Our Lady of the Snow

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The legend that gives this name to the feast (August 5, also called the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major) is that in the pontificate of Liberius (352366) a childless Roman couple promised their wealth to the Virgin Mother of God. Her approval of their vow was indicated by a miraculous midsummer snowfall on the Esquiline Hill; by her appearance the same night in a dream to the patrician John and his wife, instructing them to build a church on the site; and by her confirmation of these instructions in the dream of Pope Liberius. The church was built, and later rebuilt during the pontificate of St. Sixtus III (432440). It has been called by various titles and is now known as the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

No mention of the legend is found before the 10th century, and the prevailing attitude toward it is one of dis-belief. It has been noted, for example, that in tracing the site for the church the snowfall untraditionally oriented the basilica to the west rather than the east. The congregation that Benedict XIV appointed in 1741 to reform the Breviary recommended that the lessons proper to the feast be omitted, on the grounds that it seemed unlikely that such an extraordinary occurrence would have gone unmentioned for so long. However, the feast had been extended to the universal Church during the pontificate of St. Pius V (156672), who is buried in the basilica, and the feast remains in the liturgical calendar.

Devotion to Our Lady of the Snow in the U.S. was introduced in 1941 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). As interest in the devotion grew, the Oblates established the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois to promote the devotion and accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims. Originally opened as an outdoor shrine 1962, further expansion of the Shrine resulted in the completion of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows for indoor liturgies in 1991, and the Millennium Spire in 1998.

Bibliography: Liber pontificalis, ed. l. duchesne, v.12 (Paris 188692) 1:207208, 232. h. grisar, History of Rome and the Popes in the Middle Ages, ed. l. cappadelta, 3 v. (London 191112) 1:140, para 2. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 10.2:20912119.

[m. s. conlan/eds.]

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Our Lady of the Snow

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