This past February was the first time Rome experienced snow in 26 years. On the contrary, this summer Italy has experienced a heat wave threatening the country’s crops and livestock. The Eternal City could certainly use a snowfall to cool it down now.
Although it may be hard to believe, August 5 marks a time when Rome did have a summer snowfall, during the 4th century. The snowfall is celebrated in the name of the Virgin Mary as the Feast of St. Mary Major, also known as Our Lady of the Snows.
As the legend says, a wealthy Roman aristocrat, John, and his wife, both devout Christians, had no heirs to leave their estate to. One story says they vowed to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary and prayed that she would tell them how to dispose of their property in her honor. A second legend says they prayed to her to tell them who the heir should be.
Both legends agree that on the night of August 4, 352 AD (some sources say 358 AD), John dreamt of a great snowfall on the top of Mount Esquiline, one of Rome’s famous Seven Hills. Upon awakening, John rushed to the site to discover that his dream was a reality. Snow was falling in a square formation. Pope Liberius arrived later and revealed that he too had dreamt of the snow.
John knew that it was a sign that a church dedicated to Mary should be built where the snow had fallen. As soon as the foundation for the church was laid the snow stopped, this confirmed John and Pope Liberius’ premonitions. The legend says that the Virgin Mary chose this place for a church by her invocation of the miraculous snow. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is currently one of Rome’s most famous churches and is the largest Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Mary.
The legend is commemorated every year by the dropping of white rose petals from the dome during the evening prayer on August 5.
Written by OSIA National Office Assistant, Carol Cummings.