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Alfonso Ugolini was born in Thionville, France, on August 28, 1908. At the time, his family was quite wealthy, but soon after his birth, his father lost everything. The family, suddenly living in poverty, managed to move to Sassuolo, located in northern Italy. Sassuolo was known for the beautiful ceramics that came from there and the region had manufacturing jobs in the ceramic industry. Afonso was 7 when they arrived in their new town.
Alfonso’s parents, Enrico and Maria Anna, were devout Catholics and instilled in their son the values of faithfulness, honesty, and love of neighbor. It was hard for them, as Maria Anna had tuberculosis and Enrico was only managing to get part-time work. Often, the jobs he had were a good distance from home, and he would be away for several weeks. These were the times when Alfonso, his mom, and sister would have days where they barely had any food to eat.
Alfonso’s faith was seriously tested when his mom died from her illness in 1920, when he was just ready to embark on the teenage years. And tuberculosis, an extremely contagious disease, was not finished. Within the next few years, the disease took his sister’s life and, finally, his father’s. Alfonso also came close to dying, but attributed his recovery to the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
When Alfonso’s mom died he felt a terrible loneliness and asked Our Lady to care for him. This loneliness increased after his sister’s death and was almost overwhelming when his dad passed away. But there was a part of him that never doubted the Blessed Mother would be there for him. He writes of fond memories from his days of living alone in poverty while surrounded by loneliness. There was always food for him and shelter and people who reached out to help.
This gave him the resolve to continue.
Infected with tuberculosis, he was told he had three to four months to live. To the surprise of his doctors, he survived. He said that Our Lady told him, “Do not cry, I am with you.”
His parish priest, Don Giuseppe Zanichelli, was well aware of Alfonso’s life. Father offered him work at the church. He started him off by giving him small repair jobs to do. From there he moved up to being a parish secretary, a catechist, and a sacristan.
Alfonso turned a small storage room near the church into a reception area for the poor and homeless. He began by giving food to the needy, as well as vouchers to get clothing, and even managed to help people find jobs. He never refused anyone, even if they came from situations looked down upon by others (such as immigrants and addicts). People in the area began to complain that he helped atheists and communists and thieves. He said calmly, “They are all God’s children.”
Thriving on serving
The church environment proved to be a perfect venue for Alfonso Ugolini. He thrived and loved helping others. Father Giuseppe introduced him to Father Dino Torreggiani, the founder of the “Servants of the Church,” a secular organization at the service of those in need. This seemed the spiritual home for Alfonso Ugolini, who became a member.
When a worldwide boom in ceramic art and décor took root, many people came to Sassuolo. Alfonso, a man who knew the pain of loneliness and the sting of poverty, was in the right place at the right time. He was available to help folks find jobs, a room to stay in, and a meal to eat. He knew what being hungry was like, and those who came to him would always be directed to someone who could be of assistance.
He then established the FAC, meaning Fraternal Christian Help. The group was set up to help the poor with money if needed. It is estimated that over a span of 15 years, more than $300,000 went through Alfonso’s hands to those in need. Books and registers are filled with thousands and thousands of names and addresses of those he could help. Some folks called him “God’s Banker.”
Alfonso attended Holy Mass daily, helped organize pilgrimages to Lourdes and Loreto for the sick, and displayed a love for God that was obvious to all. This love was combined with an unbridled devotion to Our Lady.
The local bishop asked him if he would consider becoming an ordained priest. He readily agreed. Alfonso Ugolini became Father Alfonso Ugolini at the age of 65. He died on October 25, 1999. He was 91.
Pope Francis declared Alfonso Ugolini a man of “heroic virtue” on November 23, 2020. He is now Venerable Alfonso Ugolini, and beatification will be his next step to sainthood.