Mon, Mar

Article appeared in Gazzetta d'Alba

Starting with this issue, we offer readers a valuable series of documents. These are the papers given by three leading experts at the conference held on 26-28 November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Blessed James Alberione, as part of “Alba capitale della cultura d’impresa 2021”. This year, on 3 June to be exact, the Gazzetta d’Alba celebrates its 140th anniversary and its success is closely linked to the apostolic activity of Father James Alberione, who in 1913 bought it from the diocese and relaunched it, making it grow to become the weekly magazine of reference for an entire area. But it was also thanks to Gazzetta that Alberione sensed the hour had come to start his great apostolic work the following year, in 1914, by founding the Society of St Paul. This talk by Professor Gianfranco Maggi will be followed in future issues by those of the historian Andrea Riccardi and the economist Stefano Zamagni.   


Before getting to the heart of the matter, it may be useful to briefly review the long life of James Alberione. Born in 1884 in a farmstead in the hamlet of San Lorenzo di Fossano, as the fifth child of a traditional peasant family, he followed their move to Montecapriolo di Cherasco. He showed his intention to become a priest at a very early age, and attended first the seminary in Bra and then that of Alba, where he was ordained in June 1907. He graduated in theology and was highly respected by Bishop Re, and was appointed spiritual director of the seminarians in Alba. Following in the footsteps of his teacher Canon Francesco Chiesa, he began to be involved in the Unione Popolare (as Catholic Action was then called) and to look after the ‘good press’. 


At the beginning of the work there is Gazzetta d’Alba

In 1913, he acquired from the diocese the ownership of the weekly Gazzetta di Alba, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy due to debts. In 1914, he set up the Printing School, an embryo of what soon became the Società San Paolo. Very quickly his creation expanded its activities, attracting an ever-growing number of followers, both male and female. Alberione had to overcome the mistrust of the Roman Congregations, and also of a good part of the diocesan clergy of Alba, and struggled for a long time to obtain ecclesiastical recognition of his foundation. In 1925, the foundation opened an office in Rome, publishing a myriad of parish bulletins, devotional periodicals and books.

The Society of St Paul - which was joined by the women’s branches of the Daughters of St Paul and then, from 1924, by the Pious Disciples and, from 1938, by the Pastorelle Sisters - in the space of a few years had reached a very high number of members, and in Alba had equipped itself with an imposing building to house hundreds of children and young people as well as the premises necessary for the work of composing, printing and shipping its printed products. From the beginning of the 1930s Fr Alberione began to send his priests to various countries, both European and non-European, to imitate there what had been done in Alba. Thus printing houses and bookshops were opened everywhere. Later, a film production was started in Italy and the first radio stations were also set up abroad.

The founder’s prestige grew steadily, and he was appreciated and praised even by the popes. At the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, he was counted among the small group of religious superiors invited to participate. He died in Rome (where he had been living since 1936) on 26th November 1971.

At that time, the congregations he founded totalled more than 5,200 men and women. They were not employees of a company, but volunteers who had consciously decided to consecrate their lives to a mission that the Lord was showing them through Fr James Alberione. He was proclaimed Blessed in 2003.


A great enterprise where there was a desert

James Alberione’s “legacy” was an impressive work of “apostolate of the good press”. He had thus realised his idea, matured since the very first years of the century, to make journalism “the right arm and weapon of the Church” against the nefarious influence of the anti-clerical lay press that risked “corrupting” the Catholic masses. The conviction that he had a special and well-defined mission from God, to be fulfilled personally,” writes his biographer, “was rooted in the depths of his soul like a dogma of faith”.

However, from a different point of view, he had undoubtedly also created a very successful company, with its plants, editorial offices, distribution network and widespread propaganda. He had therefore built up from scratch, starting from Alba, a large industry, which was among the largest in Italy in the publishing sector. However, no perspective other than the apostolic one engaged his mind and heart. It is significant that in his works (many, but mostly made up of collections of occasional articles and, above all, transcriptions of his sermons) the theme of industrial or commercial activity never appears, not even in his Catechismo sociale. Elements of Christian Sociology. The only times he mentions it is only to reject the idea of wanting to imitate it.

James Alberione had, however, undoubtedly been an entrepreneur. And, even more significantly, he had been so in a context such as that of Alba at the beginning of the 20th century. What is now celebrated here as the ‘capital of business culture’ was, on the contrary, an authentic ‘business desert’.

Apart from a few wineries that were already renowned but were, on the whole, tiny, the only real ‘factory’ was the spinning mill, then called De Fernex, which in its heyday employed several hundred workers at the time of reeling, but which was now on the road to inexorable decline. There were also three brick kilns and a mill at Mussotto, which had been very important but was also in decline. The statistics of the time also mention a small nail factory and various minor craft activities.

In this panorama - which depicts a city that relied for its meagre prosperity on the trade in goods produced by an agriculture that was in turn stunted and overburdened by a mass of workers who were forced to emigrate in order to make a living - the work carried out by this poor but stubborn priest was miraculous. Starting out in 1914 from a very small printing press run by a willing but unskilled workforce, in the space of a few years he had bought new machines and expanded his business, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the war and post-war crisis, and counting on an impetuously growing number of followers eager to put all their (meagre) resources at the service of an apostolic ideal that set them on fire.

For several years, Fr Alberione’s work, although of considerable size and with a respectable patrimony, did not even have a clearly defined juridical nature.

At a certain point, however, in 1923, partly to exorcise the fear of some “subversive” law, the Society of Saint Paul was set up as a joint-stock company, whose share capital of 1,700,000 lire had grown to 4 million after four years. Later, while waiting for ecclesiastical recognition, it was transformed into a charitable organisation recognised by the Church.


It contributed to the development of two districts in the city

Already in 1920, Alberione’s creature, which in its annual reports showed an active economic management, could no longer find spaces in the city that could accommodate it and was forced to refuse, due to lack of premises, about eighty applications for admission. So it decided to campese ‘nt i prà, buying the vast expanse of land, some of it marshy, between the ring road, the railway and the Cherasca stream. The same area where we are gathered today.

And he built his first “house” there: a three-storey building measuring 31.80 by 12.20 metres. The construction was not yet finished when, at the end of 1921, he asked permission to extend it by another thirty metres.

At the time there were about eighty young people in the Pauline Society; a year later there were 172, and the new house was already far too small to provide them with accommodation, however spartan, and space to work. There was also a lack of space for storing the goods needed for production and the printed matter that was to be distributed.

Thus, at the end of 1922, a new request was made to the Municipality to build a sixty-metre long building, the same length as the one that had been built until then, leaving space between the two to accommodate a church in the future.

It was a real building frenzy (the ‘stone disease’, as someone called it) that led Alberione to build the large complex that overlooks what is now Piazza San Paolo. Thanks to the tireless work of his “boys” and many generous cooperators, he had also raised the ground, which had previously been excavated to provide raw material for the furnaces of Alba, to the level necessary to make the large esplanade of the present square. A new city district was thus created around it.

But Alberione had already made another equally significant contribution to Alba’s urban development. In 1914, in the very dawning stages of his creation, while looking for a suitable location to house it, he had purchased, in an area then far from the extreme suburbs, the villa of Moncaretto together with about 7 hectares of land, which reached as far as the road to Barolo.

His plans were very clear: there he would build (and he immediately began to do so) a church, the Divine Master of today. In this way he would increase the value of the surrounding land, so that it would be possible, in the short term, to sell it, keeping only the strip next to the sacred building. He would have made enough money to pay off the debt of 80,000 lire and finish building the church.

A “pious speculation”, as the bishop Monsignor Re defined it when he was informed. This gave a powerful boost to the city’s strong expansion in the early post-war period along what was to be called Corso Piave. 


The role assigned to the many co-operators

Alberione’s frenetic activism aroused opposing reactions in the asphyxiated environment of Alba. There were, especially in the countryside of the diocese, more than five hundred faithful (men and women) enthusiastic about a new apostolic enterprise and willing to “cooperate” in every way: with donations of money and foodstuffs, but also with invaluable work, especially in the winter period when the fields required less effort.

Alberione called them “Pauline cooperators” and to them he owed much of his success. But there were also detractors, those who were suspicious of what was being done and who wondered where the money that was being spent so lavishly came from. And there were also those among the priests of the diocese, who feared that the boom might turn into a crash and that the diocese would have to cover up frightening holes.

But Alberione went forward undaunted, certain that he had to respond to his Lord’s call and that the Lord himself would provide for overcoming all the obstacles that stood in his way. He also sought every means to make his enterprise more economically viable, taking advantage of the overabundance of manpower at his disposal, albeit without any technical training. He launched a sort of autarkic programme, convinced that by producing everything he needed himself, he would reduce costs. He started with bricks, thinking of all the ones he needed for his vast building programme, and set up a kiln that drew its raw material from the land in what is now the piazza.

Then, in order to ensure a healthier and more nutritious diet for his children, he built a mill and bakery in the small farmhouse that stood in the middle of the land; they would use the wheat donated to him by his co-operators. But the same land also provided him with hay, which he used to feed some of the cows he had provided for himself. And with the grass from the meadow and the kitchen waste he also raised a few dozen pigs.

When meat was needed, he did not shy away from unscrupulous manoeuvres and carried out clandestine slaughtering. Following his logic, he set up a small machine shop, a shoemaker’s shop, a carpenter’s shop and even a small ink factory. It was certainly not a success from an economic point of view, but it was invaluable in wartime for the supply of paper.


One mission for men and women

Alberione’s greatest annoyances, however, were with his superiors. He had immediately asked for formal recognition of his work, with the establishment of a religious congregation. But he wanted acceptance of the plan he had set himself and which he had already begun to implement: that of a society of religious life whose sole purpose was the apostolate through the press, and which was composed of a male and a female branch, integrated under a single direction.

To underline her conviction of a new and greater role for women in the pastoral care of the Church, it is worth recalling that she had already published a book in 1915 entitled La donna associata allo zelo sacerdotale (Woman Associated with Priestly Zeal).

All of this, however, did not fit into the strict rules of the code of canon law, and she had to wait over ten years to obtain the longed-for pontifical recognition, each time adjusting her requests. He had to wait more than ten years before he could obtain the longed-for pontifical recognition, and he had to give in to the fact that the two branches of the Pauline Family were combined into a single reality, giving rise to several women’s congregations linked to the Paulines under the umbrella of the Pauline Family.


Total reliance on Providence rather than money

Alberione always needed a considerable amount of money. Money was never enough for him. Certainly not because of personal needs, since his life was, without exception, marked by a style that was more than monastic. But because what he was creating cost a lot of money, even though his sons (and daughters even more so) received no compensation for the very valuable work they did. Buildings, however, cost money to construct and maintain; printing presses were not always available at a good price; and, in any case, maintaining an ever-growing army of people entailed a considerable burden.

So how did he do it? In order to understand him, we have to enter into his mentality, shaped by a granite faith: he said that “it is easy to do works with money, the best thing is to let the Lord do the works, He never starts with money”. He never starts with money”, and that “the works of God do not begin with money, but with prayer and trust in God; trust in God and go ahead, to begin with money is naive”.

For the first steps (the purchase of the Gazzetta and the setting up of the printing school) he invested the proceeds from the sale of his portion of the inheritance received from his godfather. Then he immediately began to rely on Providence. Providence was generally abundant and came at the right time. He was not lacking in offers and donations: from the few, hard-earned pennies of his co-operators scattered in the many towns of the diocese of Alba and, little by little, in the places where the river of his publications arrived, to the many thousands of lire (in those days) that noble ladies and powerful and wealthy friends gave him on various occasions. But in the face of such generosity, he maintained that it was not the case to show too much gratitude to benefactors, because it was more just that they should be grateful to those who offered him the possibility of committing their goods to good works.

Moreover, he declared that “none of the suppliers lost a penny, and they always continued their trust. There were many benefactors whose charity yielded three times as much”.

I have already mentioned the gifts of foodstuffs or materials needed for the construction of his houses. For example, in Benevello, a small parish in the Langa region, the parish priest, who was a great friend of Alberione’s, had it written into the statutes of the local Piccolo credito that its resources should be allocated to support the work of the good press. He also resorted to ordinary bank credit, perhaps turning to many sources, sometimes ‘with little discretion’, as his biographer writes. And finally, there was the income from publishing.

But the rumours, sometimes interested, that predicted the imminent financial collapse of his creature did not cease, and continued to instil doubts in the higher ecclesiastical hierarchies.

So much so that in 1936 the Bishop of Alba, Monsignor Grassi, following suggestions from Rome, came to him and ordered him to show him the books. As usual, Alberione made no bones about it, begging only to give him the necessary time, one week, to find the material.

When the bishop returned a week later, he found that Fr Alberione was no longer there, having moved to Rome for good.

He left muttering an ironic and disconsolate “now I understand how the saints act”. And the Positio super virtutibus, the large volume in which the investigations in support of the cause of beatification are summarised, refers to the episode under the heading: ‘Even the Bishop of Alba recognises his holiness’.


Thinking and planning bigger and bigger

As an entrepreneur, Alberione possessed some of the most outstanding qualities. He was always guided by a very clear objective, which he pursued firmly but always ready to modulate the path to reach it, realistically assessing what was possible from time to time.

His vision was expressed in his ability to think and plan big. He devoted all his energy to his work, despite his failing health. Although his biographer speaks of ‘his natural inclination to do more than to do’, he was always reluctant to delegate, except when it was convenient or when he could not do without it.

This was possible thanks to the very strong charisma he exuded and which all his collaborators recognised and respected. He did not present himself as a scholar who made available to others the treasures of knowledge he had accumulated, but as a teacher, or better still as a leader who gave directions, suggested new methods and pointed out the goals to be achieved. And he knew how to make himself obey without ever using anything less than subdued manners.

But his goals were always alien to economic considerations. He wanted strongly and only to serve his Lord and his Church, using the means that entrepreneurship suggested to him. But he never sought to make a profit; on the contrary, he tried in every way to prevent his work from “degenerating into an industrial and commercial enterprise”.

With this in mind, he accepted without any effort whatsoever what was imposed on him by the constitutions that governed the Society of St Paul: that it should not capitalise anything for profit, that it should always have debts but never such as to endanger its economic existence (“a rule”, his biographer comments, “that he personally never transgressed”), and that it should prohibit individual members from making any material profit on their own account from the printing and publishing business.

To reinforce the purely apostolic nature of the Society of Saint Paul, at a certain point Alberione assured Rome that he was obliged to print only his own editions, not on behalf of third parties, unless the ecclesiastical authority declared that they were of real interest to souls. What we might call his ‘personnel policy’ deserves special attention in this context. For many decades he was always absolutely opposed to entrusting any work assignment to persons not belonging to his religious Society. He was firmly convinced that, since it was not a commercial activity but a work of the apostolate, all its parts had to be in the hands of “consecrated souls”, or at least of Christians who sought only the Lord’s reward. To entrust the fulfilment of an apostolate to salaried persons seemed to him a kind of profanation.

Some insinuated that Alberione was thus exploiting the work of his sons and daughters, often very young. But these rumours were silenced by those concerned, who always declared decisively that Alberione had never asked for or imposed excessive work, because they all considered the commitment to work as an apostolate.

The Founder was resolutely faithful to his rejection of outside work, at least until 1960. With difficulty he adapted to giving it up, but only when he was convinced that, without the help of employees, the works he had started would no longer be able to continue their growth. Thus, in the mid-1960s, a new, large printing plant was built in Alba to print Famiglia Cristiana, which at that time had established itself as the most popular Italian magazine.

For almost fifty years since then it has provided excellent work for hundreds of families in the town and its surroundings.


Rapid expansion from Italy to abroad

Before closing, we cannot fail to mention one of the most impressive features of the growth of the Society of St Paul and the Pauline Family, its rapid expansion.

Not only in many Italian cities; here, to limit ourselves to the period between 1928 and 1933, for example, 26 Pauline bookshops were opened. But also in many foreign countries (in the same period of time, Paulines and Daughters of St. Paul set up activities in Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Germany, France, Spain, China, Japan, the Philippines, India and Poland).

Not all foundations were successful, but all followed the same pattern. First of all, each “branch” had to have its own printing house and its own alumniate to form the new brothers. From an industrial point of view, there would have been no reason to establish more than one printing house in the same country, and this would have caused problems later on. But it was a price to pay in order not to incur the wrath of the Roman congregation, which did not want an industrial approach.

Above all, however, Alberione’s way of sending his priests and daughters out on adventures, relying solely on the Lord’s help, without any preparation or material support, is astounding. With only a few days’ notice, they were to leave for a particular place, where they would have to seek the approval of the local bishop and then start their business of producing and distributing the good press, finding the necessary resources themselves. They were accompanied by the prayer of the founder, and that should be enough.

It is impressive to read in the Positio the testimony of a doctor from Alba who went to Ethiopia and on the ship met a Pauline priest who had been sent to Japan ‘without a penny, without a commission, nor any knowledge of foreign languages’.

In the scorching heat of the Red Sea, he wore a long, heavy black cassock because he had no other clothes. To prevent him from suffering heatstroke, the travellers took up a collection to provide him with more suitable equipment. In another case, there is a story of a priest who left for India but ended up in China.


Honorary citizenship by the Municipality of Alba

In spite of the not always easy relations with the local environment, Alberione was constantly linked to this city, where his vocation had matured, where he had received the enlightenment that had set him on a precise direction, where his works had begun to take shape. Nor, on the other hand, did “his” city, to which he had given fame and which had generously offered him so many young men and women who had followed him in his apostolic adventure, ever forget him.

When, in 1964, the city of Alba conferred on him, in a rare act in its history, honorary citizenship, it was a moment of great emotion.

In conclusion, Fr Alberione cannot seriously be considered as a model for entrepreneurs. But certainly the results of his activity, even looking only at the material aspects, have been great. For Alba it was the first large industrial enterprise he had ever known. In this way, too, he contributed to shaping the features of the industrial city that would flourish in the post-war period.

Agenda Paolina

March 27, 2023

Feria (viola)
Dn 13,1-62 (passim); Sal 22; Gv 8,1-11

March 27, 2023

* FSP: 1948 a Belo Horizonte (Brasile) - 1954 a Salvador Bahia (Brasile) - 1957 a Cúcuta (Colombia).

March 27, 2023

SSP: Fr. Giovanni Novarino (2011) - D. Giuseppe Dadomo (2016) • FSP: Sr. Giacinta Pescio (1999) - Sr. Anna Maria Dal Pra’ (2019) - Sr. Claudia Maria Peña y Lillo (2019) • PD: Sr. M. Fulgenzia Rapagnani (1979) - Sr. M. Giuseppina Ambrosio (1989) - Sr. M. Nazarena Andolfi (1994) - Sr. M. Enrichetta Morabito (1998) - Sr. M. Sandra García Cruz (2021) • IGS: D. Gino Grimaldi (1983) - Venerabile D. Bernardo Antonini (2002) IMSA: Sara Avelina Bescós (2020) ISF: Assunta Gramaglia (2002).


March 27, 2023

Infondetemi, o Gesù, una fede viva nella vostra paterna bontà; una fede viva nelle promesse che ci avete fatto. Io credo che Voi siete infinitamente fedele; credo che a chi chiede viene dato (RSp, 116).

March 27, 2023

Infúndeme, oh Jesús, una fe viva en tu paterna bondad; una fe viva en las promesas que nos has hecho. Creo que eres infinitamente fiel; creo que a quien pide se le da (RSp, 116).

March 27, 2023

Infuse me, O Jesus, with a living faith in your paternal goodness; a living faith in the promises you have made to us. I believe that you are infinitely faithful; I believe that whoever asks will be given (RSp, 116).