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STORIES OF SIMPLE PRIESTS
from issue no. 06/07 - 2008

The repose of Don Pietro


Don Pietro Pappagallo lived for almost twenty years in Rome. He dedicated his own works of material and spiritual assistance to ordinary people, such as the support network in favor of Jews and the politically persecuted that he organized during the Nazi occupation of the capital. He was killed in the Fosse Ardeatine, the only priest among the 335 victims massacred on 24 March 1944 by the SS


by Paolo Mattei


Don Pietro Pappagallo

Don Pietro Pappagallo

“Non sit vobis vanum mane surgere ante lucem, quia promisit Dominum coronam vigilantibus”, “Don’t think it pointless for you to rise before light, because the Lord has promised the crown to those who keep watch”. Don Pietro Pappagallo rose early, ante lucem, then said the invitation of Matins in a low voice so as not to awaken his sleeping companions. “Ante lucem”, before a light that hardly crept in at all into the dark cell in Via Tasso, because the windows were walled up. He knelt near the door to make the best of the uncertain light from the corridor, and whispered the words of Psalm 78: “Introeat in conspectu tuo gemitus compeditorum”, “May the wailing of prisoners reach your hearing”. He had risen early during every day of that harsh detention, begun almost two months earlier with his arrest on 29 January 1944, and often had not closed his eyes for tending the injuries of those who returned to the cell wrecked by hours of interrogation and torture. His breviary was the only personal item he had asked of the jailers, which they only granted him days later. He kept it by him always up to the end.
That early morning of 24 March 1944, the fourth Friday in Lent, in cell 13 of the prison at Via Tasso 145 – a ’twenties building near Saint John Lateran, adapted in 1943 as barracks by the SS officer Herbert Kappler to house the Gestapo in one wing and partisans and political prisoners in another – there were nine inmates, four soldiers, a lawyer, a doctor of law, a painter, a partisan. And that priest, arrested on the accusation of providing false papers for those – Jews, soldiers, ordinary people – who might fall into the hands of the Nazi-Fascists in Rome, an open city.

A most tender compassion
In 1944 Don Pietro Pappagallo was almost 56. He was born, the fifth of eight children, on 28 June 1888 in Terlizzi, in the province of Bari, to a family of modest means. His father was a cable-maker and wove hemp, jute and rush into the ropes so important to all lands that lived off agriculture and the sea. His mother, a housewife, was the first to glimpse and foster the vocation of a boy who had just started working as a gofer in his father’s workshop. She enabled him to enter the seminary, providing through the sale of her property the “priestly income” necessary in those days for those who wished to become priests. Pietro’s desire became a reality in 1915 when the Great War had been raging for some months. On 3 April of that year, Holy Saturday, he received Holy Orders and the following day, Easter Sunday, he distributed the holy picture souvenir of his first Mass on which was printed the prayer to the “God of mercy”, the “Prince of peace”, composed by Benedict XV to implore peace. “While You were on this earth, You throbbed with most tender compassion for human misfortunes,” says the prayer. That expression is the thread that was to run through the life of the priest from Apulia, the start of whose priesthood, says Renato Brucoli in part one [1888-1939] of his biography of Don Pappagallo Pane e cipolla e santa libertà [Bread and onion and holy freedom] Puglia Region, Terlizzi 2007) coincided “paradoxically with the start of the First World War, and was to be brought to completion, at the cost of his life, at the end of the Second World War”.
This completion was to be realized precisely in Rome, where Pietro arrived for the first time in 1925, to study Canon Law. In the ten years that had elapsed since the start of his priestly life he had put his organizational skills at the disposal of a boarding school in the diocese of Molfetta, Giovinazzo and Terlizzi, and thereafter of the “Pius X” seminary in Catanzaro. But the thirty-seven year old priest wanted, says Brucoli, “to live in greater contact with people. And he looks to the Eternal City as his goal. He felt his place was there”.

Don Pietro on the parvis of the Basilica 
of Saint Mary Major with two friends

Don Pietro on the parvis of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major with two friends

Serving his brothers
“The job [of workers] in the factory is dehumanizing: the hours are protracted beyond belief, sacking is triggered automatically in case of the refusal of overtime, the industrial process that requires the use of chemicals is potentially harmful to their health, the wage difference is obvious between workers in the South and their colleagues in the capital. I do not find all of this just. Nor can I be brought round by arguments about political convenience, that indeed don’t interest me at all. I know only that faith and a sense of humanity cannot set me against my brothers, in whose service I have been placed. If you are not with them, I can only say that I am left shocked and confused.” Don Pietro wrote these lines to Monsignor Ferdinando Baldelli, at that time – the late ’twenties – Curia head of Church aid to workers. In 1927 the priest from Terlizzi was given a post thanks to which he became aware of the serious distress in which a large percentage of the urban population had to live. He became spiritual adviser of the SNIA Viscose hostel for workers away from home. It was run by a large chemical company with more than two thousand workers that a few years earlier had opened on the Via Prenestina in an area that, because of its proximity to the main station and the San Lorenzo goods yard, was rapidly becoming industrialized and hence quickly becoming populated. Don Pietro went about the dormitory sheds adjacent to the factory where hundreds of workers from the South lived, many from his own area. The migrant workers were subjected to the exhausting forced overtime he mentions in his letter. But was there any possibility of his protest being given serious consideration at a time when the regime was planning the country’s future imperialistic expansion under the banner of self-sufficiency in production? Given the regime’s hunger for power the priest’s reference to the firm condemnation of the exploitation of workers in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum went unheeded even in the Vatican, from where instead came the order for his dismissal from his post at the factory.

“Who is born in this river shall be holy”
Don Pietro, without a fixed post in Rome, was in danger of being sent back to Terlizzi. The bishop of his diocese, however, was quick to intercede with the Curia in favor of his priest and so in 1928 he was appointed assistant parish priest of the patriarchal Basilica of Saint John Lateran, with the specific task of administering baptism in San Giovanni in Fonte. Don Pietro was very content. He was reminded of the time when he celebrated the same service in the Cathedral of Terlizzi and spent his days in prayer in the baptistery, also comforted in that precious ministry by the words inscribed over the octagonal architrave: “Nec numerus quemquam scelerum nec suorum forma terreat: hoc natus flumine sanctus erit”, “And do not let either the number or the sort of his sins frighten anybody: who is born in this river shall be holy”.
However, that moment of calm did not last long. In February 1929, when he was told that he was no longer assistant parish priest of the Lateran Basilica, his bishop was compelled to remind him that without a clearly defined post it would be difficult for him, the bishop, to continue to grant permission to reside in Rome ad libitum, as he has done so far. Don Pietro was well aware of his situation and immediately snatched at an opportunity that seemed providential. The hundred Oblate Sisters of the Child Jesus, resident in the great institution at 1 Via Urbano, near Saint Mary Major, needed a chaplain and a spiritual father. They asked Don Pietro whether he was willing, and he accepted immediately, partly because he shared, as Brucoli says, their lifestyle directed by “the attitudes of ‘spiritual childhood’” that is “simplicity, humility, trust, candor, joy” and also because he was acquainted with the Augustinian rule that shaped the lives of the nuns.
At the end of 1929, Don Pietro settled in 2 Via Urbano. He said mass for the nuns every morning at half past six and celebrated the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Sunday evening. He invited his friends onto the balcony overlooking the ancient neighborhood of the Suburra and his availability and cheerfulness made him a magnet for many in the district. And finally, in 1931, after being appointed benefited cleric of the Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Mary Major, he was incorporated into the diocese of Rome. He then began to work for Cardinal Bonaventura Cerretti, archpriest of the Liberian Basilica, who asked him to carry out delicate diplomatic tasks with representatives of the foreign countries with which the Holy See was negotiating concordats, and to organize the flow of pilgrims who were to come to Rome in 1933 for the extraordinary Holy Year of Redemption decreed by Pius XI. Don Pietro finally felt at home.

Don Pietro on the small  terrace of his house in Via Urbana in the company of the housekeeper  Maria Teresa Nallo

Don Pietro on the small terrace of his house in Via Urbana in the company of the housekeeper Maria Teresa Nallo

“You do not abandon those you love”
“Domine, ecce quem amas infirmatur. Sufficit ut noveris non enim amas et deseris”, “Lord, see, the one you love is sick. It is sufficient that you know, because you do not abandon those you love.” The words of hope of Augustine commenting on the Gospel episode of the resurrection of Lazarus, just read in the prayer of Matins, comforted the heart of Don Pietro. He was still kneeling on the floor of cell number 13 of the Via Tasso prison, and reciting in a low voice Psalm 142 of the Lauds of that fourth Friday of Lent 1944: “Auditam mihi fac mane misericordiam tuam quia in te speravi”, “In the morning make me feel your grace, because I have hoped in you”. His cellmates were sleeping. It was still very early.
He had been arrested at home, in Via Urbana, almost two months earlier. That apartment had become over the years a fond refuge for many, and on the breeze-blown terrace, amid the fragrance of the pots of Apulian basil and the scent of coffee prepared by Teresa, his Terlizzi housekeeper, he met daily a group of friends, some of whom from his birthplace – such as Gioacchino Gesmundo, professor of philosophy at the Cavour high school and a leader of the underground Communist Party – to swap news and impressions about what was happening in Italy and Europe.
“My uncle was a real priest, a priest to the nth power, in the sense of altruism; he lived his vocation, all kinds of people knocked on my uncle’s door”, recalls his nephew Antonio, whose testimony is collected in the anthology of oral memories that Alessandro Portelli edited to tell the tragic story of the Fosse Ardeatine through the narratives of those who lived through those events (L’ordine è già stato eseguito [The order has already been carried out], Donzelli, Rome 1999). “He forged documents. ‘A photograph and a rubber stamp is enough’, he would say, a mysterious Neapolitan stamp that passed off as displaced persons all those unfortunates, dispersed and on the run, subject to the appalling whirlwind of persecution”. The house on Via Urbana was a life-line also for those whom the regime considered dangerous rebels. Don Pietro helped everyone, and the trap snapped on him, as often happens, thanks to the work of obscure informers, disguised as victims whom the deceived priest-forger, urged by a generosity so large as to make imprudence, welcomed with open arms. “But on the other hand, he would think as he went along the street, how can one not give food to hungry people knocking at your door, not clothe them when you see them ragged and frozen in this weather, not house them when you know they are being hunted by people who want to kill them, not help them when you know they don’t have a penny in their pockets, not restore them to their children, their mother, wife, father, sisters who are waiting for them across the lines” – so Antonio Lisi enters into the thoughts of Don Pappagallo in the fine biography in which he brings into focus the last months of his life (Don Pietro Pappagallo, martire delle Fosse Ardeatine [Don Pietro Pappagallo, martyr of the Fosse Ardeatine], Tau Editrice, Todi 2006). “I forge documents with false rubber stamps, false identity cards, false safe-conducts for crossing the lines to the south, but You know, O Lord, why I do it... I am in Your hands, my God.”
The day on which they arrested him he was at home with six other people. Six armed men broke into the apartment, three Italians and three Germans, and searched the rooms for a list of those Don Pietro had helped – which they did not find – and the stamps – which they did – with which he produced the false but effective passes to freedom. Then they began to take away those who were there. Don Pietro was the last to be removed to Via Tasso.

Family members in prayer at an improvised tomb near the Fosse Ardeatine

Family members in prayer at an improvised tomb near the Fosse Ardeatine

“Nunc dimittis”
“Nescierunt qui levant lignum sculpturae suae et rogant deum non salvantem”, “They have no intelligence those who carry a piece of carved wood and pray to a god who cannot save”: Don Pietro murmured the verses of the canticle of Isaiah in the Lauds of the fourth Friday of Lent, and perhaps he was thinking of those who had arrested him, or their leaders, who had conceived and planned the disaster overwhelming the world. In the tiny portion of the world which was the cell where he was praying he thought perhaps also of the informer who had struck him in the face with a riding crop during an interrogation, of the German officers who urged on the torturers, with their pliers and hammers, against victims who often have no secret to reveal. Or perhaps he did not think of these things at all, but thanked the Lord for the company He continued to provide in those dramatic days also through the breviary, his light in the dark cell, “Psalterium meum, gaudium meum”, “My psalter is my joy”, for Don Pietro as for St. Augustine.
Meanwhile day had come, his cellmates woke up and greeted the priest who comforted them in the endless hours of that painful imprisonment, who often gave his rations to those worse off, who after treating a wounded comrade remained on his knees a long time to pray beside him. He was greeted by the two communists Aladino Govoni and Tigrino Sabatini, who at some point, out of curiosity, had asked him to read and explain the Psalms in that book that never left him. He was greeted by the partisan Oscar Cageggi, whose memory of the first day of acquaintance with Don Pietro is reported in Lisi’s book: “A relationship of deep friendship began to establish itself among us... The serenity of his face, which exuded goodness, intelligence and deep humility, won us over immediately. His arrival was for all of us like the arrival of a father”.
Around 2 p.m. the German sergeant entered the cell and called out five names. The last one, that of Don Pietro. They were to move out immediately. They were to be taken in trucks somewhere in the city. They were not told where or why. Shortly after they were taken to the quarries two kilometers from the San Sebastiano gate, on the Ardeatina road, in an area of Rome where many Christian martyrs of the early centuries lie. Three hundred and thirty five people, dragged from the Regina Coeli and the Via Tasso prisons, picked up in the street, were machine-gunned in reprisal for the thirty-three Germans killed in an attack the previous day. They were workers and intellectuals, rag pickers and generals, shopkeepers and craftsmen. And a priest.
Climbing out of the truck, Don Pietro looked at the row of vehicles on the Ardeatina: “He murmured the absolution for the dying”, says Antonio Lisi, who again enters the thoughts of the priest: “Almost all those who were with me, in the truck, wanted last confession, along the road and waiting to be executed...” Don Pietro asked God to forgive the executioners, saying: “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
Then he fell, shot in the back of the neck, on the left side. The previous evening, as every night before going to sleep, he had recited the canticle of Simeon in Compline, “Nunc dimittis...” “Now give leave to your servant, O Lord, to go in peace according to your word…” The Lord had given him his crown and his rest.


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