Saint Joseph Cottolengo
On a Septeber day of the year 1827 a priest was called to give the last sacraments to a young Frenchwoman, who had been taken ill at Turin when travelling from Milan to Lyons with her husband and three little children, and who died in a squalid slum from lack od adequate care. The priest was Canon Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, a native of Bra in Piedmont. He was a great lover of the poor, and was shocked to discover that no institution in Turin was available for such cases. Though without private means he promptly hired five rooms in a house called Volta Rossa with the aid of a lady who supplied several beds. A doctor and a chemist having offered their services, a little hospital was opened with five patients. Soon it became necessary to take more rooms and to organize the charitable voluntary helpers into a permanent male and female nursing staff. The men Canon Cottolengo called Brothers of St. Vincent, whilst the women, who before long received a rule, a habit and a superior, were designated Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul, or Vincentian Sisters.
In 1831 cholera broke out in Turin, and fear of infection from the crowded inmates of Volta Rossa induced the civic authorities to close the hospital. The canon was unperturbed: "In my country they say that cabbages increase and multiply by transplantation", he remarked. "We must change our quarters." During the epidemic the Vincentians nursed the cholera-stricken in their homes, but afterwards the Cottolengo Hospital was transfered to Valdocco, then outside Turin. The canon called the house he bought the Piccola Casa, or Little House of Divine Providence, and placed over entrance the words: "Caritas Christi urget nos". To accommodate the ever-increasing number of patients other buildings gradually arose alongside, bearing such distinctive names as the House of Faith, the House of Hope, Madonna's House, Bethlehem. But it was not only he sick whom Don Cottolengo was to shelter in what he sometimes called his Noah's Ark, but epileptics, the deaf and dumb, orphans, waifs and distressed persons of all sorts. For the various classes he started special homes, besides providing hospices for the aged, many of them blind and crippled. Two houses were devoted to idiots - whom the canon always tactfully called his "good boys and girls" - and a rescue home was started, from among the inmates of which a religious congregation was formed under the patronage of St. Thais. The great block of buildings constituted what a French writer described as a University of Christian Charity, but the founder continued to call it the Piccola Casa. He never attributed its success to his own powers of organization, being entirely convinced that he was merely a tool in the hands of God. That conviction he once set forth in graphic words to the Vincentian Sisters. "We are like the marionettes of a puppet-show. As long as they are held by a hand from above they walk, jump, dance and give signs of agility and life; they represent ... now a king, now a clown ... but as soon as the performance is over they are dropped and huddled together ingloriously in a dusty corner. So it is with us: amid the multiplicity of our various functions we are held and moved by the hand of Providence. Our duty is to enter into its designs, to play the part assigned to us ... and respond promptly and trustfully to the impluses received from on high."
Although he directed everything, yet Don Cottolengo kept no books or accounts, the money he received being promptly spent and never invested. He went so far as to refuse royal patronage for his work, because it was already under the patronage of the King of kings. Repeatedly but in vain did his well-wishers counsel prudence with a view to safeguarding the future of his works: over and over again his creditors pressed him sorely, the cash-box was empty, and provisions threatened to run short. The holy man trusted to God and was never disappointed. Moreover he had safeguarded the future of the Piccola Casa by ensuring a treasury not of money but of prayers. In response to what he conceived to be a call from above he had founded, in connection with his organizations, several religious communities, the main purpose of which was to pray for all necessities. These new societies included the Daughters of Compassion, who intercede for the dying, the "suffragists" of the Holy Souls to gain relief for the departed in Purgatory, the Daughters of the Good Shepherd who by prayers and active work assist those in moral danger, and a very strict community of Carmelites, whose penance and prayer are offered on behalf of the Church. For men he established the Hermits of the Holy Rosary and the Congregation of Priests of the Holy Trinity.
Joseph Cottolengo was in his fifty-sixth year when he realized that he was dying, typhoid fever having exhausted a body already weakened by hard work and austerity. Without a shadow of anxiety about his great work, he calmly handed over his authority to his successor, bade farewell to his spiritual children, and set out for Chieri, where he died nine days later in the house of his brother, Canon Louis Cottolengo. Nearly all his numerous foundations are flourishing to this day, and thousands of poor persons are still sheltered in the precincts of the Piccola Casa. St. Joseph Cottolengo was canonized in 1934.
The most complete life is that written in Italian by P. Gastaldi in three volumes (1910; French trans., 1934). A shorter French account was compiled for the beatification in 1917 by J. Guillermin. For English readers there is an abridgement of Gastaldi and a sketch by Lady Herbert. See also S. Ballario, L'apostolo della carità (1934).
Butler's Lives of The Saints, Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater
Nihil Obstat: PATRICIVS MORRIS, S.T.D., L.S.S., CENSOR DEPVTATVS.
Imprimatur: E. MORROGH BERNARD, VICARIVS GENERALIS
WESTMONASTERII: DIE XXIII FEBRVARII MCMLIII