When the current COVID-19 pandemic was unleashed, some Piarists recalled that Calasanz also had to face a pandemic, which was then given the generic name “plague”. It is the famous plague of northern Italy in the years 1630-31, which serves as the setting for Alessandro Manzoni’s famous novel “I promessi sposi”. And, indeed, Calasanz names the plague on about 75 letters, most of them between 1630 and 1631. I will not talk about them: whoever wants to deepen, can go to Scripta, and enter in “written-text” the word “peste” to perform the search.
Without pretending to be exhaustive, I have researched other Piarist sources (mainly the Annales of Fr. Bernardo Bartilk and DENES, I and II) to offer a historical reference to the acting and suffering of the Piarists throughout our history because of plague.
That plague of Calasanz’ time did not cause much damage to the Order. The only victim whose name we know is Fr. Domingo Pizzardo, from whom DENES says: “He was destined in Carcare; apparently during the bubonic plague, which wiped out most of the Carcarians, he devoted himself day and night to care for them spiritually and materially until he fell victim to contagion, with five other Piarists of that population.” Bartlik dated his death on July 4, 1630.
But plague was also an occasion for other events. The first, less well known, is that Pope Urban VIII had all the houses of Rome whitewashed inside, to reduce the risks of contagion. And so Calasanz had to whiten his room, covering the beautiful frescoes of the Muti times, with the story of Moses in the Exodus, which were covered until the last arrangement of the room, after 1983.
Another consequence was that the first General Chapter, which was scheduled in April 1631, was first postponed for 6 months, but because the plague did not cease, it was suspended, and it was not until 1637. (Let us hope that the same thing will not happen to our next one, scheduled for 2021, and that has also been postponed for six months…). “Confinement” had already been imposed, and the move from one state to another in Italy was not allowed for some periods.
Nevertheless, this plague was also an opportunity for some Piarists to stand out, in addition to Fr. Pizzardo and colleagues from Liguria. Speaking of Florence, DENES says: “Because of the plague, which invaded the city, schools were closed from September 1630 to November 1631. The Piarists offered their services to the sick people with such generosity that they earned the esteem of the people and fame for their schools. After a visit by the Grand Duke’s delegates to the schools in 1632, a license was obtained to be able to call as many religious as necessary, instead of the six allowed at first.” Fr. Bartlik writes of this city and plague: “Fr. Archangel of the Nativity of the Lord, of the family of the Galetti of Castiglion Fiorentino, ignited in love for others, did nothing that did not smell of mercy. In the year 1630 of our salvation, when the plague oppressed Florence, offering himself in the service of the stinkers he gave himself in that meek calamity to the point of, in the absence of others, carrying on his own shoulders the corpses of the deceased to the tomb, so they called him the father of the stinkers. For that worthy and famous fact and for other heroic acts he deserved the sum benevolence of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, towards the whole Order, so he not only deigned to receive it under his protection but decided to propagate it and not only in Florence, but throughout Tuscany.” And the good relations between the city and the Piarists still last.
Fr. Alacchi was not so lucky in Venice. He also devoted himself to assisting the stinkers and, fearing that the plague stretched across the ground, he built a hut in a tree to live in. When he was about to get the foundation in the city, several of his friends (who did not sleep on trees) died of plague, the government changed, and Fr. Alacchi had to leave the city in 1633.
The plague in those years not only ravaged Italy. In Central Europe too, it wreaked havoc. Fr. Bartlik speaks of the best-known victim among the Piarists, the rector of Nikolsburg Fr. Ambrosio Leailth: “From the plague, which invaded Moravia, there were also letters that lamented, mainly because it made Fr. Ambrose of St. Mary, superior of Nikolsburg, a victim. Fr. Glycerus of S. Carlos describes his death with these words: ‘Last Sunday, October 16th (1645), at the time of morning prayer, that Isacar of the whole city of Nikolsburg, that jealous, that charitable help of the dying, that indefatigable worker of religion, that optimum religious, word and column of our house, Fr. Ambrosio, passed from this life to the other.”
Fr. Bartlik adds: “There was no priest left in Nikolsburg; three lay brothers took care of the house. Cleric Jorge of the Nativity of Our Lady was dying because of the plague.” And it gives a personal detail: “Reigning which (plague) I came into the world (1646) after seven of my family had died because of it.”
However, the plague that most damaged the Piarists was the one that attacked Italy in the years 1656-57, which caused numerous victims and halted the expansion of the Order at the time it was restored. Fr. Bartlik writes of the year 1656: “Just after those things that we have written so far for our good, plague, universal evil, invaded Naples with the places around, Sardinia, and Rome; and although caution was shown to defend against this evil, it was not possible, however, despite the very prudent remedies prescribed, to prevent most of ours from dying of the aforementioned disease. I will at least give their names for knowledge of posterity, although I could not know about the novices if they had done something famous in their lives.” He cites below the names of the victims: at the School of the Duchesca in Naples, 14; in the novitiate of Naples, 12; in Norcia, 6; in Chieti, 11 (all). In Cagliari, 13 more Piarists died. In the entire province of Naples there were only 30 religious left; more than 40 had died.
And Fr. Bartlik follows: “In Rome at the beginning of July (1656) the schools were closed on the command of His Holiness, and although perhaps hundreds died in a few days, in our house of S. Pantaleo, in the Borgo and in the college (Nazareno) no one died except Brother Nicholas, called of Cuneo, who was taken to the lazareto of the island (Tiberina), where he gave his soul to his Creator. You can easily imagine how much such a large number of deceased hurt our new status. For there were many houses in which they were lacking subject because of the leaving of the Order or the passage to other Orders, and behold, those which were said to be able to help, were the ones that suffered the greatest damage because of the plague.”
The year 1657 the plague extends to Genoa: “In the present year, because of the continuation of plague in Genoa and in Liguria, eleven of ours died. Among them, we highlight Frs. Luis de Sta. Catalina, Jerome of San José, Juan Bautista de S. Bartolomé and Francisco of the Holy Sacrament. The latter was Italian from Carcare, and soon at the beginning of the plague, inflamed by the health of souls, set aside the health of the body and went to work on behalf of those infected with plague in the lazareto of Consolation, and there, fatigued by work, and sick with the plague, he passed to better life to collect the prize of his labors in June, at the age of 48. (…) These four quoted fathers can be called victims of charity deservedly, to whom a fifth was almost joined, the aforementioned Fr. Gabriel, superior, who was sick with the plague from June 19 to August 15. However, it seems that it was preserved by the special protection of divine providence together with Brother John B. of St. Joseph, lay, of the ruin that came in his house. To him it is certainly due, after God, that, having died so many of our religious, the house of Genoa would regain its decorum and honor, and a new community would be introduced later. In which, after being purged and smoked by that father with odoriferous splinters and aromas, to inhabit it more safely, in early October the church was also opened, and he celebrated again the divine offices for the public.”
At this time, the plague caused damage in Poland, according to Fr. Bartlik: “In Warsaw of Poland Bro. Feliciano of S. Primo and Fr. Benedict of S. Ignatius died of the plague: the first on the 10th, the second on September 19. (1660) From Poland we know for sure that the plague has not yet diminished the furor of the previous year. The deceased in Warsaw attest to this.” And it cites the name of three other religious who died in 1661.
DENES says: “In 1680 the plague touched Schlan (Bohemia) with some 400 people dead; among them, many of the students of the school of reading and also his teacher, Bro. Silvestre de S. Antonio Eremite, who was also the assistant of the reader of theology; Fr. Matthias of St. Francis distinguished himself in the attention to the stinkers.”
Plague causes side effects, not always negative. Fr Bartlik says: “The reasons for the division and separation of the two provinces (Germania and Poland) seem to have been first and for all the plague that was at that time in Poland, because of which one could not move freely from one province to the other” (1662). Another clearly positive effect was the creation of the house of Krakow. The Piarists had tried to found it, but the University opposed it. As the plague spreads to Podolin, the Piarists went to take refuge in Kasimierz, a suburb of Krakow, and there they continued until they settled permanently in the city.
Other pests continued to affect our homes in the 18th century. Speaking of Fr. Józef Strzelecki, the DENES says: “Then (1771) a plague left only one tenth of the living standing; three fathers and a lay brother of the school died for it, and its Rector Strzelecki helped the people scattered throughout the countryside, subjected to hunger and cold, with bought or begging breads, vegetables, dresses.” He is talking about the house of Międzyrzecz Korecki, from the province of Lithuania. “The Piarists placed the effigy of Our Lady of Graces, special patron saint in these cases, on the facade of the church, to protect people from plague.”
Also in Spain, people suffered from pests. According to DENES, “In 1706 an epidemic spread through Peralta in which a fifth of people died, including Fr. Jerome Zaidín, newly ordained, “who alone 17 masses said”. The few remaining religious in Peralta had to go to almost every house, to confess and accompany the dying, without interrupting the classes.” In Jaca, “The First Year (1735) was dramatic. Fr. Jericho narrates in his News: all the religious became successively ill, until they reached the state of administering the extreme unction to them; the founder and first rector, Fr. Marcelino Pérez, died as a result of the epidemic; the people of the town, were very good with the Piarists, serving them charitably.”
Speaking of Fr. Tomás Sáez of Castile, DENES says: “His teaching begins in Getafe and he was in Madrid, when the cholera of 1865 invaded the school in a terrifying way. Fr. Thomas, as well as he was respected by the epidemic, he was also touched by general dismay, and consecrated himself day and night with tireless zeal to the care of the sick.” And as we read the history of the school of Igualada, we found: “In 1918, a widespread flu epidemic caused a large number of deaths every day. The situation was so serious that, on October 20, a day of prayer to our Lady of Mercy was organized, participating all the city. In the following days the number of sick people was decreasing, being attributed to a special favor of Our Lady.” We are already in the days of the famous “Spanish flu”.
Fr. Juan Figueras was the last “martyr of charity” in the fight against plague. He had been sent as founder to Puebla de México in 1915. The DENES says: “Clergy and religious defected from the city in the face of the many dangers and there was almost only Fr. Figueras attending to everyone at risk of his life. The plague invaded the city and Fr. Figueras died looking after stinkers. He was buried in the French pantheon and the Catholics of Puebla dedicated a beautiful tombstone “to the martyr of charity“.
I think the cases cited are only the visible tip of the iceberg in the relationship of the Piarists to the plague. Going deep into the archives (not just ours) we would find many more cases. The plague, the various epidemics, have always been companions of humanity, affecting our evolution in one way or another. However, our memory (or our knowledge of history) is short, and that is why we believe that it is “only” now that we are experiencing a dramatic situation.
I would like to highlight the fact that in the same way that Calasanz “invented” the popular school when it did not exist, in times of plague, when there were no medical services that we know today, many Piarists (like other religious) “invented” assistance to those affected by the plague. Heroically, knowing very well the risk they were at. And they did so surely with the intention of “saving their souls,” providing priestly service to the dying.
Plague, like so many other circumstances, is a “problem,” but also an “opportunity,” for those who know how to take advantage of it. I wish our predecessors could send us an SMS with some tips for these difficult circumstances that we are experiencing. Possibly these would not be simple methodological orientations to continue with adequate online schooling…
José P. Burgués