassino for around one century, in spite of the requests of autonomy and the protests of the religious men of the islands.

In the thirteenth century, having reached its autonomy from Montecassino, the abbey’s possessions extended from Biferno to Trani, on the mainland. According to the chronicles of the time, the continuous tensions between the monastery in Lazio and the frequent contacts with Dalmatia led the monks to moral decadence, and in 1237 Cardinal Raniero da Viterbo appointed the bishop of Termoli the task of substituting the order of Saint Benedict with that of the Cistercians to guide the abbey.

The Cistercians

Carlo I d’Angiò subsequently fortified the abbey. In 1334 it was depredated by Dalmatian corsair Almogavaro and his fleet, who killed the monks and ended the Cistercian presence on the archipelago.

In 1412, as a consequence of pressures and apostolic letters, and under the order of Gregory XII, following the rejection of several religious orders, a small community of canons from the church of Saint Ferninand in Lucca guided by Leone da Carrara moved to the island, to re-populate the ancient religious centre.

The canons (Laterans from 1445) restored the abbey and extended its buildings, especially with the creation of several cisterns which still function to this day. They also expanded the possessions of the abbey to the Gargano, around the Bari area, in Molise, and in Abruzzo.

In 1567 the abbey-fortress of San Nicola resisted the attacks of the fleet of Soliman the Magnificent.

It was suppressed in 1783 by Ferdinand IV of Naples, who established a penal colony there in the same year. In the Napoleonic period the archipelago was occupied by Murat’s followers, who entrenched themselves in the fortress in San Nicola resisting the assaults of an English fleet. Those attacks are documented to this day by the presence of holes on the façade of the church, caused by the cannon balls.