The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Blessed Stephen Bellesini

painting of Blessed Stephen praying before the image of Our Lady of Good Counsel, date and artist unknownThe Blessed Stephen Bellesini of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine was also an Austrian by birth. The Bellesini family was established at Trent, but traced its descent to one of the Doges of Venice. The mother of Stephen bore a German name, Mary Ursula Meinchembeck. The Bellesini, we are told, were always distinguished for their loyal devotion to the Church; and for a predilection toward the religious state. In Stephen, who was born 25 November 1774, this pious tendency showed itself at an early age. On account of his precocity and his love of prayer, the parish priest allowed him to receive his first communion at the age of seven. In his parents’ house and in the schools of Trent, Stephen was a model of the exemplary and morally good boy. At sixteen, first overcoming some objection on the part of his father, he applied for admission to the Augustinian convent of San Marco in Trent. He made his novitiate at Bologna and his philosophical studies at Rome. While he was studying theology in Bologna, the army of the revolution entered the city and Stephen, an Austrian, was obliged to return to his country. Toward the end of 1797 he was ordained priest. For a while he could live undisturbed in the convent of San Marco at Trent until the sad events of the time brought with them the downfall of the Augustinian monasteries. Many of the monks wept when they bade farewell to one another and had to take leave of the life to which they had bound themselves by solemn vows.

Father Bellesini returned into the bosom of his family. His mother was overjoyed to have her son with her again. But the latter, along with his cousin, who had also belonged to San Marco, observed at home the rule of his Order in everything. And he gained immortal profit for the well-being of his native town by carrying on a relentless and successful warfare against the unbelieving spirit of the age. The power of his word and example encouraged the good and steadied the wavering. A so-called normal school had been opened in Trent; that is, a school in which the young were to hear nothing of God and religion – to smooth the way to unbelief. Forthwith, and at his private expense, Bellesini began a school of his own. His personality exercised a great influence upon the young and soon attracted a large attendance. The opposition was disarmed and petitioned the government to close Bellesini’s school. The matter was referred to the magistracy of Trent and they decided in favor of Bellesini. This meant the extinction of the normal school and for many years thereafter the direction of all school affairs in Trent lay in the hands of our Blessed Stephen.

With a change in State politics the Augustinians were re-established. Foreseeing that the people of Trent would be unwilling to let him go, Stephen, in 1817, went secretly to the superior-general of his Order at Rome. Letter after letter followed from friends in both lay and ecclesiastical authority urging his return. But in vain. Then the city council threatened to banish him forever if he did not return at once. And they did in fact succeed in having the Austrian government exile him forever from Austria and in having his birthright and all his honors and offices declared forfeit. Such was their gratitude for the wonderful amount of self-sacrificing labor which he had performed in their behalf.

But Bellesini was content to live in his beloved little cloister. His superiors entrusted him with the important office of novice-master. His brethren held him in the highest esteem for his saintly humility. While superior he was the servant of all. He was especially distinguished by his spirit of faith and his love of prayer. To act according to the principles of faith had become habitual in him. When no other duty called him, he devoted hours to prayer. Yet his was by no means a reserved character and he was universally known for his great and cheerful affability.

Since 1826, the novitiate had been at Gennazzano, the famous sanctuary of the Mother of Good Counsel. During the last ten years of his life, Bellesini had charge of the church and the parish which belonged to it. Here, too, he became all things to all and won the noble title of “Father of the Poor.” Like the Good Shepherd, he gave his life for his sheep. About the beginning of 1840 there broke out a contagious sickness in Gennazzano. The zealous pastor hastened to every hovel where he could bring help or consolation. Heedless of an open wound he had, he caught the contagion. The announcement of impending death is wont to depress and frighten men and it startles one to read of what heartfelt and open joy the news brought to Bellesini. He predicted the day and hour of his death, the evening of Candlemas day, 1840. If before he had been regarded by the people as a saint, it was now more than ever, for he had fallen a victim of his vocation. Pius X declared him Blessed toward the end of 1904.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916