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Saint Benedict Cottolengo
Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, the first-born of the twelve children of Joseph Anthony Bernardino and Angela Caterina Benedict Chiarotti, was born on the afternoon of 3 May 1786, in Bra, Italy. On account of the circumstances provoked by the French Revolution, Cottolengo saw himself obliged to complete a large part of his studies for the priesthood secretly. In June 1811, he was ordained priest and, shortly after that, he became the coadjutor of Corneliano de Alba, where he was known as the only priest who celebrated Mass at three o’clock in the morning so that the farmers could assist before going to work. He used to say to them: “The harvest will be better with God’s blessing.”
In Torino, he received a Doctorate in Theology and, later, he was named canon. However, this was not enough for him, and he went through a serious religious crisis because he felt a very strong desire to do something for the Christian community with meager resources.
Not much time had gone by when his purpose was revealed, while he was present and helpless before the death of Ana Maria Gonnet, a pregnant woman, surrounded by her weeping children. She had fallen ill with a mysterious disease that required intensive care; and, nevertheless, several hospitals had refused to give her even the most urgent care, because she was pregnant and extremely poor. Despite the priest’s efforts to help her to give birth in the stables of a farm, the woman died in his arms just when he was giving her the last sacraments; in a like manner, Cottolengo was able to baptize the baby just before it died. In face of the frustration provoked by the death of both mother and child, and the desperate lamentation of the five orphans, the canon’s heart was deeply moved. Directly after this event, he sold all his belongings, and even his coat, and rented a few rooms. He thus began his charitable work, offering on 17 January 1828 free housing to an elderly paralyzed woman. He called this first seed “Volta Rossa.” In a short time, this place became the center of the hospice for the people who were not accepted in the hospitals.
Pius XII called it “the House of the Miracle.” When the cholera broke out in 1831, as a means of precaution, the authorities ordered Cottolengo to close this first house, already filled with sick people. In reaction, the Canon loaded his meager belongings on a donkey and, with two Sisters, left the city of Torino. Instead being discouraged, the priest commented: “We transplant vegetables so that they may grow more, And that is what shall happen to us. We will transplant ourselves and so we will grow more;” and, consequently, he went to the distant outskirts of the city, to a district called Valdocco, where he found an empty stable. He put a sign at the entrance with the words of Saint Paul: “Caritas Christi urget nos!” (The love of Christ impels us).
This is how the work of Joseph Cottolengo later became what was henceforth called “The Little House of Divine Providence.” Gradually, other buildings were constructed. One was called: “House of Faith,” another one: “House of Hope,” a third one: “House of Our Lady”, and yet another: “Bethlehem.” He called the group of houses “My Noah’s Ark.” Here, he received people suffering from all kinds of incurable diseases. He designated one building for the mentally retarded, whom he called “my dear friends.” Another building was reserved for those unable to hear or speak, and there was also a pavilion for the invalids. The orphans, the abandoned, those who were rejected by the hospitals, were received here unconditionally, in the Little House of the Divine Providence. A French author, seeing all of this, commented: “This is the University of Christian charity.”
He did not have money and, nevertheless, he was already thinking about progressively extending his Hospital; he joyfully said to everyone: “For God’s Divine Providence, it costs the same to feed 500 or 5000.” In people’s minds, the “Little House of the Divine Providence” was like an upside-down pyramid that was only resting on one point: great confidence in God’s goodness. And, truly, the way this saint had of doing things completely contrasted with the ordinary way: if necessary help was missing, he would send someone to see whether there was a bed without an sick person; if one was found, he would exclaim: “This is why the help is not coming! Precisely because we are calculating and leaving beds without patients!” When those helping him in his charitable work would say to him: There are no more beds!” he always answered, “Then accept more sick people.” If they told him, “We have run out of bread and there is no more food,” he responded, “Then, receive more poor people.”
His blind faith in Divine Providence was admirable, as he continually explained to those who helped him, “People can let us down, governments can disappoint us, but God will never fail us, not even once.” When he noticed that someone was beginning to doubt, he would add, “God answers with ordinary help for those who have ordinary confidence in Him, but he gives extraordinary help to those who have extraordinary confidence in Him.” And, in fact, God never failed, not even once, this friend of His who had such great faith in His timely help.
Unfortunately, human nature did not exonerate this miraculous benefactor, and his health began to decline. He no longer had the same strength as at the beginning. When he was 56 years old, he commented calmly on his deathbed, “The donkey doesn’t want to advance anymore.” His last, partially cut words were from Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” He died in Chieri, Italy, on Saturday 30 April 1849, and was buried on 1 May.
He had left “The Little House of the Divine Providence” to leave room for the new guard. Cottolengo was beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 and, later, he was defined as “genius of good” by Pius XI, who canonized him on 19 March 1934, along with his good friend and neighbor Saint John Bosco.