The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Venerable Joseph Benedict Cottolengo

detail of a painting of Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo; Agostino Cottolengo, c.1850; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe example of the Venerable Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, by no means a solitary one, proves how unjust is the man of our day who thinks that there are no longer souls which rise to the loftiest heights of the love of God and their neighbor, and accomplish all things by their immovable confidence in God. Pius IX called the “Little House of Providence”, Cottolengo’s foundation in Turin, “a house of miracles.” But the whole man himself was a continual proof of the power of the supernatural.

The house of Joseph Cottolengo’s parents can still be seen in Bra, a little town of Piedmont. The day of his birth was 3 May 1786. It is said that study was at first very difficult for the boy; but he applied with childlike confidence to that light of knowledge, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and, to the astonishment of his teachers and classmates, was soon at the head of the class. At seventeen he resolved to become a priest. He made his theological studies in the seminary of Asti, where he was ordained priest on June 8, 1811. After a short but very successful career in Cornegliano, Cottolengo went to Turin to obtain the degree of Doctor of Theology. After receiving this dignity he joined the “Corpus Domini/’ a congregation of secular priests, and was made a canon of the church of the Holy Trinity.

In all large cities there is a great amount of misery, both spiritual and corporal, and Cottolengo soon found how plentiful it was in Turin. One day he was called to a sick woman who, with her little children, was in sad destitution. She had been refused admission at all the hospitals. Cottolengo’s heart was deeply moved. At once his plan was resolved on. A hospital must be founded where such forlorn creatures could find a refuge. He first asked light and strength in prayer, and then went to work at once. He hired a small house, to which a benevolent lady donated four beds. This was the beginning of the foundation which he called “La Piccola Casa della Divina Providensa” “The Little House of Divine Providence.” A physician and a pharmacist voluntarily offered their services. Patients applied in increasing numbers. He had to hire more room. He obtained women to attend the female patients and men for the men. The former he called “Ladies of Christian Charity”; the latter, “Brothers of Saint Vincent.” The work continually grew in extent, and with it Cottolengo’s enterprise and confidence in God increased daily.

But the storm did not fail to come. Among his colleagues he found vehement opponents who considered him rash and extravagant. When the cholera broke out in Turin in 1831, the neighbors, fearing infection, induced the government to close the Piccola Casa. Cottolengo pleasantly remarked: “In my country they say that cabbage thrives better if it be transplanted, so I will transplant my hospital.” Before a half year had passed the apostle of charity had secured a little house in a remote quarter of the city, called Valdocco, where he began his work anew. In fact, the transplanted hospital prospered more than before. Soon there rose, beside the Piccola Casa, the House of Faith, the House of Hope, the House of Charity, and the House of Bethlehem. Each of them served a special purpose of charity. The houses of evil repute in the vicinity soon disappeared and good conduct and fear of the Lord prevailed in that formerly disreputable part of the city. At the entrance of the Piccola Casa gleamed Cottolengo’s motto: “Charitas Christi urget nos”; “The Charity of Christ presseth us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

But it was yet far from remedying every misery. “Noe’s Ark,” as Cottolengo called his work, was not yet spacious enough. Near the department for orphans he erected for boys and girls who had been neglected in spirit and in body, a “Home for good boys” and a “Home for good girls.” He provided for the future of the orphan boys who showed talent and disposition for study or for vocation to the religious state. He had long before transformed his nursing staff into religious Congregations. For girls who were too weak for the service of the sick, he founded the “Society of the Good Shepherdesses,” who were to attend to the instruction of cretins and orphans. For elderly sisters he created the “Convent of Intercession” with strict enclosure, for the purpose of helping the souls in purgatory. Soon after he organized a similar institution, “The Daughters of the Pieta,” who were to imitate the women on Calvary and pray for the dying. For those who wished to devote themselves to a severe manner of life, he introduced the rule of the Discalced Carmelites. Nor did he forget the men. Besides his Brothers of Saint Vincent, he created the “Hermits of the Holy Rosary,” who followed the rule of Saint Romuald. When fallen girls were disposed to do penance for their sins he placed them in a new establishment under the patronage of the holy penitent Thais, from whom they were called Thaidines. Five of his Carmelite Sisters were selected to develop this foundation. Finally, he added a congregation of secular priests, whose duty it was to attend to the spiritual welfare of the various foundations.

It would be wrong to think that Cottolengo was led by a blind zeal. All his works were successful. Most of them still exist. His genius for organization was wonderful. There was no disorder in his establishments – he watched over all, provided for all. What is most remarkable is that he founded all these works and kept them up with the help of charitable contri- butions alone.

Often times his purse was empty; his creditors pressed him hard; but in due time help was ever at hand and often from least expected quarters. If sometimes Providence seemed to be tardy and even to interfere, Cottolengo spent hours upon his knees and struggled with God in prayer, and never in vain. Such was his trust in God that he kept no account of receipts and expenses. In his enterprises he never considered his material resources, but only the needs of his fellowman. Of course, he knew that the fountain whence he drew help would never run dry. It was the treasure of an all-beneficent Providence. If any one wondered at his great success he used to say that it was simply a clear proof that Providence, not Cottolengo, was the founder and director of these works, and that he knew himself to be a bungler.

It would carry us too far were we to do more than mention Cottolengo’s heroic spirit of faith, his extraordinary humility and mortification, his ecstasies, his familiar converse with the Queen of Heaven and with the saints, his wonderful knowledge of consciences, and the spiritual and corporal cures he effected. All who dwelt in his institutions had their lives sweetened by the great charity with which they were treated.

When new patients arrived, the founder himself, if possible, cordially welcomed them at the door. He conversed with all like an affectionate father, and their greatest joy was to have him appear among them. It did not need long converse with him to feel that one was dealing with a saint. His fame spread throughout the world. Gregory XVI sent him a Brief full of praise and thanks. King Charles Albert of Savoy was his intimate friend. Even the Marquis Cavour, Syndic of Turin and father of the statesman Camillo Cavour, every year sent him a gift of wine on the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. The French Academy, learning of him from Baron Monyton, once voted him the prize of virtue and solemnly presented him with it through King Charles Albert. Cottolengo replied that he considered it not an honor for himself but a recognition of Divine Providence which accomplished everything in his institutions. The street leading to the Piccola Casa bears to-day the name of Cottolengo.

The strength of the holy man had broken down in the service of charity toward his neighbor and he clearly saw his end approaching. The physicians ordered a sojourn in the country. When leaving, he gave “his blessing to all and bade them be cheerful in the Lord and full of trust in Divine Providence. He said to a Sister who anticipated misfortune: “Be at peace. When I am in heaven, where everything is possible, I will help you more than ever. I will hold fast to the cloak of the Mother of God and never turn my eyes away from you.” Scarcely had Cottolengo reached his brother’s house in Chieri when his condition grew worse. He received the last sacraments with great devotion. No care disquieted him – on the contrary, he jwas now serenity itself. While they were saying the prayers for the dying, he said softly: “My Mother Mary.” Then he raised his voice: “Laetatus sum in his qua dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibitnus,” “I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord” (Psalm 121:1). The next moment this father of the poor and the orphan was no more. It was on the evening of 20 April 1842. Cottolengo had not yet completed his fifty-sixth year. King Charles Albert wept at the loss of such a friend and Gregory XVI exclaimed “Turin has lost a saint.” God has glorified Cottolengo since his death with so many miracles that we may expect his beatification in a short time.

– 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