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from issue no. 03 - 2009

A biographical profile of Don Primo Mazzolari (1890-1959)

by Walter Montini

Don Primo in St Peter’s Square <BR>[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

Don Primo in St Peter’s Square
[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

His peasant origins. The seminary
Primo Mazzolari was born in Boschetto, a village near Cremona, on 13 January 1890, to a farming family. On 24 August 1912, after having attended the seminary in Cremona, he was ordained priest in the parish church of Verolanuova, a town in the lower Brescia region, where the family had moved in early 1900.

The first pastoral assignments and the ordeal of war
Don Primo was sent as curate first to Spinadesco (Cremona) and then to his native parish of Boschetto.
In the autumn of 1913 he was appointed teacher of Literature in the middle school of the seminary. He worked as such for two years, during which time he used the summer holidays to travel to Switzerland, to Arbon, as a missionary of the Opera Bonomelli assisting Italian emigrants returning from Germany. After working in military hospitals in Genoa and Cremona, in 1918 he spent nine months as a military chaplain to the Italian troops sent to the French front. Back in Italy, he held other posts with the Royal Army, including that of recovering the bodies of the fallen in the area of Tolmino. In 1920 he spent a period of six months in Upper Silesia, along with the Italian troops sent to maintain order in an area forcibly transferred from Germany to the newly independent Poland.

The Cicognara period. Opposition to Fascism
In 1921 the Bishop of Cremona Monsignor Giovanni Cazzani appointed him episcopal delegate to the parish of the Holy Trinity in Bozzolo. From there he was transferred as parish priest to Cicognara, close to the river Po, a town with strong socialist sentiments, where he remained for a decade until July 1932.

The “promotion” to Bozzolo
In 1932 he was again transferred to Bozzolo, this time as parish priest. He was very industrious and productive during the ’thirties. In 1934 he published The finest adventure. In 1938 other publications appeared: The Samaritan, The separated brethren, Between riverbank and forest; in 1939 came The poor man’s Via Crucis. His following works were axed by the censors. In 1941 the fascist authorities attacked among others, Time to believe. In 1942 I, too, wish the Pope well came out.

War and Resistance. In hiding
In 1943, on the fall of Fascism and the announcement of the armistice (8 September), Don Primo made contact with various Catholic groups and figures and established relations with the Resistance. In July 1944 he was arrested by the German Command in Mantua. Released and told to remain at their disposal, he chose to go underground in Gambara, a town in the province of Brescia. He thus left Bozzolo for a period, returning in secret.

The postwar period
In 1945 he published Companion Christ. Gospel of the demobbed soldier. In those years he contributed many articles to Catholic newspapers in Cremona, Bergamo, Genoa, writing, among other things, for the newspapers Democrazia and L’Italia. His interest in the “separated brethren” continued, especially the Communists. In the election of 1948, Mazzolari strongly supported the Christian Democrats.

The first page of a number of <I>Adesso</I>, the magazine founded in 1949 by Don Mazzolari

The first page of a number of Adesso, the magazine founded in 1949 by Don Mazzolari

The Adesso period
On 15 January 1949 the first issue of the fortnightly Adesso was published. Don Lorenzo Bedeschi, Father Aldo Bergamaschi, the Socialist mayor of Milan Antonio Greppi, and many more or less known priests and lay people contributed to the magazine.
The innovative and courageous nature of Adesso provoked Vatican intervention, so in February 1951 the magazine ceased publication. In July came other personal measures against Don Mazzolari: prohibition on preaching outside his diocese without the consent of the bishops concerned, and a ban on publishing articles without prior ecclesiastical review.
In November of 1951 Adesso reappeared. Don Primo contributed yet again, often using pseudonyms. Some of his articles on the theme of peace and declaration of a willingness to engage in dialogue provoked new disciplinary inquiries. In 1954 he received the order from Rome to preach only in his own parish and a ban on writing articles on “social questions”.

The last years
In the ’fifties he published more books. The parish church on the riverbank came out in 1952, a strongly autobiographical tale of the events and vicissitudes in the life of a country priest in the years of Fascism. In 1955 Thou shalt not kill appeared anonymously, a book addressing the issue of war. In November 1957 the then Archbishop of Milan Cardinal Montini invited him to preach at the Mission to Milan. On 5 February 1959 Pope John XXIII received him in audience at the Vatican, describing him as “the trumpet of the Holy Spirit in the Po Valley”.
But by then the parish priest of Bozzolo was worn out and his health delicate. Don Primo Mazzolari suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while preaching at Sunday Mass on 5 April and died on 12 April 1959 in Cremona.

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