Salvator Lilli was born in Cappadocia on June 19, 1853. Not the country of Cappadocia in Asia Minor (although he was to be martyred in Asia Minor), but the Italian Village of that name in the Italian Abruzzi. His parents, Vincenzo and Annunziata must have been decent Christians, for their son, when only 17, joined the Friars Minor. Little seems to be known, however about his family or his youth. Having finished novitiate with the Franciscans, he took his first vows in 1871.
The 1870’s were a trying period for the Church in Italy. The King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II, had united Italy under himself by robbing the papacy of the states that had served the popes as a guarantee of their political independence. While the unification of Italy, hitherto a patchwork of petty monarchies, was sensible, the way in which it was executed was often anti-Church. Thus, in 1873, the new Italian kingdom suppressed the religious orders.
Friar Salvator decided to leave Italy and go to the Mideast to finish his studies for the priesthood. He also hoped to become a missionary in that area. First he lived in the Franciscan house at Bethlehem, where he studied philosophy; then he went to Jerusalem, studied theology, and was ordained a priest on April 6, 1878. He remained in Jerusalem two years more, serving at the churches of St. Savior and at the Holy Sepulchre basilica itself. For centuries the Franciscans had been the principal representatives of the Latin Church in the Holy City, so Father Salvator was in good company.
In 1880 he received his first missionary assignment: To Marasc in the present Turkey. For the next fifteen years, the young friar devoted himself to a very active apostolate. Working among Armenians, he was soon able to win back to the practice of the faith many of those who had become careless in its practice. But Salvator also exercised a vigorous and enterprising social leadership among his disadvantaged flock. He established for them two villages, for example, and devised several schemes to provide them with employment. Drawing on money given to the Church, he purchased land for them to cultivate and the agricultural equipment necessary to farm it. In November 1891, cholera broke out in Marasc, and raged for almost six weeks. The missionary gave himself without stint to providing care for the victims, often doing the nursing himself. Luckily (or providentially) he escaped infection himself. Meanwhile he was working successfully to re-establish good relations between the Church and the prominent but offish citizens of Marasc.
In 1894, Salvator was appointed parish priest and superior of the Franciscan house at Mujukderesi, a place apparently not far from Marasc. Mujukderesi was at that time a center of violent political unrest that had been unleashed in 1890. In the course of the political, ethnic and religious turmoil, many Armenian Catholics had already been massacred. Friends of the Friar, in the face of mounting tensions, strongly recommended that he leave Turkey for safety’s sake. But Father Salvator would not hear of it. He was the shepherd, he said, and his place was with his new flock.
Perhaps the political turbulence itself is to blame for the incomplete record of what then happened in this remote missionary land. It is enough to know that on November 22, 1895, the pastor and several of his people, most of them ordinary peasants, were arrested and taken to Marasc. According to a reliable eyewitness account, the captives were ordered more than once to renounce their Christian faith and embrace Islam. The friar and the faithful firmly refused to apostatize. Finally they were all brutally stabbed to death with bayonets, and their bodies were burned.
Pope John Paul II beatified Salvator Lilli and his companions on October 3, 1982. The beatification was a reminder that the age of martyrs to the faith has by no means ended.
–Father Robert F. McNamara