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Knights Salute Quincentennial of St. Peter's

4/17/2006

When St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome celebrated its 500th anniversary on April 18, it  looked its best for the celebration thanks, in significant part, to a series of refurbishments made possible by support from the Knights of Columbus.

“Knights throughout the world take great pride in the relationship that we have established with the Patriarchal Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, the most important and recognizable church in the world,” noted Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson.

Since 1981, the Knights have worked closely with the Fabbrica di San Pietro – the Vatican commission charged with caring for the physical maintenance of the basilica. The association began with the construction of the chapels dedicated to Saints Benedict, and Cyril and Methodius, in the grottoes beneath the Basilica.

Between 1985 and 1987, the Order funded the refurbishment of the entire façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, which had not been worked on in more than 350 years. In gratitude for this work, Pope John Paul II presented the Knights with the copper cross which had been held in the arms of the statue of the Savior atop the façade since 1614. The cross is now on display in the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.

Also funded by the Knights were the restoration of the statues of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Peter’s Square and the repair of the roof and mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

In the late 1990s, the Knights undertook the complete restoration of the Maderno Atrium and its massive bronze doors. The atrium is a historic extension of the nave of St. Peter's, designed by Carlo Maderno in 1605, through which all visitors pass. It is considered one of Rome's most beautiful architectural works. The restoration was completed in time for the Church's observance of the Great Jubilee of 2000.

Recently completed, in 2003, was the cleaning and restoration of the crypt chapels and corridor surrounding the tomb of St. Peter. At the same time, two Marian Chapels were restored. Additional work – funded by the Knights – continues in the Grottoes beneath the basilica, in the vicinity of St. Peter’s tomb.

Here are highlights of projects undertaken at St. Peter’s Basilica by the Knights of Columbus over the past 25 years.

1981

The first project was not restoration but construction. After Pope John Paul II named Sts. Benedict, Cyril and Methodius as co-patrons of Europe, he desired to create a chapel in their honor in the Vatican Grottoes. The naming of these three saints as co-patrons highlighted a central theme of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, namely the common Christian roots of Europe. A striking feature of this chapel is a Carolingian cross commissioned by the Knights from the Italian sculptor Tommaso Gismondi. A replica of this cross hangs in St. Mary’s Church  in New Haven, birthplace of the Knights.

Also during 1981 the Knights helped with the enlargement of the Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa, adjacent to the Three Saints’ Chapel.

1985

The second project, and one for which the Order received some renown, was the cleaning and restoration of the entire 65,000-square-foot façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. This was the first major restoration work on the façade in 350 years and took two years to complete. Fissures in the travertine stone were repaired, and stainless steel supports were installed in the 13 statues atop the façade.

In gratitude, John Paul II presented the Order with the large copper cross that was located in the arm of the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the top of the façade. The cross now has a place of honor in the Knights of Columbus Museum  in New Haven.

In addition to the work on the façade, the Order refurbished the famous statues of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter’s Square.

Another initiative during this time period was the subdivision of a space inside the basilica into six rooms where religious and liturgical collections associated with the Fabbrica di San Pietro are displayed. The project was dedicated to Count Enrico Galeazzi, who served as the Order’s Rome representative during most of the 20th century. One of the rooms is named for the Knights of Columbus.

1993

The Knights next undertook repairs to the roof over the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s and the restoration of mosaics damaged by leaking water. The mosaics depict the “Mystery of the Eucharist” and date from the 16th century.

1998-99

On the eve of the Church’s celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Knights of Columbus funded the restoration of St. Peter’s “front door,” the Maderno Atrium, which dates from the early 17th century. This central area to the basilica was cleaned and restored, and the massive bronze Holy Door through which millions of pilgrims processed during the Jubilee Year was also cleaned.

2002-04

Ceiling mosaic at the Chapel of the Bruised Madonna.

Ceiling mosaic at the Chapel of the Bruised Madonna.

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The most recent work undertaken by the Knights was in the Vatican Grottoes. Two chapels honoring Mary — the Chapel of the Bruised Madonna (Madonna della Bocciata) and the Chapel of the Madonna of the Parturient (Madonna della Partorienti) — were restored. The chapels are known for the beautiful images of the Madonna that are found there. Both are fragments of murals from the first St. Peter’s.

The image of the Bruised Madonna is considered miraculous from an event in the 15th century. A soldier, angry about gambling losses, hurled a stone at the image and drops of blood fell. The other chapel features a traditional Madonna and Child especially venerated by pregnant women. The chapels are also decorated with murals of the first St. Peter’s and episodes from his life. In addition, there are interesting inscriptions from the original church.

A semi-circular corridor off the chapels, called the Peribolo of Pope Clement VIII, was also restored. It features wall portraits of several popes. Finally, a chapel with the tomb of Pope Pius XII has been refurbished.

In recognition of the Knights’ efforts, the Vatican has placed several commemorative plaques attesting to the Order’s generosity in restoring many sites in St. Peter’s Basilica. Special medals have also been struck, many of which are displayed at the Knights of Columbus Museum.