St. Joseph Cottolengo

(1786-1842)

One day in 1827 Father Joseph Cottolengo was called upon to give the last sacraments to a young Frenchwoman who had taken ill in the city of Turin, Italy, while en route back to France with her family. Amazed at the fact that this foreign woman was dying uncared for in a slum – the only place in which she could find lodging – Cottolengo learned that there was no institution in the whole city where emergency medical care could be obtained.

Father Joseph was a great devotee of the needy of any sort. Whenever he saw that aid was necessary, he dropped everything else until provision had been made. In the 1827 case, he at once rented five rooms in a house to serve as an emergency hospital. A good local woman supplied some beds, a doctor and a pharmacist offered their services, and soon he had five patients under care. What proved the need of such an institution was the way that the hospital grew. As more rooms were added, Father Cottolengo gathered and organized a permanent nursing staff of men and women. He called the men the Brothers of St. Vincent. The women he formed into a nursing order of nuns, the Vincentian Sisters.

This “Volta Rossa” hospital suffered a brief setback in 1831. A cholera epidemic broke out, and the city authorities, fearing that the hospital would become a breeding ground for the disease, shut it down. Canon Cottolengo kept his cool, and simply planned to move the hospital to other quarters. Meanwhile, his nurses took care of the cholera victims in their own homes.

The place to which the hospital was moved in 1832 was Valdocco, suburban to Turin. Not only did the transplanted emergency hospital thrive in its new locale; there soon sprang up alongside it a number of auxiliary institutions called into being by additional human needs. There was a nursing school, a building for epileptics, and others for deaf-mutes, the blind, orphans, homeless kids, prostitutes, the aged, and the mentally retarded (“My good boys and girls”, he affectionately termed his retarded children.) In the end, he had a vast complex of charitable homes.

The most remarkable part of this “Little House of Divine Providence” is that the founder actually did leave the management completely in God’s hands. He kept no books, no accounts. What he got he forthwith spent, never investing it as a cautionary or prudential measure. He even refused to put his center under royal patronage as a security, and would allow no endowments. Whenever a need arose, therefore, he trusted that the God who had allowed it to arise would provide funds to deal with it.

Some would think it a folly to start and maintain institutions without knowing where the funds were coming from. But St. Joseph Cottolengo did know where they were coming from. If he had no source of money, he had a battery of people praying for it – various organizations and religious orders that he had founded especially to storm heaven for aid. His center was not called the Little House of Divine Providence in vain. He really did challenge God to provide for the good works. And God never failed him.

Most of this saint’s institutions continue to flourish today. That says something, doesn’t it, about the wisdom of trusting in a heavenly Father? Remember, it was He who once said to His people through Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget I will never forget you!” (49:15).

St. Joseph Cottolengo, pray that we may always trust bravely in God’s assistance!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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