| Company of pilgrims from San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore in procession in front of the Shrine of the Holy Face of Manoppello at the end of the 1940's. |
Photo courtesy of the Associazione San Rocco di San Valentino paese della Vall Pescara
Stories of war amidst memory and devotion to the Holy Face, seventy years after Liberation
by Antonio Bini
A great mobilization anticipated the Liberation, an authentic explosion of masses of people and communities in movement on foot who felt the need to offer their gratitude to the Holy Face with processions and pious pilgrimages to the Shrine, from all over, beginning in the early days of April 1945, well before April 25, the date that marks the end of the German occupation in Italy, the fascist regime and thus the conclusion of World War II. An information sheet sent to emigrants in January 1947 by "The Organizing Committee for the Solemn Celebrations in Honor of the Holy Face of Jesus" recalled the "indescribable gifts of gratitude to the Holy Face ... even from the most distant areas of Abruzzo in 1945 and 1946" that justified the collection of funds for a new monstrance in gold and silver, a kind of collective votive offering, a spontaneous sign of gratitude and constant devotion to the sacred veil and at the same time of the resumption of the life of the community engaged in the problematic work of reconstruction and the difficult relaunching of the economy.
From the appeal itself, which does not contain expressions of resentment, there emerges the picture of death, destruction and suffering endured by the people of Manoppello from October 1943 to June 1944, as did many other localities which became refuge and hostage for German troops concentrated on the Gustav Line, the front that split lengthwise Abruzzo and thus Italy, from Ortona to Cassino, with German troops to the north and the Allied forces to the south,
|from the Canadian newspaper "The Gazette" January 19, 1944 showing the Gustav Line|
The leaflet recalls how the Germans requisitioned lodgings and food, driving out families from their homes, assaulting farmhouses and looting cattle, at times while Allied bombers cut across the sky. In this context, the Shrine remained "the only dispenser of comfort and courage."
In the "Handbook for the Faithful of the Holy Face of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Manoppello", published at the time of the celebrations in 1956, the Capuchins described in the brief introduction devoted to historical notes how the new reliquary surmounted by a golden crown was offered by the people to the Holy Face of Manoppello "in thanks for divine assistance experienced on many occasions during the long months of the war." But it had been the Capuchins themselves who were in danger as the Handbook makes a passing mention to "difficulties of every kind" suffered by the religious in that period.
From the documents examined, it shows that for at least seven months a part of the monastery, probably the one where the seraphic college had formerly been located, was continuously occupied by forces of the Wehrmacht.
Evidently it was the location of the Sanctuary, situated on a hill, then almost completely isolated and with very few rural homes nearby, overlooking the village and the surrounding area to justify the choice, which was certainly not held back by the sacredness of place. From other documentation, ascribable to Padre Fedele da Vasto who became superior of the Shrine in the immediate post-war period, it can be seen how the German occupiers destroyed the compass (the wooden structure at the front doors of the church which serves to separate the interior of the church from the outside), the twenty pews of the Church, as well as the four confessionals and other furnishings. The church, which was greatly expanded only in the nineteen sixties, was then about 15 meters shorter than it is currently and the number of pews suggests that they were distributed in two rows of ten.
Mr. Silvio Menichilli, witness of those dramatic days, remembers that this was a hard winter with frequent snowfalls. "There was more than a meter of snow," he says, considering it possible that the furnishings were used for heating.
An action easily avoidable considering the proximity of rich woodlands. "The Banality of Evil" comes to mind, recalling the title of the famous essay by Hanna Arendt on the Eichmann trial. Mr. Antonio Napoleone also has not forgotten that time. He has always lived about a kilometer away from the Shrine in the direction of the mountain. In later years he was the watchman of the powder magazine at the nearby asphalt mine of Foce Valle Romana which had been closed during the war. In the winter of 1944 he was almost 18 years old and recalls, among other things, that he had seen military vehicles inside the church, practically reduced to a garage once freed of the front door and furniture. (It should be noted that up to the mid-sixties, the church was located at street level). The Shrine thus became a military target and as such was exposed to Allied bombing.
In Manoppello the story is told of an American pilot who returned in the nineteen sixties still interested in knowing exactly what was the target that he could not hit due to the presence of a cloud "stopped" as if embracing the Shrine.
Despite everything, the religious activity, though made very difficult and greatly compromised, was never interrupted altogether. Mrs Gina, wife of Antonio Napoleone and very devoted to the Holy Face, was a girl at the time and lived almost opposite the church. Forced to leave her home, "displaced" nearby with her family, she remembers how for months it was impossible to go to pray at the shrine, in which the friars nevertheless continued to celebrate Mass, perhaps also without the presence of the faithful.
Unlike other similar cases the friars were not removed, remaining essentially prisoners in their own monastery. This circumstance suggests a work of resistance from the religious community eager to safeguard the Holy Face. The superior then was Padre Salvatore da Musellaro, appointed to guide the Shrine in November 1941. At that time the Holy Face was still kept in the chapel on the right side of the church, although it is possible that the sacred image was placed in safety elsewhere, though still in the territory of the monastery. One can not help but remember how also in the same period the Shroud of Turin was hidden in the shrine of Montevergine, in Irpinia, to remove it from the danger of theft or destruction.
Compared to the looting and bleak devastation of the sacred site, the inspection of the files in the archives of the monastery restores a small glimmer of humanity and faith when paging through the monastery's register which records income I note on the date of April 30, 1944 the entry of a gift of 100 lire, with the notation "from a German for a blessing". It was from a soldier who was one of the occupiers, tearing himself away from the ideological madness of the Nazi regime, especially concerned about the fate of the war and for his own future.
|from the records of the Shrine dated April 30, 1944 showing donation on the second line above|
"da un tedesco per benedizione" (from a German for a blessing) 100 lire
inscribed in the book by the superior of the Shrine, Padre Salvatore da Musellaro
At the time of liberation the church and the monastery exhibited damage also to the walls. The Capuchins engaged immediately in certain urgent jobs and the replacement of windows, to recover the essential functions of the church and the monastery and to begin again to welcome the many faithful who finally could again arrive at the Shrine. Mr. Menichilli still keeps alive the memory of Padre Fedele da Vasto, who after the war was actively engaged in restoring functionality and decoration of the church and the monastery. He recalls how Padre Fedele would go on foot from Manoppello to Pescara or Chieti to ask for aid.
At the end of the article below we report the dates for companies of pilgrims in procession to the Holy Face. It can be seen that some communities repeated the pilgrimage several times. The list does not include companies not registered in as much as they did not make a monetary donation. Also not included are groups, entire families and the many individuals who came to the Shrine, all with their own stories. A portion of their testimony is found in the many votive offerings related to World War II present in the "treasure room".
Thus there deserves to be remembered the story of a woman from Abbateggio, Chiara Di Pierdomenico, linked to the return of her son, a prisoner of the concentration camp of Dachau. The son himself, Ermando Parete, born in 1922, recalls with emotion how, after the liberation of the camp which took place April 29, 1945, after having barely escaped execution, he decided with a few other surviving prisoners to walk back to Italy since there were no other alternatives. With an extraordinary willpower, while the other comrades decided little by little to stop due to exhaustion, Ermando went on through hardships such as destroyed bridges and feeding himself however he could, finally reaching his village which welcomed him with the sound of bells as at festival time. It was the middle of June 1945. After a few days, just enough time to recover, his mother asked him to accompany her to Manoppello, to fulfill the vow she had made, walking barefoot along paths and fields, crossing the river Lavino to reach the Shrine of the Holy Face. Heedless the son's plea that his mother should put on shoes or cover her head with a scarf. The day was warm and sunny her son still remembers. Nothing to do: the vow -- if the son were returned alive from the concentration camp-- had been made in those terms by the mother and she was happy to be able to fulfill it. They were the same paths that Ermando had traveled as a child along with the community procession from Abbateggio, with the pastor and the banner at the head.
|Mr. Ermando Parete|
Parete (prisoner no. 142192) has always kept alive the memories of those dramatic days. His eyes seem to look far away. After so many years he still can not forget and give a plausible explanation of so much gratuitous violence against persons who could not even stand up. "They had lost their minds, they had lost their minds," he continues to repeat to himself even before he says it to me as I listen carefully, thanking him for his intense witness.
It was still then that Abruzzo which was described by Silone as "shaped by Christianity." The writer claimed that the region, "one of the most religious of Italy", was, through the ages, mainly a creation of Saints and workers -- "after having understood the mountains which are its body, to understand the whole moral structure of Abruzzo one must therefore know its saints and its poor "(1948).
Not surprisingly, even extraordinary events regarding the presence of the Holy Face in Manoppello, occurring in not very distant times, have remained shrouded in silence, unknown even before being forgotten. However, the same events of World War II in Abruzzo, until now considered marginal, only in recent years have been the subject of studies and historical analysis which allow us to assert their relevance in the context of Italian history.
At a distance of seventy years this brief reconstruction of those dramatic days seems a necessary contribution of knowledge and reflection. We like to think that, in addition to the American pilot, the German soldier blessed by the Capuchins also returned one day as a pilgrim to the Shrine.
List of Pilgrimages Spring 1945
April 3: Chieti (Madonna delle Grazie);
April 8: Chieti (S. Maria Calvona);
April 15: Casalincontrada; Lettomanoppello;
April 23: Ripacorbaria, Casalincontrada;
April 29: Abbateggio, Alanno, Santa Maria Imbaro, Bolognano, San Valentino, Alanno Stazione;
May 3: Scafa;
May 8 Chieti (Santa Filomena), Cepagatti, Lettomanoppello, Serramonacesca,Cepagatti;
May 10: Scafa (Sant’Antonio del Lavino), Ripacorbaria, Madonna delle Piane, Fara Filiorum Petri,
May 13: Pretoro, Francavilla (San Pasquale),
May 22 - Roccamontepiano, Alanno paese,
May 25 - Alanno stazione; Feste di maggio: Crecchio, Lanciano (Contrada Santa Giusta), Filetto, Loreto Aprutino, Caramanico, Giuliano Teatino, Poggio Fiorito, Semivicoli, Lanciano (Sant’Amato + Madonna del Carmine), Pescara (viale Ronchi), Casacanditella, Cugnoli, Pescosansonesco, Vacri, Badia di Frisa, Lanciano (Santa Maria dei Mesi), Francavilla al mare, Chieti (San Salvatore), Carpineto della Nora, Caprara, Pescara (San Donato), Cepagatti, Villa Oliveti Rosciano, Chieti (San Martino), Chieti (Buonconsiglio), Chieti Scalo, Villa San Giovanni, Villanova, Alanno; Lanciano (S. Liberata), Frisa, Alanno stazione, Lanciano, Torrevecchia Teatina, Ripacorbaria, Manoppello stazione, Bucchianico.