In the shadow of Silvio’s saint

By Hoda Emam and Neha Tara Mehta  

The following story was carried on the cover of the Travel section of Mail Today‘s Sunday paper. Mail Today is Delhi’s third-largest paper and fastest growing daily, which recently launched an edition in London. (Inside section here

Padre Pio is virtually a living presence in Angelina Jadanza and Cardone Anjelo’s San Giovanni apartment. | Photo by Neha Tara Mehta.

ANGELINA JADANZA’s third-floor apartment on Via S. Chiara, San Giovanni Rotondo, a charming drive away in her green Fiat from the church of Padre Pio — an anonymous friar who shot to cult status as the “living image of Christ” — resembles a shrine. Porcelain images of Jesus, Virgin Mary and Fatima embellish every nook and cranny of her house, which has a luminous quality to it in the warm spring light.

Padre Pio, who passed away nearly half a century ago, is a virtual living presence in the apartment Jadanza, 64, shares with her husband and twin sister, a nun. He is there is watercolor on the walls, in brass on the bookshelves and in carefully-preserved blood-stained gloves and clipped finger nails in the drawers.

Padre Pio is a cottage industry in San Giovanni Rotondo, selling everything from cigarette lighters to keychains and hotel rooms. | Photo by Neha Tara Mehta.

Padre Pio’s spiritual ascendance began in 1918, when as a Capuchin monk in the sleepy, remote town of San Giovanni Rotondo in Southern Italy, he reluctantly reported five wounds on his body — just when Italy was counting its dead in the World War I, and San Giovanni was fighting a Spanish flu epidemic. In the years to come, Padre Pio would be catapulted into the limelight – both as a miracle healer and as a fraudster with fake stigmata. The Vatican settled the matter by canonizing him in 2002.

The friar’s five wounds changed the fate of San Giovanni Rotondo forever. The obscure town that few had heard of now draws over 4 million pilgrims every year. A gigantic and grandiose church designed by Renzo Piano, on Time magazine’s 2006 list of the most influential people in the world, stands testament to the large crowds – and wealth that Padre Pio has created for San Giovanni Rotondo.

Padre Pio is a cottage industry here. You are as likely to run into the saint’s devotees here as his life-size statues. He is streaming out of a 24-hour cable TV station that is watched by viewers across four continents. He is there in the dozens of souvenir shops that line the sloping streets — on key chains, photo frames, necklaces, paintings – always with that piercing gaze. He even lights your cigarettes here, quite literally, with Padre Pio lighters being quite the rage.

The saint that Jadanza, 66, lovingly nurtures in her home, is also reportedly present in less likely quarters – the home of scandal magnet Silvio Berlusconi. But for Jadanza, Padre Pio goes beyond the euros he gets into San Giovanni Rotondo and his celebrity stature. She met him just six months before he passed away in 1968 as a 20-year-old weary from a long journey from her home town, Pietrelcina, 92 km away, also the birth place of Padre Pio.

In San Giovanni Rotondo, you are as likely to run into life-size statues of Padre Pio as his pilgrims. | Photo by Neha Tara Mehta.

“As soon as I met him, he said, ‘It was such a long journey,’” remembers Jadanza. “He knew without us telling him what we had been through,” she adds, bringing out the family’s most carefully preserved possession: the saint’s trademark half-gloves stained with blood and pieces of scabs in a tightly sealed bag.

Jadanza never returned home – something which the saint had predicted, she says. With no medical training, she was taken on as a nurse in Casa Sollievo della Soffrenza, a hospital established by the saint. In founding the hospital, Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto writes, Padre Pio had headed “not from science towards miracles but from miracles toward science”. The hospital was to shape Jadanza’s professional and personal life – she met her husband Cardone Anjelo, who worked in the research department of the hospital, while at work.

The interiors of the church dedicated to Padre Pio by Renzo Piano. The walls of the church are lined with pictures of Padre Pio, Jesus and Saint Francis -- all of whom received the stigmata. | Photo by Neha Tara Mehta.

“I am so happy that I found a religious husband,” she says, looking at Anjelo, who sits perfectly framed against a Padre Pio portrait.

Jadanza’s last meeting with the saint was just four just days before he died. “He told me I had to continue to carry the cross and see Jesus in every patient.”

She adhered – delivering 30 children in the maternity ward, but never having one of her own. “These are my 30 children,” says Jadanza, now retired, pointing towards a large picture frame which stands out on walls covered with Padre Pio paraphernalia.

She brings out a platter overflowing with freshly baked cookies and tiny cups of afternoon espresso to go with the stories about her life lived in faith. Both she and Anjelo insist that we take the cookies with a light sugary glaze on top.

As we comment on how delicious the cookies were, Anjelo smiles, saying, “She had left them in the oven a little longer than she normally does.”

 

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