St. Luigi Orione’s missionary zeal drove him to carry the apostolate of his Congregation to different countries. During the two visits he paid to South America, he experienced the need and importance of speaking other languages, realizing how difficult pastoral work is, if missionaries do not speak the local language.
Thinking about opening houses in English speaking countries such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, he encouraged missionaries and seminarians to study English, and also tried to learn a little himself.
English for Pastoral Work
In 1922, Fr. Casa was about to go to Canada to work with an Italian community, so Don Orione asked him to study English in some letters.
In a letter, Don Orione explained to him how important and necessary it was to speak the language well for the pastoral work: “So, I inform you that I am sending you to Canada (…) where there are 600 Italians with their families,and we need to open a church and an Italian-English school before the end of 1922. So you will have to speak English well enough to be able to teach and to preach…” (Buenos Aires, 28th February 1922)
In other letter Don Orione kept asking him about his English and encouraging hin to study it: “I would not like you to give up studying English because of this; in fact, I wish you to dedicate yourself even more purposefully to this undertaking.” (Buenos Aires, 14th March 1922)
In another letter: “Study English really hard, and prepare yourself with all your heart and soul as a priest for a great charitable enterprise” (29th March 1922) and in other: “How is your English?” (18th April 1922)
In 1935, Don Orione sent Fr. Gaetano Piccinini to the United Kingdom with the aim of learning English and exploring the possibility of opening a house there. In a letter, the Founder asked Fr. Piccinini to write to them in English from London: “From London, write to us in English.” (8th June 1935).
Providing What was Necessary to Study
Due to the pastoral necessity of speaking English, Don Orione was concerned to provide everything which would be needed to learn: books, teachers and schools.
“For North America, (…) I am always of the mind to send Fr. Filippo and the other Polish one, who has already been appointed. Eng. Marengo should teach them the most commonly used English words and the pronunciation. Get them a book on the English Language and you must hurry”. (To Fr. Sterpi, Buenos Aires, 27th May 1935)
He recommended to Fr. Casa to look for a language institute: “In Sao Paulo, there will be branches of the Berlitz language schools (…) If you don’t find the Berlitz School satisfactory, there will be others which also offer rapid courses”. (Buenos Aires, 28th February 1922.)
He even advised those who already knew English about how not to forget it: “Ask Fr. Risi to get an English religious to provide him with some spiritual books in English, so that he will not forget the language”. (Messina, 27th June 1911)
A Secretary Who Speaks English
During his second stay in Latin America, Don Orione often wrote to a young engineer, Paolo Marengo (the Founder called him “Paolino”), giving advice and motivating him. In two letters, written a few days apart, Don Orione said that he needed a secretary “who can at least speak English and French” (21st April 1936) and invited the young engineer to help him: “you will be my secretary for the English language.” (23rd April 1936).
Don Orione Trying to Learn English
In a letter to Fr. Ottavi and Fr. Michalski, who were about to go to the United States, Don Orione wished them a safe trip and a good mission and said to them that he hoped to visit them, so that he was studying a little English: “I have to remain here for several more months, but I hope, God willing, to come and see you fairly soon, so I am already studying a little English, so that I will be able to manage. I have two difficulties, but the worst is the lack of time. As soon as you can, write to me in English.” (Buenos Aires, 30th October 1935)
Regarding his desire to learn English, there is a sheet of paper with some notes on both sides, where he wrote some everyday greetings, simple questions and sentences in Italian and their pronunciation in English. There is no date or place on these notes, so that we cannot say when or where they were written. For example:
Che ora é?
Vat taims is it
Hau ar iu?
The Importance of the Languages
From his own experience of being abroad, Don Orione realized the importance of speaking other languages. In a letter to Fr. Piccinini, he said: “Here too, our aspirants and novices as well as Fr. Montagna, the superior of the novitiate, and the seminarians Punta and Solano are studying English, and their teacher is very pleased with them. One has to be abroad and in a truly cosmopolitan city like Buenos Aires, to realize how essential the study of languages is.” (Buenos Aires, 8th June 1935)
After reading through some of the Founder’s writings and reflecting about them. I would like to emphasize two things:
- Don Orione’s personal experience, which any missionary can identify with, because of his realization of the need to learn languages for his pastoral work. Although we have no way of finding out how much English Don Orione learned, and it would be pointless even to try, it is at least certain that he endeavored to do so.
- He was able to read the signs of the times, realizing the importance of speaking English in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, because it is the language of the people.