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A pilgrimage of prayer

Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie  |  09 August 2019

Seeking solace in places of worship while a family member battles illness.

In times of crisis, we always revert back to what we know. So it was, that I found myself shovelling handfuls of coins into the donation box at Il Duomo in Milan – one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world.

My purse contained a mishmash of currencies from my time spent working and travelling in Istanbul, London and Europe. Turkish lira, pound sterling and euros: all went into the box indiscriminately.

‘God won’t mind’, I remember thinking. ‘Though perhaps the cathedral’s accountant will.’

I could have put the equivalent of AU$30 in the box, though with the value of the Turkish lira having dived in 2016, it was probably more likely about $5 worth. All I kept thinking as the coins rained from my hand was that I needed to put in enough for seven candles.


Why seven candles you may ask? Superstition? Magic numbers? Something like that. But it’s rather more simple. There are seven people in my immediate family. I wanted to light a candle for each of them – but really they were all for one sister.

I am the eldest of five children. My mum is the eldest of six children. Big families are all I know. Along with hearty home cooked meals at my grandparents’ place, my earliest memories include being a flower girl at (what seemed like) about four consecutive family weddings, gardening with my Gran and gathering masses of flowers from her garden to dress the altar for Mass.

Gran came from Irish stock and used to always say ‘good night, devil hatcha’. Phonetically, I always thought it was the letter ‘h’ plus an ‘a’. I didn’t really understand what it meant. When I got older I realised Gran was essentially bidding away what the Italians and Greeks and the Turkish call the evil eye. It seemed to have worked. Until April this year when the ceiling fell in. Or at least, that’s what it felt like.

The week before Easter, my youngest sister finally went to the doctor. She’s a stress head, very studious and had been steadily losing weight. Eventually she was convinced to go to the GP for a check-up and a blood test. The GP got the results and sent her to the hospital for a referral. By the end of the day, she had been admitted to hospital. My sister had suspected blood cancer.


I currently live in London, 16,000-kilometres away. When I heard the news the adrenaline kicked in. It was fight or flight. I couldn’t fight this thing for my sister. Neither was there any point in flying home to sit by a hospital bed and worry. In my time of crisis, I reverted to what I know. While I didn’t know where my closest Catholic church was, I did know there was a lovely Anglican parish church in Sloane Square that would definitely be open. I walked to the church to help take the edge off my anxiety. Finally, I arrived and found a seat at the front. And I sat. And I cried. And I prayed.

By Monday, it was confirmed that my sister had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer affecting the white blood cells. About the time this news was confirmed, the news that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire came trickling through my news feeds. As a journalist working in international news rooms, normally I would be all over this. I had visited Notre Dame in November and was dismayed at the news. But ultimately, I was numb. The diagnosis and my sister’s health was all that mattered. Buildings can be rebuilt. The people you love can’t.

Which leads us to Milan. I had already booked a trip to Italy for Easter with my friend Anthony. Everyone needs something to look forward to, and I had been looking forward to this visit. Now I wasn’t sure.


I wandered around Il Duomo, which took nearly six centuries to complete, looking at the various tombs and statues, trying to decide where best to light a candle and say a quiet prayer. Nothing seemed right. Until I came to the restricted area for worshippers. Tourists have to buy a ticket to enter the cathedral, but people coming to pray have access via a side entrance free of charge, every day between 7am and 7pm.

The restricted area had a small grotto dedicated to the Madonna and Child. I figured, if you’re going to do something properly, go straight to the top. When you come from a family of five women, and one of your sisters is ill and it’s your job to protect her but you’re 16,000km away, only Mary the Mother of God will do.

I found an ally again in Mary a month later in Barcelona. Santa Maria del Mar is a church built in the Catalan Gothic style. Inside, I bought some rosary beads and used a ‘prayer for dummies’ page to remind me of the order in which the rosary is supposed to be said. Once I had finished praying, I walked until I came to a grotto with a statue of a poignantly pained Mary watching her only son being tortured on a cross. ‘She knows what it’s like to be helpless in the face of pain’, I thought.  

Four days later, I visited Antonio Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Família. It was a highlight of my trip, quite unlike any church or cathedral I have seen before. Rather than statues or icons inside the cathedral, Gaudi decided to tell the story of Jesus’s birth and death using the outside of the basilica as his canvas. 


Stepping through the doors of Sagrada Família, rather than the dark and sombre interior common to gothic-style churches, it was full of light. It was rather like being inside a large forest – which was actually Gaudi’s intention.

I took out the rosary beads here too, facing the altar, where Christ on the cross is hung, surrounded by lanterns, and suspended from a carousel shape covered in vine leaves to symbolise life and the sacraments.

My prayers finished, I picked up my audio guide and followed the numbers through to the back of the building. The shapes of the sculptures and the architecture here were starker, sharper and more angular, than the softer shapes of the nativity scenes at the front of the church, in order to tell the story of the crucifixion. 

I wasn’t as much of a fan of this style of design – to me, it was crude and ugly, but so too is death and pain. What we know though is that from pain and suffering often comes something beautiful. Perhaps that’s why it’s called The Passion of Christ.

I only hoped my sister would have the opportunity once she’d got through multiple rounds of chemotherapy to pursue her own unique talents and passions. But until then, I’ll just keep praying.

Editor's note: As of early August, the author and her family received some good news. The Hodgkin's lymphoma written about in this article has been treated by the wonderful staff at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne and the author's sister has officially been declared to be in remission. For more information about Hodgkin's lymphoma, please visit:


Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, familylife, womensspirituality

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