Don Bosco of Turin, Italy, was well known for his work in educating poor boys. Less well known is Blessed Ludovic Pavoni, an Italian priest of the preceding generation. He showed much the same holy initiative as St. John Bosco in Brescia, a Lombard city of 40,000 population.
Ludovic was born into a Brescian family of property and distinction. His sister Paulina later said of him, “Ludovic was always a good religious youngster, while I was always the scamp.” At an early age we find him giving his shirt to a poor man and teaching catechism to his rural playmates. He had artistic talents that might have led him into painting or architecture had he chosen that route. Instead, he felt a call to the diocesan priesthood, to which he was ordained in 1807.
During his early years as a priest, Ludovic showed a special interest in working with boys, both as instructor and recreational director. At 34 he was named pastor of St. Barnabas Church in Brescia. His living quarters were in one small corner of a former Augustinian monastery. (The rest of the building was used by the army for storage.) He soon began to hope that he might secure possession of the whole monastery building and turn it into a home and school for destitute youngsters.
For the time being, however, only a small part of the building was available to him. (He called it “the rat hole.”) With the permission of his bishop he initiated his “institute” in these restricted quarters, opening a small trade school in which printing was taught.
The printing school got off to a good start. It took years, however, for him to get a government license for his press, and to obtain control of the whole building. The main reason for delay was that Austria-Hungary then governed Lombardy, and there was a long tradition in the Austrian Empire of bureaucratic meddling in any church-related affairs. Only in 1841 did the city council of Brescia finally hand over the entire monastery. Then Ludovic was able to set up in it a grammar school, a school of design, and a school of music. As his ability became better appreciated, he was given charge of a local school for boys with hearing problems. The city even asked him to manage the crowded Brescia orphanage — the cholera epidemic of 1836 had broken up many families.
Although Canon Pavoni was by nature hot-tempered and impulsive, he achieved great self-control. This helped him to channel his great energy into so many undertakings. As an educator, he was both keen and well-balanced. His aim was to make his boys good by making them well-rounded. He could be strict when necessary, but in general his approach to them was gentle and loving. If the public spiritual reading he chose for them was sometimes on the heavy side, he did not forget that they were still youngsters. To see that they were well-fed, he personally supervised the kitchen, and even allowed them a “discreet measure of wine.” He also insisted on punctuality and good manners. One of the recreations he encouraged was play-acting. He found it invited them to be creative.
By 1844 Blessed Ludovic saw the need of establishing a religious order to carry on his work after he was gone. Consequently, he founded the Congregation of Mary Immaculate. He made his own religious profession in this congregation in 1847, and assumed the role of superior general. Even now, the Austrian government’s meddling delayed the launching of the new religious order. Kaiser Ferdinand I, the Austrian Emperor, did value his work enough to confer on him the knighthood of the Iron Crown. But Ludovic told his associates he would have been much happier if the Kaiser had sent him a sack of flour to feed his boys.
In March 1849 political tensions came to the breaking point. Lombardy revolted against Austrian control, and Brescia became a theater of war. Pavoni fled with his young students to a rural refuge. He had to look back on the burning city and see his whole institute aflame. The shock was too much. He died on April 1, 1849, aged 69.
Deeply mourned by his boys and by all who had known him, Ludovic Pavoni was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1947. He had made an important contribution to modern Catholic methods of educating needy youth.
–Father Robert F. McNamara