|The ancient Church of Santa Susanna is now -- by virtue of dogged American determination and solid papal support -- the confirmed church of the American community in Rome.
Christmas cupcakes and coffee on the site where a Roman virgin was martyred for her faith? American kindergartners dressed as angels and shepherds where early Christians once encountered persecution and death? The Stars and Stripes above the ruins of imperial-age walls? How did it come about that one of Rome's most legendary shrines has metamorphosed into a typical American parish? It's an interesting story. But first things first.
Pope Saint Caius himself apparently initiated the devotional liturgy to his niece around 294 and declared her home as a titulus, or titular church. ("Entitled" to the families or martyred saints who had lived there, these first Christian house churches -- there were about 25 -- became the meeting and praying centers for Rome's early Christian community, and often the scene of their brutal persecution and martyrdom.) Later both Gabinus and Caius were executed. The titers was extended over the brothers' adjacent homes and referred to in early Church documents (for instance, the Synods of 499 and 595) as "Santa Susanna at the two houses near Diocletian's Baths" (Sancta Susanna ad duas domes iota Diocletianas). Susanna's story was recorded in St. Jerome's fourth-century Roman martyrology, and in late Roman times her church became an important center of Lenten worship. (It is still the Station Church for the third Saturday in Lent). Susanna's and Gabinus' remains were eventually moved from catacombs outside the city walls and re-buried in the crypt below the main altar, where they still remain.
Today the vestiges of imperial-age walled structures can be seen beneath a glass floor in Santa Susanna's sacristy. These came to light in 1830, during renovations to lay down a new marble floor. The simple mosaics and tiles, as well as the layout of walls and pavements, could very well represent rooms where Susanna and her brave relations lived and died. For Americans, whose historical monuments usually date from the eighteenth century, the celebration of Mass among such sacred memories is truly a moving experience.
Throughout the centuries, Santa Susanna passed through a dizzying succession of architectural deteriorations and renovations. Some time between the fourth and sixth centuries the simple house church (one large meeting hall with altar) was rebuilt as a grand basilica. This had three naves, divided by two rows of 12 columns each, joined by arches. Two women's galleries (matronei) were built over the side naves, while above, light from two rows of windows illuminated the church.
Scholars seem to agree that Pope Leo III (795-816) completely renovated the structure in the ninth century, reducing the basilica's interior to one wide nave and sealing up the original galleries and windows (outlines still visible from the outside walls). Pope Leo brought in the body of another early martyr, Saint Felicity, and convened an important Council, probably in the presence of Charlemagne. In fact, a Vatican Library drawing of Santa Susanna's ninth-century apse mosaic (later destroyed) shows the Emperor beside Pope Leo, who holds a little model of our church.
A Stunning Late Renaissance Showcase
Santa Susanna displays little evidence of its former early Christian and medieval incarnations. The church as we see it today is a splendid all-of-a piece showcase of late Renaissance art and architecture. In fact, the interior is so different from most Roman churches that we start to rub our eyes in surprise and disbelief.
In comparison with most Roman churches, Santa Susanna seems broad and spacious, filled with light and awash with pastel colors. The nave is richly frescoed with huge figures, classical vistas and luminous green gardens, and speckled with light golden stucco-work throughout. This was the work of Rome's most important artists of the late sixteenth century. Their style was a bridge between Renaissance classicism and Baroque exuberance, called "Mannerism"(emphasis on style rather than representations of reality), and characterized by a light palette, distorted figures, and unorthodox perspectives.
In the late sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V ( 1585-1590) was investing Rome with an unprecedented flurry of building activity, laying out streets and piazzas, raising obelisks and aqueducts, and spreading around churches, fountains and villas. The Quirinal Hill, with Santa Susanna at its peak, was one of Sixtus' pet construction sites (Moses Fountain, Montalto Villa, Quirinal Palace, Via and Porta Pia). He gave his Rome Vicar and Santa Susanna's titular Cardinal, Jerome Rusticucci, free reign to appropriately transform the church.
Rusticucci began his drastic renovations in 1588, finishing in 1595, under the supervision of Sixtus' favorite architect, Domenico Fontana. The much admired façade was completed by Carlo Maderno in 1603, right before he did his main work on St. Peter 's. The Sistine "Mannerist" workshop, inherited by Rusticucci upon the pontiff's death (his successor Clement VIII preferred the exclusive services of Cavalier d'Arpino), imparted to Santa Susanna that striking unity of pictorial style and content we experience today.
Six immense frescoes by Baldassare Croce (1558-1628), on either side of the nave, depict the life of Santa Susanna's Old Testament predecessor Susanna, described by the prophet Daniel. (Bathing in her garden, Susanna is accosted by two old lechers; they falsely accuse her publicly of seduction; Daniel proves Susanna's innocence, and the men are stoned). The effect is really quite breathtaking: luxuriant scenery, glowing colors, towering architecture. (But don't look too closely; Baldassare was no Michelangelo or Caravaggio!)
Other pictorial cycles in the apse allude to the martyrdoms of Saints Susanna, Felicity, and Gabinus, and were done by Mannerist artists Tomasso Laureti, Cesare Nebbia and Paris Nogari. The nave frescoes are delightfully painted as imitation tapestries fluttering in the wind, and separated by massive trompe-l'oeil spiral columns. Large statues of prophets in the nave, and of SS. Peter and Paul in the apse, were done by a sculptor called Il Valsoldo. The beautiful gilded lacunar ceiling (attributed to Carlo Maderno) shows Santa Susanna flanked by Cardinal Rusticucci's white stallion coats-of-arms. In fact, these prancing horses appear anywhere and everywhere throughout the church. Just in case we missed the point.
Besides the ubiquitous Cardinal Rusticucci (buried in the lovely oval crypt), Sixtus V's sister, Camilla Peretti, also had a hand in restoring Santa Susanna. She commissioned decoration of the Chapel of San Lorenzo (left of apse, paintings by Mannerist artists Giovan Battista Pozzo and Cesare Nebbia) and transported the relics of Saints Genesius (patron of actors) and Eleutarius to the chapel, consecrated in 1591. Camilla had Sixtus V assign an adjacent monastery to her favorite order of Cistercian nuns and started work on their new convent, collaborating with Cardinal Rusticucci, who from 1570 was Protector of the Cistercian Order. Major work on the convent dates from the seventeenth century.
Americans' Roman Home
But how did this early Christian shrine, bedecked as a sumptuous Mannerist showpiece, become American Catholics' home abroad? It is a story of Yankee grit, sometimes in confrontation with Old World ways and views, and began with the visit to Rome in January 1921 of two determined Paulist priests.
For centuries other countries, even non-Catholic nations such as Great Britain and Sweden (see Inside the Vatican, "Churches," June-July, 1995) have had their own community churches in the Eternal City. The Paulist Fathers, a missionary order established in 1858 in New York City, recognized the need for ministering to a large new Roman colony of Americans after World War 1. Furthermore, fallen-away Catholics, and even non-Catholics, were certain to be inspired by the treasures of Church art and the immediate testimony of the earliest Christian martyrs. Was this not a truly American "missionary" opportunity?
Our two Paulists approached Pope Benedict XV with a request to set up an American parish, and apparently mentioned the already quite deteriorated church of Santa Susanna. Why Santa Susanna? At that time the church was located next to the US Embassy (housed in an office building later demolished by Mussolini, and then moved to larger and more luxurious quarters on the nearby Via Veneto). Besides, Americans' favorite hotel, the Grand, was right across the street, and the travelers' mecca, the central train station, only two blocks away.
Rumblings of disapproval were heard even then, so the Paulists enlisted the aid of US President Warren G. Harding himself. Harding summoned the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, who then intervened with Pope Benedict XV. In spite of counterclaims on the property (by the Romanian Minister to the Holy See, and the resident Cistercian nuns), the unhurried pace of Vatican decision-making, and the baroque complications of Italian bureaucracy, the Paulists persisted.
After countless letters, petitions, and even a few visits to the Holy See, the first Mass for the American community was celebrated in Santa Susanna on January 1, 1922. By January 10, 1922 the Paulists had Benedict XV's verbal approval, as well as an official Holy See statement, that they could "exercise the sacred ministry to the advantage of the American colony" in Santa Susanna.
From the 1920's the American parish of Santa Susanna grew and flourished without interruption (except for three years during World War II). That is until 1985, when a strange series of events -- and a bitter dispute with the nuns next door -- sent the priests and parishioners into exile for eight long years.
Founded in 11th-century France, the Cistercian order gradually spread throughout Europe to spread the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. One branch, the Italian (male religious) Confraternity of Saint Bernard, obtained a papal decree whereby Sixtus V granted to a new group of cloistered Cistercian nuns the formerly Augustinian monastery of Santa Susanna and adjoining lands. (The male Cistercians still inhabit the church of St. Bernard across the street and serve as the nuns' chaplains.)
The Santa Susanna sisters are fond of reminding visitors that they have remained on the premises for over 400 years. In fact, with Italian unification in 1870, most of their property was expropriated by the Italian State (now barracks and stables for the Presidential Guard). The large and wealthy community of 150 nuns gradually dwindled in numbers (and resources) to about 13. By the time the Paulists came on the scene, the convent was shrinking, and the church hardly used by the strictly-secluded nuns. In fact, they usually attended services behind thick iron grates to the sides of the altar.
From the outset, the Santa Susanna sisters grumbled quietly about occupation of "their" church by the busy American parish. The noise and activity interfered with their monastic, prayer-oriented lifestyle, they said. However, it was only in 1985 that things started heating up between the reclusive sisters and the plucky Paulists. That year some strange bureaucratic machinations (piloted by the sisters themselves, some have hinted darkly) forced Santa Susanna Americans out of their Roman home.
In April 1985 an anonymous caller alerted Rome's fire brigade to a long-existing sag in the ceiling and the church was ordered closed for repairs. As the parish was due to reopen, an official inspector pronounced the electrical system dangerously obsolete (the Paulists had been almost the first to install electricity in a Roman church), and the restoration period prolonged. Although the church was closed to parish activities, the Paulist Fathers refused to leave, provoking a showdown with the nuns, who obviously expected to be rid of the foreign intruders.
Plaques appeared inside and out proclaiming Santa Susanna Cistercian property. Parish mail was returned marked "addressee unknown. "In April 1989 the locks were changed on the parish offices, and the furnishings dumped outside. Earlier that year, just before a visit by Pope John Paul II, the Cistercians physically barred the priests from the parish offices, and the Italian police had to intervene on behalf of the priests.
A New Era
The Pope did meet with the Paulists that day, praised their service to the American community, and requested the nuns to assist their ministry. Soon afterwards official documents from the Rome Vicariate (April 1989 and December 1990), and finally from the Vatican Secretary of State (June 1991), reiterated the Pope's "expressed desire" for Santa Susanna to remain the "center of worship for the American community in Rome." The Cistercian sisters and Paulist Fathers were instructed to agree on division of space and liturgical activities. Peter Alegi, Santa Susanna's legal counsel and parishioner for 20 years, compared the frequent surprise happenings to Pearl Harbor occurring once a month -- and the parishioners and priests proclaiming "I will return."
After almost eight years in "exile," American parishioners again celebrated Mass in Santa Susanna on New Year's Day 1993. Pope John Paul himself attended the official opening in June of that year; and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, made Santa Susanna's titular cardinal in May 1985, was finally able to take possession of his church. The nuns have chosen their own times for daily Mass and special services, and the priests have divided their sacristy and moved their offices away from the nuns' convent and cloister.
Much of the credit for getting Santa Susanna back on its feet goes to the tenacious rector, Dublin-born and US-raised Father Sean Foley. (According to the confirmed rules, the rector is nominated by the US Bishops' Conference, and appointed by the Rome Vicar.) Assisted by Paulist Father Dennis Hickey and Basilian priest Maurice Restivo, as well as an active Parish Council, Father Foley revived parish activities so missed by Americans abroad.
The library (closed for 7 years and now moved upstairs away from the convent) is again a favorite gathering place for Rome's English speakers -- and not only Catholics. The Santa Susanna Bazaar has returned as a favorite autumn happening on the Roman scene, and a big fund-raiser for the Paulist parish. The Paulists are arranging coffee hours after Sunday Mass, and weddings at Saint Peter's for Americans who always dreamed of marrying in Rome.
This Christmas Eve American families will flock to a Roman church to sing carols and watch their children's pageant, just as they might at home. But in Santa Susanna, the ghosts of early Christian martyrs will be invisible participants at the Christmas ceremony, as well as some placated Cistercian sisters behind an iron grate.
by June Hager
Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.