The Capuchins during “The Plague of San Carlo”

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note:
This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. In I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/2, pp.3761-3772. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, (1999) for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.


Introduction by Padre Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

When the Capuchin Chronicler Salvatore Rasari da Rivolta da Milano wrote “le Vite di alcuni frati cappuccino” that was taken from the “processi giurati” of his Province for the year 1576, after he had dealt with the origin of the Capuchins, their first friaries in Lombardy and biographies of seventeen of the friars, he wanted to devote a chapter to the service that they performed in Milan during the plague of 1576/77. What he wrote is like a common sermon and therefore full of history since it corresponds to contemporary testimony of the greatest importance, such as the letters of Giacomo Giussani and other friars, including the Dialogo della peste by Paolo Bellintani da Salὸ. However, the account is limited to the friars who served in the leper hospital in Milan in order to show how they worked together perfectly in line with the charitable efforts of St Charles [Borromeo] and that immediately reminds us of the famous comment by A Manzoni: “It was called, and is stilled called, the plague of S. Carlo. The charity practiced was so strong! Among the various solemn sad points that were recalled one that stands out is the one about a man whose inspired sentiments and actions were even more worthy of recall than the disasters. He made a memorable impression because he was a saint in the context of all those tragedies as he was inspired and became involved as guide, support, example, and voluntary victim. He saw each event as a challenge. As far as he was concerned each one was a conquest or discovery.” (I promessi sposi, cap. 31).

How the Capuchin Fathers under instructions from St Charles [Borromeo] and motivated by love and zeal for the salvation of souls, served those who lived in the leper hospitals in Vittoria and other places when they had been stricken by the plague.

7257 In the year of the Lord 1576 it was the will of God that the scourge of the plague would visit the city of Milan and its small surrounding areas. St Charles Borromeo, who at the time was the Pastor of the city and the Diocese, being concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of his flock, was determined to provide them with adequate support during their endless trials. He made an impression on all of Italy as well as the whole Christian world by undertaking a truly apostolic activity which not only involved his own efforts, which would not have been enough, but involved some of the most devout people, both local and church workers who rushed to share in the noble undertaking, partly at his invitation and partly by following the example of their Pastor as he exercised great diligence, prudence and charity.[1]

Among those who were the most willing and faithful ministers of this charitable work, and the ones who were the most popular and most prepared to undertake the heaviest burdens there were without doubt the Capuchin friars of St Francis, [60v] who were well loved by the Man of God, who was well-aware of their sanctity and who often visited their friaries to receive consolation and share in the heavenly activities that were practised there especially contemplation, humility, poverty and simplicity which were very similar to his apostolic spirit.

7258 Thus, following the example and general invitation of this great Patriarch of the Province of Milan, large choirs of people, both religious and secular, joined him in this work of mercy that sought out the severe and general desolation to be of help where possible when confronted by death, which was so cruel in consuming human flesh, and the bodies of beloved brothers and sisters, while the devil attacked their souls as death approached. He hoped to provide spiritual assistance in the face of such unhappiness to bring souls back to happiness through the blood of Christ. After he had spent some time in assisting these people, he turned his attention to serving those who were patients in the hospital at Milan and surrounding places. [2] This was a work that was more important than anything that could be seriously obstructed by the art of the devil, [61r] by malevolence, or other interference by the officials. It had to be undertaken with prudence, purity, fidelity and exceptional charity. He wanted to engage the Capuchins because he thought they had all these virtues, and this is what he earnestly desired.

7259 He wrote about this to his Holiness Gregory XIII, who was the Supreme Pontiff at that time, very strongly pleading with him to help him in this situation of great need that was brought about by the serious and widespread plague that beset his city and diocese and to give him ample scope to use the Capuchins of the Province of Milan, which was joined to that of Brescia at the time, so that as they were inspired by the Lord they would offer to assist those who were afflicted by the plague. When he had readily received what he wanted from the Pope, he summoned the Provincial of the friars, who was Br Francesco da Bormio,[3] and Father Giacomo da Milano who was known as Calderino and was Guardian in his friary.[4] When he showed them the Apostolic Indult he said that they should write to all the friaries in the Province so that all the friars would know that those who felt most inspired to provide assistance to the poor sick people, whether in Milan or beyond, could give their personal approval and state that they were prepared [61v] to respond to any request. When this call from heaven was published in the friaries, there was not a single heart that was not deeply moved in feeling more charitably willing to become involved in assisting the needs of the poor oppressed people and sharing in the horrors of wretchedness and death.

7260 Among those who were the most ardent and who gladly offered themselves to be accepted (including those who were chosen and sent to be of service at that time), the following stand out: Father Filippo, who was their superior,[5] Br Pio,[6] Br Alessandro da Milano,[7] Giaconio da Voltera, Grisosotomo da Voghera,[8] Paolo da Salὸ a preacher,[9] and Sigismondo and Apollonio da Brescia,[10] all of whom were priests, along with Gilberto da Brescia, a cleric,[11] and Brothers Rainero da Milano. Modesto da Mazenta, Geronimo dalla Brusada, Masseo da Mantova, Masseo da Gozzo. Sabino da Cremona, Teoforo da Borghetto Lodigiano, Andrea da Val di Sabio, Januario da Drugoli,[12] in addition to Father Francesco and Giacomo da Milano, who if they were not personally involved in the work because they were superiors, were still poles supporting that noble sky [62r] by their prudence and authority. This is especially true of Fr Giacomo,[13] who because he was in Milan frequently, was more able than the other friars to cooperate with his companions in assisting the temporal and spiritual needs of the sick.

7261 He studied the calamity of what was happening at the time, which could be easily described as a visitation from the Lord, and the assistance and help that was being offered by many ministers both within the city and beyond. The most noteworthy places beyond the city were Vittoria which is situated between Melegnano, Milan and Monza, a place about ten miles from Milan. However, there were two important places, the smaller one was built at S. Dionigi, and the larger which was called the Hospital for those stricken by the plague situated just outside the Porta Orientale, close to the wall where the poor people who were sick gathered,[14] so that the rest of the city could remain free and clear, and so that those who were sick could be gathered together and assisted more easily both in body and in spirit with what they needed. Undoubtedly, there was a lack of those who could provide such assistance and many of those who were sick remained in their own homes.

Those Capuchins who were sent by their Superior at the invitation of the Cardinal [62v] were assigned to all of these places. They worked so fervently in this compassionate and charitable ministry that when the most glorious Prelate, of happy memory, saw it he thanked God a thousand times for the choice that he had made. He also thanked the noble and capable individuals who had been asked to work in these places for their outstanding compassion that showed the fervour and tirelessness of the servants of God and gave good example in works of charity, since more than anyone else those who were sick were experiencing the tenderness of heart of the Capuchins which outdid the love of a father or mother.

7262 Father Alessandro da Milano went to Vittoria. He was a priest and he soon died. He was succeeded by a cleric, Atanasio da Brescia.[15] In Monza there was Br Apollonio da Brescia, a man who had the most glorious qualities, and Br Geronimo da Brusada. In the hospital of S. Dionigi Father Sigismondo da Brescia worked with Matteo da Cerano,[16] Masseo da Cozzo and Januario da Drugoli, worked as lay brothers. The others served as the requirements and needs of the time demanded.

The hospital for those stricken by the plague, (what we are speaking about and which still exists), was built by the Dukes of Milan to admit those who were sick at the time of the plague, and it provided for most of the sick and those suspected of being infected. It had a large square court the circumference of which was about a mile long. The rooms which stood at the four corners had been specially built. There were two doors, one in the East and the other in the West. The sick people entered through the eastern door as they arrived from their homes and the dead were taken out through the same door. Consequently, it was called “porta brutta” (the nasty door). Those who were cured left through the other door that was called “porta netta” (the unsoiled door). They were provided with medicine and other necessities. No one was allowed through this door unless they were not suspected of being ill. The building had a chapel where Mass could be celebrated and the Blessed Sacrament reserved on the altar so that it was there when needed.[17]

7283 The ones [63v] who had drawn the lot enabling them to be the first to enter that place on about 20 August 1576, were Fathers Filippo da Milano who, while he was still alive, served as superior over the others, and Giacomo da Volterra, both of whom were priests. There were also lay brothers, Brothers Masseo da Mantova, Sabino da Cremona and Andrea di Val di Sabio, who, even though they were few in number, still maintained the activities demanded by the work, weighed down by fatigue and mental anguish. They deserve great praise for what they did taking it out of great chaos and confusion into something that was properly organised. As they attended to the growing need some of them fell ill and died. As was the custom, others then replaced them, and this continued right to the end.

The officials and those in charge of those being admitted to the hospital were very few considering the amount of work involved. Those who were priests undertook the administration of the Sacraments with such extreme diligence that it prevented them being suspected of any wrongdoing with the belongings of the patients[64r] or of causing any disruption. They did the cooking with their own hands, distributed the medicine, nursed the sick which was a heavenly blessing by visiting them frequently in a kindly manner, providing them with charitable comfort as the need arose. They were not overcome by fatigue or anything else including the danger of death. In order that there be no lack of true compassion, they personally picked up the dead bodies, and placed them on carriages to bring them to the cemetery to be buried and then they filled in the graves.

7264 It was also noted that some of the friars, after they laid the bodies to rest, went back at the dead of night to see if there was anyone who was doing something scandalous under cover of darkness by stealing things or showing disrespect as some people used to do and so the friars prevented this from happening.

What made the service offered by the Capuchins more commendable was that they never (or very seldom) went out for anything else except when obliged to do so by charity. They remained in [64b] in their friaries continually occupied with keeping vigils and working from morning to night. This made some of them very sick and there were some who died.

Father Filippo da Milano, who was the superior of the friars, and who died at the end of two months, was succeeded by Father Paolo da Salὸ, a man who was equally dedicated to action and to contemplation. The Cardinal entrusted him with the spiritual care of the entire hospital for those stricken by the plague, giving him full authority. Within a few days the authorities in the Senate recognised that someone should have control over those who were doing the wrong thing. They saw the prudence and skill of this priest, and assigned this responsibility to him. Thus, he could easily do what he had to do by uniting one role with the other and avoid the disputes that usually arose.

7265 Having control over the secular and religious activities required creative insight from Father Paolo. As he combined this with his ardent heartfelt zeal it meant that he had very little time left for physical rest since he was continually occupied with various concerns. The needs [65r] of the good number of sick people who came to the door required him to administer the Sacraments (in as much as he was more involved in this than the other priests), the provision of food and other things, the lack of charity that he discovered in some of the ministers and workers, forced him to go about and see if those who were sick needed anything so that he had to supervise what others were doing. Some of the workers and the criminal judges committed offenses in spite of all his diligence and this resulted in theft, sensuality or other evil consequences. This gave him no rest. Because he saw how important it was to keep a watch on the eastern door, he wanted to be there personally for much of the time.[18]

7266 However, the devil could not endure the heavenly benefits that came from the diligence and goodness of Father Paolo and his companions. He seized the opportunity to undermine the reputation of the good Father by arousing a terrible tempest in the hope of spoiling the good that had been done for the glory of God by having it criticised in vulgar public conversations.

This was so displeasing to the priest that he tried to correct it on many occasions and, in the end, wanted to lock the window and that is what he did. The shame that was caused by a woman’s diabolical accusations was very serious, and was increased by the complaints, gifts and promises that circulated continuously at the eastern gate by a lay person who was a merchant [67r], and who knew better than anyone how this affected the priest. He told the officials that Father Paolo had attempted to go away, and because of the insults had ceased opening the window, and closed it, which meant that those who came to the window were not attended to.

7267 When St Charles heard about this, it greatly disturbed the heart of this very zealous pastor and (because of the way it was told) he believed the lie and was deeply moved by the scandal caused and the fall of the servant of God. However, since the good Lord guided him and endowed his zeal with thoughtfulness and prudence, he had confidence in him and called him aside and expressed the great sorrow that this had caused him when he heard what had happened. Then, with a truly paternal spirit and great kindness he asked him to explain what had happened assuring him that no matter how big the mistake had been that brought shame on him, he would find a way [66v] to forget it forever. The priest replied immediately with great trepidation that what had been said about him was completely false and he begged his most illustrious Eminence to command that the woman and the ministers who lived at the hospital be questioned so that his innocence would become clear.

Seeing the swiftness and strength of his reply the saintly Cardinal was satisfied and no longer believed the false calumnies. This became clearer when he thought about the good that the religious brother had done. This convinced him of the incomparable extent of the calumny. Just then the doorkeeper of the hospital came in and he had been suddenly stricken with a serious episode of the plague. He began to cry out loudly to God, invoking his divine mercy. Everyone fled when they heard the sighs and shouting and the unhappy man proclaimed in public that he had been struck of God’s justice in contracting the deadly illness of the plague as a punishment for the sin that he had committed in falsely accusing the servant of God. When the Saint heard this, he wanted to examine the woman [67r] who admitted the same thing without any inconsistency.

7268 Most of those who worked in the hospital remained healthy, but a few contracted the plague. However, they were others including Br Andrea di Val di Sabio, who was one of the first to work there, and Br Modesto da Mazenta, both of whom were lay brothers, who were cured miraculously. Others lost their lives. Those who died included Father Filippo da Milano, who died after two months,[19] Br Sabino da Cremona and Br Masseo da Mantova, who were lay brothers, and the priests Agostino, Giacomo and Rainero da Milano. In his notes about martyrdom Cardinal Baronio mentioned S. Dionigio Alessandrino and said that they deserved to be called martyrs.[20]

After the apostolic work had gone on for about twenty months, during which the illness seemed to be lessening, the friars partly because they could not sustain the burden of the work, partly because they were called to work in other places where the plague was increasing, asked the saintly Cardinal to permit them to leave. His Lordship, who was full of kindness, did not know how he could refuse this even though he regretted it greatly. However, because he did not want to deny the hospital the help and supervision of the Capuchins, he called Fr Atanasio da Brescia[21] from Vittoria, as well as others from various parts, who came to serve the hospital while it was accredited.

  1. Regarding the pastoral activity of Charles during the plague see also what Paolo Bellintani da Salὸ said in his Dialogo della peste. Cf. above, nn. 7244-7249.
  2. Details of the official places where those who were stricken by the plague were living will be given later by the same chronicler. Cf. n. 7261.
  3. Fr Francesco De Sirmondi da Bormio (+ 1581) was elected Vicar Provincial of the Capuchins in Lombardy during the Chapter that was celebrated in Cremona on the Feast of the Epiphany 1576. Concerning his life see vol II, 966-969 and 987.
  4. Fr Giacomo Giussanti da Milano, who was known as Calderino, was superior over the friary of S. Vittorello or S.Vittore all’Olmo which was established in 1542 (Cf. Merodio da Nembro, Salvatore da Rivolta e la sua cronica, 7s). He died on 4th August 1584 while he was Provincial. Cf, ibid, 16 note 33 and in vol. II 1951-1057 where you will find two of his letters.
  5. Having been stricken by the plague four days after he entered the leper hospital, he died ten days later “as Christ’s protomartyr”. This is how Giacomo Giussani reported it to the Bishop of Brescia (cf. vol II 1053 n. 2598).
  6. This is probably Pio da Milano, a priest who died at S. Vittore di Milano in 1593. Cf, Metodio da Membro, Salvatore da Rivolta cit,, 28.
  7. Alessandro da Milano died of the plague almost immediately in the leper hospital of S. Maria della Vittoria as the chronicler relates later, Cf. n. 7262.
  8. We have no further information concerning these two.
  9. He was the brother of Mattia Bellintani and the author of Dialogo della peste, concerning which see above nn. 7228-7256. See two of his letters in vol II 1059-1065.
  10. Father Sigismondo Foresti da Brescia (+ 1614) wrote a book of spiritual exercises that was published in 1612 in Brescia. Cf. V. Bonari, I conventi e I cappuccino bresciani, Milano 1891, 249s; Llarino da Milano Biblio, 271. Father Apollonio Porcellaga da Brescia (+ 1603) was a prominent figure in the Province of Lombardy and in the Order. Cf. V. Bonari, I conventi cit. 267-271; Lexicon cap. 101.
  11. Giberto (or Gilberto) da Brescia is mentioned by Salvatore da Rivolta in his “Cronica” as an “old priest” who had spent fifty years in religion up to 1625. Cf. Metodio da Nembro, Salvatore da Rivolta cit. 180, 232.
  12. We do not have information about all those mentioned, the list is complete in as far as the chronicler is presenting mainly assistance provided to the leper hospital at Milan (cf. n. 7262). Gennaro da Drugolo, Sabino da Cremona and Masseo da Cozzo died while assisting those stricken by the plague in 1576. Cf. V. Bnari, I cappuccini della provincial Milanese, I; Biografie dei piú distinti, Brema 1898, 85s. Concerning Andrea da Valsabbia di Bione, cf. id., I conventi e I cappuccino bresciani, 113s. In chapter 26 of his Dialogo della peste Paolo Bellintani speaks about Modesto da Magenta and Tedoro di Lodi when he deals with how they worked in the provision of what was needed for the kitchen and cooking. “In Milan there was no need to buy goods because I had asked our brother Teodoro da Lodi, who was a capable man, with a good spirit and who was concerned about the kitchen and made sure that the officials did not steal anything. He was accompanied by another brother called Br Modesto da Milano, who was very modest and filled with charity and he was placed near the spot where the officials used to take what was for the sick, which was four pieces of common bread, three mouthfuls of wine diluted with water, a pound of meat and two bowls of soup each day.” (Cf. IF 4 [1929] 72). Bellintani also speaks about Masseo (Matteo) da Mantova in chapter 13. (cf. above n. 7252). Girolamo della Brusada is mentioned by Boverio (cf, AC I, 793s, an. 1576, n. XIIIs). See also V. Bonari, I conventi e I cappuccini bresciani cit. 536s and 599-604 (where it gives a list of 172 friars who died while serving those stricken by the plague).
  13. This was also because he was nominated Commissary Provincial when Francesco da Bormio was sent “to Valtellina by the Pope as Apostolic Delegate to preach and teach apostolic Christian doctrine very fruitfully along with a few other preachers and priests.” This is recorded in the chronical (cf. Metodio da Nembro, Salvatore da Rivolta cit. 76).
  14. The author of Quadri dei capitoli (ms. in APL), f. 3r described the places: “At this time (1576) St Charles asked Fr Giacomo to send Capuchins to care for the plague stricken. Many came forward and were sent to various placed by the Saint, especially the Hospital for the Plague Stricken at S. Gregorio outside the Porta Orientale, where ten or twelve of them died and were buried. Others went to S. Dionisio, others to Vittoria, near Melegnano, others to Gentiline [near Porta Ticinese] and to Monza.”
  15. Concerning Alessandro d Milano cf. note 7 and vol. II, 1057. For Atanasio da Vrescia cf. vol II, 835 and 1055, 1057.
  16. Matteo da Corano was the lay brother who accompanied Francsco da Bormio on his first journey to Switzerland. Cf. MHOC VI, 443 and note 2. The chronicler Salvatore da Rivolta says that he died in Vigevano in 1580. Cf. Metodio da Nembro Salvatore da Rivolta cit., 181.
  17. A precise description of the building in contained in contemporary literature as well as in Manzoni’s novel.
  18. Paolo Bellintani speaks about this at length in his Dialogo della peste.
  19. Cf note 5. However, what the chronicler says here does not coincide with what Giacomo Giussani said.
  20. “Alexandriae passio sanctorum presbyterorum diaconorum et aliorum plurimorum qui tempore Valeriani imperatoris cum pestis saevissima grassatetur, morbo laborantibus ministrantes, lebertissime mortem apptiere, qua velut martyres religiosa piorum fides venerari consuevit.” (C. baronio Sorano, Martyrologium Romanum ad novum Kalendarii rationem et ecclesiasticae historicae veritatem restitutum …, Parisiis 1613, 87, 28 febr.)
  21. Cf above note 13.