Madonnina dei Centauri

Sanctuary of the Madonnina dei Centauri

The 'Sanctuary of the Beata Vergine della Creta e delle Grazie' (aka 'Madonnina dei Centauri') sits at the entrance to Castellazzo Bormida, a commune in the province of Alessandria (Piedmont), around 70 kilometres southeast of Turin.

Castellazo Bormida - the Sanctuary of the 'Beata Vergine della Creta'

The history of the Sanctuary is inextricably linked with the Manzonian plague. A pious local by the name of Giovanni Viola, perhaps to invoke the protection of the Virgin, or perhaps to thank her for having escaped the plague in 1631, built with the help of other faithful, a small country church. This church subsequently fell into ruin and was finally demolished in 1764.

However, in 1797, work on a new church was begun. The project was interrupted by the famous battle of Marengo (1800) and the area intended for the construction of the church was transformed into a cemetery for Napoleon's fallen French soldiers. The work didn't resume until 1842 and the new sanctuary was blessed on 8 November 1846 by the Bishop of Alessandria.

Madonnina dei Centauri 1958 - the crowd of rallyists at the sanctuary

Dr Marco Re
A dreamer who made his dream come true

The 1930s in Italy were an extremely fruitful period for motorcycling. Many motorcycle clubs and numerous motorcycle events were initiated all over the country. Some of the most famous 'raduno motociclisto' (motorcycle gathering) originating from that period were the 'Rosa dĀ“Inverno' (first meeting in 1930), the 'Raduno dei Centauri' in Rome (first meeting in 1933) and the Raduno Moto Alpinistico del Pasubio (first meeting in 1934).

Raduno Sestri Sciarborasca 1931 - Many such gatherings like this emerged in Italy during the 1930s

Dr Marco Re, a Castellazzo Bormida pharmacist and his friend Giovanni Moccagatta, an ice maker, shared a common passion for two wheels and in March 1933 they decided that it was time for their hometown to have a motorcycle club. They founded the Moto Club of Castellazzo Bormida.

Dr Re, its president, brought together a group of like-minded enthusiasts to form the club. With such a passionate and active leader the club grew fast, becoming more famous in the process, not only at the local level, but also throughout central and northern Italy. This was achieved through organising the famous 'Giro del Quadrifoglio' and taking part in numerous national rallies.

Circa 1930s - A 'raduno motociclisto'

One of them being the 'Raduno dei Centauri', held in Rome, which at the time was the most important event for motorcycle enthusiasts. With an estimated 10,000 in attendance, the first gathering was organised by the Reale Moto Club D'Italia in May 1933.

Raduno dei Centauri 1933 - Souvenirs of that legendary gathering

Great ideas are at times inspired by a dream!

One night Dr Marco Re dreamed vividly of the 'Madonnina' appearing among a crowd of cheering motorcyclists in front of the sanctuary of Castellazzo.

This dream triggered in him a personal mission. It became his objective in life to instigate publicity and support, the aim of which was to recognise the 'Blessed Virgin of Crete' as 'Madonnina dei Centauri' (Patroness of Motorcyclists).

And on March 2, 1934, Marco Re proclaimed the Blessed Virgin of Crete to be Patroness of the Moto Club of Castellazzo Bormida.

Not even the outbreak of the Second World War managed to affect his steely tenacity and sense of purpose. Marco Re fostered ever closer relationships with specialised magazines, industrialists, manufacturers, other motorcycle clubs and indeed with all those who shared his interests and could help him make his dream come true.

Over the years, his supporters increased considerably. He not only succeeded in involving the Italian Motorcycle Federation, but also the upper echelons of the Roman Curia, (the administrative unit assisting the Pope in governing the Catholic Church), in the person of the Bishop of Alessandria, Monsignor Giuseppe Gagnor.

Raduno Arona 1933 - A rallyist on his Benelli 500 outfit

On December 15, 1943, he managed to gain an editorial from Italo Lurashi, the editor of 'La Moto' magazine, who wrote in the rhetorical style of the time:

"When the war has finished and peace will rule again even on the tortured ground of 'Our Land', the motorcyclists will be able to start again their running, organised and sporting activity; the 'Madonnina dei Centauri' will inspire their action, will guide their steps, will protect their ascent.

"And once a year, on the commemorative day of the Saint Protector, motorcyclists from all over Italy will meet in the warm atmosphere of Castellazzo, in the famous Sanctuary, to thank the 'Madonna' and to celebrate with strength and thoughtfulness her holy grace, like men devoted to a sport of battle and greatness.

"And it will be a worthy sight to see ranks of modern motorcyclists riding their steel mounts, while approaching the altar with their flag to recreate the rides of the ancient riders of the crusades, who on their fiery steeds, invoked the holy grace before fighting against barbarians and misbelievers".

In the sanctuary, a plaque in memory of Dr Marco Re, affixed in 1985 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Madonnina Dei Centauri rally

The path that led to the organisation of the first meeting of the "Madonnina dei Centauri" proved long and tortuous. But thanks to the tenacity, obstinacy and undoubted dedication of Dr Marco Re, on September 8, 1946, with the approval of the Italian Motorcycle Federation, the MC Castellazzo organised its 1st 'convegno motociclisto' (motorcycle conference) of the 'Madonnina dei Centauri' to which several Swiss and French motorcycle clubs were invited. A thousand national motorcyclists and a hundred foreigners attended the gathering.

The 1946 original club flag

The event was covered in all the national newspapers and magazines due to its exceptional nature and the success of that first meeting and its national exposure considerably empowered Dr Re. He subsequently sent the supreme authorities an official request on behalf of all the motorcyclists to confer to the Madonnina of Castellazzo the title of 'Patroness of Motorcyclists'.

'Beata Vergine della Creta e delle Grazie' - The Patroness of the Centaurs

After months of frantic waiting, the long-awaited response from Rome on February 11, 1947 was positive and through the apostolic brief No. 17/47, Pope Pius XII conferred on the 'Blessed Virgin of Crete', venerated in the shrine of Castellazzo Bormida, the official title of 'Patroness of the Centaurs'.

Madonnina dei Centauri 1947 - An extremely rare photo of Dr Marco Re (on the right) presenting the trophy of the Italian Federation to the representative of the MC Moulins from France, winner of the rally classification by clubs

A tradition kept alive

Following the very first rally in 1946, each year, on the second weekend of July, an ever increasing number of centaurs converged on the small town of Castellazzo to take part in the 'Madonnina dei Centauri' gathering.

Rally badges of the Madonnina dei Centauri in 1954 (left) and 1960 (right)

There is a superb vintage documentary filmed during the 7th meeting in 1952 which shows the importance of this rally was in the past and which I invite you to watch:

Moto Club Madonnina dei Centauri Internazionali, in close collaboration with the Moto Club Castellazzo, has kept alive for seventy years a tradition that carries on this unique international gathering, one of the most anticipated and important meetings in the world motorcycle calendar.

The latest Italian meeting in 2019 attracted an international following estimated at over 10,000 participants.

Madonnina dei Centauri 1963 - Souvenir pennant

Foreign sections of the MCI/MC

Italian Moto Club Internazionale Madonnina Dei Centauri aka MCI/MC is the 'parent company', made up of a single club.

Although almost fifty years on, the hand writing on this card is no longer visible, here's my personal France section membership card dating back to the early 70s

Foreign sections of MCI/MC, such as France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and Germany, represent their countries and are often made up of several regional clubs.

This rally jacket belonging to a member of the Spanish section shows patches of the Spanish, Dutch, Italian, French and Swiss clubs

Rallies organised by the foreign sections'

These foreign sections do not organise rallies annually like the Italian parent company, but generally only every 4 or 5 years.

It is important to note that, as with any other motorcycle rally of a religious nature, their participants are not all believers. But they are nonetheless respectful of the rally tradition and appreciate its atmosphere

Belgium - Madone des Centaures

As I already noted in a piece that I wrote recently regarding the history of early rallies, Belgium was the first country in Europe to organise its own version of the Italian 'Madonnina dei Centauri' gathering; this even before Switzerland and France.

The very first Belgium 'Madone des Centaures' was held as early as 1949 in Le Roeulx, a Walloon municipality located in the Belgian province of Hainaut.

This 1949 meeting for riders of motorcycles and scooters was organised by the then Auto Moto Club Le Roeulx. The gathering had a similar concept to its Italian parent with the 'first centaurs' (honorary title) entering the local Saint Nicholas church on their machines with the engine running.

A souvenir postcard given to each participant that I have in my archive shows that the 5th meeting of the Belgium 'Madone des Centaures' was still held in Le Roeulx in 1966. Unfortunately I do not have any documents proving there were follow-up rallies in the 1970s.

It is interesting to note that the very special ceremony pertaining to the 'Madonnina Dei Centauri' and of its 'first centaurs' certainly inspired the Belgian Jean Blanckaert to create his own Steel Horse rally ceremonies.

Belgium 'Madone des Centaures' 1966 - Souvenir postcard given to each participant

These days, the Belgian section of the MCI/MC is still very active and takes part in all the annual meetings of the MCI/MC in Allessandria as well as those of the foreign sections.

Every 5 years the club organises the Belgian gathering of the 'Madone des Centaures', in the collegiate church of Saint-Vincent de Soignies, one of the oldest and best-preserved Romanesque churches in Wallonia. The last such rally was held in June 2017.

Belgium 'Madone des Centaures' 2017 - Italian members of the MCI/MC in front of the collegiate church of Saint-Vincent de Soignies

Spain- Madonna de los Centauros

The Spanish section, like its German counterpart, is the most recent to affiliate with MCI / MC. It has organised rallies in cities such as Murcia, Siguenza, Logrono or Estepona over the past two decades. It is said that the organisational quality of some of them was unfortunately quite disappointing.

Madonna de los Centauros 2014 - Commemorative plaque

Germany - Madonna der Zentauren

I have no information on the German section other than the fact that it exists.

Switzerland - Madone des Centaures

All the archives of the Swiss section unfortunately burned down in a fire. The little that we know for sure is that this Swiss section was founded in 1947 in the canton of Fribourg. It was then chaired by a certain Mr. Thalmann.

It is precisely this section which organised the 1st rally of the 'Madonna of the Centaurs' in Fribourg in June 1952.

Madone des Centaures 1952 - A 'first centaur' and his Swiss Godmother enter the Saint Nicholas cathedral on a running Matchless outfit

The Swiss meeting of course had a similar concept to the Italian parent rally. On Sunday morning, the parade of motorcyclists reached the Saint Nicolas Cathedral to attend mass and be blessed there.

On that day, the 'premiers centaures' ('first centaurs') representing the participating nations were the only ones authorized to enter the cathedral with their motorcycles running.

Madone des Centaures 1952 - The cortege of rallyists on their vintage machines in Fribourg

The second meeting of the Swiss 'Madone des Centaures', also held in Fribourg, followed on 26 June 1955. The third was held on 22 June 1958.

Madone des Centaures 1964 - 'First Centaurs' and their Swiss Godmothers in traditional costume in the Saint Nicholas cathedral

The latest rally to date was the 21st 'Madone des Centaures', still held in Fribourg, from 20-23 June 2019, and organised by the Auto-Moto-Club Le Mouret.

During this popular four-day event, the Fribourg residents do not hesitate to wear traditional costume and decorate their two-wheelers.

Madone des Centaures 2019 - 'First centaurs' with their modern machines and their Godmothers attending the holly mass inside the Saint Nicholas cathedral

The concept of the Swiss gathering has not changed much since the 1950s except for a greater number of participants estimated at close to 1500.

France - Madone des Centaures

The first French 'Madone des Centaures' gathering was held in Lyon on 27 June 1954.

Madone des Centaures 1954 - Badge and souvenir pennant of the first rally

Father Marcel Coste, a passionate ecclesiastical follower of motorcycles and rallies, in the very same vein as his counterparts Reverend Bill Shergold and Father Graham Hullett, was the master mind behind the organisation of all the following rallies held in his parish of Ambert (Auvergne) in 1962, 1965, 1968, 1971, and 1974.

Father Coste was the president of the French section from 1971 to 1976 before becoming the international vice president of the MCI/MC.

Father Marcel Coste - President of the MCI/MC French section from 1971 to 1976

Father Coste was an amazing character and possessor of a wonderful charm and kindness whose memory I will treasure forever. My good friend Michel Degaine, motivated by the privilege of having known Father Coste, together with my good self, established regional sections in the 70s that we chaired in our respective cities as you can see below.

Membership card of our regional sections

Father Coste later granted me the honour of being the 'first centaur' to represent France at the Italian rally of 1974 and the following year, in 1975, he granted the same honour to my close friend and die-hard rallyist Michel Degaine.

First Centaurs

Long before the annual Castellazzo meeting takes place, one motorcyclist per country is chosen every year to be the 'first centaur' charged with representing his nation during the rally.

He is usually chosen either by the president or the bureau directing each foreign section of the MCI/MC, or by his peers.

My medal of 'first centaur' from the 1974 Italian rally

The selection criteria to merit this honorary title are different according to the sections. But as a rule, the 'first centaur' is generally chosen for his good personality, his accomplishments through his years of rallying and the valuable contributions he has made to the club and to motorcycling.

On the Sunday morning of the annual Italian rally, each 'first centaur' receives both an honorary diploma and a medal.

He is also introduced to his Italian Godmother (usually a good-looking local girl selected for the occasion) who wears the traditional yellow and blue (colours of the club) ribbon sash across her chest.

Madonnina dei Centauri 1975 - France 'First centaur' Michel Degaine with his Italian Godmother, at the Sanctuary of Castellazo Bormida

Only the 'first centaurs' are permitted to enter the sanctuary on their machines with the engine running, accompanied by their Italian godmother in order to attend the celebration of the Holy Mass.

This is how the ceremony was still held when I took part in the Italian 'Madonnina dei Centauri' in 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1979; and in the French 'Madone des Centaures' in 1971, 1974 (both in Ambert) and in 1980 (in Vichy).

Madonina dei Centauri 1973 - Souvenir postcard given to each participant

But I have heard this tradition is no longer practiced since 2017, at the behest of the rector of the Castellazo Sanctuary.

Following the mass, the Bishop of the Centaurs blessed outdoor the gigantic crowd of rallyists and their machines.

Madonnina dei Centauri Prayer

To conclude this article, and if you are a believer, you may be interested in learning the official prayer of the 'Patroness of Motorcyclists' since, between other things, it is supposed to protect you from the dangers of the road.

"Madonnina dei Centauri, from this Sanctuary spread your benevolent mantle on all of us, protect us from the dangers of the road, in any weather and under sky. Blessed Virgin Mary, help us so that our behaviour always sets a good example to everyone: on the road as true sportsmen and in life as upholders of brotherhood and universal harmony. Support us in our weaknesses and allow us to live as strong witnesses of the faith, to reach you in Paradise to enjoy, bless and love your Jesus forever. Amen."

- Jean-Francois Helias