In Northern Italy, where the Ticino river leaves Lago Maggiore, is a small town named Sesto Calende. During the ancient Roman Empire and later, this town was a stopping point for many as they made their journey from the North, over the Alps, on their way into Italy. As this map shows, several towns along the lake were important destinations for them.
People like the Roman Longobards, Hannibal, Napoleon, and Garibaldi stopped in Sesto and left their mark. One such mark is the tiny church of L’Abbazia di San Donato. The original church, which was built between 500 and 600 AD, stood on the site of an ancient pagan temple. This location was chosen to beseech God to protect those travelling across the lake. The first structure is no longer standing, but an ancient stone was preserved. This stone was originally gilded in gold and silver and was probably part of the pulpit.
The current Abbazia di San Donato dates from the IX century and was erected by the bishop of Pavia, Liutardo del Conti. Even though, geographically, it was within the Diocese of Milan, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Pavia and belonged to the Benedictine order of monks. During this time, the Benedictines were extremely influential with the Holy Roman Empire and benefitted both in wealth and power. These circumstances created conflict with both dioceses, and in 1111, the monastery and all its wealth were seized by the Diocese of Milan. Conflicts arose and with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor, Barbarossa, the Benedictines once again regained control of the Abbazia itself but not of the surrounding territory. Their possessions now belonged to Pope Innocent III. The monks’ morale and San Donato suffered until 1455 when a Benedictine name Nicola Tatti took control and the Abbazia regained prosperity once again. Over a period of 40 years, many monks passed through and works of art were commissioned. This beautiful choir room behind the altar was one of these wonderful artistic masterpieces. The monks would sit here during Mass and sing their beautiful hymns.
In 1534, once again, the monastery passed into control of Milan and this time the monks left. Over the centuries, the Abbazia fell into the care of others and into disrepair, even becoming a home for soldiers during various insurrections and wars. In 1911, badly damaged and in total disrepair, it lost it’s status as a parish. But this gem could not be forgotten…and in 1959, restoration began in the hopes of bringing this important piece of history back to be treasured once more. With the help of many, it regained its parish status in 1963.