The Franciscan fraternity in La Spezia, Italy

“The true miracle is being close to “the people who suffer”

01 February 2024

La Spezia is an Italian city located between Pisa and Genoa, four hundred and twenty kilometers from Rome. It was built in the narrow valley that connects the mountains with the Ligurian Sea, belonging to the Mediterranean.

According to Br. Almiro Modonesi, OFM, responsible for the Franciscan project, before the Second World War, the current Sanctuary was named after Saint Francis of Assisi. The city was bombed at the beginning of 1941; the only thing left standing from said sanctuary was the carved wooden image of Saint Anthony. For that reason, from the reconstruction, the sanctuary was renamed St. Anthony of Padua. There is a fraternity of Franciscan friars present at the Sanctuary.

In this Sanctuary and in this city, Saint Anthony continues to work miracles of love. The Franciscan presence administers the Sacrament to the faithful and also provides care services for the homeless people, migrants, refugees and the poor. Almiro says that shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, the facilities as in the kitchen and dining room were renovated. Every day lunch is offered to an average of forty to sixty people, most of them are migrants and refugees from Africa and Latin America. The menu could very well resemble that of any local restaurant.

The beneficiaries value and appreciate the food, but above all the fraternal treatment and the daily presence of the friars. In addition, the structure has bathrooms and showers for the diners. The project provides them with clothing for each season of the year, basic medications, minor medical treatments, etc. Br. Emanuele Alberio, OFM, receives them every day with a smile full of serenity and peace. Likewise, about twenty-five families benefit each month with a basic food products.

Next to the dining room, there is another cozy space called “The Listening Centre.” This Project began in April 2017. In this project those who wish can share their life stories and difficulties with professional volunteers who establish a deeper relationship with them from listening and helping.

All this is possible thanks to an association responsible for managing funds with local businesses, families and individuals. The feast of St. Anthony is a timely moment for the collection of aid, also Christmas is a good time to raise funds.

Br. Gianluigi Ameglio, OFM, guardian of the fraternity, assures me that little by little they have come to realise how valuable financial aid is for both the giver and the recipient who receives it, and that “the true miracle is being close to the people who suffer.” This is how volunteering of the city’s lay people was born.

For example, the lunch service is made up of around 65 volunteers distributed into six teams, one for each day. They prepare the food and the tables, they serve the food and leave the place clean. That takes them around five hours a day. Other groups are responsible for sorting and classifying clothing donations. When I asked one of the volunteers what he receives from volunteering, he responded “what I receive as a volunteer  gives meaning to my life.” The experience of these years makes Br. Gianluigi witness that when a person serves his neighbor, he encounters Christ and this generates a change of life.

Br. Piero Di Luca is chaplain of the La Spezia prison, whose inmates are, for the most part made up of other nationalities. There is also a small garden at the friary which is cultivated diligently by Br. Piero and Br. Ennio Bellocchi, who at eighty-three years old continues to accompany many faithful with the Sacraments.

Br. Gianluigi is Parish Priest of the special “Star of the Sea” parish which is located in the port of La Spezia. In addition to this, he serves as Director of the Immigration Office of the Diocese. This allows him to accompany pastorally the city’s migrant population. The largest and best group is organized is from the Dominican Republic, which every January Celebrates with great emotion its patron saint, Our Lady of Altagracia. In short, it is fair to say that a good part of the force of this Franciscan fraternity is directed towards the care of migrants and refugees present in La Spezia.

“Here we make each person feel loved,” says Br. Gianluigi. Who is that person? He may be the one who is homeless, a migrant, a volunteer, a friar, a cook, one form the choir, etc. It is a virtuous circle that makes possible the miracle of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating. These are the four verbs promulgated by Pope Francis.

Br. Daniel Rodríguez Blanco, OFM


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