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from issue no. 04 - 2004

SAINTS. Don Orione and Annibale Di Francia

Two Saints, a message for Italy and even more

The history of contemporary Italy received a notable contribution from the witness of Father Annibale Di Francia and Don Luigi Orione, brought together by the earthquake of Messina in 1908 and by sanctity

by Don Flavio Peloso

Annibale Di Francia and Don Orione

Annibale Di Francia and Don Orione

What brought Don Orione and Father Annibale together was the terrible earthquake that at 5.20 on the morning of 28 December 1908 heaved the ground for 37 seconds and left around 80,000 dead in the rubble of Reggio Calabria and Messina.
In stricken Messina the priest from the north met Canon Annibale Maria Di France and together they wrote one of most glorious pages in the tragic history of Messina: they saved a great many people from despair, they gave a future to a great many orphans, they organized the efforts of the great many generous people from all over Italy. Don Orione, later appointed vicar general of the diocese on the express suggestion of the Pope, faced opposition, adversity, and even an attempt on his life. By his side, like a guardian angel, to advise him, to defend him from the ill will of sordid profiteers, there was always Father Annibale. Out of the rubble of the disastrous earthquake they built a bridge of solidarity between the north and south of Italy.
The unity of Italy – still fragile and challenged in the North and South at the time of our two protagonists - was also created by saints like Father Annibale Di Francia and Don Luigi Orione. A saying of Massimo d’Azeglio pronounced shortly after the unification of Italy appears in all the books on the history of Italy: «Italy is made, now we must make the Italians». To tell the truth, Italy was already made and so were the Italians. At the time of Father Annibale and Don Orione Italy was still deeply divided, however. The boldness of military leaders of the stamp of Garibaldi had not sufficed; the workings of clever politicians, such as Cavour and Giolitti was not enough; the shrewd effort at nation building round the Savoy monarchy and other collective symbols had not gone deep; economic interests that are by nature selective were even less conclusive.
What was lacking for unity was fellow-feeling, which is the real and irreplaceable basis of unity. Not idealistic or pietistic brotherhood but the sort linked with respect for cultures, with solidarity, with patience first and the promotion of difference later. Well, few happenings in the early nineteenth century contributed more to that fellow-feeling than the sufferings of the people of Calabria and Sicily in the earthquake of 1908 or than the solidarity expressed towards the wreck of those places by generous people from all over Italy. In Reggio Calabria and Messina, in the years after the earthquake, all the dialects of Italy could be heard, as well as the polished and cultured Italian of people like Tommaso Gallarati Scotti, Aiace Alfieri, Gabriella Spalletti Rasponi, Zileri Dal Verme, Gina and Bice Tincani and others.
The unity of Italy was also created by men like Don Orione who founded a congregation, left everything behind, including the common and sociological prejudices that fuelled an absurd racialism between North and South, went from Piedmont down to Sicily and stayed there three years. He felt on his own skin the prejudices active even in the Catholic world and in the clergy, but he loved the people and gave witness to a fellow-feeling that will remain indelible. The unity of Italy was also created by Father Annibale Di Francia, who struck up a friendship with that “northern priest” out of a deep spiritual affinity, advised him and defended him, even at the cost of being treated like a foreigner by his own people, and, surprisingly, lent a considerable sum so that the priest from the North, a poor man, might buy a house in Bra, in that Piedmont which in Sicily was still seen as usurper and profiteer.
Messina after the earthquake of 1908

Messina after the earthquake of 1908

Certainly the history of Italy in the present age has received a notable contribution from the witness of Father Annibale Di Francia and Don Luigi Orione, brought together by the earthquake and by sanctity. Through their friendship and their ministry they showed that fellow-feeling, the premise for any real and lasting social unity, has its roots in the high paternity of God, that the two saints adored in their souls and loved in their brothers.


I. M. I. Sava 18.9.909

My beloved Fr. Orione,
I have learned with great joy from the dear Can. Vitale here in Oria, that your reverend self has in our absence, assumed the direction of our Institutes!
From this moment therefore we are all subject to your wise direction, and your reverend self is proclaimed our director general. Embrace in your apostolic heart this further work as your own, and send it forward in its dual purpose of religion and of charity, by means of your ardent prayers, your counsels, your teachings, and your commands. All the religious and all the nuns of all the houses are prompt, with the help of the Lord, to your obedience. Now I hope that the Sacred Heart of Jesus will grant us those graces that my unworthiness could not achieve, and make good the many evils I have produced…
I present to your reverend self together with all the personnel of our seven small houses, that sacred banner on which is written: “Rogate ergo Dominum messis ut mittat Operarios in messem suam”. May your reverend self take from the worshipful mouth of the Divine Redeemer this divine Word uttered by Divine Zeal, in which is contained a great secret of salvation for the Church and for society, as we have taken it and imprinted it in our hearts to shape a sacred mission; and may you become its Apostle and spokesman.
I am in Sava, 10 kilometers from Oria, where various people are striving and working to create a House of our Nuns.
I ask you for your blessing, I kiss your hands, and I term myself:

Your most humble servant
Can. M. A. Di Francia


The Sicilians, when I spoke to the Pope [Pius X], had genuine Saints. There was a saint: Canon Di Francia who came here [to Tortona] and to Villa Moffa to preach the Exercises to the priests and clerics. His cause for beatification is now under way.
If I bought the Moffa I bought it because this Canon came to my aid. I bought the Moffa when I was still in Messina. The Moffa cost either 12 or 17 thousand liras, I don't remember well. It’s the times and the value of money that change. And I was short of 5 thousand lira that were lent me by Canon Di Francia and later refunded. Imagine what that meant to a Piedmontese who found himself there! To say “piedmontese” and say enemy of Holy Church was then the same thing. In those times and for at least some decades after, to say Piedmontese was like saying enemy of the Pope, because the revolutionary movement against the Pope had begun in Piedmont, in Turin.
And later Canon Di Francia came from Sicily to the Moffa to preach the Exercises, and told me something: but I’m not telling you what. [Everyone is wondering whether he’d say. He thought for a moment and then asked with a smile] Then none of you were at the Moffa? [the answer was negative] Ah, so I can tell you. He said to me: “Watch out that you’ve got some scoundrels here who are pretending to have piety, who are pretending a vocation they don't have: don't trust wry necks. The wryer the necks the less you should trust”. That is the memory that that Saint gave me: don't trust wry necks.

Tortona, after the reading of the Martyrology, 4 February 1940

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