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Blood feud in Godrano: 3P's first parish

When Padre Pino Puglisi was given the tiny parish of Godrano, a mountaintop village nearly 2500 feet above sea level, he didn’t complain but responded, typically, with a joke: he was now “the most high-up priest in the diocese”.** To get there from Palermo you had to travel along tortuous winding roads, not an easy task for Padre Pino’s old banger, a white Fiat 500. He arrived in October 1970 with his tiny car and his belongings: a few personal items, and a very large quantity of books.


Godrano is about 25 miles from the capital, and just a day’s walk from Corleone (home of the ruthless Corleonesi mafia clan). Padre Pino was to remain in Godrano for 8 years and was reluctant to leave. However, the initial challenges he faced were considerable. A devastating earthquake in 1968 had damaged Godrano’s church, St Mary Immaculate, and the roof had partially collapsed. Mass was celebrated in a room in the rectory, and 3P set up his living quarters in another corner of the rectory, which was freezing in winter and let the rain in.


It was in Godrano that Padre Pino made the conscious decision to live in Franciscan-inspired poverty. He was given a kerosene stove, but it seems he only used it when he had guests, and he ate only what he was given by the local people – bread, milk, cheese and eggs. He simply didn’t give any thought to his own needs, because he didn’t have the time! His days were entirely given up to serving God in the people around him. He made sure there was always petrol in his car, so that he could be always available to the people, both in Godrano and in the surrounding villages. Despite many challenges, he always remained cheerful.


Padre Pino ruffled a few feathers in Godrano, as he would later do in Brancaccio, by refusing to let the rich and powerful use the church as a base for their activities, political and otherwise. The mayor of Godrano had used the parish church as an electoral office for 30 years until 3P came along and told him to find somewhere else. Also, it was (and is) normal in Sicilian villages for processions to take place in which statues of the patron saints are carried in honour through the streets, often with music and fireworks; these processions usually involve donations of money, often from people struggling to feed their families, and in Godrano people would place bank notes at the base of the statue of its patron saint St Joseph. 3P put a stop to this practice, and introduced more spiritual elements such as prayers and hymns. To this day the processions in the area surrounding Godrano retain a more authentically spiritual flavour than many of those held elsewhere in the South of Italy.


There had been 15 killings in Godrano during the ‘50s and ‘60s, due to a feud between two families (Barbaccia and Lorello) – not mafia related, but still deadly. Some of the victims were innocent witnesses. The hostility in Godrano was palpable. At Mass the members of the two feuding families initially sat far apart so they didn’t have to shake hands at the sign of peace. Mass-goers would gossip about their neighbours after the offertory basket came round, and 3P abolished the collection, placing the basket in the entrance where people could donate – or not – unseen and uncriticized.


A young boy, Giovanni, was caught stealing from the basket one day. The carabinieri wanted to take him to a young offender’s institution, but 3P pleaded for him to stay. He promised to take Giovanni under his wing, explaining that to send him away was tantamount to enrolling him in the “university of crime”! He told the boy that if he ever needed money, he could ask him, 3P, and he would provide it. Padre Pino looked after Giovanni so well that the other children complained: why is he treated better than us, when he is a thief? So 3P gently explained to them the parable of the lost sheep.


From his arrival in Godrano, more than a year passed and many doors were shut in his face before Padre Pino succeeded in breaking the ice. In the winter of 1971, 3P reached a low point, feeling he was unable to carry out his vocation as a priest. But with encouragement and help from a young friend, Filippo Barbaccia, he decided to focus on the children because, as he would later say in Brancaccio, “with them it is not too late”. He arranged slide shows on the wall of the sacristy and put on plays based on the key teachings of the Gospels. He bought a clapped-out carabinieri van and “borrowed” his brother Gaetano’s seaside home for a few days to take some of the older children for a few days’ holiday – they had never seen the sea. He had won over the children, and little by little, as the years passed, he would win over the hearts of the adults too.


Padre Pino loved the woods and the mountains around Godrano. He knew them well, having escaped there from the city with his family during World War II. He often took the children for walks, sometimes reaching the summit in time for dawn, when he would celebrate Mass using a pile of stones as an altar. As one of the children, Giusy who lived with her family opposite the church, would later recall “through the beauty of Nature we learned to also love the Creator”.

Giusy (Caldarella, now a teacher) and another of Godrano’s children, Carmelo Cuttitta (now a bishop) both recognise the pivotal role 3P played in their lives; in those days, children in Godrano finished their education at age 14 and were actively discouraged by their parents from continuing their studies, as this involved moving to the big city. 3P was influential in persuading the anxious parents to allow their children to continue studying, and many did, such was their trust in him.


Padre Pino’s friends started visiting from Palermo in the early days to help 3P in his mission. Among these was Lia Cerrito, his lifelong friend and collaborator, who belonged to a Franciscan-inspired organisation called “Presence of the Gospel”. Lia helped organise “cenacles”, covering topics such as peace and fraternity. People were initially reluctant, but gradually more and more people got involved.


As they were discussing the topic of forgiveness, one woman who had been deeply invested in the meetings told 3P she felt unable to host them any longer, because she couldn’t forgive the mother of her son’s killer (this mother had encouraged her son to commit the murder). Padre Pino suggested she carry on hosting, and not worry about it; the opportunity for forgiveness would present itself. Not long afterwards, the hostess was at home and saw her “enemy” slip and fall as she was passing on the cobbled street outside. She rushed out, helped her to her feet and took her into her home. The two women were reconciled, and from that moment onwards they collaborated in healing the deep rift that had plagued the village for so long.


Their reconciliation was criticised by some, however. 3P and Lia Cerrito needed to reassure the people of Godrano that forgiveness doesn’t cancel or justify the harm that has been done; rather it simply means renouncing revenge. 3P explained “Mercy needs to be given to all, especially to those who seem not to deserve it”.


As well as helping to free Godrano from a blood feud, Padre Pino was able to put into practice the directives from the then-recent Second Vatican Council regarding ecumenism. Godrano had, and still has, a community of Pentecostal Christians who used to be ignored or shunned by the rest of the village. 3P reached out to them and organised after-school activities and homework clubs for Catholic and Pentecostal children together.


In 1977, the Archbishop of Palermo, Salvatore Pappalardo, offered 3P a prestigious post in the capital as spiritual director of the seminary. He refused, because he wanted to stay with his people and “didn’t feel up to the task”. However, the following year, when he was offered another post – co-director of the Diocesan Centre for Vocations – he reluctantly accepted, as the church repairs were finally completed, and he felt the people were now able to continue in the path of peace without him. Giusy Caldarella, who was in his kitchen sharing his favourite dish of fried eggs and potatoes, was the first to find out he was leaving. He did not like goodbyes; he told her that they would always be united in Christ, and that their paths would cross again. And so they did – at age 14 Giusy went to Palermo to attend the school where 3P taught, and eventually studied theology at university.


In 2019 a museum was set up in Godrano to commemorate Padre Pino’s years there, inaugurated by Palermo’s current Archbishop, Corrado Lorefice. A few months ago a mural was painted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of 3P’s martyrdom.

But his legacy lives on mainly in the hearts of the people of Godrano.

 

 

** The joke works better in Italian: altolocato normally means “high-ranking” but it can also be interpreted literally as “located at a high altitude”!

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