Chapter 5

Asti’s Bishop Ronco. Canon Marello presents him a report on the state of the congregation. Desire to undertake clerical studies. Difficulties with Canon Cerruti. Fr. Cortona enters the congregation.

The diocese of Asti remained vacant, while the faithful earnestly prayed that God would send a shepherd fit to lead them through such troubled times. More than anyone else, our brothers needed a bishop to help them through the difficult conditions of their beginnings; they redoubled their prayers, and our father, as if foreseeing the difficulties ahead, never stopped encouraging them to confidently trust in St. Joseph’s help. When he found out that the new bishop’s name was Joseph, he took heart, hoping he would take special care of the congregation named after his patron saint. He was right.

Bishop Joseph Ronco was born in the town of Leynì, in the Archdiocese of Turin. As vicar forane he administered the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in Villafranca, Piedmont, before being consecrated bishop of Asti by Cardinal Alimonda on November 20, 1881. He was rather gruff, and if you will pardon my saying it, sometimes a little rude. This was quite a contrast with his episcopal dignity, and hence many times his manner was not appreciated by those who approached him. But he had an honest heart and a conscience that shunned even the suggestion of evil. His burly exterior hid a heart of gold. It was correctly observed that he entered the diocese prejudiced against the clergy of Asti; but with time he got to know them as they really were, praiseworthy men conscious of their high mission, and a source of satisfaction for their bishop. Although he was entirely different in temperament from his predecessor, Bishop Savio, he too was our great benefactor as these memoirs will show.

But first by the Lord’s design the Congregation had to be exposed to many trials. After Bishop Ronco took over the diocese, Canon Marello wrote up a brief on the Oblates, their goal, their number of members, and whatever else might interest the bishop. He gave it to him and asked him to read it. Several weeks passed by, and our founder visited the bishop and modestly asked his opinion. “Your brief,” Bishop Ronco replied indifferently, “is still on my desk where you left it. I have not read it. You may take it back if you like.” Our father understood what kind of man he would have to deal with, and so he took back the manuscript, put it in his briefcase, and abandoned himself into the hands of God. In order not to discourage the brothers, he never told anyone of this, until much later when he confided it to a priest of our congregation.

The chapter of the cathedral had already shown its esteem for Marello by appointing him honorary canon; on March 4, 1880, it elected him canon in fact. On May 4, 1883 he was made secretary of the cathedral chapter and he was then made archdeacon, in accordance with the chapter office, by the proclamation of January 11, 1886.

Everyone knows the first idea of our founder was that the services in which our brothers were to imitate St. Joseph consisted only of manual labor, teaching religion to help pastors, and maintaining the house of God as good sacristans. But with the passage of time a new thought began to occur to him: would it not be more beneficial to also pursue studies, and thus inspire others to join the congregation? Our founder and our brothers prayed fervently to know God’s will, and after some time Canon Marello grew certain in his heart. But a serious obstacle came from Canon Cerruti. He was director of the Michelerio Institute, practically its founder, since he was responsible for its beginning and healthy growth, and for its being named after its benefactress. To this institute he had dedicated his whole self, his efforts, and he defended his interests. What’s more, the good canon was convinced that the little brothers had been founded solely for the growth of this institute. He therefore feared that by pursuing studies they would no longer be able to attend to the functions they had already been fulfilling in so praiseworthy a fashion for his house. In fact, they were completely occupied with maintaining the grounds, attending to the young workers and the workshops, and as if this were not enough, our father regularly paid for their room and board.

It will therefore come as no surprise that Canon Cerruti reserved for himself the right to accept new members into the congregation; and whenever someone applied, he would swamp him with questions, particularly about whether or not he wanted to be a priest. The brothers were desperate for new companions, so before an applicant went to see the canon they would coach him to answer that he wanted to enter only to do the will of God. Canon Cerruti was not happy with that answer and would continue his interrogation until the applicant confessed that he did want to be a priest. “Well then,” he would say, “this isn’t the place for you. Go to the seminary.” Our father knew all this, but he was meek and patient, so he bore with it acceptingly, abandoning himself to God who would provide in His own good time.

A tiny seed planted in the earth sprouts forth a shoot which the warm sunlight little by little strengthens into a mighty tree. In the same way our congregation had only a handful of brothers in the beginning, but with God’s blessing it prospered and grew to embrace many more brothers full of good will and a saintly eagerness to imitate St. Joseph at every step. Among these I am blessed to count myself.

God called me to the congregation in a unique way. Since my childhood I had always felt a strong inclination to be a priest. Earthly obstacles prohibited my ever realizing my hopes, but I prayed fervently to Our Lady of Clay venerated in the shrine of Castellazzo of Bormida, to grant me the grace I longed for. The grace was granted. In 1875 I attended the centennial celebration for St. Paul of the Cross in Castellazzo. Canon Cerruti was also there for the feast and one evening he saw me in the choir of St. Mary’s Church praying with such fervor that he drew near. After a few questions, he knew that I had long desired to study for the priesthood and suggested that I come to Asti, which would fit in well with my hopes. Outside myself for joy at such an unexpected proposal, I waited a while before giving a definite answer; then encouraged by wise individuals I consented and went to the Michelerio Institute in Asti. Once I was there the director appointed me doorkeeper of the house, evidently with no thought of the reason he had called me. Meanwhile I continued studying Latin on my own, which was not easy for me, hoping from day to day that I would be given a teacher. I was not. Then in January of 1876 I was drafted and assigned to the infantry at Ancona. During my three years of military life, I kept up my studies under the guidance of an ex-Franciscan father, a former philosophy lecturer, who had left his house because of the notorious laws of 1866. While I was in the service, I got to know the curate of Mercy Church in Ancona. Because he was a priest of great virtue, I chose him as my confessor. With wise advice he inspired me not to give up hope, assuring me that he himself would look after my pursuit of clerical studies. Our congregation had scarcely been founded when Canon Cerruti told me about it, and I felt a call to embrace it. When I was discharged I did not know whether to accept the offer of the Curate of Ancona or return to the Michelerio Institute. After all, Canon Cerruti had given no thought to keeping his promise about my studies. Full of uncertainty, I went to the cathedral of Ancona and after praying with deep feeling before the miraculous image of the Queen of Saints, I decided to return to Asti and I carried out this decision in 1878. After various other incidents, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that year, I had the consolation of receiving the clerical habit and attending the diocesan seminary while still serving as prefect of the children at the institute. In my heart I was strongly attracted to the congregation, but I gave no external hint of it. The canon penitentiary absolutely did not want the little brothers to form a congregation on their own, much less become priests, and I did not want to seem to be going against the man who had called me there in the first place. Brother Medico, however, was my assistant prefect, and we grew very close in holy friendship; he took every opportunity to get near me and talk about the congregation. At last, on February 18, 1883, I was ordained a priest, and I begged our father to admit me among his sons. In August of that same year I was accepted.