The first historical document that indicates the presence of a small church in the Orgials area is an Agreement on the boundaries of Vinadio and Isola dated 23rd September 1307. It refers to the “hospice of St. Mary of Brasca” which was a small chapel flanked by simple rooms for the hospitality of wayfarers and pilgrims. In a later deed, dated 21 February 1447, it appears that the hospice was administered by the parish priest of Vinadio along with four council members. The hospice was a sacred place for welcoming pilgrims and vital for the economic development of local trade. Hermits who dedicated their lives to the service of the wayfarers are believed to have been the first to live at St. Mary’s.
As the church developed into a sanctuary, the local authorities stipulated a convention with a permanent custodian, known as the randiere. His tasks included living at the church all year round; keeping up the maintenance of the buildings; supplying food to wayfarers and accompanying them along a stretch of road in case of bad weather; keeping the road and the paths clear; ringing the bell for Evening Prayer and in bad weather to guide the wayfarers; providing hay for the pilgrims to sleep on; providing meals for priests and council members on feast days.
A document dating back to 1443 records the new name of the church, henceforth known as “St Anne’s”. The old Alpine hospice was becoming a true Sanctuary. By the end of the Crusades, the cult of St Anne and St Joachim was beginning to spread throughout the West. To boost the new devotion, popular tradition resorted to a presumed apparition of St Anne on a rock in the pastures above the church to a shepherdess, called Anna Bagnis.
In every ancient legend there is always a hint of truth!
Today, just a few hundred metres away from the church itself, stands the statue of the shepherdess, kneeling in prayer, facing St Anne and her child, Mary. It is possible to reach this so-called Rock of the Apparition with a short walk.
Time went by and around the 16th century the church began to acquire more importance as a Sanctuary: it was no longer just a place of passage for traders, but was becoming a place of prayer and devotion, a destination for devout pilgrims.
The altar was rebuilt and a painting on a wooden panel depicting Saint Anne was purchased, but sadly this got lost during the French revolution.
In 1619, the church managed to obtain a relic of St Anne, which is still kept safe in an upright silver arm, displayed in the church, near the altar.
The most significant stage in the development of the Sanctuary was the construction of the new church, as it is today, in 1680-81, thanks to Fr G. B. Floris, parish priest of Vinadio, with the help of the local authorities and pilgrims. This 17th century church was built slightly further downhill with respect to the old chapel. Pilgrims were already numbering in the thousands at the time. The growing fame of the Sanctuary was abruptly interrupted for a few years by the French revolution, a period in which the church was also ransacked, but then resumed in the 19th century with the influx of many believers.
It is still possible to reach the so-called Roccia dell’Apparizione, a few hundred meters away from the Sanctuary, where the statues of Sant’Anna with Mary child and the shepherdess kneeling in prayer facing them are placed. With the passing of time, towards the 16th century, the church was becoming more and more a sanctuary, since it was no longer just a place of passage for merchants, but was becoming a place of prayer and devotion, a destination for devout pilgrims. It dates back to this period the rebuilding of the altar and the purchase of a painting on a wooden panel depicting the saint, unfortunately lost with the French Revolution. In 1619 the church managed to obtain a relic of Sant’Anna, which is still preserved in the silver arm that is on display in the church, near the altar.
The most significant stage in the development of the sanctuary was the construction of the new church, the present one, in 1680-81, with the animation of don G.B. Floris parish priest of Vinadio, helped by the Municipality and the pilgrims. The 17th century church was built slightly further down the valley than the old chapel. At that time there were already thousands of pilgrims. The growing fame of the sanctuary was abruptly interrupted for some years with the French Revolution, a period in which the church was also sacked, and then resumed in the nineteenth century with the influx of many faithful.
From the mid-1700s, new buildings were built for the wayfarers, such as the house for the custodian or randiere, the stables, the barns and a large sleeping area. At the beginning of the 18th century, work began on the construction of arcades in front of the church. This was completed in 1822 with a circular covered area for processions and novenas. Following this, work was required to widen and improve the unpaved track so that vehicles with wheels could reach it.
Around the mid-1800s, work began on a building parallel to the church connected by arcades to host pilgrims and staff.
The roof of the church was built in 1870, to substitute the wooden one which was destroyed by a fire. Alessandro Arnaud, an engineer, called drew up a project in 1881 and in the years that followed, the facade and the bell tower as we see them today were completed.
Being on the border, this area was frequently used by soldiers, not only at times of war, while digging trenches and military forts. For military purposes, in 1924 the road was improved and a cableway which connected Pratolungo to the Lombarda Pass was set up.
Once the wars ended, the buildings which had been constructed with the sole purpose of destroying man, were gradually put to a different use. Thanks to the brilliant intuition of the then rector of the church, Fr Giorgio Pepino, who spent most of his life and energy on the recovery of these buildings and the rebirth of the Sanctuary, the old hospice, the military building known as “St Joachim” and gradually all the barracks were converted giving new life to the Sanctuary.
After the end of the Second World War, the church started to be too small to host the increasing crowds of pilgrims and tourists who flocked there. As a result, in 1971-72 the cloisters between the church and the old hospice were redesigned and made more suitable for religious celebrations. On the ground floor of the hospice, the confessional chapel was built to provide an atmosphere of recollection, and this was completed in the year 2000 with the construction of the chapel of Adoration.
From 2008-2010 the “St Joachim” building underwent a total renovation: a fully-fitted kitchen and new dining rooms were put in, and above all the bedrooms were modernised. The latest renovations date back to the summer of 2019-2020, when improvements to the former custodian’s (randiere) house began. The house, which has still to be completed, will have a multi-purpose room for meetings and catechesis on the first floor, and a museum area on the ground floor to recall the thousand-year-old history of the holy sanctuary, its pilgrims and randiere.