The village of Tombolo, in the province of Padua and the diocese of Treviso, is surrounded by hilly and well-wooded country, watered by the tributary streams of the Brenta. The parish church, St. Andrew's, stands in the centre of the little township. Tombolo boasts of no commercial industries; it is a pastoral country, and the greater part of the population is occupied in dairy farming and the rearing of cattle. The people have clearly marked characteristics; strong and robust in build, hardened to sun, rain, and wind, rough-voiced and somewhat ungentle in manner, they have, nevertheless, good hearts and are in their own way religious.
But the Tombolani have one vice—or had when Don Giuseppe became; their curate. They swore systematically and profusely at everything, at each other, and at the world at large. "No offence is intended to Almighty God," they explained ingenuously to the horrified young priest. "He certainly understands. Just go to market, and try to sell your beasts and your grain with a 'please' and a 'thank you,' and you will see what you will get!"
There may have been some truth in this; and intention, no doubt, goes a long way; but the argument did not satisfy Don Giuseppe. For the moment he dropped the subject, but he had not done with it.
The rector of the parish, Don Antonio Costantini, was habitually ailing. Devoted to his people and wholly desirous to do them good, his ill-health was a constant impediment. He had many tastes in common with his curate, notably the love of music and of biblical and patristic studies. He soon learnt to look upon Don Giuseppe as a son, and highly appreciated his good qualities.
"They have sent me a young man as curate," he wrote to a friend, "with orders to form him to the duties of a parish priest. I assure you it is likely to be the other way about. He is so zealous, so full of common sense and other precious gifts that I could find much to learn from him. Some day he will wear the mitre—of that I am certain—and afterwards? Who knows?"
The good rector nevertheless did his best to fulfil his commission. "Don Bepi," he would say to his young curate, "I did not quite like this or that in your last sermon." When the church was empty he would make Don Bepi go into the pulpit and preach, criticizing and commenting the while both on matter and method; comments well worth having, for Don Antonio was a man of wide learning and an excellent theologian. Meanwhile Don Bepi, whose sermons were already becoming famous throughout the countryside for their zeal and eloquence, would listen humbly and promise to try to do better.
The income of the young curate was next to nothing, for Tombolo was a very poor parish; but he had not been used to luxury. He had planned his priestly life before his ordination, and was busy carrying out the scheme. To study deeply in order to fit himself more fully for preaching; to do as much good as was possible in the confessional and in the pulpit; to help his people both materially and morally, to visit the sick, to succour the poor and to instruct the ignorant—such was the programme, and with all the vigour of his soul he threw himself into the work.
The widowed niece of Don Antonio who kept house for her uncle used to see a light burning in the window of Don Giuseppe's poor lodging the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
"Do you never go to bed, Don Bepi?" she asked at breakfast one day, for the curate took his meals at the rectory.
Don Bepi laughed. "I study a good deal," he replied. He confessed later that he slept for four hours, and found it quite sufficient for his needs.
"He was as thin as a rake," said the good lady when pressed in after-life for reminiscences, "for he scarcely ate enough to keep body and soul together, and was never off his feet."
In the morning he would often ring the church bell for Mass, in order not to disturb the sacristan. Then he would go to fetch Don Antonio, having prepared for him all that was needed. Sometimes he would find his chief unwell and unable to rise.
"What is the matter?" he would ask in his cheery way—"another bad night?"
"I am afraid I cannot get up," would be the plaintive answer.
"Don't try to; stay quiet, and do not worry yourself I will see to everything," the cheery voice would continue.
"But you have already one sermon to preach to-day, my Bepi."
"What of that? I will preach two."
During the days of sickness Don Giuseppe, as well as doing double duty, would himself nurse the poor invalid. How he managed it was known to himself alone.
He had not forgotten—there was no chance of forgetting—the deplorable language of his parishioners. The curate mixed with them as much as he could, making friends especially with the young men and the boys. He interested himself in their work and in their play, treating them with such a spirit of friendly comradeship that they would crowd to talk to him whenever he appeared. One day some of them lamented that they could neither read nor write.
"Let us start a night school," proposed Don Bepi, "and I will teach you."
"It would be too difficult," objected another; "some of us know a little, some less, and others nothing at all."
"What of that?" replied the priest. "We will have two classes-those who know something, and those who know nothing. We will get the schoolmaster to take the upper class, and I will teach the alphabet."
"Why shouldn't he teach the alphabet?" protested a loyal admirer of
Bepi laughed. "The alphabet is hard work," he answered, "I had rather keep it."
"But we can't take up your time like that for nothing," declared another. "What can we do for you in return?"
"Stop swearing," answered Bepi promptly, "and I shall then be more than repaid."
The school of singing made rapid progress in his hands. Don Antonio, who, like his curate, was an ardent lover of Gregorian music, warmly seconded all his efforts. The somewhat unmelodious, if extremely powerful, vocalization of the village choir became quiet and prayerful under his tuition. If one of the acolytes showed signs of a vocation to the priesthood, Don Giuseppe would teach him privately until he knew enough to go up for examination at the diocesan seminary.
On one point Don Antonio and his curate could never agree. Everything that could be saved out of Don Giuseppe's tiny income went straight to the poor. They knew it, and when he went to preach in a neighbouring village would lie in wait for him as he returned with his modest fee in his pocket. It sometimes happened that when he reached home not a penny would be left, and Don Antonio would remonstrate.
"It is not fair to your mother, Bepi," he would say; "you should think of her."
"God will provide for my mother," was the answer; "these poor souls were in greater need than she."
Invitations to preach in other parishes became more frequent. What he said was always simple, but it was full of teaching and went straight to the heart. The young priest had, moreover, a natural eloquence and a sonorous and beautiful voice. It was so evident that he spoke from the fullness of a soul on fire with the love of God that his enthusiasm was catching, and his sermons bore fruit. It happened on one occasion that a priest who had been invited to preach on a feast-day in the neighbouring village of Galliera was prevented at the last moment from coming. There was consternation at the presbytery. What was to be done?
"Leave it to me," said Don Carlo Carminati, curate of Galliera and a friend of Don Giuseppe; "I promise you it will be all right," and jumping into the presbytery pony-cart he took the road to Tombolo.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the hour of the children's catechism class. Don Giuseppe was at the church door, about to enter.
"Stop, stop," cried Don Carlo, "I want to speak to you." Don Giuseppe turned.
"You must come and preach at Galliera," said Don Carlo; "our preacher has fallen through."
"What are you thinking of?" exclaimed Don Giuseppe. "I cannot improvise in the pulpit!" and he turned once more to go into the church.
"You have got to come, your rector says so, and there is not a minute to lose," replied his friend; and, laying hold of the still expostulating Don Giuseppe, he packed him into the pony-cart, bowed to Don Antonio who stood smiling at the scene, and whipped up his steed. Arrived at Galliera, Don Carlo conducted his victim to an empty room, provided him with pencil and paper and left him. An hour later, having been set at liberty by his triumphant fellow-curate, Don Giuseppe vested and entered the church. The sermon that followed was so eloquent and so appropriate to the occasion that what had threatened to be a calamity became a cause for rejoicing. "Did not I tell you?" exclaimed Don Carlo.
Don Giuseppe's energy was boundless, and to him no labour was amiss. "Work," he used to say, "is man's chief duty on earth." When the presbytery cook fell ill, he both nursed him and took his place; for in his eyes any kind of work was a thing to draw men nearer to the Christ who was "poor and in labours from His youth."
Whether it was preaching, teaching, playing with the village children, visiting the sick, helping the dying, hearing confessions, catechizing the young or studying theology, it was all the same to him—work for the Master, and as such ennobling and honourable.
So the time passed, until Don Giuseppe had been eight years at Tombolo. Much as Don Antonio loved and appreciated his curate, or rather because of this very love and appreciation, it distressed him to think that his talents should have no wider sphere than a little country parish. He spoke of this one day to one of the canons of Treviso. The two curates of Galliera who were present joined enthusiastically in the praise of their friend. The canon became thoughtful.
"Do you think he could preach in the cathedral of Padua for the feast of St. Antony?" he asked after a moment of reflection.
"Most certainly, Monsignor," was the answer.
"Well," continued the canon, "if you will be responsible for his accepting, I will see to it that he is asked."
The feast-day sermon was naturally a topic of much interest in Padua. "Who is to preach?" was the question on everybody's lips on the morning of the great day.
"Don Giuseppe Sarto, a young priest who is curate of Tombolo," was the reply.
Now it was customary on the feast of St. Antony to ask a preacher of some distinction to occupy the cathedral pulpit.
"The curate of Tombolo!" was the apprehensive comment. "Oh dear! A country curate from an out-of-the-way village!" The cathedral was crowded for the high Mass. When the slight young figure of Don Giuseppe mounted the pulpit stairs there was a gasp of astonishment, which gave place to an expectant silence.
"His intelligence and culture were no less remarkable than his eloquence," wrote one of the congregation to a friend. "His imagery was beautiful, his style perfect." The sermon lasted over an hour, and no one thought it too long.
In the May of 1867 Don Giuseppe was appointed rector of Salzano. A wail of lamentation arose from the little parish where he had worked so faithfully for nearly ten years. "He was our father, our brother, our friend, and our comfort," cried the Tombolani. In the heart of Don Antonio grief for his loss contended with joy at the thought that the merits of his beloved Don Bepi had been recognized at last.
Salzano is a small country town in the province of Venetia. It has a handsome church with a graceful campanile and a somewhat imposing presbytery. The country is fertile, and the people, who are wholly given to agriculture, are quiet, steady and hard-working. The new rector arrived on a Saturday evening in July. At Mass the next morning, in spite of the heat, the church was crowded, for the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages had assembled in force to hear the sermon of the newly appointedparroco.
The result was a delightful surprise. "What was the bishop thinking of," they asked one another when Mass was over, "to leave a man like that buried all these years at a place like Tombolo?"
As for Don Giuseppe, he set to work at once to visit his people. His frank simplicity, his understanding sympathy and zeal for their welfare gained their hearts at once. As at Tombolo, he gave special attention to the instruction of children; and, not content with this, inaugurated classes in Christian doctrine for the adults. "Most of the evil in the world," he would often say, "comes from a want of the knowledge of God and of His truth."
In spite of the large parish and the handsome rectory, Don Giuseppe's habits were as frugal as ever. There was more to give to the poor, that was all. His sister Rosina kept house for him.
"Bepi," she said one day, "there is nothing for dinner."
"Not even a couple of eggs?"
A couple of eggs there were, and on these they dined.
But there was always a welcome at the rectory and a share of anything that was going for any old friend who dropped in. Don Carlo came one evening for a visit, and found Don Giuseppe in the kitchen playing games with some little children. They were sent home with a promise that the game should be continued on another occasion, and Don Carlo was pressed to stay. The next morning he was accosted by Rosina.
"Don Carlo, you are an old friend, and a very kind one," she began hesitatingly; "there is a man coming to-morrow who sells shirting."
"Really?" answered Don Carlo, rather at a loss to connect the statements.
"Yesterday my brother got a little money," continued Rosina, "and he has hardly a shirt to his back. Now if you were to try to persuade him to buy some shirting, I think he perhaps would do it. Will you do your best?"
Don Carlo promised, and took the first opportunity of broaching the subject.
"Nonsense, nonsense," was the answer, "there is no necessity at all," and the plea was cut short.
But Don Carlo was not so easily beaten; he knew the sunny nature of his friend, and determined to have recourse to strategy. On the arrival of the pedlar, he examined his materials, selected what he considered suitable, and set to work, after the manner of his country, to bargain. Having agreed on what he considered a fair price, he ordered the required length to be cut off, and turned to Don Giuseppe who had been innocently watching the transaction. "So many yards at such and such a price," he declared. "Pay up, Don Giuseppe!"
The rector was disgusted; but there was nothing to be done but to obey. The bargain had been made and the shirting cut off. "Evenyou come here and plot to betray me," he complained.
As for Rosina, her delight knew no bounds. "God bless the day you came, Don Carlo," she said, meeting him outside the door. "If you had not been here to-day, to-morrow there would have been neither money nor linen!"
Salzano was a large parish, and the rector had to keep a conveyance. It was not much to look at, but it did hard service, being at the disposal of everybody who appealed to the well-known charity of its owner. The horse came home one day with both knees badly damaged.
"I am very sorry," pleaded the borrower, "an accident . . . ."
Don Giuseppe swallowed hard. "Never mind, never mind," he said; "it is all right."
One day—there had been a bad harvest that year, and there was much poverty in the parish—the rector asked a friend who was in easy circumstances to sell the horse for him. "You have so many relations with money," he pleaded.
The horse having been disposed of, it was then suggested that the same friend might also sell the carriage.
"I don't think I shall succeed," he remarked doubtfully, "for you must allow that it is not in the best condition." His fears were too true; no purchaser was found, and the carriage remained in the presbytery stable at the disposal of anyone who possessed a horse without a vehicle.
In 1873 there was a serious outbreak of cholera. The people of Salzano knew little of hygiene and less of sanitation; it was hard to make them take the most necessary precautions. Don Giuseppe was everything at once: doctor, nurse and sanitary inspector, as well as parish priest. Not only were there the sick and the dying to be tended, but the living to be heartened and consoled. "If it had not been for our dear Don Giuseppe," said an old man in later days, "I should have died of fear and sorrow during those dreadful times." Some of the people took it into their heads that the medicines and remedies ordered by the doctor were intended to put them quickly out of their pain, and would not take them unless they were administered by the priest's own hand.
For fear of infection, the dead had to be buried by night, and no one was allowed to attend the funeral. Anxious lest in the fear and the haste of the moment due honour should not be paid to these victims of the epidemic, Don Giuseppe was always there to see that all was done as it should be. Not only did he say the prayers and carry out the rites prescribed by the Church, but would take his place as coffin bearer, and even helped to dig the graves. Sorrow at the heartrending scenes he had to witness, added to these incessant labours by night and by day, would have ruined a less robust constitution than his. It is small wonder that Don Carlo Carminati, coming to visit him soon afterwards, was horrified at his appearance.
"You are ill!" he exclaimed.
"You think so?" was the quiet answer.
"He is ill," interposed Rosina vehemently, "but what can you expect? He is everybody's servant, he never spares himself. He has not only given away the food from his own mouth, but his night's rest. Look at him, nothing but skin and bone!"
"Your sister is right, you are doing too much. Remember that the pitcher can go to the well once too often; and when it is quite worn out, it will break."
"You are becoming quite an orator," commented Don Giuseppe with a smile.
Don Carlo was a man of action. He wrote to Don Antonio Costantini telling him that their dear Giuseppe was killing himself, and begging him to give a hint to the diocesan authorities. The hint was duly conveyed and duly taken. The bishop wrote to the rector of Salzano, ordering him to take more care of himself; but this was an art which Don Giuseppe had never studied, and he did not know how to begin. He continued to devote himself body and soul to his flock, leaving himself to the care of God.
With Don Giuseppe the service of Christ in His poor went hand in hand with the service of Christ at the altar. During his ministry at Salzano the parish church was greatly improved and beautified. He got together a choir of young men and boys and taught them to sing the stately Gregorian music that he loved for its devout and prayerful spirit. Even those who knew the stark poverty of the rector's private life did not always understand how the means could be obtained to carry out the plans he had at heart.
"But how will you get the money?" they would sometimes ask.
"God will provide," was the quiet answer, given with the serene faith characteristic of the strong.