Saturday, May 26, 2007
Assisi Pilgrimage: Don Aldo
One of the most memorable experiences of our pilgrimage last year had nothing to do with Francis or Franciscans! We spent an evening with Don Aldo Brunacci. He was the last Cannon of Assisi and he ran Casa Papa Giovanni. I knew he was one of the three heroes of Assisi who helped save the city during World War II.
This evening the pilgrims and 50 students from St. Bonaventure University who were studying in nearby Perugia got to hear him speak of his experiences. We all gathered in the chapel. This was an appropriate place for all of us to hear his story. Casa Papa Giovanni had many functions, it was not always a religious boarding house for Franciscans. It had been a family palace. It had served as a school and in fact Don Aldo attended the school when he was young. During World War II it was converted into a hospital. There were many such hospitals. The goal was to have the allies recognize Assisi as a hospital city so it would not be destroyed. Finally, Don Aldo had celebrated Mass at my favorite little church, Santos Stefano, it was about three blocks away. When he returned he was arrested right outside of this building, feet way from the chapel. He was arrested by the fascist for aiding Jews. Luckily the German occupation was over before any harm came to Don Aldo. This was indeed an appropriate place to hear him talk.
We heard many things that night. We heard how he and the bishop hid Jewish artifacts in the bishop’s basement. How together they made a false wall to hide Torahs, pointers and prayer books. How he taught Hebrew to Jewish children and eventually saved 250 Jews. He provided secret Jewish funerals and overtly Christian funerals. The descendants of the Jewish refugees of Assisi continued to visit him and visit the graves of their ancestors. Not one Jew was turned over to the Nazis and no attempt was made to convert them.
Don Aldo was part of an active underground that made false documents. He is clear that the plan to save the Jews came directly from the Pope.
For this life of continual bravery he has received numerous awards. The State of Israel awarded Father Brunacci the Medal of the Righteous Gentile for his efforts. The Yad Vashem Museum and Research Center in Israel and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington also have recognized him. He was part of an archival film project headed by Steven Spielberg that focuses on Holocaust victims and the Righteous Gentiles who aided them, and he was an advisor to the 1985 film, “Assisi Underground,” which starred Ben Cross, Maximilian Schell and James Mason.
St Bonaventure University in New York presented him in February of 2004 with the university’s National Gaudete Medal, which honors leaders who exemplify the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and who inspire others.
Father Brunacci remarked after the war: "In all, about 200 Jews were entrusted to us by Divine Providence; with God’s help, and through the intercession of St. Francis, not one of them fell into the hands of their persecutors."
Afterwards we all had a wonderful dinner together. However, for me, just spending time with Don Aldo, hearing his humility, his belief he was only doing what anyone else would have done, just being with him was a high mark of my life. Don Aldo died Feb. 01, 2007.
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I was looking for news of Don Aldo...I was blest to spend a week at Casa Papa Giovanni two years ago, during a post-university trip to Italy. I am saddened to hear of his death, but glad for him: he has claimed his eternal reward. Reading what you have written brings back memories of my own pilgrimage in Assisi two years ago...it's a place that will always be close and dear to my heart. I hope to live Don Aldo's example of courage and humility throughout my life.
I know what you mean, that city and the people who lived there will always be with me. It is true, the saints "weren't', rather, the saints "are" and now Don Aldo is one of them.
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