Thinking about snow in August

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 16, 2015

Rome’s ancient Basilica of St. Mary Major started because of a dream, and snow

The last of Boston’s record snowfall (108.6 inches) of last winter finally melted on July 14. The average annual snowfall in the city is 44 inches. (The average in Green Bay is 51 inches.)

By contrast, the last snow in Rome, Italy, fell on Feb. 3, 2012 (about two inches) — and that was the first significant snow in the Eternal City since 1986.

It rarely snows in Rome, but one snowfall there has been remembered for hundreds of years. It happened, according to legend, 1,663 years ago this month.

Summer snow

The year was 352 A.D. A childless couple in Rome decided to bequeath their money to the Catholic Church, specifically to honor the Blessed Mother. In a dream, Mary told the couple to build a church where they would see snow fall.

On the morning of Aug. 5, snow covered part of the Esquiline Hill — one of the largest of the “Seven Hills of Rome.” Not only did it snow, but the story goes that the flakes outlined the shape of the church that would be built.

This is how that church honoring Mary got its first name: Santa Maria ad Nives: “Our Lady of the Snows.” Today, we know that church as the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). Every Aug. 5, white rose petals are dropped from its dome into the basilica in memory of that legendary snowfall.

The basilica was built during the Pontificate of Pope Liberius, who blessed the plans of the childless couple; this is why the church was first called Basilica Liberiana. About a century later, Pope Sixtus III restored and rededicated the church to the patronage of Mary; from that time on, it has been known as St. Mary Major.

Bethlehem’s crib

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the legend of the snowfall actually originated later, around 1000 A.D., since no records of it exist before that time. In the meantime, the basilica had acquired another name: Santa Maria ad Praesepe (“St. Mary of the Crib”).

According to tradition, the boards from the manger in the stable at Bethlehem are housed in the Nativity chapel beneath its main altar. Five boards of sycamore wood do rest there. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the crib was probably brought to Rome during the reign of Pope Theodore (640-649), who was a native of the Holy Land area. The Nativity chapel in St. Mary Major, which resembles a cave, has been the usual site of the pope’s first Christmas Day Mass since the seventh century.

Icon of Mary and Jesus

The relics of St. Jerome and of the apostle, St. Matthias, can also be found in St. Mary Major. But one of its greatest treasures is a small painting in the Borghese (Pauline) Chapel. Called the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the People of Rome”), this ancient icon depicts Mary holding the infant Jesus.

Pious tradition says the icon was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on a board from the wood table that belonged to the Holy Family in Nazareth. The icon has been housed in this chapel since it was dedicated on Jan. 27, 1613, but the painting has a much longer history in Rome.

There have been many times when the faithful of Rome were threatened with disaster and the Salus Populi Romani icon came to their aid. The most famous of these times was the cause of the procession in 597, when Pope Gregory the Great had the icon carried through the city which was in the throes of the Black Death. Again a legend is involved. It says that the Archangel Michael appeared over the city during the procession — right over the building that is today known as Castel Sant’ Angelo — and the plague ended.

Other popes have led similar processions with the famous icon of Mary and Jesus. One of the last was in 1837, during a cholera epidemic.

In 1953, at the start of the first Marian year declared by the church, Pope Pius XII had the icon carried through Rome. In 1954, he had the image crowned in honor of the newly established memorial feast of the Queenship of Mary (celebrated Aug, 22). The more ancient feast day of Our Lady of the Snows has been celebrated on Aug. 5 since the 16th century.

Snows in the U.S.

In the United States, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded the famous Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill., in the 1950s. It is well-known for its Christmas Way of Lights.

In the Diocese of Green Bay, the Belgian immigrant community in Door County built a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows in Namur in 1875. Among its early pastors was Norbertine Fr. Bernard Pennings, who came from Belgium in 1893 to be its pastor. He later founded St. Norbert Abbey and St. Norbert College, both in De Pere.

The Namur church of Our Lady of the Snows was formally closed as a parish church on May 13, 2001. Since 2010, it has been the site of the Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation.

(Oh, and the average snowfall in the area of Namur in Door County is 46 inches a year.)


Sources:; Wisconsin State Climatological Office; National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows at; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”;;; “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History”; and “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia.”


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