Body of Saint, Patron of African Americans, Significantly Damaged in Sicilian Church Fire

Located in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the Church of Santa Maria di Gesù caught fire on July 25 after a wildfire spread down the slopes of Monte Grifone.

Santa Maria di Gesù in Palermo.
Santa Maria di Gesù in Palermo. (photo: Kiev Victor / Shutterstock)

The incorrupt body of St. Benedict the Moor, a 16th-century son of slaves who joined the Franciscans and would become the patron saint of African missions, has been all but destroyed after a wildfire engulfed the Sicilian church where he had been interred.

A post shared by the parish of Santa Maria di Gesù showed that the body of the saint, whose dark skin and devotion to the enslaved has made him especially beloved among descendants of slaves, has been mostly incinerated, with only a few bone fragments remaining. The body of Blessed Matthew Agrigento, another Sicilian Franciscan whose body had been kept in the church, was also seriously damaged.

“With tears in our hearts we are very sad to inform you that little is left of the body of St. Benedict the Moor and Blessed Matteo di Agrigento,” the parish said on its Facebook account. “Intercede from heaven for those who are suffering in these hours and for those who are sudden victims of so much disaster!”

Located in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the Church of Santa Maria di Gesù caught fire on July 25 after a wildfire spread down the slopes of Monte Grifone. Wildfires have scorched the Italian island in the midst of searing summer heat, killing at least three people.

Videos on social media showed flames billowing out of the second-story windows of the 15th-century church, which has been a place of pilgrimage for many Latin Americans with devotions to St. Benedict the Moor. Photos shared by the parish of the fire’s aftermath showed the church’s interior blackened and gutted, its wooden roof completely burned away. Religious artwork, such as the Madonna di Legno, was also destroyed.

“The tragedy that struck the Church of Santa Maria di Gesù in Palermo made, in a few hours, the cultural, historical, and devotional memory of one of the most important religious sites in Italy disappear,” Ludovico Gippetto, the president of a Sicilian art society that had previously asked to preserve the church’s contents, told BlogSicilia.

As an indication of the church and St. Benedict the Moor’s importance, Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, visited the site on July 28. St. Benedict the Moor is a co-patron of Sicily, which is home to 5 million people, mostly Catholic.

The fire also damaged the Friars Minor of Sicily convent, which is joined to the church. The friars have organized a fundraising campaign to pay for repairs to both buildings.

“The damage is enormous, and we literally lost the church,” Brother Vincenzo Bruccoleri told Premier Christian News. “But on the other hand, [we] are happy no one was injured.”

St. Benedict the Moor

St. Benedict the Moor was born in 1526 in the Sicilian town of San Fratello. The son of enslaved Africans, he was granted freedom at birth. He came to be known as “the Moor,” a reference to his dark skin, as “moro” means “dark” in Italian. Benedict was taunted for his skin color but earned respect for his patient forbearance in the face of injustice.

After living for some time as a member of an independent community of hermits, he joined the Order of Friars Minor and was assigned to the Franciscan convent in Palermo, where he soon became the master of novices. Illiterate and never ordained, Benedict was nonetheless highly regarded for his understanding of spiritual matters, his charity, and his charism of healing. He died in 1589 at age 65. 

Benedict the Moor was canonized in 1807. He is the patron of African missions and African Americans, and several historically African-American Catholic churches in the U.S. bear his name.

Titus Brandsma as rector magnificus of the Catholic University of Nijmegen in 1932.

Who Was Titus Brandsma?

Father Brandsma’s beatification cause opened in the Dutch Diocese of Den Bosch in 1952. It was the first process for a candidate killed by the Nazis.