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from issue no. 05 - 2009

30Giorni Archive

Family portrait

We publish the first chapter of the book Mio fratello Albino, published by 30Giorni in 2003

by Stefania Falasca

John Paul I embraces his sister Antonia, during the audience reserved for family members, 2 September of 1978. On the left, one glimpses the brother Edoardo <BR>[© Foto Felici]

John Paul I embraces his sister Antonia, during the audience reserved for family members, 2 September of 1978. On the left, one glimpses the brother Edoardo
[© Foto Felici]

“Imagine”, mamma told us when we were children “I saw the man who has become pope”. Before she married mamma worked in Venice and one day she managed to meet Patriarch Sarto, the future Pius X. After so many years she still almost couldn’t believe it. We recalled that episode with emotion on the morning of 2 September 1978, when Albino, just elected Pope, received me and Edoardo in audience by ourselves. “Think of what mamma would say”, I said to him, and we were unable to hold back the tears. He then embraced me and the photographer clicked just at that moment. Just like that... this is the very photo... He said: “Keep calm, keep calm, because I haven’t done a thing to get here. I’m calm, so you keep calm too”. He then asked pardon for the disturbance caused by all the journalists who had poured into the house because of him.
It was the first time that I saw my brother after his election, and it was also the last time I met him, it was the last hug.
Berto, however, had occasion to see him alone, that same evening. Albino sent his secretary to call him, at the house of the nuns where we were staying. He gave him a letter and some souvenirs. Berto saw him again on 19 September, when he stopped in Rome before leaving for a trip to Australia, and that time he also spent a night in the Vatican. For me the only opportunity I had of seeing him again, not close up, however, was only the next day after our audience. That 3 September, when we relatives all attended Mass in St Peter’s Square and went to the audience reserved for the people from Belluno. In the hall he greeted us all with the familiarity and friendliness of always. Before us he’d received the people from Vittorio Veneto and Venice. Leaving that audience, I remember, I heard a lady from Vittorio Veneto say to another: ‘Do you know what the Pope said to us? He said: “My heart is still in Venice…”’. But it wasn’t the first time that Albino said that. I’d heard him say it at other times, remembering that it had been in Venice that our parents met. And also that our mother had worked in Venice. At the rest home of Saints John and Paul kept by the sisters. When he was patriarch and went to visit them, he always asked to see the records. The superior told me. He always wanted to see the registers where mamma’s name was written...
The Luciani siblings, Edoardo (Berto) and Antonia (Nina)

The Luciani siblings, Edoardo (Berto) and Antonia (Nina)

Your brother always remembered her, also in the last audience on 27 September... Yes, the one in which he spoke of love. “To the sweet memory of my mother, my first catechism teacher”. He dedicated Catechetics in crumbs to her. It came out in 1949, just a year after her death. She was always a point of reference for him. An essay that Albino wrote when he was in fourth grade comes to mind. He described her like this: “She goes about casually dressed because she’s a peasant, but she knows how to read, write well and also to count”. Mamma had only been able to attend school until third grade, but it’s true she stood out for her qualities. She also received the book I Promessi sposi as a prize, and kept it in the house with pride. A lot of people came to her to have her write letters to relatives who had emigrated. She was a rustic woman, as we say at home, very simple, but of great temperament, lively, energetic. In Canale she also helped many girls find jobs. Before getting employed in the nursing home in Venice, she worked as a housekeeper in a Jewish family, and for three years she’d worked abroad in Switzerland. When she met father she was no longer a young girl, but was almost thirty.
How did they come to know each other? Father worked in Murano at that period, in the foundries, and went to work there precisely so he could to get to know mother. My father was a widower. His first wife died early, and from that first marriage he had two daughters, Amalia and Pia. Both deaf and dumb. Grandmother looked after them while she was still alive. Then grandmother died and the girls began to go from one relative to another. He was always abroad. An emigrant. He’d worked as a laborer in Innsbruck in Austria, in Solingen in Germany, then France, Belgium... His sister, Angela, who later became our godmother, one day said to him: “Listen, what’s to be done with these girls... they certainly can’t go from one place to another, try to marry again, set up a family, the children need it”. Then she said: “There would be a good girl, Bortola Tancon... do you know her?... she might be right for you, but with those ideas of yours... she won’t marry you for sure”. My father had socialist ideas, in Germany he’d been in trade union movements. Also in the village he was part of the cooperative society. It was a help for the poor. A good thing. However, they were identified as ‘priest-eaters’... So, dad, even though in the beginning not very convinced of success, nevertheless decided to take his sister’s advice. He was then introduced to mother. She liked him. He was a handsome man. They met on Sunday in front of the Basilica of Saints John and Paul. One day mamma said to him: “Listen, I won’t give you an answer now, but in August I’m off work for vacation and I’ll go home and think there...” . When she went to Canale her mother strongly advised her not to marry him. Her father however said, “Look, I worked along with him in Germany, he’s a good man, really good. If you like him, I’m sure you’ll find yourself settled”. She then went for advice to the parish priest, Father Don Filippo Carli. They had always known each other, he and mamma were childhood friends of the same age, they’d also done catechism together. Don Filippo also knew dad well... Dad subscibed to L’Asino, the magazine of the Socialist Party, and the post office was right next to the presbytery. Don Filippo confided to mother that sometimes before the newspaper was sent to the subscriber in Germany, he took it from the post office, and didn’t let it be sent...
And yet the parish priest didn’t advise against mother marrying him. He said to her: “He has these ideas ... but he’s a good man, his first wife backed him, and I think that if you can maneuver him a bit, you’ll not find yourself badly off”. They were married on 2 December 1911. The last Saturday before the beginning of Advent. In Canale parish church there is still the little bench, with mamma’s initials, that she donated to the church for her marriage. Before marrying, however, mamma made dad promise that he’d change his ideas...”
In Canale d’Agordo, with family and
some priest friends, on the day of his first mass [© Famiglia Luciani]

In Canale d’Agordo, with family and some priest friends, on the day of his first mass [© Famiglia Luciani]

And did he keep his promise? I remember an episode. It was in fact Albino who told me because he’d witnessed it. They were the last elections before the 1915-18 war. Dad had just returned from Argentina and his socialist friends put him on the list. He couldn’t say no. Mamma had a cousin on the lists who reported the fact. When dad came home she confronted him with determination and said: “Is it true that you put yourself on the list with that lot? Ah so it’s like that... those certainly weren’t the agreements... if you don’t go immediately to scratch yourself off that list I’ll take Albino and go back to my family”. Because of all the times I was told about that scene, it’s remained impressed upon me in every detail: this man, a great worker, who takes the chair again, sits down once more, puts his boots back on and leaves the house to go get himself taken off the list. She had a great character, mamma, but she loved dad. They loved each other.
After marrying did they go immediately to live in the house where you were all born? They went to the house that dad had, the same one where my brother Berto now lives. Dad left that job in the Venice foundries because it was unhealthy. He was in the middle of red minium powder, stuff very harmful to the health. As soon as they were married, mamma immediately took in with them Pia and Amalia, who were not yet ten. My sisters told me, when I was small, how nice and good mamma had been to them. She was immediately very fond of them and they of her. She took a great deal of trouble to get them to speak a bit better and then sent them to sewing school. I must have somewhere a photo when they were little girls... I regret I don’t have many souvenirs like a second mother to me. She always told me stories, she had a great imagination. And the stories she told have remained with me. She taught me the catechism. Pia, even if she had that disability, had a lively intelligence. Even if she didn’t know how to speak well, it was she who taught Albino to read and write before he went to school. Yes, just like that. My brother always told me that. When he was little it was mainly she who looked after him. Albino was very attached to her. Pia became very good at sewing. She was ingenious. Once, I remember, she made Albino a little cap from the cloth of soldiers’ uniforms. He was proud of it. Then all his companions, one at a time, came to the house to have Pia make them a cap like Albino’s. She also made him a schoolbag to carry his school books. He was proud of his sister. Pia then became a cloistered nun. She became Sister Mary of Good Counsel in Turin, in the Little House of Divine Providence. When she left in 1928, I was eight years old, and from that moment on I never saw her again. Albino in that period was in the seminary at Belluno. I remember that later, commenting on the fact that his sister had become a nun, he said that dad had done well to oppose it at the beginning, when she asked permission to enter the convent. Dad did not in fact immediately give her permission, because he feared that it was the nuns who had put the belief into her head and he was very unhappy it might be a setback for her, because of her condition. But it really was there she wanted to go. I still remember when Pia said to mamma, “Mamma, please you tell daddy that I want to be a nun”. And mamma: “No, Pia, no, I won’t tell him. You know that it upsets me, too, to see you go... but if you’re really set on it, you have to ask him”.
Albino Luciani distributing communion to some children during his first mass as bishop in his hometown <BR>[© Famiglia Luciani]

Albino Luciani distributing communion to some children during his first mass as bishop in his hometown
[© Famiglia Luciani]

How did she get to know these nuns? Twenty girls from the village were sent by my mother to work at Belluno Hospital, then run by the Sisters of the Child Mary. They, knowing that Pia was a good seamstress, invited her to work in their clothes store. It was there Pia got to know a nun who had a deaf-mute sister, in the cloistered nuns in Cottolengo in Turin. And she wanted to go. Albino, when he later went to visit her, saw it was truly her path. He told me that she lived with no pretensions in that convent, they were poor nuns. “Pia is so happy, she’s truly at home”, he said. For Albino Pia made and embroidered various vestments. She also embroidered the miter that he put on as a bishop. And she wanted to go to Rome in 1958, when her brother received episcopal consecration, also to see, she said jokingly, how that miter fitted him.
Every time he went to visit her Albino told me he always found her happy. When Pia died in 1969, he was not yet a cardinal. I went to Turin. And the sisters let me see her cell. I went in, I remember, that little room... it was arranged exactly like our own house in Canale: the sewing machine by the window, the statue of St Joseph in front... just like when she was at home in our childhood days. Seeing it, I was moved.
The first memory I have of my childhood is linked precisely to the stories of angels and saints that she told me as a child before I went to sleep. I must have been three years old. I slept in the mat, next to my parents’ bed, and one morning the sun coming through the shutters, woke me. I remember clearly that image of the sunlight coming through the windows. And I remember that I began to cry because the sunlight had woken me from a beautiful dream. I’d dreamed that there was a ladder in front of the church in the square in Canale, and angels went playing up and down this ladder. It’s the farthest off of my memories.”

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