San Giovanni Rotondo is the little town in Gargano Promontory, in the Puglia region of Italy, where Padre Pio, 19th-century saint believed to have received the stigmata resembling the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, lived as a Franciscan Capuchin friar (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin) in the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie from 28 July 1916 until the day he died, on 23 September 1968.
The Church of Our Lady of Graces (Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie in Italian) is annexed to the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
San Giovanni Rotondo’s Sanctuary of St. Pio, the newest addition to the Conventual Complex, is the place hosting the remains of Padre Pio.
San Giovanni Rotondo is one of the Catholic sites most visited in the world, with millions of visitors and pilgrims from all parts of the globe every year.
Lying high in a beautiful valley almost 600 metres above sea level, San Giovanni Rotondo extends on every side with its red roofs from the slopes of the mountainous Gargano Promontory to the Tavoliere plain, immersed in the splendid Gargano National Park, a visit to which is also recommended.
In addition to other churches and places of worship, fruit of its long history, San Giovanni Rotondo is home to several sites and buildings related to Padre Pio: one monastery, three churches built in different ages, and one hospital.
Conventual Complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The convent complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famous all over the world due to Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (the latter part of the friar’s name is his place of birth, in the region of Naples), consists of the Capuchin convent, an old church and a new church, both of which dedicated to Our Lady of Graces (Santa Maria delle Grazie).
Originally built in 1540, the Capuchin Monastery and the old church have been home to Capuchin friars from their construction.
Despite the obvious significant changes over the centuries, the Monastery has remained substantially unchanged since the arrival of the young Father Pio of Pietrelcina in 1916, when the place became inextricably linked to the saint’s life and vicissitudes.
People who travel here can still visit Padre Pio’s cell or room and other places connected to him, in particular the choir of the old church where the young friar would have received the stigmata on 20 September 1918.
The Old Church
As said, the presence of Capuchin Friars Minor in San Giovanni Rotondo dates back to 1540, the year in which local benefactor Orazio Antonio Landi donated to the nascent Capuchin order a small plot of land on a hillock north-west of the town of San Giovanni Rotondo and the Capuchins built the walls of the church. Before St. Pio, the church was home to another saint: St. Camillus de Lellis, who slept in cell no. 5 of the convent.
Saint Pio carried out most of his priestly ministry in the Old Church (or Chiesa Antica). Here he celebrated the Eucharist, very early in the morning, and administered the sacraments, particularly that of confession: Padre Pio’s biographers report che he would tirelessly confess penitents for ten or even twelve hours without interruption.
Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto, in his biography of Father Pio Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age , describes how well-known journalist for top Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera Orio Vergani in April 1950 visited San Giovanni Rotondo as specialist correspondent for his paper to see Padre Pio and spent a day there, reporting:
My eyes, which had seen so much, could not be satisfied, so mysterious was that […] simple image of a brother-farmer sitting – and so every day for thirty-two years – in the rustic throne of his confessional, listening, once on the right, once to the left according to the turn of the two slow rows of penitents, the story of the sins of the world.
This, adds Luzzatto, was the only activity he devoted himself to, other than the morning Mass service.
Precisely because this particular mission of his ministry, that of confessor, became characteristic of all Saint Pio’s work, it has been possible, since 2002, for pilgrims who come here to receive a plenary indulgence.
The Old Church church houses the icon of Our Lady of Graces, to whom not only St Pio but also the local population is particularly devoted.
The church was restored after 1930 by Natale Penati.
The New Church
From the early 1920s onwards an ever-increasing number of pilgrims climbed Mount Gargano and it became clear that the little church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was inadequate to deal with them, as so evidently shown by Padre Pio’s being forced to celebrate outdoors.
Finally, work on the new Sanctuary began in 1956. The new church, Our Lady of Graces Shrine, was built at Padre Pio’s express wish, with the intention of being able to accommodate in a suitable manner the considerable influx of thousands of pilgrims who were flocking to San Giovanni Rotondo in ever greater numbers. The church, designed by the architect Giuseppe Gentile, was begun on 2 July 1956 and consecrated on 1 July 1959. The nave is dominated by a mosaic depicting Our Lady of Graces.
It has three naves, the central one being dominated by the imposing mosaic of the apse, of the Vatican school, depicting the icon of the Madonna delle Grazie in the glory of the angels and Saint Pio, intermediary between Mary and suffering humanity.
On the presbytery, a new altar, consecrated on 13 December 2008, replaces the one on which Padre Pio celebrated the Eucharist from 1959 until 22 September 1968. The old Eucharistic table has been “set”, like a precious gem, in the high altar, at the base of the tabernacle.
The side naves are embellished with 9 altars, but above all by the wooden statue of Our Lady of Graces and two recent mosaics depicting St. John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, with their relics.
Next to the Monastery rises the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, originally dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli, consecrated in 1629. Inaugurated in 1959, thanks to the perseverance and passion of Pio, the old Sanctuary welcomed the thousands of faithful and pilgrims that arrived in droves everyday. They came to this small Apulian village to see the places where the Saint lived out his faith, up until the realization of the new Church. The Church’s crypt also hosted, up until a few years ago, the tomb of St. Pio, now found inside the crypt of the new adjacent complex of the Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.
Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina
But even the newly-built church was not enough to accommodate the flow of devotees, faithful and visitors that was constantly growing over time.
The Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, also called “Padre Pio Shrine” or “Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church”, strongly desired by the Capuchin Friars Minor confreres of Padre Pio and by his many followers, was therefore built.
The Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church was conceived and designed by great, famous architect Renzo Piano and inaugurated on July 1, 2004, after ten years of construction works.
Renzo Piano is also the architect of the futuristic skyscraper nicknamed “The Shard” which stands in the City, London’s financial district. He is noted for having once manifested the idea that every age requires its kind of architecture, expressing the spirit of that era.
And, certainly, with Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church Renzo Piano did exactly that: the immense sanctuary has an enormous conch-shell structure and its two floors are modernistic from top to bottom.
Both for Padre Pio Shrine and The Shard, the innovative architect was criticized by more traditional voices.
In Italy, Renzo Piano’s work has been analyzed by sacred art expert Francesco Colafemmina in his book Il mistero della chiesa di San Pio, suggesting that the architectural structure presents strange symbols.
In the UK, the organization English Heritage said that Renzo Piano’s planned building, another big construction modeled on a shard of glass, with 11,000 panels, would “tear through historic London like a shard of glass”.
The Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina has an area of approximately 64,584 sq. ft. (6,000 sq.m.) and is Italy’s second-largest church after Milan’s Cathedral (Duomo). Today it can accommodate 6,500 seated people inside, while the large outside space in front of the church has standing room for 30,000 people.
In the words of Renzo Piano describing Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church:
At San Giovanni Rotondo the church blossoms from the stone of the mountain, of stone will be the wall, churchyard, supporting arches, the Great Cross.
The walls and the whole structure of Padre Pio Shrine are built in Apricena stone, a limestone extracted in the Puglia region, at the foot of the Gargano Promontory, where San Giovanni Rotondo is.
Inside the crypt of the Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina are the remains of Padre Pio.