An Alpini in front of the Basilica
Archivio MSA

THE ALPINI are a branch of the Italian army specialized in mountain operations, and since 1920 they have been organizing an annual national reunion of all those who have belonged to the corps. Hundreds of thousands of Alpini congregate with their families and friends for a weekend to celebrate and remember their ‘glorious past’.

The city that was chosen for this year’s general meeting was Treviso, which is about 25 miles from Padua. During the second weekend of May many of these former soldiers made a detour to Padua to pray at the Tomb of St. Anthony. The cloisters of the Basilica were therefore filled with men of all ages wearing the traditional hat with the black feather.

After my round of confessions I saw a group of them in the Magnolia Cloister. They were engaged in a sumptuous snack based on bread, salami and cheese, all washed down with a good glass of red wine. One of them approached me and said, “Father, our friend Vittorio has a really nice story to tell. He’s 93, but he’s still right in the head.”

Vittorio, who seemed younger than his years, smiled at me and said, “Everyone’s always making fun of me because I’m extremely devoted to St. Anthony, but it couldn’t be otherwise because the Saint actually saved my life.”

On 8 September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the country suddenly found itself at war with Germany, its former ally. The problem was that the German army was still occupying most of the country, with the exception of parts of southern Italy.

In the following days, the Italian soldiers were confronted with the choice to continue fighting as allies of the German army or, otherwise, be sent to detention camps in Germany. Only 10 percent agreed to enroll.

In the mayhem, Vittorio managed to escape and board a train bound for Milan, which was full of civilians and soldiers.

When they were about to reach Brescia a woman, who had just got on the train, informed everyone that the Germans in Brescia were combing all trains of all able bodied men, and sending them to the camps.

Vittorio realized that he was trapped: the train was speeding towards Brescia and he couldn’t jump off. At that point he sat on the floor and started crying – after all he was only 19 – and a prayer issued from his trembling lips: “St. Anthony, please help me, I don’t know what to do.” Since childhood he had had great devotion for St. Anthony, and at that moment of great distress, he thought of the little picture of the Saint that he kept at his bedside table.

Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw a young friar with a bag and a breviary. “Quickly,” the friar told him, “in this bag I have a Franciscan habit which I am taking home in order to wash it. Put it on immediately!” Vittorio looked at the friar in amazement, and asked him, “Who are you?” “Don’t be afraid,” the friar replied, “but move, we have no time.” Vittorio complied, and went into the toilet where he put the habit on as best he could. Eventually, the friar had to help him fasten the cord with the three knots.

In the meantime the train had reached Brescia, and the Germans started immediately to gather all the Italian soldiers in a general atmosphere of anguish, chaos and unrest. After half an hour, however, the ghastly operation was over, and the train continued on its journey towards Milan in a mood of eerie quietness, interrupted only by the sobs of the civilians: women, children and old men.  In the last wagon were two Franciscan friars in deep prayer. They had a bag, and in this bag there was a private’s uniform and a hat with a black feather.

“After the war,” Vittorio continued, “I tried to track that friar, but I was never able to come up with anything. I had not asked him his name because, had I been arrested, I could have got him into serious trouble. I like to think that that young friar was St. Anthony himself who had come to my rescue; and every time I pray to him I see that face. Naturally I came here to Padua immediately after the war, and I left my hat with the black feather at the Saint’s Tomb as a gift. He totally deserved it.”

Dear reader, I do hope that the real life story of Vittorio may bring you some comfort and hope in this month of June when we celebrate the Feast of our beloved Saint. Let’s remember that God really loves us as a Father, and let’s also always follow St. Anthony’s advice, “Pray to God and he will hear you!”

Updated on June 09 2017