Though born in this country, at the age of ten, my mother had the great misfortune of being moved from the bustling city of Providence in Rhode Island, to a tiny hamlet in the mountains just outside of Naples. There she was forced to learn to cook in an open fireplace, to carry a water jug on her head from the town’s spring, and to tend sheep. Almost a century later, I still sleep on the lamb’s wool pillows from her lambs. But the pillows are not all I have left of my mother’s unwanted sojourn. I also have her true stories and the characters in them.
And the character that stood solidly athwart all her stories, was the local parish priest, Don Modesto. Striding around in his black cassock, he seemed giant of a man, when she arrived there in there in the Twenties. But he never seemed more fearless than when the Nazis came and occupied the town.
One day in 1944, one of the Italian partisans hiding in the mountains killed a German soldier. Immediately the Nazis rounded up 10 men in the town, the usual procedure being to shoot ten men for every German soldier killed. Since all the able-bodied men were either hiding out with the partisans, or already lost to the war, that left only old men and young boys for the Nazis to collect. Immediately, their wives, daughters and mothers flew to Don Modesto to beg for his intercession with the Nazis.
Don Modesto didn’t hesitate for a moment. With his cassock flapping around him, he ran to the local barracks where the Nazis had taken up their quarters and demanded to speak to the commander in charge. When faced with the man in charge and his interpreter, Don Modesto explained that, if the Germans wanted to punish the whole town, they should shoot him. “I am the only priest – the bishop will not be able to replace me for months or years. If you shoot these old men and boys, you punish only 10 families. If you take me, you punish the whole town.”
Don Modesto must have been pretty persuasive because the German commander let the old men and boys go and took him into custody. My mother said that no one ever knew if it was the sound of the approaching Allied guns, if the commander feared a general revolt among the locals, or if the commander himself was uneasy about shooting a priest, but, for whatever reason, Don Modesto was not shot, and he lived to see the liberation of the town by the Allies.
But my mother’s story didn’t end there. In 1948, a general election happened in Italy, and it was the Communists against the Christian Democrats. Don Modesto was standing around in the town square attempting to persuade people to vote for the Christan Democrats. To the general applause of the men standing around him, one of the local pundits called out to the priest, “Hey Don Modesto! You’re a priest – you’re not supposed to get involved in politics!”
Don Modesto calmly turned to face the men. “Oh?” He said, “I’m not supposed to get involved in politics? And when your mothers and wives came running to me to save your fathers and your sons, was I not supposed to get involved in politics then?”
Sheepishly the men lowered their heads and left the square. The Christian Democrats carried the town by a landslide.
It was my mom’s favorite story.