Heavy clouds covered the sky as we set off for an easy hike in the Monti Sibillini National Park in the Le Marche region. Ahead of us ran a path crossing a mountain stream to the Infernaccio gorge and a dark beech forest. There, on the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 1150 metres, stood the beautiful hermitage of San Leonardo (Eremo di San Leonardo). I wanted to see that place because I had heard its incredible story.
Back in the 1970s, a Franciscan monk, Father Pietro, came here with some tools and a loaf of bread to restore an ancient church that laid in ruins. He spent 43 years building a new hermitage, alone. Locals called him “the God’s mason” and people from all over Italy came to talk to Father Pietro, marvel at his work and give him a hand. He finished building the hermitage a year ago when he turned 87 years of age, and, those who knew him say, suddenly he wasn’t feeling well. It was as if he had finished the job he was meant to do and it was time to say goodbye. A month ago, in August, Father Pietro passed away.
Nicola Pezzotta, a friend and our guide for the journey, stopped and showed the rock face towering above us. Moisture was oozing from the rocks and falling down in millions of fine drops forming small waterfalls. “Father Pietro came here to shower”, said Nicola while I was trying to catch the drops of gelid water with my palms. The mountain slop beside this spacious nature’s shower cabin was covered with a block of solid dirty white mass that turned out to be… snow, which, as Nicola explained, never really melts here.
While we were walking up a steep path through the woods, Nicola told us that Father Pietro worked alone for many years, brining cement, rocks and supplies all the way up, little by little. As he got older a few volunteers helped him with construction. During last few years, Father Pietro, well into his 80s, used a small tractor to transport all necessities to the hermitage.
In the days of ancient Rome, a steep mountain road lead from this isolated corner to the Eternal City. The hermitage stands where a pagan temple used to be and later, in 800, a Benedictine monastery was built. Father Pietro knew history of the area well and was happy to tell stories from the past to those who visited him at the hermitage, which was always open.
When we arrived, the gate was closed. “It is open only on weekend now”, said Nicola. We carefully jumped over the fence and walked around admiring the hermitage with its elegant arches, balustrades and old-looking wooden doors. There were neat rows of walnut trees planted by Father Pietro many years ago. A forlorn yellow tractor stood in a shed, a few tools left in a far corner beside the building.
There were other people around but it felt peaceful and quiet. In silence, we sat on a stone bench along the wall beside the hermitage overlooked by clouds and rocky ridges. I caught myself thinking that, any moment now, Father Pietro would appear, smile and greet us. After a while the sun came out shining on the white stones to show off the beauty of the Eremo di San Leonardo.
Nicola Pezzotta, a certified mountain guide for Le Marche, can be contacted at nico.pezzotta(at)gmail.com or mob. (0039)3333626495