He had to watch a woman die in childbirth because the hospitals wouldn't take her.
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I remember when I was a child, people would come up to me and ask, “So, little boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I never said,” I don’t know.” That would have been embarrassing. So I would say things like “the Lone Ranger,” or “a fireman,” or maybe a “garbage man.” (I loved watching garbage trucks). Truthfully, I had no idea what I wanted to be.
And so it is for many young children, including a little boy who would grow up to be a saint, Joseph Benedict Cottolengo. He, too, had no idea which direction his life would take. But when he finally knew what to do, he left behind a legacy that continues to grow and inspire and save lives.
Joseph was born on May 3, 1786, in the northwest section of Italy, 30 miles southeast of Turin. Joseph was the oldest of 12 children, born to Giuseppe Antonio Cottolengo and Benedetta Chiarotti. Sadly, six of the children died in infancy. Joseph’s family was middle class, and they lived a frugal but comfortable existence.
He always demonstrated an inborn kindness
Even as a child, Joseph exhibited a natural, inborn kindness. He was gentle and kind to animals, brought injured birds home, and always tried to help his mom around the house. It seemed to make sense that he would apply to the Franciscans to become a lay member. On October 2, 1802, he was accepted as a Franciscan tertiary at just 16 years old.
In 1805 Joseph entered the seminary at Asti. The seminary closed down two years later but undeterred, Joseph continued his studies at home. He was ordained to the holy priesthood on June 8, 1811, now 25 years old. He knew in his heart he wanted to be a priest, and he knew he wanted to serve others. However, he was not entirely sure how to proceed.
Discovers the story of St. Vincent de Paul
Joseph was assigned as a curate to a community in the town of Cornelliano D’Alba. He remained there for several years and completed his studies in theology, earning his doctorate in 1818. He was then assigned to the Basilica of Corpus Domini in Turin. He would serve there for some years as a parish priest, donating any stipends or gifts he received to the poor. Then he came upon the book that told the story of St. Vincent de Paul. After reading the story of St. Vincent, he knew his main focus had to be on the poor and those in need. Joseph never looked back.
Turin was still recovering from the French occupation. Unchecked immigration had flooded the area with illiteracy, pauperism, illegitimate births, unknown diseases, and poverty. The city was a terrible place to be. It was there that Father Cottolengo was asked to help a family traveling from Lyons to Milan. The woman was pregnant and very ill. She also had several children.
No one would help her, and she died giving birth
The local hospital refused to help her because she had tuberculosis. The maternity hospital turned her away because she had a high fever. The rules were that no one could be admitted who might be infectious. The woman died giving birth. Father Cottolengo anointed her and baptized the infant, who also died. The other children stood there, crying, watching the horrific scene play out before their eyes.
Father Cottolengo was sickened by the woman’s plight and her crying children. He was shocked that no hospital or facility anywhere could help people like this. He sold everything he had, including his coat, and rented two rooms. On January 17, 1828, he offered free accommodations to a poor, elderly paralytic. Father Cottolengo’s fledgling ministry began to take root.
Pope Francis spoke of this saint in late 2022, noting how the “restlessness” that he (and other saints) have felt is a catalyst to their discernment of God’s will. This is what he said:
[A] “perfect serenity” cannot be reached by [a] path of indifference. This sterile distance: “I don’t get involved in things, I keep my distance.” This is not life. It is as if we lived in a laboratory, shut away, so as not to get germs and diseases. For many saints, restlessness was a decisive catalyst to turn their lives around. [An] artificial serenity is no good, whereas a healthy restlessness is good, the restless heart, the heart that seeks to seek its way. This is the case, for example, of Augustine of Hippo, Edith Stein, Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, and Charles de Foucauld. Important choices come at a price that life presents, a price that is within everyone’s reach. That is, important choices do not come from the lottery, no. They have a price and you have to pay that price. It is a price that you must pay with your heart. It is the price of the decision, the price of making some effort. It is not free of charge, but it is a price within everyone’s reach. We must all pay for this decision so as to leave behind the state of indifference that always brings us down.
The birth of the Little House of Divine Providence
The two rooms soon expanded into a small hospital. A doctor volunteered his time, followed by a pharmacist who would help acquire medications. A wealthy widow, Marianna Nasi, organized 12 women from the “Ladies of Charity,” who would visit the sick and do their best to keep things in order. The small hospital continued to expand and became known as Piccola Casa or Little House of Divine Providence.
Donations came in, and a house was purchased in Valdocca outside Turin. Two nuns took charge, and the first cancer patient was admitted there. The small hospital in Valdocco expanded into an orphanage.
Father Joseph’s zeal to help the poor kept him always on the go. He founded the Brothers and Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, who would work in the hospital(s), the Sisters of Thais, who provided refuge for penitent women, and the Priests of the Holy Trinity, who ministered to orphans, people with epilepsy, and those with mental illness or disability.
Attacked by Typhus
In 1842 Father Cottolengo came down with Typhus from working with the sick. He died on April 30, 1842. He left behind a healthcare network of more than 1,300 workers spread throughout the Kingdom of Savoy. He always saw the face of Jesus in the poor and never treated them without the utmost dignity and respect. He was often heard saying,
“The poor are Jesus, and we must always serve them. If you thought and understood well what character the poor represent, you would continually serve them on your knees.”
Father Joseph Benedetto Cottolengo was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1917 and canonized a saint by him in 1934. He is a patron of those with infectious diseases.
St. Joseph, pray for us!