An abridged version of the key note address given at the Conference "Don Orione and the Nineteenth Century", held at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome, 1 - 3 March 2002.
1. In the course of his life, Don Luigi Orione corresponded and had important dealings with some of the women involved in the twentieth century culture of emancipation and also with women not so famous, but who were nevertheless significant because of the spiritual exchange which occurred and the co-operation which ensued in the setting up of charitable works. My speech intends to acknowledge, as if making almost a census, above all of the women on the catholic side and those not openly catholic, but still involved in religious issues.
To this end, I think it is useful, first of all, to outline the historical context, which, even sketchily, allows us to connect names, relations and actions to the historical events of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. Intentionally, I excluded from this research the whole and important chapter of the relations of Don Orione with religious sisters in general, and in particular, with the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, the congregation he founded, because they are already the subject of detailed study.
2. One can envision a first period concerning the work done by Don Orione in the aftermath of the Sicilian- Calabrian earthquake of December 1908, when he went to Messina in order to offer his services to help the survivors. In an atmosphere of serious emergency there were operating philanthropic organisations, first of all the Patronato Queen Helena: its philosophy and political perspective were rooted on secular outlook and thus at odds with the charitable action marked by a catholic vision.
As the study of some documents, letters and memoirs has highlighted, there came into existence an almost unexpected possibility of co-operation, in a deep respect for the diversity of ways of intending and living the Christian faith, with the president of the Patronato, Gabriella Spalletti Rasponi. Through the encounter between Don Orione and the countess, favoured by the trust they enjoyed, respectively from Pope Pius X and Queen Helena, it became possible to put into action plans of assistance to the stricken populations, above all among the weakest sector, the children who had been orphaned. The joint action was renewed in 1915, after the earthquake of Avezzano; it was nourished by faith in the primacy of "charity" on the part of Don Orione, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the conviction of the primacy of "moral good" on the part of Spalletti Rasponi, who had participated at Rome, in the last years of the nineteenth century, in inter-confessional cenacles of the Italian Union for the Good.
In the reconstruction of this period, there appear also the initiatives of some young women, belonging to the aristocratic classes and to the bourgeoisie, who did all they could for the earthquake victims, thus accomplishing their initiation in social action. Many names begin to be known in the history of women of the first years of the twentieth century. The documents in the Don Orione Archives allow us to widen the existing historical picture and to underline other names and people, for example those of the two sisters, Gina and Bice Tincani. They were members of the Union of Italian Catholic Women and responsible for the catechetical formation of the orphans. Bound by love and Christian solidarity to another sister, already a Dominican nun in the convent of Vigevano, they followed her example by embracing religious life in the succeeding years.
3. The second period of fundamental interest concerns the years of the First World War, when, at a time of a different and more widespread emergency, the charitable initiatives of Don Orione were directed towards those whom a conflict always renders poorer, first all the children, in particular orphans, and women. As is well known from the history of any war, women are foreordained, in generally unsettled situations, to take charge of everyday life, guaranteeing a minimum of normality.
In other ways, the war struggle and the crisis, especially after the debacle of Caporettto, affected even the elite of our country, up to the top tiers of the military echelon. In this sense, the correspondence between Countess Carla Cadorna, daughter to General Luigi Cadorna, and Don Orione, is revealing.
The exchange of letters takes the veil off some of the issues concerning the much debated role of the father in the conduct of the war, and it touches upon the ups and downs of the mental and existential crisis afflicting, Barnabite Father Giovanni Semeria, chaplain of the Supreme Command, in 1916.
During the war, moreover, there was a certain continuity of mutual requests for help, mediations and co-operation between Don Orione and countess Cadorna, who was working in the Roman Women Workshops for the civilian assistance.
4. We should also pay specific attention to the documents of the troubled after war period, among which there are a writing on catholic feminism and the well known "Proclamation to the rice field workers", published in the periodical "La Val Staffora" of the 18th May 1919, in which Don Orione shows, together with his strong sense of belonging to the Catholic Church, also a courageous approach to the typical demands of social Catholicism and the work of women employees.
5. Much more complex and requiring greater circumspection is the research concerning the relations and actions during the twenty year period of the fascist rule in our Country; in fact, for what concerns the history of women in general and feminine culture, the studies done so far are less consistent than those pertaining to the Giolitti period. Moreover, we should recall that during this time Don Orione was twice away from Italy. In fact he was in South America from 1921-22 and 1934-37.
Looking at these years, moreover, we come across the development of the lives of some women belonging to a generation which, very young towards the end of the nineteenth century, covers, in many cases, the whole first half of the Twentieth. Among them we can remember the names of Adele Costa-Gnocchi, Adelaide Coari, Maria di Campello, Teresita Friedmann-Coduri, and last but not least, Ada Negri.
6. The life of the teacher and child education expert Adele Costa Gnocchi, who adapted the Montessori principle to the religious formation of children, opens up more than one research avenue. Don Orione and Costa-Gnocchi found themselves together in the concrete action of the social reintegration of many young boys in crisis: in this field the child expert was active in the work of liasing with some women of the Italian aristocracy who practised philanthropy. In these decades, which saw also instances of the spiritual and cultural wounds due to the dramatic legacy of the modernist crisis of the first years of the century, Costa-Gnocchi tried also to re-establish the bonds of affection and faith which had broken down between Ernesto Bonaiuti and the Church of Rome, sustained in this action by a priest from Umbria, Father Brizio Casciola, and by don Orione.
7. But the more interesting and better documented case is probably that of Adelaide Coari, teacher and child psychologist, who felt and always declared herself fully catholic and wholly in favour of "emancipation". The first meeting with Don Orione occurred in 1911, a time of spiritual crisis for the Milanese teacher; friendship and respect increased through the work of giving assistance to the soldiers and to the public during the Great War. Central to the life of Coari, besides the time of "Pensiero e Azione (Thought and Action)" and of her participation in the Women's Christian Democratic Fascio of the beginning of the century, was her work in the "Cenacle of Lentate" (from 1925) and in the "Action Group for Peoples's Schools" (from 1926). These were closed down all of a sudden by order of the fascist party in 1934. The study of the question points to the relationship between catholic groups and associations on the one hand and the Mussolini regime on the other, after the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
Coari gave evidence at process of beatification of Don Orione: these documents, together with many others of autobiographical nature (letters, journals, memoirs), only partially edited, tell us of the different occasions of meetings and exchanges with Don Orione, leading up to the birth of real plans for working together. Coari was often entrusted the careful management of some works of Don Orione. Both continued, at that time, to be occupied in social action sustained by an open manifestation of the faith, and arrived, at the end, to a kind of accommodation with fascism, probably only in order to be able to continue in their work, but with a deep seated mistrust, a never dimmed critical attitude regarding its pretensions to build a centralised and totalitarian future.
8. There is a whole chapter concerning the many other women, both benefactresses and (those who benefited) on the receiving end of help. Their stories reveal the existence of a highly charged flow of empathy, trust, generosity, search for the authentic meaning of "charity", which ran in both directions. Among the many names of benefactresses which the archive records chronicle, we recall here, for instance, that of Angela Solari, a widow, formerly Mrs Queirolo, "the greatest benefactress of the Cottolengo of Genoa", with whom Don Orione corresponded even when he was in South America. There stands out instead, in the case of Maria Gambaro, belonging to a noble family of benefactors, again from Genoa, the attention of Don Orione to personal aspects, already highlighted by his biographers, who speak of him as mindful and generous in this regard. Loneliness, depression, personal and family difficulties in the course of a woman's life who find it hard to locate the road of a sure vocation, are welcomed by Don Orione, who does not deny or undervalue them, but proposes to transfigure them in a vision of faith.
9. Many of the individual women so far mentioned belong to that vast framework of involvement, of generous dedication to social work, above all towards care and children, which was a characteristic of the Italian woman's culture from the beginning of the Giolitti era. Both, in the openly secular elements as well as in those of "Christian feminism", they showed themselves committed to searching for a clarification of the rights and duties which would have made up the "new woman".
I think therefore that Don Orione can be well at home in these intentions of social action, directed to the needs of the most poor and deprived. But he also manifested another, strong spiritual need, which is always there, even in the times of greater social work, in some particular individuals: in fact, as it is well known, he pointed to the possibility that some among those (men and women) who walked alongside him, would embrace a "mystical" way of life, or even heremitical.
10. Maybe, in this context, one can situate the prudent but generous help which he accepted to give to the enterprise of "Maria Minor", born Valeria Pignetti, foundress in 1926 of the controversial Hermitage of Campello in Umbria, friend and great admirer of Ernesto Bonaiuti. The history of this complex relationship was made clearer by the recent publication of the correspondence. It is interesting to note, how, notwithstanding some deeply spiritual similarities, the mediation and support that Don Orione offered, often requested by Maria, for the peaceful continuation of the experience of the hermitage of Campello, did not wipe out in the two interlocutors the awareness of the differences, of the gaps, but also how both of them were convinced that the root capable of saving every human relationship can be found at the end, only, as both loved to repeat, "in Domino".
11. We could broaden our outlook to the attention that Don Orione had for those "far away" and, we could affirm, the "far away women", away from the active life of the Church, as for instance, the poetess Ada Negri: some letter of hers and the notes taken by Coari testify to it. Documents that, moreover, from the point of view of reconstructing the history of women, contribute to prove the existence of a thick network of relationships which united many of the emancipation activists of the early twentieth century, continued in different contexts and with other backgrounds, in the decades that followed, during which some lived in and practised the catholic faith, others pursued the religious search in more individual ways. Emblematic, in this sense, are the names of Teresita Friedmann-Coduri, a member, at the beginning of the century, of the Union for the good and contributor to the Milanese review "In Cammino (On the way)", or of Angiolina Dotti, one of the founders of the above mentioned review "Pensiero e Azione", who appears oriented, in her old age, towards Protestantism.
12. Here we have spoken about women, belonging to various social classes, with whom Don Orione had the most deep and significant dealings. A chapter apart would be, as I briefly like to mention, the theme of the presence of his mother, Carolina Feltri, in his infancy and in his life in general. I simply would like not to overlook, and in fact the lives written of him have highlighted, that he grew up in a poor family and that, not by chance, in his most numerous initiatives, the mother was exemplar in the use of scarce resources to obtain the maximum benefit for others, starting from the most needy. He was able, in other words, to realise in this way that "caring work" which contemporary sociology considers one of the best feminine qualities and which, effectively, can only be transmitted through the "mother".