The love of St. Luigi Orione for his Armenian seminarians is one of the most beautiful expressions of his fatherly heart.
They were part of a group of orphans from the Armenian Genocide, which the Congregation received and took care of in Rhodes. Some of them wanted to join the Congregation, so they were sent to Italy, where they met Don Orione, who was to become like a father to them.
Armenia is a landlocked mountainous country situated in the Caucasus region, where Western Asia and Eastern Europe meet. It has a great ancient and historical cultural heritage. The adoption of Christianity as the official religion dates back to the early years of the 4th Century.
The Armenian Genocide
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Armenia was under the Ottoman Empire.
When World War I broke out, leading to a confrontation between the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the Turkish government regarded the Armenians with distrust and suspicion, leading to the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian Genocide, as this massacre is known, was the systematic extermination of one-and-a-half million Armenians by the Young Turk government. It is regarded as one of the first genocides of the modern age.
It was implemented by means of wholesale massacres and deportations, consisting of forced marches under conditions designed to lead to the death of the deportees.
The date when the genocide started is conventionally held to be 24th April 1915, the day when the Ottoman authorities arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople.
Rhodes and the Armenian orphans
In 1924, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta set up a house for orphans from the Armenian Massacre in Acandia, Rhodes Island, near the Turkish Asian coastland. Their idea was to offer the orphanage to another association or institute.
But, before looking for an institute, they asked Senator Ernesto Schiapparelli, chairman of the Italian association “Italica Gens”, for advice about who might be able to take over the orphanage, and the Senator recommended that they should ask Don Orione, who he regarded as a “ living saint”.
In July 1924, Senator Schiaparelli talked to Don Orione about taking over the care of some Armenian orphans in one of his houses in Rome, and he also asked Don Orione for some religious to run an agricultural school which had been given by the Order of Malta in Rhodes.
St. Luigi Orione accepted the proposal and appointed Fr. Vittorio Gatti to arrange this matter with Prince Chigi, Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
In July 1925, Don Orione sent his religious to take over the care of the orphans, and appointed Fr. Camillo Bruno as Director of the institute.
On 14th September 1925, a group of orphans from the Armenian Genocide were received at the institute and the Congregation took charge of their care.
Life in the institute was governed according to the Paternal- Christian System of St. Luigi Orione, as a school of holiness, almost like a seminary.
Due to the Christian atmosphere prevailing in the institute, eight vocations emerged from that group of Armenian orphans, who were later sent to Italy to join the congregation on 29th June 1928.
The Meeting with Don Orione
On 3rd July 1928, the Armenians arrived in Rome from Brindisi by train. A seminarian called Paolo Malfatti was waiting for them and took them to Ognissanti Parish, where Fr. Roberto Risi welcomed and received them at the S. Filippo Neri Institute.
The following day they met St. Luigi Orione, who received them like a Father, expressing his delight at having people from the Eastern Rite in his Congregation. He exalted the Armenian Martyrs and invited them to sing in Armenian.
This is the account of Fr. Chamlian, one of the eight orphans:
“The following day, 4th July, around midday, the Seminarian Malfatti took us to another institute in Sette Sale Street, where Don Orione awaited us, having expressly come from Tortona to meet us. He welcomed us like a father welcoming his children after a long absence. Following our custom, we kissed his hand and pressed it to our foreheads, as a sign of respect and reverence. After kissing each of us on the forehead, he asked us if we had had a good journey, if we had been happy about coming to Italy, and then expressed his pleasure at receiving us, Armenians, members of the Oriental rites. He spoke to us about the martyr Armenia, and the recent Turkish persecution of the Armenians. Then he invited us to go downstairs for lunch, after which he asked us to sing in our own language.”
Fr. Dellalian, another orphan, remembered his first meeting with Don Orione: “This was our first meeting with Don Orione, who welcomed us with more love than a father for his children”
|Fr. Dellalian and Fr. Chamlian |
Fr. Chamlian again related that unforgettable meeting:
“Around four o’clock we were in the small parlor of the Istituto Divin Salvatore. Don Orione was told that the Armenians were waiting for him in the parlor. As soon as he heard this, he immediately ran downstairs. In the meantime, we had been imagining what kind of man Don Orione might be; a man who had so many priests and seminarians in so many houses under his authority, and who was in charge of so many people. Just then, a rather elderly priest appeared at the door, and the assistant told us that this was no other than Don Orione himself. We kissed his hand according to our custom, and after kissing it, we pressed it to our bowed heads. After asking us each our names, Don Orione wanted to know the significance of this gesture, and one of us explained to him that by this symbolic act we were recognizing the person whose hand we were kissing to be our superior, and submitting our minds to his will. Don Orione was so delighted by this that he told us that we should never give up such a meaningful custom. In fact, whenever our beloved superior, Don Orione, introduced us to some distinguished person or any of our benefactors, he would explain our custom of kissing people’s hands to them, and if at any time when we were kissing his hand, we failed to press it to our foreheads, either because we had simply forgotten or we were too embarrassed by the circumstances, he would lovingly reproach us, and tell us that we should never forget our traditions.”
They were then sent to the “Colonia Santa Maria” in Massimi Street, a house for aspirants in Monte Mario (Rome) on 8th August, 1928.
(read the second part next week)