Feast Day: June 15th | Patron for Orphans, the Sisters of the Poor, Puppeteers (along with St. Simeon Salus) and Catechists | Often pictured in birretta and cassock surrounded by boys and girls.
One illustrious member of our parish recently brought to my attention a saint canonized back in May of this year. (I’ll let you attempt to identify said parishioner, though I suspect you may be able to guess who it was based on the saint that he mentioned.) This saint, a priest, Fr. Luigi Maria Palazzolo, actually had his feast day just a week or two ago, so I decided to introduce all of us to him this week.
Luigi was born the 9th of 9 boys in Bergamo, Italy (way up in the North of Italy, right at the foothills of the alps) in 1827. His family was fairly well off, but Luigi was the only child of his parents to reach adulthood, and his father died as well when he was 10. His mother, Theresa, valiantly and lovingly raised Luigi as a faithful and virtuous young man despite all those pains that must have crushed her heart. I cannot imagine how much pain she must have endured, and how ineffective she must have felt in being a wife and mother, yet her love, along with God’s grace, was forming Luigi’s heart through the midst of all those trials into a man devoted to the care of impoverished, orphaned, and suffering children. God’s power was holding her, and her son, through all of it! Only God can bring love out of loss, and a respect for life out of the pain of death – what a miracle he worked, through all that suffering, in Theresa and Luigi!
When he reached adulthood, Luigi quickly followed his heart’s yearning to become a priest. He entered the seminary at 17 and was ordained at the age of 23 or 24, quickly finding a charism for caring for the poor and orphaned children there in Bergamo. Similar to the United States in the second half of the 19th century, during the first half of that century in Italy there were thousands of abandoned, neglected, orphaned, and starving children on the streets of Italian cities (also because of civil war and economic hardships). Like Don Bosco, who was doing the same work at that time in the nearby city of Turin, Don Luigi befriended these children, gave them food and a place to stay, taught them, and (like Bosco’s magic tricks) put on puppet shows for these, his littlest disciples. (The puppets are still around! If you ever get to Bergamo, you can find them in the Palazzolo Museum). He began this work with boys, but found that many girls were in the same dire straits, and so began to take care of the girls too.
I want to make mention of a truth that Luigi knew, but which we don’t as easily recognize these days. He saw an abject need for poor and orphaned girls to be cared for, but he knew that food and education and a roof over their heads and the occasional puppet show were not enough. They needed to be cared for by women, who could raise them as young ladies, just as the boys needed the care of a father, who could help them to become good men. Luigi lost his father at the age of 10. He knew the loss that a young man has when he does not have a man to show him how to be a man. Theresa, Luigi’s mother, gave him all the love that a mother could, but she could not replace the love and example of a father, and Fr. Palazzolo knew he could not fully replicate the love of a mother for these girls. So it was that he began to pray and look for a means of giving these young ladies the feminine love of a mother.
In the 1850s, the bishop of Bergamo, had written a catechism to help teach the faith to the people of his diocese, calling for men and women to assist the Church in addressing the wounds that secularism was already wreaking on the young people of that time. This call captivated Fr. Palazollo and also Teresa Gabrieli, a talented young woman who had lost her own father as a child, and who now also yearned to do something meaningful work for the hurting youth around her. She had not married, and now, with Fr. Luigi, discovered not only a love for his poor girls, but also a call to found with him the religious order, the Sisters of the Poor in 1869.
And so life spun along. Both grew old and both continued to love those whom God entrusted to their care. The number of sisters grew and started ministries in other cities. In his last day, Don Luigi’s asthma left him sleeping in a chair and enduring the pain and incapacitation of constant sores on his legs. His sufferings were rewarded when the sisters’ constitution was approved, but he died about a month later, on June 15th, 1886 with the name of Jesus on his lips. Mother Teresa (not to be confused with her spiritual descendent in Calcutta), continued to care and teach the poor until she suffered a stroke in 1908, dying shortly thereafter (she is now named Venerable). Eventually there would be thousands of her sisters around the world, and of note are the several sisters who would give their lives caring for the sick during the Ebola outbreak of 1995 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also when the COVID-19 pandemic struck Bergamo in 2020.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin, this week, will be meditating on Fr. Palazzolo’s simple exhortation: “Don’t give only words or superfluous kindnesses, but give bread, wine, fire, advice, real and meaningful helps.”