Brother Biagio Conte
by Alessandro Cannavò
The following article tells the story of Biagio Conte, a lay missionary based in Palermo who has been compared with St Francis of Assisi.
Francesco Deliziosi relates how Fratel Biagio was with Padre Pino Puglisi on the day of 3P’s death; both were in the local government offices trying to get justice for the poor people living in the city’s eastern district. When Pope Francis came in September for the 25th anniversary of 3P’s assassination, he chose to have lunch with Fratel Biagio and his large ‘family’ of poor at his Hope and Charity Mission.
He has the habit and the aspect of Saint Francis: a robe, a cloth over his head, a staff to accompany him on long pilgrimages. He doesn’t have his stature, because he is much taller than the little friar of Assisi; he has a long beard and light blue eyes that reveal his Norman heritage. The eyes stand out against his bronzed skin and are accompanied by a broad, sunny smile. Biagio Conte, brother Biagio, says that he owes everything he has achieved to Providence; and after hearing the story of his ‘Hope and Charity Mission’ in Palermo, you sense that this charismatic man really does communicate with some superhuman entity. People see him walking by carrying a cross and they call him a visionary, but this doesn’t bother him. Faith apart, the Mission is like a great ‘mother hen’ which gathers in 1,100 human beings: the homeless and immigrants, lonely and disabled people, the poorest of the poor. But it’s not merely a matter of providing these people with shelter and food. Here everyone contributes to maintaining the large Mission family, according to their own means and capabilities. There are agricultural projects, and workshops representing many trades. After Charity comes Hope: the hope of liberation.
It is Palermo in the 1980s. Biagio is a restless young man born into the middle classes. He is tired, disillusioned, perhaps disgusted by crime, by moral breakdown, by the mafia killings of those defending justice. He decides to leave everything and make his way alone to Assisi, crossing Sicily’s mountainous interior then travelling up through Italy along the Apennines. Like St Francis, who was the son of a rich merchant, Biagio casts off en route all the material comforts we generally hide behind, rediscovering the essence of things, rediscovering simplicity and humility. “Before the Saint’s tomb” – he has said more than once – “I understood in my heart that I needed to become a missionary. I had intended to go to Africa or India; instead I felt myself being drawn back against my will to the city I had left. Jesus wanted the mission to be born right here, on the streets of Palermo.”
In 1991 he returns home. But not home to his parents. The prodigal son chooses to live at the central station, among the railway carriages and the waiting rooms: home to people we would call tramps or beggars and Biagio Conte calls brothers, treated with the utmost indifference by passers-by. They are drug addicts, alcoholics, or men separated from their wives who have ended up on the street. In the evening when the gates close everyone gets thrown unceremoniously out onto the street. Biagio notices a large derelict building near the station, in via Archirafi. It had been a disinfecting station after the American landings, then it became government property. It was closed a decade ago and is now falling apart, just one of many dilapidated buildings in Palermo. Biagio asks permission to enter it with his brothers. The answer is a curt No. He begins a fast in front of the gates to the building. Silent, but determined. Two, four, eight days pass. On day twelve he succeeds. The gates are opened and the poor people enter the rubble-filled building, a den of drug dealing and prostitution. Journalist Riccardo Rossi takes up the story; he is one of many full time volunteers who, along with his wife, has been living as a tertiary for a year. “Brother Biagio’s family are in the construction trade, and on his travels he met Brother Giovanni, a master builder. It all started from there: in time the building was rebuilt and repaired, and the garden was reclaimed. So many people saw what was happening and gave donations. It was the same with the women’s mission in the old convent of Santa Caterina, and with the building in via Decollati — the toughest challenge of all — an enormous Air Force barracks which had fallen into disrepair. The pattern was always the same: an initial ‘No’ from the authorities, Biagio’s fast, the generous response of the public, the hard work to create a new place from practically nothing. Via Decollati was obtained on loan at the turn of the millennium, at the time of the emergency landings on the Sicilian coastline.
Today the building hosts 800 residents, mostly migrants, but during the day they are joined by local people who are out of work or have community service sentences. As in the other missions, many people who have received help are in their turn helping others with similar problems. A whole series of workshops have been set up: carpentry and plumbing, metalworking and electrical, textiles and printing (Rossi edits a bi-monthly magazine for the Mission, with a circulation of 9000). There are even two orthodontic surgeries, because dental problems are a major issue for those who arrive here with nothing. A group of people who lost their jobs close to retirement age are giving their time to helping the young foreigners. Even the Mission’s church was built in this way: a young African man, a skilled sculptor, created wooden bas-reliefs for each station of the Cross, and a Muslim artist painted eight enormous canvases for the church.
With all the people who ask for help, there are many mouths to feed every day. The Hope and Charity Mission also runs agricultural projects which provide food for everyone. Orchards at Villa Florio (loaned by the Archdiocese of Palermo), oil at Scopello (a farm recently donated by a private individual); and at Tagliavia, near Corleone, goats and cows are being reared and ancient grains cultivated. “We provide 220 kilos of bread every day from live yeast. Believe me, it’s the best bread in Palermo. Apart from our guests, we help hundreds of families in need, they get their food here and the worst cases receive some help towards paying their rent.” But money circulates as little as possible. It is the scourge of padre Pino, the only priest in the Mission, who left his comfortable Salesian monastery to take on the burden of administration. “We don’t have the resources here” continues Rossi. “But even when we produce more than we can use, we prefer to exchange it with other food.”
And so this outpost of humanity grows day by day. Pope Francis set his seal on the Mission by calling in for lunch during his visit to Palermo last September. “He threw his arms round Brother Biagio, who was for him a true missionary; he ate lunch with the world’s poor, 40 at his table, another 100 in the hall, 1200 in the Citadel of the Poor and of Hope: chicken, couscous, caponatina [a local dish made with aubergines], cheese, olives. No speeches, just hugs and listening to everyone’s stories. And he visited our church.” This was the turning-point for the visibility of the Mission: so many Palermitans had given their help, but most were unaware of its development and sheer regenerative power. While his army of angels is in action, Brother Biagio is not idle. During these months he is on a pilgrimage which has already taken him to France, Santiago di Compostela and Portugal. He is currently somewhere near Madrid. He always asks for free board and lodging, which is sometimes refused and he sleeps out of doors, like he did 30 years ago at Palermo Station.
At Fatima the nuns tended the sores on his feet. Now he is in Spain and intends to go to Morocco from there. “He wants to build a bridge with the Islamic world”, Rossi explains. Saint Francis tried this with the Sultan of Egypt after the fifth Crusade: dialogue in the face of hate and coercion.