02 August 2015

Singing with Newman on the journey home
after visiting the Anglican church in Taormina

‘Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene; one step enough for me’ … the view from the terrace in the garden behind Saint George’s Anglican Church, Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This one-week visit to Sicily comes to end this evening when I catch a late-night flight from Catania, arriving back in Dublin early on Monday morning.

It seemed such an appropriate way to wrap up the holiday this morning [2 August 2015] by taking the local bus back up the hill to Taormina, high above Giardini Naxos, to be present for the celebration of the Sung Sunday Eucharist in Saint George’s Anglican Church.

Saint George’s is in the centre of Taormina is on Via Luigi Pirandello, next door to the Pensione Svizzera, and close to the bus station, the cable car and all the main attractions. There is a celebration of the Eucharist in English here at 11 a.m. every Sunday.

A view from a window in Saint George’s to the Sicilian coast and the Ionian Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Saint George’s is a stone church with spectacular panoramic views from its windows and from the terrace in the green garden behind the church that looks out across the Ionian Sea. The church is below street level but a banner on the wall and the attractive stone arch makes it easy to find the way in.

Although Saint George’s Church does not have a permanent chaplain, the church is served on a voluntary basis by locum priests who stay for one to three months each time. In August, Saint George’s is being looked after by the Revd Canon Dr Lawson Nagel, of Saint Richard’s Church, Aldwick, two miles from Bognor Regis (Diocese of Chichester).

When we arrived this morning we were warmly welcomed by the verger, Salvatore Galeano, who took over from his father in 2000. This is a family tradition, and before Salvatore, both his mother and his grandfather had been vergers.

English-speaking people were among the first foreigners who came to stay in Sicily from the 17th century on as Europeans developed a renewed interest in the art and history of the Greek and Roman world.

Some of these English-speaking families settled in Sicily, mainly in Palermo and Taormina. The families who made Sicily their island home were engaged in a wide range of fields, from the wine trade and agricultural produce to archaeological research.

The British presence in Sicily grew in 1799 when King Ferdinand IV donated the Castle of Maniace to Admiral Nelson, along with the title Duke of Bronte, after he fled from Naples to Palermo on Nelson’s ship. The large estate granted to Nelson as Duke of Bronte included the Villa Falconara in Taormina. The villa remained a home to Nelson’s heirs until the mid-1950s, and the family played a key role in founding Saint George’s.

The Dublin-born singer, composer and theatre manager, Michael Kelly (1762-1826) was an early Irish visitor to Taormina. He was a friend of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and of Mozart, and he first visited Sicily in 1780, and became one of the first singers of his time from either Britain or Ireland to make a front-rank reputation in Italy.

An early English visitor to Taormina was John Henry Newman, who came in 1833. He was then a young Anglican priest, recovering from a fever that almost caused his death. He made a full recovery thanks to the kindness of strangers, and also visited Catania and Syracuse. He described the Greek theatre in Taormina as “the nearest approach to seeing Eden” and said: “I felt that for the first time in my life I should be a better and more religious man if I lived here.”

English-speaking visitors to Taormina who followed included Edward Lear, who came to paint in 1843 and Oscar Wilde in 1897. They were followed by the poet Edmund John, who died of an overdose in the Hotel Timeo in 1917, DH Lawrence, who rented the Villa Fontana Vecchia, WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell who stayed with the writer Daphne Phelps, Ernest Hemmingway, Roald Dahl, Tennessee Williams, and Dylan Thomas’s widow, Caitlin Thomas, who also stayed with Daphne Phelps in the Casa Cuseni.

For much of the 19th century, church services for the English-speaking community were held in the private homes of wealthy families or in the residence of the British Consul in Messina.

At the end of the 19th century, Sir Edward Stock Hill (1824-1922) and Lady Hill bought a villa in Taormina known as Santa Catarina. It is now an hotel, but had once been a Franciscan convent and included a small private chapel, which Sir Edward offered for services. When the Hill family’s chapel became too small, Mrs Dashwood, owner of the Villa San Pancrazio, offered the use of her large drawing room for the Sunday services.

Sir Edward then decided to buy a site for a proper church. The architect was his son-in-law, Sir Harry Triggs (1876-1923), and Saint George’s Church was completed in the Spring of 1922. The building cost £25,000 to build, and the writer DH Lawrence, who was then living in Taormina, refused to come to any of the meetings organised by the English-speaking community to organise the building programme, for fear he would be asked to pay for the whole project.

The first service in the new church was held on 17 December 1922, and the first churchwardens were the then Duke of Bronte, from Nelson’s family, and Sir Edward’s daughter, Mabel Hill.

Mabel Hill set up a school of embroidery to help women in Taormina to earn a small living. She invited the Salesian priests to set up a centre in Taormina in 1911, and their building in the town centre was named San Giorgio in her honour.

Inside Saint George’s Anglican Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Inside, the church has two aisles, divided by three round arches in Syracuse stone with two central columns as their base. The most beautiful part of the church is its large polychrome window behind the high altar depicting Christ on the cross with Saint Catherine on the left and Saint George in mediaeval armour on the right.

Of course, Newman’s words, inspired by his experiences in Sicily, came to mind when visiting Saint George’s Church this morning.

After he recovered from his fever in Sicily and had visited Taormina, Newman left Palermo for Marseille in June 1833, on the first stage of his journey back to England. He was convinced that God still had work for him in England, and on the journey home from Sicily he wrote his hymn ‘Lead, kindly light.’

He arrived back in Oxford on 9 July, and five days later, on 14 July 1833, John Keble preached his Assize Sermon in Saint Mary’s Church, marking the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Newman never returned to Taormina. Would he have been a better and more religious man if he returned to live in Taormina? I leave that to your imagination. But that hymn he wrote recounting his experiences on the fraught journey back from Taormina to Oxford, is on my mind as I return from Sicily to Dublin:

Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ … welcome to Saint George’s Anglican Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

When buying the bottle of wine
is better than buying the T-shirt

A bottle of Grillo, from a vineyard confiscated from the Mafia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

My week in Sicily is coming to an end. It has been a full week, swimming in the blue waters of the Ionian Sea, visiting the classical Greek theatres in Taormina and Syracuse, visiting the architecturally rich towns of Noto and Taormina, finding my way through the archaeological remains of Naxos, reaching the castellated peak of Castelmola, and getting two-thirds of the way up Mount Etna.

There have been cathedrals, churches and chapels to visit, the occasional castle and palazzo, mountains to climb, volcanic rocks to stumble across, white beaches and blue rivers to stroll along, cable cars to rise and descend in, and a blue moon to savour as it scattered golden rays on the waters of the Ionian Sea.

In the Grotta Azzura or Blue Cave, below Taormino, in the Nay of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Much of yesterday was spent by the beach in Recanati, outside Giardini Naxos, and in the afternoon two of us were taken by boat along the long the stretch of coast from Recanati, passing around the Cape of Schiso to the shores of Giardini Naxos and the Bay of Naxos, around Capo Taormina below Taormina on the hill above, stopping briefly to wonder at tiny and conserved Isola Bella, entering the Grotta Azzura (Blue Cave) – less crowded and more relaxing than its counterpart on Capri – and on to the Baia di Mazzaro and the Baia di Mazzeo.

One of the joys of a new holiday destination is noticing the changes in trees and flowers, in fruits and birdsongs, in the sounds of music and buskers, in traditions about eating out, daily coffee and the evening promenade, and getting to know the local wines.

One of the joys of a new holiday destination is exploring the local wines and coffees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I expected to hear a little more about the Mafia, as any visitor to Sicily must do, but perhaps ought to have been surprised that the only visible presence is in either a popular T-shirt slogan proclaiming “I am the godfather,” or the half-day “Godfather Tour” offered by all the local travel agents.

Inevitably, the tour brings visitors through the streets and churches of Savoca and the catacombs of the Cappucini Convent.

But looking for a bottle of wine to sip on the balcony of my room in the Hotel Villa Linda last night, I was delighted with a bottle of Grillo from Centopassi collection of Libera Terra labelled Rocce di Petra Longa.

Grillo is a Sicilian white grape variety once associated primarily with Sicily’s fortified Marsala wines, which have long fallen from fashion.

Grill is still widely planted on Sicily, but is now used mainly in a variety of still white wines. At a high standard, it makes a fresh, light white wine with nutty, fruit-driven flavours that include lemon and apple.

There is some debate about the origins of Grillo. Some say it is native to Sicily, derived from Catarratto and Muscat of Alexandria. Others say it was brought here from Puglia in southern Italy. Another story says it is the same wine as Mamertino, a favourite of Julius Caesar.

Grillo is well suited to the hot, dry Sicilian climate. Although Catarratto has higher yields, Sicilian producers are replanting Grillo, making Grillo wines with more pleasant, fruit-driven aromas. Grillo today is light, easy-drinking and often associated with very good value, and so competes well with Soave, Gavi and Pinot Grigio.

Last night’s bottle, bought in a small local supermarket, was vino biologico or an organic wine, made from grapes cultivated on land confiscated from the Mafia.

Unicredit bank helped fund planting new vineyards on 150 ha near Palermo that had been confiscated from a former Mafia boss, Michele Greco, who died in prison in 2008. It was all part of a €1.2 billion EU project to recover ex-Mafia land, including vineyards in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campania, and integrate them back into the legal economy.

Greco, who was known as “The Pope,” had been a leading figure in the Cosa Nostra, and was jailed for life for a number of murders, including the 1982 assassination of Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, and his wife.

The project includes 125 hectares of vineyards near Palermo and 800 hectares of olive and citrus trees. Most of the land had gone untended and uncultivated when Mafia owners were jailed. Many of the vines had died from neglect and needed replanting.

When the projects began, there were inevitable acts of intimidation, including arson fires. The co-operatives were not discouraged and did not lose hope.

Libera Terra’s wine business, including Centopassi, was soon producing half a million bottles a year. Each of the Centopassi wines is dedicated to someone assassinated by the Mafia. The white wine I enjoyed last night – Grillo – was dedicated in honour of Nicolo Azoti, a trade union leader murdered in 1946.

And enjoying that on my balcony last night was a better tribute than going on the the tour or buying the T-shirt.

A final boat trip along the coast of Naxos and Taormino (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)