Friday, December 1, 2017

Santa Balbina

Santa Balbina was built in 4th century. According to legend Saint Balbina was the young daughter of Quirinus, a pagan tribune who was guarding the imprisoned Pope Alexander I.  Her father’s efforts to convince the pope to sacrifice to pagan gods failed, and the pope’s chains miraculously fell from his arms. Balbina suffered from a hideous goiter that left her unable to procure a suitor, and her father brought her to the pope to be healed.  When she was healed, her father released the pope from prison and the whole family converted to Christianity.  After the death of Alexander I, Balbina and her father were beheaded c. 116 CE, and their remains were buried in the catacomb of Prætextatus on the Via Appia.

Emperor Hadrian took over the estate when he came to power and built a new dwelling on it for himself.  Sections of the square stone brick wall from the time of Hadrian are still intact.  The present church occupies the remnants of the basilica built on the site and dedicated to Saint Balbina sometime in 4th century.  The relics of Saint Balbina and her family were transferred there from the catacombs. 

A fresco in the apse depicts Christ in Glory with Saint Balbina, her father Saint Quirinus and the first deacon of the church Saint Felicissimus.  The relics of the martyrs are interred below the altar.  The tomb of Stefano Surdis, the papal chaplain of the monastery and chapels dedicated to Padre Pio, Saint John of Capistrano, Our Lady of Lourdes, the Crucifixion, St. Margaret of Corona, Saint Peter, Saint Anthony of Padua, and Our Lady of Fatima were added later.

Pope Leo III repaired the roof sometime in the 9th century and Greek monks of the Byzantine rite established a monastery there that was fortified to thwart the threat of Muslim incursions into Rome.  The crenellated tower on the building dates to this period.  The Benedictines took possession of the monastery in the early 11th century and converted the land into vineyards that were still viable as late as the early 20th century. 

The monastery was abandoned in 12th century and the church fell into disrepair.  Though originally dedicated to Santa Balbina, the basilica was later called San Salvatore because of problems verifying Balbina’s legend.  An icon of Christ the Redeemer was venerated there from the late 14th to the early 17th centuries.

In the Jubilee year of 1650 the property was granted to the Congregazione dei Pii Operai Catechisti Rurali who used it for their Roman headquarters.  In 1732 they moved their headquarters to San Giuseppe alla Lungàra in the north end of Trastevere.  In 1798 it was put under the charge of the Chapter of St Peter's, restored and reopened as an agricultural college.  The college did not prosper and nine years later the monastery was converted into a reformatory for male juvenile offenders.

The Fratelli di Nostra Signora della Misericordia ran it until 1879 when they sold it to the Suore Francescane dei Sacri Cuori (Capua) who established it as a place for reforming prostitutes.  The reputation of the institution was tainted by complaints that the female inmates were coerced rather than voluntary participants in the program.  In 1897 the Sisters converted it into an orphanage and rededicated it to Saint Dorothy, hoping to overcome the bad reputation it had acquired.  In the present day, renamed Santa Balbina, it serves as a nursing home for the elderly.