Life of Fr. Arturo D'Onofrio -
The “father of the orphans of the world”
Chapter 1 - The beginnings
The Servant of God, Fr. Arturo D’Onofrio, was born in Visciano, on the 8th of August 1914. He was the third son of Chiara Fusco and Luigi D’Onofrio. The couple already had two boys when he arrived, and a fourth child would come after Arturo, a girl. The father Luigi was known for his humble and charitable nature. He worked as a livestock broker, whilst at the same time looked after his own land which provided the family a reasonable profit. The mother, Donna Chiara as she was known in the village, was a very austere and authoritarian woman who ran a well-stocked grocery shop. Thus, we can say that the family of Father Arturo was, if not wealthy, certainly comfortable, especially if one considers the difficult financial times that Italy and most of Europe were going through at the beginning of last century.
His hometown, Visciano, was a small rural village on the hillside of Nola, the seat of an ancient diocese, and only 34 km from the city of Naples. Visciano, whose origins date back to Roman times, had not changed much through the centuries, and at the time Arturo was born, the life of its dwellers revolved around its only resource: the production of hazelnuts, walnuts and cherries, the latter, of an excellent variety.
A few days after his birth, his christening took place, on the 16th of August, in the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo. The day of the christening, as Fr Arturo taught throughout his life, was the day of the real birth for every Christian.
He spent his childhood years in the little village of Visciano where he attended the primary school, manifesting from the beginning an innate love of knowledge and a natural curiosity. After his death, the daughter of his teacher of those early years recalled that her mother, Clelia Padano, had been Father Arturo’s primary school teacher, she was 23 years old when she was sent to Visciano to teach and always preserved in her heart a special memory of that precious child.
An Undisputed Vocation
The vocation to priesthood and to a consecrated life are not professions that one decides to undertake for personal fulfillment in a conscious and programmatic way; it is not like taking the decision to start any other career. In this respect we should be reminded of the words we read in the Gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit- fruit that will last - and so that whatever you will ask in my name, the father will give you” (John 15:16).
God has for each one of us a special project, a project of salvation. If only everyone could discover such a project and realize it in one’s own lifetime! This would be beneficial not only to the individual but to mankind as a whole. A vocation, as the very word says (from the Latin vocare = to call), is a call, and God calls whomever he wishes in so any different ways and as a free gift.
Certainly, this call was the starting point in the life of Fr Arturo D’Onofrio: a call from God to pursue a road full of obstacles and difficulties, a choice often misunderstood by others, however and at the end of the day, a call to be a gift to many people, an instrument in the hands of God for the salvation of many.
What is expected of an instrument is that it should be docile in the hands of the Creator, disappear behind the intentions and designs of the Most High. This is exactly what happens in the life of Saints: they cooperate humbly and relentlessly with God’s project of love for man.
Not only child’s play
Since a very tender age, Arturo felt the desire to become a priest, thus, he would attend all the religious functions and celebrations. There he would learn everything by watching the priest officiating, and then imitate what he saw happening during the holy masses.
In fact, especially during the months of May, whilst his mother was busy in their grocery shop, he used to gather all his friends and together they would recite the rosary, whilst Arturo dressed up as a priest would sing the Tantum Ergo, and at the end would give the blessing to everybody present.
Though they were children at play at the same time they were imbued with a deep meaning of fervent devotion and serious intentions.
The same group of children, after the “celebration”, would run to the bell tower of the local church to pull the bell ropes until the monks would run after them alarmed and annoyed. Then all in to the woods to look for strawberries when they were in season or mushrooms, during the winter time. Arturo was a bubbly and boisterous child, with the quality of a leader.
A tough mother…
But the first obstacle that Arturo met in his vocation, happened to be right in his family and it was his own mother, Donna Chiara. Those who were close to his family witnessed this opposition for years and one of his friends, Maria Sgambato, once said: “My family and the family of Father Arturo were very close, in fact, we were neighbors and so I spent my childhood years in his company and that of other children from our village. He was born in 1914 and I was born in 1915. His father Luigi was a very sweet and charitable man and was always glad to hear that his son wanted to become a priest; the mother Chiara, instead, was opposed from the very beginning to this inclination. She was a very tough and authoritarian woman who was totally dedicated to the family and very close to this son who was so lively and intelligent. However, Arturo, though very diligent, did not attend school regularly nor with profit, he often missed the lessons and in the third year of the primary school he didn’t pass the exams. My father often said that Arturo didn’t put much effort into studying because he wanted to get back at his mum who was stopping him from entering the Seminary. I am sure that in that period Father Arturo has suffered a lot for the obstinacy of his mother and it is possible that he didn’t show much interest in the school to convince her to let him follow his vocation and enter the seminary. My father told me that one day he asked Donna Chiara why she didn’t want to approve of young Arturo’s vocation to priesthood, and she answered him that in our times only poor people became priests, whilst their family was wealthy enough to produce a lawyer or a doctor, and if Arturo wished to study, this is what he should become. End of the story.”
An even tougher son…
Felice Arimini, a school friend of Fr Arturo D’Onofrio also recalled that since a very early age, Arturo was convinced that he should be a priest, but his mother, Donna Chiara, was equally convinced that he should not be one. His father Luigi, on the other hand, would have liked to support his son’s aspiration, but could not do it openly, because in his home Donna Chiara had the upper hand.
However, Arturo was certainly as obstinate as his mother and in the end, he got what he wanted and went the way God wanted him to go, even against his mother’s will. We all know how important this has been for the future of so many children.
At the seminary in Nola
Despite the opposition of his mother, young Arturo was always very active in his efforts to keep his vocation alive. That is why he was taking every opportunity, even in play, to show to everybody his true vocation.
His stubbornness and his genuine love for the priesthood helped him to overcome every resistance in his mother who when became finally convinced that the one of Arturo’s was not a whim but a true call, finally gave her consent for him to enter the seminary.
When he finally entered the seminary in Nola he was very much strengthened in his spiritual growth by the testimonies of many priests that his superiors invited regularly to the seminary so that they would share with the students their own vocation as Christians and as missionaries.
Let’s hear from Fr Arturo himself how important these meetings were for his vocation:
“I met father Semeria in the seminary in Nola where he was invited for a conference. I was obviously very impressed. Then we met father Follereau…but he came few years later. These people and the various readings about similar stories of missionaries have had such a powerful influence on me in those years, that whilst attending my fourth year in high school I was already desirous to join the PIME, the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions. Obviously, my family was against it, back then I only had my mother because my father had already died. My mother was so much against my project that the money for the passage in train to Milan where I was to attend the last year of high school before joining the PIME, did not come from my family, but from a Monsignor to whom I had manifested my intentions during a spiritual retreat, and he had showed much appreciation for my project. Then, since my mother didn’t want to give me the money to leave and go through with my decision to become a missionary, I wrote to this Monsignor and asked for his help. So he sent me 50 liras which back then were enough to cover the expenses of the journey from Naples to Milan.”
The PIME rejects him
In the year 1935-1936, the Servant of God Arturo D’Onofrio, attended the second year in theology at the PIME in Milan. He excelled in all the subjects and the followings are notes from one of his superiors, father Caminata:
Piety: Very strong
Personality: Calm, but becomes passionate in debates
Intelligence: Very good, he engages himself even too much at times
“Through the entire year he has suffered from gastric pains, probably of nervous nature. He has been hospitalized for a brief time in the Ospedale Maggiore. Because of his uncertain health we have brought forward the date of his final exams and sent him home before the end of the year. He has stayed at home up until three days ago and has undergone a course of therapy. However, as soon as he arrived in Milan he started feeling the same pains as before.”
Thus, he was sent back home again and was forced to review his plans for the future. The PIME had rejected him.
It seems hard to believe that his health had been so poor, if one thinks of all he had been able to do whilst in the seminary and all he would have achieved in the years to come! In the various testimonies collected amongst those who lived by his side in those years we see sketched the portrait of a different person: a person full of strength and enthusiasm. Let’s read, then, one of these testimonies left by Fioravante Meo:
“I met Father Arturo, at a very early age, I was in fact six years old, and he was already a deacon. My friends and I followed him everywhere mesmerized by his enthusiasm and his devotion to our Lady and by his ability to make seem interesting even the most boring activities and duties.
Amongst his various initiatives I remember one in particular: he made the daily mass unforgettable for all the school children in our village of Visciano. Each child who came to mass in the morning, in fact, would receive a ticket and at the end of the year the first five children with more tickets would receive a prize given to the winners during a special theatrical performance held in the village square. I remember that we all run excited to mass in order to win the prize and we even organized a black market to exchange the tickets with a small sum of money. We followed Fr Arturo everywhere and spent great part of the day in his big home and in the back garden. There he taught us the catechism and little religious songs, especially those in praise of our Lady and organized for us small theatrical plays."
Theatre was, in fact, one of his passions. Let’s read another interesting testimony left by Ariosto Prudenziano, one of his former students and then personal driver of Fr Arturo for most of his life.
“According to me Fr Arturo had a secret passion: the theatre. He was overcome by joy when Mother Teresa Vitiello cofounder of the nuns of the Opera Missionaria della Redenzione organized some religious plays for most commemorative and festive occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, anniversaries of Fr Arturo’s ordination or end of the school year. During the first years after the foundation of the Opera della Redenzione, my friends and I, with the help of Fr Arturo, became expert actors. Almost every Sunday he would choose a parish church in our region and present a play based on the life of a saint and so raise money from the tickets sold. Thus, also his passion became instrumental to his charity.
Finally, a priest!
Thus, we have seen that a long spell of poor health meant that the young seminarian Arturo D’Onofrio who had set his heart on becoming a missionary with the PIME, was very sadly forced to change his plans and review his hopes for the future. At the same time his heart was full of faith in the designs that the Lord in his immense mercy had prepared for his life as a priest. At that time, he was in Milan, in the north of Italy, and thus he remembered that also his bishop, Monsignor Egisto Melchiori, in that period had been transferred from Nola to Tortona, in Piedmont, so he decided to pay him a visit and in the occasion unburdened his heart to him. The bishop who knew the young seminarian very well for his enthusiasm and relentlessness in pursuing his objectives, not only found the right words to console him, but also invited him to remain with him in Tortona to finish his theological studies there. At the same time, he offered Arturo the opportunity to become a member of the “Oblati of the Sacred Heart”, a congregation founded by the bishop himself.
Monsignor Egisto Melchiori was the very bishop who in a few years, on the 12th of March 1938, would have consecrated him to the priesthood. The celebration took place in Alessandria, a town in Piedmont: in a church crowded with at least three hundred children from the oratory, Arturo celebrated his first mass.
Tu Es Sacerdos
Then the freshly ordained priest came down to his hometown to celebrate his first mass in the presence of his family and friends and all those who had been following his vocation since its strongly resisted beginnings.
It was the 27th of March 1938. The night before had been raining incessantly, but at the first onset of dawn the rain stopped and as morning came a tepid sun was shining on Visciano clearing away the last clouds. A big festive crowd was waiting for the young priest at the village gates to accompany him in triumph to the parish church.
The Schola Cantorum from the seminary played the Ecce sacerdos, but the most moving moment came when the newly ordained, transfigured by his emotions and with a trembling voice, started chanting the “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. In that moment white doves started fluttering their wings in the church and one of them came to rest right upon the cross.
Chapter 3 - Timely encounters
Undoubtedly, in the life of each human being there are providential moments which influence in a tangible way one’s own life: in the early years of Fr Arturo’s formation there have been many such moments. In his childhood he enjoyed the closeness of serious and inspired priests who showed him the way to many Christians devotions. Likewise, the many impassioned fathers who periodically arrived in his village to revive the faith of the dwellers left such a strong impression on him that from a very tender age he started to dream the life of a missionary priest: certainly, our Lord and His Mother had already chosen him for the priesthood, notwithstanding the firm opposition of donna Chiara.
Other important encounters during his seminary years were those, already mentioned, with Fr Raoul Follereau and the great apostle Fr. Semeria, founder of the Orphans of War in southern Italy, and the encounter with the Blessed Fr Paolo Manna in the PIME in Milan and that with Monsignor Egisto Melchiori who ordained him to the priesthood. A special and unforgettable encounter in his training years was that with saint Luigi Orione, in whose sanctuary, Madonna della Guardia, he received in the September of the year 1937 his deaconate together with other five colleagues. In that occasion saint Orione, after assisting the celebration, invited them all for lunch in the Paterno, the Mother House of the Piccola opera della Provvidenza.
This is how Arturo recorded in his diary that momentous day:
“After lunch don Orione entertained us in a holy conversation in the courtyard of the Paterno… It was for all those present a great consolation to be near him and to hear his precious teachings and advice full of wisdom and virtues so fruitful for our vocation”
The bellboy of the Gospel
From all those special occasions prepared for him by divine Providence, Fr Arturo was able to derive a series of teachings which would become fundamental in the years to come: straight after his ordination and in carrying out all the various tasks which were assigned to him at the time. The following is a memoire from another priest, don Ferrarazzo who was close to him in that period:
“Our roads crossed immediately after the ordination to the priesthood: Fr Arturo in quality of director of the Buona Stampa (The good Press) and me as the director for the Diocesan Weekly magazine. We supported each other in our respective activities. I recall one day when he decided to place a special plea with the bishop:
Excellency - he said to Monsignor Melchiori - would it be possible to open in town a bookshop completely devoted to virtuous books to increment the diffusion of good readings?
The Bishop was more than pleased to grant him this wish and thanked him for the excellent idea, but - he lamented - we are in a time of war and I wouldn’t know how to find the means to realize such an enterprise.
But Fr Arturo certainly knew how. He was not of faint heart and not even the danger of the war could deter him from being the “bellboy of the Gospel”, as he was called in those days!
In the meantime, the Bishop had opened an Office for the diffusion of the holy catechism and made Fr Arturo the director of this office as well, because of his ceaseless zeal in wanting to spread the word of God. This was not an easy task either during those days, because the constant bombarding had made the railway service very unreliable for the connections between the various villages of the diocese, and those few trains that were still in operation were the target of constant attacks from air and land. Thus, Fr Arturo started to stress amiably every priest passing by his office, so that they would carry personally the booklets with the catechism in the various parishes of the diocese. Even the Bishop did not escape his zeal:
Your Excellency - said one day Fr Arturo, getting down on his knees - in your visits to the parishes you have the habit of distributing, amongst the faithful, small medals and holy images, couldn’t you instead start distributing booklets of the Gospel? I have arranged for very cheap gospels to be printed for us and I was wondering if your Excellency wouldn’t start distributing them during your pastoral visit.
CHAPTER 4 - Between two Saints
The first years after his ordination were completely dedicated to the youth; it seemed then, that the direction of his life was set: he was going to spend his life at the service and guidance of young people.
The last years of his theological studies had already been full of important pastoral activities. The Bishop had appointed him for roles which could exploit his enthusiasm and zeal in the endeavor to spread the Gospel. Thus, he became director of the Diocesan Catechism, spiritual guide of the Association of Catholic Teachers (one of the fruits of this experience was the publication of “Maestro”, one of his most inspired books.) He was also appointed teacher of religion and pedagogy for the young seminarians and chancellor in the ecclesiastical tribunal.
It may seem unbelievable that one person could undertake so many duties at one time, but those who have known Fr Arturo personally, know that he was a man with a volcanic energy and that the source of this energy was his love for God and his brethren. This love made him face enormous struggles, overcome innumerous obstacles to actualize in the most complete and wholehearted way his call.
In Tortona, as we have already recalled, Fr Arturo had the good fortune to meet don Luigi Orione and don Calabria, both would later become saints. Don Calabria, in particular, was his spiritual father, and we can easily understand how their special charisma influenced the young priest in giving birth to his personal project of salvation. Both don Orione and don Calabria were founders of institutions that have worked for the salvation, physical and spiritual, of many children: they were respectively the “Piccola opera della Provvidenza” in Tortona and “L’Istituto dei Buoni Fancilulli” in Verona.
Don Calabria, in fact, was not only the spiritual father of young Fr Arturo, but also the first one to encourage him to realize his apostolic project of bringing relief to the needy children of southern Italy, a land which was facing after the second world war a humanitarian emergency of unprecedented proportions.
Don Calabria the “apostle” of Charity
To understand how fundamental the encounter with don Calabria in his spiritual growth was, it will be most enlightening to read a passage from Fr Arturo’s diary in which he records that very occasion:
“During my staying in Tortona, in Piedmont, in the years 1937-1943, I had the privilege to meet don Calabria, founder of the Opera of the Divine Providence.
I had already heard a lot about his good work and one day I mustered the courage to write to him and ask him for the permission to visit the Opera. After a few days Don Calabria himself got in touch with me and invited me to meet him in his Headquarters in Verona.
When I arrived at the railway station he had come personally to welcome me and to take me with his car to the Opera. He was so kind and warm and introduced me immediately to some of the Fathers of his community inviting me to spend a few days with him in Verona. Very gladly I accepted the invitation and thus remained at the Opera with him. In those days I had started to set up the oratory for boys in the Dome of Tortona: when don Calabria heard about it he was overjoyed and thus we spent those days together with his Fathers and I still remember how I felt completely surrounded by a spirit of piety and charity which will always stay with me.
Unfortunately, I did not have another opportunity to meet this man of God, but I have always kept in my heart a special veneration for his person and his work and it is not an exaggeration on my part to think that from this profound spiritual experience sprung the desire to imitate him in my own work. In those days I heard for the first time the voice of the Holy Spirit: “Come and follow me”. When I asked Monsignor Melchiori the permission to open the Oratory and then to start a home for the orphans and the poor, the very memory of what I had seen in the Opera of don Calabria was driving me, thus I can say that the spirit of don Calabria was immensely involved in the foundation of the “Piccola Opera della Redenzione”.
In concluding this homage to don Calabria, let’s remember the words of another great saint of our time. Saint John Paul the second thus wrote about him:
“In the year in which our Holy Church begins the Great Jubilee, let’s transfix our gaze into the infinite tenderness of God our Father of which don Calabria, founder of the Opera della Provvidenza, was a bright and shining reflection. Don Calabria himself offered his work as a living proof of God’s mercy and love. He felt that his special role was to show to the world that God’s love and Providence for man exist and are real. God is not far nor indifferent to human affairs, He is a Father who thinks about us if we ourselves think about him and play our part in this providential design: to realize on this earth the kingdom of our Father, primarily His Justice and Love.
I wish with all my heart to his spiritual offspring that they may continue and extend more and more the project of love that abundantly flew from the heart of their founder: don Calabria, a holy priest called to sainthood”.
Chapter 5 - THE HOLIDAY THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE
A difficult choice
Five years had passed since the day of his ordination when, during a holiday spent in his village of Visciano amongst his people and his family, he seized the opportunity to begin “writing” his own personal story of charity and love.
His heart quivered as his eyes were filled with the images of misery and destruction that the war had left behind in his own hometown. Let’s remember that his ordination took place in 1938, when the second world war was nearing: in this part of Italy, the south, the fierceness of the war had exposed a social fabric which was already in tatters. The endemic lack of infrastructure and of an economical project which could ensure a future to the population, especially the younger section of it, the poverty stricken peasant lands who now had been deprived even of the essential labor of men sent en masse to fight and often to die in an absurd war, the empty eyes of the countless orphans and widows still in disbelief for the loss of their fathers and spouses, were a constant wound in the heart of the young priest Arturo who could not look away from so much desolation, but desired more and more to help in an incisive way and through a total gift of his life. On the other hand, there was the clear injunction of his bishop to go back to the north of Italy at the end of his holiday and there resume his many duties in Tortona where he had been operating for five years.
Maybe this conflict between the desire to donate one’s own life completely to those who have nothing left to live for and the call of a duty to obedience which are both fundamental evangelical rules, cannot be grasped fully by many of us who in our days have become more and more accustomed to follow our own handbook of personal rules that we write and re-write constantly in order to design our own life that suits exclusively our own selfish desires. However, with a considerable stretch of the imagination we can probably conceive lives which are donated to others and which seek perfection through a gift that aims to become complete. The saint, after all, is an individual who keeps nothing for herself.
Thus, torn between the desire to donate his life completely to his beloved people wounded by the war in their body and soul, and the desire to obey to the end his beloved church, Fr Arturo was preparing his departure for Tortona where the Bishop awaited him. But God does not abandon us in our endeavor to realize His love on this earth: his Providence is closer than we think, from the moment in which He sows the first seed in us, all the way through the actualization of His project to which we must lend ourselves like pliable and docile instruments of His eternal charity.
Thus, Fr Arturo started organizing his passage by train to Milan: he sent one of his collaborators from the parish to buy a ticket from the railway station in Naples. Not an easy task indeed in those days of war! The poor man found all the roads that from Nola should take him directly to Naples blocked. His last hope was a detour to Salerno in the hope that at least there he could find a train that took him to Naples, but also this last hope was shattered: when he got to Salerno he found that also there the railway was out of order. Nothing left to do but go back to Visciano to give Fr Arturo the bad news. But to his surprise when Fr Arturo heard that his trip to Naples had been unsuccessful and his return to Milan had become highly improbable, he remained impassible and simply commented:
“Blessed be our Lord! What can we do now? Well, let’s put this problem in His hands and in those of Our Lady of Carpinello. Maybe it is for the best, after all! This must be a sign that Our Lady wants me to remain here!” Thus, he started to gaze into the distance. And remained in this pose for a while without uttering any word.
A nation divided in two states
However, very soon it became practically impossible to go back to Tortona, because on the 8th of September 1943 something had happened that would have changed the history of Italy forever! The allied had landed at Anzio and thus Italy had been divided in two, along the famous gothic line: the north was still in the hands of the Germans whilst the south was in the hands of the allied.
God often uses just the failure of our plans to push the boat in the new direction where he wants us to go. Thus, Fr Arturo describes in his diaries the situation of his home village after the fateful date of the 8th of September.
“After the 8th of September we had in our village of Visciano, around ten thousand people evacuated from distant towns and villages. Those who have not lived through those times cannot understand the meaning of it all. Each home had some guests. In our spacious house over thirty people found shelter and food. In each home, however, there were around ten to fifteen people. Many found lodging in the building of the primary school. These poor people, away from their own home which more often than not had become a heap of ruins, lived off whatever we could spare: potatoes, beans and all that was habitually found on the table of a peasant family, was generously shared with these “guests”.
Fr Arturo’s nephew also offers a precious testimony of his uncle’s great piety in this circumstance:
“Uncle Arturo in that period alerted the whole village in order to give shelter and food to those evacuated to our area. My own father who had stored several hundred kilos of potatoes to sell them on the market, offered ten 100 kilos to uncle in that circumstance. Uncle thanked him and said it was like the manna sent by God to the Israelites in the desert.
Then, several months had passed and my father who had intended the offering as a loan, was expecting to be paid any day from our uncle. It was during the party given for my father’s patron saint that my father enquired about the payment for the potatoes. And uncle, without any hint of a joke, answered him:
- Why? Haven’t you been paid yet?
And my father:
- When was I paid?
- Make an effort to remember dear brother and you’ll see that you have been paid by Someone who is richer than me - said our uncle.
And my father insisted:
- But I haven’t seen anybody!
- Sure! Someone has come, and you haven’t noticed!
- But where has he come from?
And then uncle pointed at the sky, and amongst general laughter, the whole episode ended with the seal of charity and of God’s providence.
CHAPTER 6 - An unfailing trust in God’s Providence
The beginnings of Fr Arturo’s work can be best understood by reading some of the letters he exchanged with his Bishop whilst his project of love was beginning to take shape.
The Bishop in question this time is the Bishop of Nola, Monsignor Camerlengo, and the missive was sent on the 13th of October 1943. In it Fr Arturo enquired for the first time about the possibility to give permanent shelter to some small orphans in his paternal home in Visciano.
Your Most Reverend Excellency, since after the wedding of my sister my situation has changed, and I have some empty rooms in my home, in accordance with the directions of my spiritual father (don Calabria) I have already expressed to Monsignor Melchiori my aspiration to dedicate my whole life to the abandoned children of Southern Italy. I told him, in fact, that I wanted to share my poor means and my home and leave everything else in the hands of Providence. Monsignor Melchiori who, in a first moment was very much against my project, after my repeated insistence and in the light of the humanitarian crisis of our times, but also thanks to the support of my spiritual father, has finally agreed that I should come home to test the waters and eventually start an orphanage in my home which is now free since my sister’s wedding. But as I was going to talk also to your Excellency about it, the German occupation started and that blocked any activity.
Now, thanks to a miraculous liberation and, not being able to go back to Tortona anyway, I beg your Excellency to give the permission to devote my life to what I feel is my true vocation.
I know your Excellency is at present very troubled because the wartime situation does not allow the reactivation of the San Paolino Children’s home; if your Excellency deems it useful, I would like to offer my services to resume the functioning of such a Home which, with the help of God, could give shelter to many children in desperate need. The need for shelter, in fact, your Excellency will agree, has never been as urgent as it is today.
Don Arturo D’Onofrio
Until this very day we have not been able to find the letter written by the Bishop in answer to Fr Arturo’s plea. Instead we are in possess of a second letter written by Fr Arturo, in November, with a similar content to that written in October. Also, for the second letter we have not been able to trace the Bishop’s answer, though we can guess that his plea was answered, because on Christmas day of that same year, Fr Arturo brought home the first orphaned child, the first of the many thousands he would have taken into his arms and saved from neglect and despair.
The first arrivals
Vittorio Di Nola and Vincenzo Nappi are the names of the first two children who were taken by Fr Arturo in his paternal home; since that day many thousands and in many other parts of the world, would have been taken in the various homes built by Fr Arturo and his collaborators through the years. The beginning of a true, selfless story of love and joy, but also the beginning of a big responsibility and challenging work in search of food and clothes for these little guests, a work which wartime made even more difficult.
A collaborator of Fr Arturo thus recalls those days:
- The days that followed were the most hectic and frantic of my youth. Fr Arturo pulled me along wherever he went, in all the little villages around Nola. Always on our feet…. He knocked at the doors of friends and at the doors of strangers who, after few minutes, became familiar and totally fascinated by his projects. He took everything they could offer him for his children: money, beddings and towels, clothes, food, etc. and afterwards he would send someone around with a cart to collect the gifts.
- But what do you need all this stuff for? I used to ask besotted
- You will see, you will see - was invariably his caustic answer.
In the evening we returned home hungry and tired after having recited countless rosaries on the road - Just to not be distracted by our hunger - would joke Fr Arturo.
After only a few months his Excellency Monsignor Camerlengo, bishop of Nola, pays a visit to the growing new community and will administer the first communion and confirmation to a group of twelve little orphans who are amongst the first guests of Fr Arturo.
From the beginning divine providence watched over the little orphans and Our Lady del Carpinello made sure that they would always have warm food and a shelter over their heads. But there weren’t enough laborers: Fr Arturo’s sister in law, Fiorita, looked after the cooking, the clothes and some general housekeeping with enormous sacrifices: she could have done with some help! Miss Rosa Gargiulo from Naples, helped as teacher of the little orphans, the sisters Santina and Anna D’Onofrio under the direction of miss Diamantina Lieto and a few other misses and mistresses, also stepped in to help the little guests of Fr Arturo who were vastly growing in numbers because the war had tragically left so many families deprived of their fathers who were often the only providers.
Soon so many people rallied around Fr Arturo to help the orphans with many gifts and in so many ways. The military chaplain of the American troops stationed in Pomigliano D’Arco encouraged his soldiers to raise money to buy Christmas presents for the little children of Fr Arturo. General Crips offered a good number of tents which were left in the sanctuary of Our Lady del Carpinello, but unfortunately, they were stolen that same night. Despite the incident, help keeps coming, in so many forms and shapes.
Finally, thanks to a piece of land donated by the bishop, Monsignor Camerlengo to Fr Arturo, it was possible to start the construction of the Villaggio del Fanciullo (The Children’s Village) which was inaugurated in November 1949. It was built thanks to a miraculous pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the stones promoted by the passionate charity of Fr Arturo.
A new home
More and more children were asking to be housed, all desperate cases which could have not been turned down because a rejection would have meant ultimately to leave these children roaming the streets. The heart of Fr Arturo could not but open the doors to all those who came and asked for his help.
- It is God himself who commands it and Our Lady who wishes it - he would say.
In 1945, already arose the opportunity to open another home in the seaside town of Torre Annunziata near Naples. That summer, in fact, Fr Arturo had organized for his children to spend some time by the sea thanks to the generous hospitality of the citizens of Torre Annunziata and in particular thanks to a married couple, Angelo Maresca and Anna Vitiello and Fr Antonio Cirillo, parish priest in Torre Annunziata. During this occasion, it became obvious that also this town would benefit greatly from the presence of a Children’s home run by the passionate charity of Fr Arturo. Thus, the Orphanage San Francesco di Paola in Torre Annunziata was born in few months.
CHAPTER 7 MOTHER ANNA VITIELLO
In November 1945 in Torre Annunziata of Naples, in the parish church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, don Antonio Cirillo, a former school friend of Fr Arturo and the spouses Angelo Maresca and Anna Vitiello together with Ida Gallo Matrone, took on themselves the task to look after the orphans in Torre Annunziata.
A lot of enthusiasm surrounded the launching of the new charity. Fr Arturo’s love was contagious and on the part of those who were called by Divine Providence to help there was the strong desire to not leave that young and frail priest to face alone the enormous work he had decided to undertake.
God acts in strange and mysterious ways, sometime even painful ways, that often the human soul finds difficult and hard to accept, and yet for those who have the grace to accept the work of the Holy Spirit, also the saddest moments of life can become an opportunity for a renewal of faith in God and His love. One of these trusting souls was certainly that of Anna Vitiello who in those years was given one of the heaviest cross to carry for a human being. Her beloved spouse was mistakenly shot in the place of another human target. From this bitter cup came for “Mother” Anna Vitiello the opportunity to reshape her life and put herself at the centre of another crucial design of divine Providence. She decided then, encouraged by Fr Arturo, to become fully involved in the activity of the Villaggio del Fanciullo. Fr Arturo invited, thus, Anna Vitiello to reflect and consider the possibility to found together with him a community of sisters who would devote themselves to the care of the many orphans who kept flocking at the Village and who could not be left anymore to the casual care of generous volunteers. Also, in this project Fr Arturo found complete support in the bishop Monsignor Camerlengo who could certainly see in it, a fruitful design of Providence.
It wasn’t certainly an easy choice the one that faced Anna Vitiello. The momentousness of the enterprise ahead of her could not be underplayed and she was only too aware of her human shortcomings. It was an unsettling time for her. But the Lord spoke to her and helped her to overcome her human fears. Thus, on the 21st of February she sent a letter to Fr Arturo in which she declared her decision to put herself totally at the service of the new project, and, though aware of her limitations, she also put herself in the hands of her new “superior”.
On the 25th of August of the same year she took the first vows in the church of San Francesco di Paola in Torre Annunziata. In November, together with another “colleague”, Ermelinda Vitiello, they landed in Visciano to start their mission at the service of the young orphans. In February 1948, the Bishop assigned to the sisters the old orphanage of San Paolino, and there officially started the congregation of the “Piccole Apostole della Redenzione”. Together with Anna and Ermelinda Vitiello more girls came to experience the religious life and some of them never left.
The charisma of the Piccole Apostole was centered on two main points:
- To bring the Gospel to the children, especially the poor and the emarginated ones
- To offer a Christian education in the respect of the human person and as image of God
This little seed sown by the Holy Spirit in such an unsuspected soil many years ago, has born so many luxuriant fruits and has become in the years a thriving reality both in Italy and abroad.
“We do nothing more than what is due”
Anna Vitiello was born on the 19th of March in Torre del Greco in a family with a solid religious faith. She was the eighth of ten children and distinguished herself at school for her ability in math and for her liveliness, but she was especially noteworthy for her devotion to Our Lady. As a young girl she married Angelo Maresca, himself a very gentle man and a devout catholic. They lived together a serene life for many years, though saddened for the lack of children. But God had prepared for her a greater gift, and this gift, as she stated many times in her life, was to meet Fr Arturo and his Opera della Redenzione.
Two days before his death, after he had forgiven with all his heart the man who had shot him by mistake, Angelo Maresca wanted to speak in private with Fr Arturo. He told him: - Padre Arturo, I die a serene death. I don’t leave my wife alone, she will stay with you and your little orphans.
Fr Arturo understood from such unusual circumstances that it was the will of God to create, with the help of Anna Vitiello, a religious congregation dedicated to the care of his unfortunate children. And this is how it was born the congregation of the Piccole Apostole della Redenzione.
The first nuns who came under the guidance of mother Anna with the fervent desire to follow Jesus Christ in the wake of Fr Arturo, took on, eventually, the direction of the Children’s Home that he gradually founded.
On the 5th of July 1978, the congregation received from pope Paul the VI, the recognition of pontifical right.
On the 23rd of July of the year 2000, the day of the feast of Our Lady del Carpinello in Visciano, the heavenly Mother took Mother Anna from this world to receive the deserved and long-awaited prize.
Always in harmony with Fr Arturo
Fr Mario Fabbrocini, one of the first of Arturo’s children to become priest, in the eulogy to mother Anna thus remembered her:
“In 1943, at the age of 14, orphaned from my mother, in the children’s home in Torre Annunziata I met my “second” mother, Anna Vitiello, who would become with Fr Arturo the co-founder of the Piccole Apostole della Redenzione. A frail but strong woman, gentle, with a big heart, a never dying smile and a stamina that would never abandon her till the last moments of her long life. She left this world soon after she received the blessing of our founder Fr Arturo, surrounded by her nuns who learnt from her to love and care for the abandoned children, other people’s children. I was always impressed by her devotion to Fr Arturo with whom she always made sure to be in syntony, also on those rare occasions when she was not in agreement with him, she always put her humility and obedience first.”
Her special vocation, to this day, is still bringing fruits into the world through her nuns who, inspired by her spirit of service, assist the poor and the forsaken in the many nations where Fr Arturo took his special charisma. Her humbleness was undoubtedly her most outstanding virtue, she always saw herself as an instrument in the hands of God and never as a protagonist, and because of this sincere feeling of humility we often heard her saying: “Our nuns and I only do what is due. Our Father in heaven has called us and we have answered His call and keep answering it every day with immense joy and gratitude for the task He has entrusted us with”.
CHAPTER 8 - The pilgrimage of the stones
The ex Casa del Fascio, a building that formerly belonged to the fascist bureaucrats in Visciano, had finally become too small to give shelter to the many children in need of assistance who were growing fast in number. Fr Arturo had in the meantime received a gift of five thousand square metres from his bishop (a donation from the prince Massimo Lancellotti) immediately adjacent to the Casa del Fascio and was thus thinking of enlarging the original building to make more room for the orphans. But the question now was: “How to proceed with the work? Where could he find the money since a lot was needed, especially to pay for the transportation of the building stone from the natural tufa cave of the nearby town of Tufino up the hills of Visciano?”
The answer came again from his volcanic mind: who else but Fr Arturo could have thought of a pilgrimage in which the penance was to carry stones!
Thus on the 11th of April 1948, the people of Visciano and nearby villages and towns after having gathered in the public square and with the help of all possible means to their disposal in those days, such as carts, mules, motorcycles and especially robust and willful shoulders, will walk down to the nearby cave of Tufino and there, after having loaded mules and carts, each one would take a large tufa stone to carry up the hills of Visciano in religious silence or reciting every now and then the rosary to Our Lady of Carpinello. One can only imagine the scene: a procession of stones walking on the backs of 25,000 people and Fr Arturo ahead of them with his stone! They were men and women, but also children who had built for the occasion little carts with their little hands because the stones were too heavy to carry for them. The peasants had loaded their beasts of burden with the heavy tufa stone whilst local women used to the hard work in the fields with their bare feet carried the stones on their heads with an incredibly skillful balance and some of them even carried a child few months old as a sign of special devotion to Our Lady. They all looked so beautiful in their humble offerings.
This first “experiment” would have been followed by many others in the years to come, 14 to be precise, with the aim to build more homes and the modern sanctuary of Our Lady del Carpinello.
CHAPTER 9 - THE DREAM OF THE MISSIONARY BECOMES REALITY
The first missionary nuns
Fr Arturo, rejected by the PIME as a young man studying in Milan to become a priest, was nonetheless destined to the life of a missionary. God has undoubtedly His own timing that sometimes we find hard to understand and accept, but that unfailingly reveals all its splendor in the lives of those who are ready to attune their vision with the project that God has for them.
On the 16th of May 1971, Fr Arturo arrived in Bogota capital city of Colombia, and from there he travelled to Medellín to elaborate a project of concrete aid to the masses of poor and abandoned, in collaboration with the local Bishop. In the meantime, on the 5th of the same month, a small contingent of four nuns headed by mother Anna Vitiello and three priests had left from the port of Naples on a boat heading for the port of Cartagena in Colombia. After 15 days at sea, on the 20th of May they arrived in Cartagena where Fr Arturo and one of his young priests were waiting for them at the port. Then they all went to Medellín and settled down on the outskirts of the town.
The missionary adventure of Fr Arturo was designed to take to Central America the same type of aid that he had offered to the abandoned and neglected children of southern Italy immediately before and after the second world war. The two social and economic landscapes were not very different. The gamines, this is how are called the street children of central America (in Brazil they are called meninos de rua), are a big and constant emergency in the metropolis of Latino America. They are children abandoned by their parents or children who for some sad and tragic reason decide by their own accord to leave the paternal home and live in the streets where they sleep in casual shelters and eat what they can find, sometimes by petty stealing or by rummaging through the garbage. These scenes were not new to Fr Arturo who had witnessed a similar plight in the villages of southern Italy where the many war orphans living in tatters had touched his heart and compelled him to dedicate all his energies to offer them material and moral relief.
Thus during his long life he visited Colombia and then San Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico where he founded many homes to improve the living conditions not only of street children, but also of the disabled, of the elderly and in general of all those who for being unable to fend for themselves, become abandoned or marginalized. His help was not that of a lofty priest who comes and thinks that by proclaiming the Gospel and by blessing people in the name of our Lord has solved the problems of the needy and unfortunate whom he encounters, his help brought concrete aid and relief and consisted in the creation of new opportunities for this people, especially the young ones for whom he created schools where they learned a trade that allowed them to have a future and dignified lives.
In the night through the streets of Medellìn
During those years the most unforgettable moments for Fr Arturo were those he spent collecting the unfortunate children from the streets, thus freeing them from a dangerous and uncertain life and introducing them into the warm embrace of a community who tenderly nurtured them starting with clean clothes, food and a purposeful routine similar to that of every child blessed with a caring family.
Not all the children were able to adapt to their new life, sadly: some of them had never lived in a civilized environment to the point that they didn’t even know what a bed was for, and thus the first time tried to sleep under it instead of above it! But those children who were able to adapt had the great fortune to see their lives change in one serendipitous moment: in their hearts gradually grew a hope for the future, and an appearance of hardness in their look and feelings gradually gave way to a feeling of gratitude for the narrow escape that Arturo brought them, a feeling that those who have never had an experience of salvation in life will find difficult to understand. For thousands of children in central America Fr Arturo has truly been the man of the Providence.
Providence at play
When Providence starts to reveal itself in our lives, it often does it in ways that are difficult to understand and decipher: we are often left wondering why things are not going the way we have carefully planned, sometime for years in advance, whilst a stubborn and irresistible force is pushing the events of our lives in directions that we didn’t expect and for which we are not prepared. We have seen how the young priest Arturo D’Onofrio who was certain to leave Italy under the direction of the PIME (Pontifical Institute Foreign Missions) immediately after his ordination, was turned down because of a mysterious spell of bad health and was thus forced to modify his plans by becoming a missionary in his own poverty-stricken land in south of Italy immediately after the second world war.
However, the economic conditions of South of Italy improved around the sixties and seventies, following the general trend of the economic boom that in those years drastically lifted the endemic poverty of most parts of Italy. Then the post war humanitarian crisis which had absorbed all the energies of Arturo and of his collaborators and nuns ended, and they could start looking for other venues where to bring a much-needed relief to the poor and disadvantaged. This is how the missionary dream came back and Fr Arturo, now enriched with an almost twenty years’ experience in the field, started to plan his intervention in those parts of the world where a disproportionate growth of the population, the constant widening economical gap between the rich and the poverty of the masses, had created a constant emergency, especially for urban children who away from tightly knit communities were the first casualty of this loss of a traditionally based social fabric.
But why Colombia? For several years, since the mid-sixties, there had been in the air the vague project of a collaboration with the spiritual children of don Orione, the founder of many relief homes for poor children in north of Italy since the early years of the twentieth century, and that Fr Arturo had met during his Milan years while studying to be ordained to the priesthood. But soon it became clear that this project was not going to take off. However, in that same period the Camaldolite fathers from a monastery not far from Visciano, where Fr Arturo himself had reserved his own room for regular retreats of prayer and meditation, had started the foundation of a Camaldolite monastery in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Osos (Antioquia, Colombia). There the Camaldolites who were very well acquainted with the work of Fr Arturo, started talking to the local Bishop, Monsignor Urrea, about this energetic and generous priest and his foundation in South of Italy in favour of the many orphans of the war. Another fortuitous coincidence came in those years from the pastoral visit of Pope Paul VI in Bogotá. In that occasion the press and the televisions had given much attention to the fact that during the papal visit the very poor and especially the gamines, the street children of Bogotá, had been banned from the roads where the Pope was supposed to transit, in order to hide from his sight this tragic side of their town. These various circumstances encouraged Fr Urrea to write to Fr Arturo and bring to his attention the desperate need for relief work in Colombia. And this is how Fr Arturo with a group of his priests and nuns organized their expedition to Colombia with the intention to found new homes for the gamines and all those marginalized by their underprivileged position in life.
The first missionary base in a foreign country
Thus, on the 20th of October 1970, Fr Arturo left with Fr Nicola who had been appointed by the congregation responsible for the foundation of the new home in Colombia. Their hearts filled with hope and expectation for the new enterprise and the fruits that would have born.
Fr Nicola, entrusted with the delicate mission of opening a new shelter for the homeless in this foreign country, brought as his only luggage just a lot of good will, for he wasn’t acquainted either with the culture nor the language of the locals. For the first few months he was a guest of Fr Urrea and engaged head on in learning the language and in trying to understand the mentality of the people he was going to work with. The first pastoral work that the local cardinal Anibal Munos entrusted Fr Nicola with, was to manage the parish church of Saint Francis de Sales in the Ciudad Jardin del Norte, in the north wing of the city. But he didn’t dwell here for too long, for it proved too arduous to find some land where to build a home for the gamines, and since this was the principal aim of the mission there was nothing left but move on and look elsewhere. In the meantime the Marist priests in Itagui had put up for sale a property of theirs on the outskirt of Medellín. When they came to know that The Piccola Opera della Redenzione was looking for some land to build a home for abandoned children, they offered them the land at half the price of its real value. Fr Arturo accepted the offer straight away and immediately started the construction of the new home. From that moment on the work of the Opera abroad has grown exponentially thanks to the volcanic enthusiasm of Fr Arturo during his long life and continues to do so also after his death under his spiritual guidance and his inspiration.
CHAPTER 10 - A charity that goes beyond the appearances
All those who have met Fr Arturo and have become acquainted with his work, have always wondered how one person alone could bear all the pressure of a typical day of Fr Arturo. His day started very early, at 5 o’clock, when he would read his breviary and recite his first rosary of the day. Many others would follow for he never spent an idle moment of his life without a prayer on his lips or in his heart. Then he would say mass. After mass he started his day of work in his office where he took care of all the various bureaucratic and financial problems linked to his foundation. Of course, the visits to the various homes that he had been founding in Italy and abroad were also regular and frequent. But apart from his normal routine, we would like to report now some special episodes of his life, some of which have been witnessed and recounted by his driver Ariosto Prudenziano who, as it has been said already, was at his physical side for all his adult life.
“I will never forget one particular episode that only a supernatural love capable to go beyond appearances can explain. Once we went with the nuns to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Tears, in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. Afterwards we visited a local famous place, the Ear of Dionysius, a limestone cave carved out of the Temenites hill and the nearby Grotta dei Cordari. In this grotto a poor man, following an ancient tradition, was pleating some canvas to make a rope used by the local fishermen. As he was engaged in his job which certainly didn’t provide him with more than a miserable wage, this man suddenly started shouting and swearing violently at us. All those present, outraged by this sudden outburst of rage, thought he was bothered by the many tourists who were disturbing his work, but probably and more truthfully the poor man was upset by his own miserable existence which forced him to spend day after day in that same humid and dark place. He was cursing his own life. Only Fr Arturo was able to go beyond the offensive outrage of the man and read his aching and embittered heart. Thus, he quietly called him on the side and without saying a word slipped some money into his pocket. The poor man at first looked startled, but after few seconds he broke down and wept quite loudly as he had been shaken deeply by this gesture of care for his own negative feelings, and thus he remained, unable to utter a single word. In the meantime, Fr Arturo had disappeared from our sight. This man is for me the symbol of all those children and disadvantaged people whose pain and despair Fr Arturo made his own mission to relieve: everywhere he went and at any moment this pain would manifest itself, he never turned his face away.
Another unforgettable moment came on a Christmas afternoon, some years ago, when Fr Arturo asked me to drive him to a jail in a town near Naples where he wished to visit a man he knew and who was serving a life sentence.
I will never forget the meeting between the old lifer and the good father. The commotion and the joy of the poor man were palpable as he moved close to Fr Arturo and received his warm embrace. Once again Fr Arturo had been able to bring a ray of hope in the heart of a forsaken man. In that moment I understood for the first time the meaning of the evangelical motto: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36) just as he made me understand so many times: “I was hungry, and you gave me food…and shelter and most of all, love”.
But there is a final episode of his private life that I would like to share with the reader, because whenever I think of it, it strikes me as the proof of a heart which has been totally imbued with the word and the spirit of the Gospel and a sign which testifies that the relationship with God cannot be improvised and it is not a habit that you can put on and take off at any moment. This episode happened in the last months of his life, when he was very poorly and needed looking after and has been recounted to me with imaginable grief by the person who caused it: one of the younger priests of his congregation who had been entrusted with the personal care of Fr Arturo in the few months of his life when he quickly degenerated before leaving this world.
“In those last months Fr Arturo was not able to eat alone, and he had not much appetite for that matter. I was always with him and took care of all his needs, but often it was difficult to feed him and one day which I will regret for the rest of my life, out of exasperation but also out of sadness and stress for his quickly degenerating health as his departure was nearing, I became very angered because he would not cooperate and eat his dinner: thus, in a brief moment of quasi insanity I shook him quite violently to force him to eat so that he could regain his strength. I was immediately overcome by shame when meeting Fr Arturo’s gaze I saw his eyes were full of love and understanding as he was uttering a word which in that moment I didn’t expect and that only a saint could have said it to a person who was by all means mistreating him. That word was “Thankyou”. That very word and his expression of love as he was uttering it, made me return to my senses immediately. When a little later, filled with shame for my loss of control, I apologized to him, he said to me that it was nothing and that I shouldn’t even think about it.”
Chapter 11 - IN THE WAKE OF DON BOSCO
A true teacher
To talk about Fr Arturo’s pedagogy means to describe a teacher, an educator, but especially a good father who knew instinctively how to guide the young children whom he welcomed in the various homes that he gradually founded in Italy and abroad. Fr Arturo himself sketched out for us what he believed were the basic rules to become a good educator and a good father in a book that he published in 1943 and that he significantly called “Maestro” (Teacher).
The good educator should, according to Fr Arturo, practice the pedagogy of Don Bosco which can be described as the “preventative method”. This consists in working towards the prevention of the error rather than resort to punishing it. Don Bosco put his method into practice using three important means: reason, religion and fatherly love.
Fr Arturo, likewise, loved all his children with no distinction and followed them with patience and perseverance. He was so often capable of great insight in the hearts of his spiritual children and always tried to highlight our natural strengths. His trademarks were joy and a happiness that he always tried to communicate with his smile. It wasn’t always easy as his life and numerous enterprises were fraught with great worries and obstacles, however, none of this ever showed through his eyes which appeared always full of a contagious serenity and deep-seated joy.
He insisted on the imitation of the saints, those people who with their lives explain God to us, and to this end every year he made us choose a special patron saint so that we would concentrate on cultivating the special virtue of that saint.
Prayers, small penances, short visits to the blessed Sacrament, were the daily bread of his meditations as they were also his last recommendations in wishing us goodnight. He also helped us understand the importance of dominating our desires and not be dominated by them, a virtue that in these times of hedonistic narcissism is almost completely lost.
In the memory of his Alumni
Several thousand children have lived in the homes founded by Fr Arturo D’Onofrio. They always expected his visits which happened daily, weekly or monthly, depending on their distance from the headquarter where Fr Arturo had his residence, in his hometown of Visciano. Many of these children, after they built their life somewhere else, go back to visit the homes where they spent peaceful years in the stormy times of their childhood, which left them bereft of a father or a mother or left the parents in dire and harrowing circumstances and unable to look after the children. Fr Arturo welcomed them in his peaceful sanctuaries where they found material and spiritual nourishment and thus where prepared in an optimal way for the responsibilities of adult life.
One of such students, Antonio Grasso, symbol of his thousands of alumni scattered all over the world, wrote once in a letter to his spiritual father: “Following in the example of our Lord, you called all of us by name, for you knew us since an early age when, being homeless and without anyone to care for us, we knocked on your door and there, in your heart and in your homes we found the love and peace we needed to grow into positive and hopeful human beings.”
He was also an unforgettable parish priest and animator who was actively involved not only in the spiritual care of the souls entrusted to him, but he was always particularly aware of the need to show the youth a viable path to God. In the various parishes where he had been active before starting his “Opera”, he was always remembered as the young priest who transformed all the rectory’s gardens into football pitches. The destiny of the youth was a constant worry for him, he was like a shepherd anxious about the menace that hungry wolves pose to the sheep. His whole heart went out to the children and the youth and grieved in seeing young people neglected, without guidance and at the mercy of so many perils in a world that had grown more and more Godless and more and more focused on achieving personal wealth. This concern for the young, for the weakest members of society who in their delicate time of growth could have gone one way or another, was his biggest passion, a fire that was never extinguished until the moment of his death, when his very last thought went to his beloved “children”.
The Camaldolite fathers
The worries and chores in one of his typical days were many: new homes, maintenance of old ones, new contracts, food and clothes for his children who were growing in number each day, and yet he was always able to find the time and the way to climb up to his own mount Horeb: the convent of the Camaldolite fathers not far from the hills of Visciano.
This is an oasis of natural beauty and peace. The sight from 400 mt above sea level is amazing! On clear days the eye can stretch as far as the isle of Ponza, to the gulf of Castellammare, to the isles of Ischia and Capri and, of course, to Vesuvius. It was in this hermitage that Fr Arturo had reserved a little room where he retreated weekly to meditate and pray. He prayed for all his children, for all the people who asked him for special prayers, and here he gathered the strength to start new enterprises, to create more opportunities for abandoned children.
In time the Camaldolite fathers came to know and understand him very well, because for those who live in contemplation and prayer it is easier to gain an insight into the heart of a man of God. Thus, Fr Mario Fabbrocini one of Fr Arturo’s first spiritual children who also grew up to become a priest, once went to the hermitage of the Camaldolites for confession and guidance for his work and received this word of advice from one of the fathers:
“Fr Arturo is a saintly priest. All of you should let him free to do whatever he has in mind: it is always the Lord who guides his steps and shows him new heights which seem impossible and unreachable to a human being but are possible to God who has his own ways.”
CHAPTER 12 - FR ARTURO’S OPERA GROWS
There is scarceness of food and water
Imagine wartime in South of Italy in the ‘40s. Everything is scarce and in some days, there is no bread on the table for the little orphans. Fr Arturo exhorted the children to ask God’s providence to come to their aid. And it did! One day from the nearby town of Pomigliano d’Arco where some American troops were stationed, a jeep full of flour arrives with two soldiers and their chaplain! Fr Arturo sends some of the precious flour to the Camaldolite fathers and with the remaining feeds his children for weeks.
But in that period, there was also a shortage of water. The men dug everywhere in the village but to no avail and the height of Visciano did not help. Then one day Fr Arturo arranged an excavation in the garden of the children’s home he had just opened in Visciano, and there, at eighty feet depth, they found a spring of pure and fresh water that flowed with such abundance to be able to serve not only for the orphans but also for the villagers.
The people in Visciano have always been very close and supportive of this volcanic priest who dedicated his whole life to the poor and the forsaken. A group of young men often accompanied the young Fr Arturo in his relentless tours around the many villages in the Vesuvian area where he knocked on the doors of poor and rich families to gather food, money, clothes and whatever they could spare, for so many were the needs of the little guests of the orphanage that was starting to grow more and more into a big opus. Everybody felt obliged to give generously, often even beyond one’s own means because the majority of people in those days did not possess enough for themselves, let alone the superfluous to give away.
I saw this same generosity in the people of Mexico City, in the poverty stricken peripheries of the big metropolis: during a mass, when Fr Arturo was describing the work that he was going to carry out with the local street children, a small indigenous old lady came forward and offered the few coins she jealously kept in her worn handkerchief; then I saw in front of me the poor widow depicted in the Gospel of Marc and Luke: “These are for the children that the father is talking about”, were her simple words while she handed over the money.
Fr Arturo “Opera” was born out of love and grew thanks to the charitable heart of those who, still today, following the word of St. John’s Gospel can say: “We have believed in Love”. Fr Arturo, in fact, always refused any intervention by the state, but relied entirely on the heart of people of good will.
A list of the various Homes and Schools opened by Fr Arturo in Italy and abroad
Children’s Village “Maria Santissima del Carpinello”
Kindergarten and Primary School
Nursing Home “Villa del Carpine”
Pilgrim’s Hostel “Oasi di Maria”
Home for Infants
Kindergarten “Madonna Consolatrice”
Kindergarten “Santissimi angeli custodi”
Children’s Home “La Sentinella”
Kindergarten “Santissima Maria Immacolata.
Rehab center “Villa Fanciulli”
Nursing Home of the Divine Providence
Institute San Paolino. Center for disabled children
Center for disabled children
Children’s Home “Maria Santissima della Neve” Secondary School and a center for Informatics
Home “Sacro Cuore”. A training center for disabled children
A vocational center
Crosara di Marostica (Vicenza)
Istituto Sant’Antonio - Secondary school
Home of “Saint Joseph”. Seminary
Institute Anselmi - A center for professional training
Stefano Falco Foundation
Home for the homeless and the immigrants
Home for the Immigrants Santo Stefano
“Regina Mundi”, home for troubled teens
“Saint Ines”, Home for the children
S. Maria de Los Angeles, for the smaller children
Hogar del Nino-Itagui- Elementary School
Hogar San Domingo Savio: hospice for 150 children and professional training facilities, lathe-turners, tool and die makers, electricians, mechanics, welders, carpenters.
Children’s Home “Pablo VI”- Home for 120 girls
Baccalaureate School with several types of labs. Capacity for 150 children. Canteen for homeless, capacity for 500 people
Village S. Rosa., Primary School for 300 children
Home “Nostra Signora Consolatrice”, Shelter for poor and old people, canteen for poor children
Parish “S.Maria Consolatrice”. The missionaries offer pastoral guidance to almost 20.000 people
New Foundation run by the Little Apostles of Redemption (nuns). They assist and train professionally 150 needy girls.
Canteen for 200 children
Hogar de la Nina Vera Cruz. New Home run by the Fr Arturo’s nuns for 150 needy girls
Institute “San Filippo”- Oratory and professional training center for young disabled
Vocational Centre “Sperandeo-Urrera”.
Home “Sacro Cuore” for the postulants and novices
Seminary for the study of Philosophy and Theology.
Home “Nazareth”. Novitiate center for nuns
Hogar del Nino: run by the Little Apostles of Redemptions (nuns). Kindergarten and primary school for 160 children. Canteen for 300 children.
“San Giuseppe”. Training professional school for the young and seminary
Baccalaureate school. Six different labs and a canteen for the needy
In El Salvador
Institute “S. Anna”. Kindergarten and primary school. Center for the relief of the victims of the earthquake and the war. Canteen for 100 needy children.
Novitiate “Our Lady Palai”-Kerala
“House Mannakanad”- 100 small homes for needy children
Institute “San Tommaso the Apostle” for the deaf-and-dumb
Training home for the postulants and novice nuns
“Anna Vitiello Home” -Eluru-Andra Pradesh
“Padre Arturo D’Onofrio Home” Nimalgagiri-Andra Pradesh
Mission in Tlaxcala Apizaco (Puebla)- Boarding School
Parish of S. Maria Huxoxulco in Calco
Home for adolescents and the young.
Parish “Nostra Signora Consolatrice del Carpinello” in Tunal, Piura, diocesis of Chulchanas.
In Costa Rica
Parish “La Cruz” in Guanacaste
Finally, Fr Arturo’s missionaries are operative also in a remote and a still savage part of the Amazonia, in the province of Huancabamba, in the Lalaquiz district.
His last days with us
Fr Arturo was not a man with an iron constitution. It is somehow incredible that he lived to be ninety-two, because since his youth he suffered from one ailment or another, and in particular he had a propensity to bronchitis and suffered from chronic digestive problems.
But none of this was ever able to stop him from conceiving and realizing his bold projects which, as we have seen, were numerous and successful. When the motor is such a passionate love for man, the body will follow and will go on and on until, like a candle will consume its last energy, but the flame will be there until the end. Also, when he seemed very ill he would suddenly be on the go again as soon as someone gave him the opportunity to help and realize a project to help children in need.
However, nature follows its course and when he was in his eighties a distressing and degenerative disease started afflicting him and became the cause of his death. We never heard him complain in all those years, he suffered in silence, always conscious of the big responsibility of a father he carried in respect to both to his congregation and his children. Thus, life was gradually leaving him, and he gradually started to detach himself from practical cares. I will never forget his serene face every time I passed his room and peeked inside to say hello: despite the seriousness of the disease, the peacefulness in him was tangible and came from the awareness of having fulfilled his mission. This often reminded me of St Paul’s words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).
Many would come to visit him in those days: some just came to sit next to him and meditate, some asked for a blessing, some just enjoyed to feel comforted by the serenity of his eyes. The alumni often could not hold back the tears as they compared their weakling father with their beautiful memories of a vibrant, vivacious and always dynamic teacher and educator. The person who had so many times listened, advised and comforted them, the priest who had given them their first communion, who had married them and often baptized their children, was going away from their life…
Here I am
In the evening of Fr Arturo’s own Friday of passion, on the 3rd of November 2006, numerous young people, all gathered in a wake of prayer, started to sing the psalm “Here I am, I have come-it is written about Me in the scroll: I have come to do Your will, O God”. Once again Fr Arturo was saying his “yes” to God, the most important one, the one he had lived for.
So many times in his life he had answered the call of God, sometimes a difficult and “disappointing” one, and now he was starting his journey to the place prepared for him since the eternity. For the last time he had called the young around him to bid them a last farewell, a last embrace so to say, and they had answered his call by the thousands. Singing, praying and meditating, they stayed with him in the church through Friday and Saturday. As the images of Fr Arturo’s life run on the screen on the wall of the Sanctuary, all those gathered there were filled with unforgettable emotions: some remembering him in his prime, some wishing they had been able to know him better, some regretting not having accepted with enough enthusiasm his calls and exhortations.
In the last years of his life he had not been very active and had not been able anymore to launch himself in so many apostolic adventures: he was now sharing the same sufferings of those fellow men and women constrained by disease on a wheel chair. Now the contagious enthusiasm which had been the trademark of his whole life had left its place to a deep seated peace and an inner joy that was still lending so much encouragement and comfort to those who had the grace to meet him.
Fr Arturo, the “father of the orphans of the world”, as someone had described him, had now returned to the House of our Father. However, it has soon become obvious to all of us, that also from his present dwelling, probably even more so now than when he was physically with us, Fr Arturo keeps calling so many to follow him in his footsteps towards an unfading faith in God and Man.
“Around 10 million children die each year, most from preventable causes and almost all in poor countries: from undernutrition, from diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, epidemics and neonatal conditions. So much has been said and written, but we should ask now: what has been really done? Which remedies, which practical measures the governments and the various world organizations have taken to put an end to what in our time, with our technological means, has become an unbearable scandal? How many young people nowadays, for example, feel the desire to bring relief to these children, to these men and women who suffer without justification? Man has forgotten himself by forgetting his duty towards humanity and lives today in a constant carnival of narcissism.”
“The biggest sin of modern man is to consider himself without sin, to consider himself an innocent victim of family, society or even God, thus he intends his life as a therapy, a soothing therapy to cure his poor self from one pain or another and so it must be in the capitalistic logic of consumerism which lends the goods to this never-ending therapy”
From the writing of Fr Arturo