Canonised: 0 1-10-2000
Liturgical celebration: 25 February
In 1885, St John Bosco revealed to the Salesians who had gathered at San Benigno Canavese in Piedmont, that he had dreamed about a crowd of youngsters who had come up to him telling him: “We have waited so long for you!”; in another dream he saw two large chalices raised up to heaven, one filled with sweat, the other with blood. In 1918, when a group of Salesian missions left Valdocco in Turin for Shiu-Chow in Kwang-tung in China, the Rector Major, Fr Paul Albera, gave them the chalice he had used for the Golden Jubilee of his ordination and also of the consecration of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians. This valuable and symbolic gift was handed over to Bishop Versiglia by Fr Sante Garelli. Bishop Versiglia said: “Don Bosco saw that when we came to China a chalice would be filled with blood, Salesian work would spread marvellously throughout this immense population. You are bringing me the chalice our Father saw: it is up to me to fill it with blood to fulfil the vision.”
Aloysius Versiglia (but more often known as Luigi) was born in Oliva Gessi in the province of Pavia on 5 June 1873. In 1885, at twelve years of age, he was accepted to continue his studies at the Salesian oratory at Valdocco in Turin. The condition he laid down was that they would not make a priest out of him! But by God’s grace, this setting that was imbued with fervour and missionary ardour, the attraction of Don Bosco himself who was now in the final years of his life, transformed the soul of this boy. In a fleeting encounter in 1887, the saint told him: “Come and see me, I have something to tell you”; but Don Bosco was unable to speak with Luigi because soon after he fell sick and died. The young man, however, remained bound to the figure of Don Bosco so much that in order to respond to his vocational call, at the end of his studies at Valdocco he made the request to “remain with Don Bosco”. In his heart he carried the secret hope that he would be able to be a missionary one day. He made his first religious vows in the Salesian Congregation at 16 years of age.
He was a model novice at Foglizzo, near Turin, and made his religious profession on 11 October 1889. While he was studying philosophy in the studentate at Valsalice, Turin (1889-90), he wrote to his spiritual director saying that the desire to be a missionary was growing day by day, but that he feared it might be a vain desire since he did not have the necessary virtues, and mentioned the ones he needed to acquire. His ascetic journey began here. Forty years later it would lead him to the supreme heights of Christian virtue and charity. It was the arduous achievement of a generous heart and an iron will, supported by sincere piety and profound humility. These were the characteristic gifts of his personality.
While attending the Gregorian University in Rome (1890-93) he combined study with the apostolate among the youngsters at the Salesian Oratory at the Sacred Heart Oratory (Sacro Cuore), with outstanding success in both fields. The boys loved him and the confreres admired him for his gifts. But in his deep and sincere humility he maintained that he was the least among his fellow students and he continued his efforts to gain the virtues needed by a good missionary. When he had completed his Philosophy degree (1893) the Superiors entrusted him with the delicate task of teacher and assistant to the novices at Foglizzo (1893-96). He was a clear and forthright teacher, an attentive though strict assistant when needed, an effective moulder of character, but ever an kind, humble, good friend to all and the most respected among the confreres of the house.
After his priestly ordination (21 December 1895) he was chosen as the rector and novice master at the new house in Genzano near Rome, despite his resistance to this, since he thought he was incapable of it, being just 23 years of age. He was an excellent formator of priestly and religious souls for a decade (1896-1905), respected and loved as a father. Dozens of Salesians testified to the veneration they had for their dear novice master, and the inhabitants of Genzano too remembered him for many years. Over these ten years, Fr Versiglia continued to nurture his keen desire for the missions, and resuming a practice he had as a youngster he even took up horse riding again, considering that it could be useful for missionary life. In the summer of 1905, when the invitation was offered to him to lead the first group of Salesian missionaries to go to China, he accepted it enthusiastically as the greatest of gifts, one that he had asked the Lord for and prepared for with intense inner work from the time, as a fifteen-year-old, that he had asked to “remain with Don Bosco”.
Fr Versiglia found a small orphanage in Macao that belonged to the local bishop. In 12 years of work, with the help of a dozen or so confreres and on a larger property, he transformed it into a modern technical school for 200 boarding students, most of them orphans, who were then set on the path to trade. In 1911, assisted by another holy Salesian, Fr Ludovico Olive (who died prematurely at 52 years of age from the cholera he had contracted during his ministry), Fr Versiglia began the mission of Heung-shan, a region that lay between Macao and Canton. His apostolic zeal for the salvation of souls reached heroic heights among sufferers from bubonic plague and among lepers.
In 1918 the Holy See entrusted the Salesians with the new mission of Shiu-Chow in the north of Kwang-tung. Fr Versiglia was given the task by the Superiors in Turin of organising this mission with the help of a dozen or so priests sent out from Italy. In 1920 the mission was erected as a Vicariate Apostolic and rumours soon spread that Fr Versiglia would be the Vicar Apostolic and be consecrated a bishop. He wrote heart-wrenching letters to the Superiors in Turin, declaring how absolutely incapable he was and begging them to relieve him of this burden. Bishop De Guébriant, however, stated publicly that if the choice were to be made by popular acclaim, even the tenderest little children would have acclaimed Fr Versiglia as their father and pastor. He was consecrated bishop in Canton on 9 January 1921. Taking on an exhausting pastoral ministry throughout a huge area that lacked roads, Bishop Versiglia added harsh penances to this, including using a scourge. In 1926, at the invitation of the superiors in Turin, he took part in the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. Some serious surgery kept him in the United States for a year. When his health allowed, he busied himself with missionary propaganda, always leaving behind an extraordinary impression.
On his return to Shiu-Chow the confreres presented him with something new: the bishop’s house. It was a charming Chinese-style house, not luxurious, built next to the Don Bosco institute where the bishop had always lived in two small rooms that felt every movement by the 300 pupils at the institute. The new building seemed luxurious to him and he categorically refused to call it the bishop’s residence. But he resigned himself to living there so long as it was actually called “The Missionary House”, where missionaries could stay who were either ill or passing through or coming for meetings.
In 12 years of mission from 1918 to 1930, Bishop Versiglia wrought miracles in a land hostile to Catholics: he set up 55 primary and secondary mission stations compared to the 18 he had found there; he ordained 21 priests; he formed 2 lay religious, 15 local Sisters and 10 foreign ones; he left 31 catechists (18 of them female), 39 teachers (8 female) and 25 seminarians. He converted and baptised three thousand Christians compared to the 1,479 he found on his arrival. He built an orphanage, a formation house for female catechists, and a school for the male catechists; the Don Bosco Institute, including technical classes, and a teacher’s college for young men; the Mary Help of Christians Institute for girls; a rest home for the elderly; a home for illegitimate children; two clinics and the Missionary House, as he wanted his episcopal residence to be called. The bishop would stop at nothing, not even in the face of famine, epidemics, or the defeats that came his way and those of his collaborators, who were not always rewarded in human terms: apostasy, slander, those who left, misunderstandings, vilification ... It was all overcome thanks to constant, intense prayer. Over the years he dedicated to China, Bishop Versiglia never tired of encouraging his priests to be in dialogue with the Lord and the Virgin Mary. It is no coincidence that he kept up a correspondence with the Carmelite nuns in Florence, asking them for spiritual support.
The political situation in China was not a peaceful one: the new Chinese Republic, born on 10 October 1911 with General Chang Kai-shek, had unified China, defeating the warlords in 1927 who had tyrannised various regions. But heavy communist infiltration in the country and the army, supported by Stalin, had convinced the General to find support from the Right and outlaw the Communists (April 1927); this brought a renewed civil war. The province of Shiu-Chow, located between North and South, was a transit or rest area for various groups who were fighting among themselves and it was normal to see ransacking, buildings burned, violence, kidnapping and other crimes. It was also difficult to distinguish, among these gangs of looters, who were the soldiers on the loose, the mercenaries, hired killers, or just pirates taking advantage of the chaos. In those sad times foreigners too risked their lives and were classified as mere “white devils”. In general the missionaries were loved by the poor people and Missions became a refuge at times of looting. The worst ones nevertheless were the pirates who had regard for no one, and the communist soldiers for whom the destruction of Christianity was part of their programme. Therefore, in the movements needed for missionary activity around the various sparsely spread villages, male and female catechists, female teachers and girls never set out on a journey unless accompanied by the missionaries.
Due to the impending danger by land or by river, Bishop Versiglia had also been unable to visit the Christians in the small mission of Lin-Chow, consisting of two schools and two hundred faithful in the devastated city of 40,000 inhabitants, troubled by civil war. But towards the end of January 1930 he convinced himself that he needed to go there. Young twenty-six-year-old missionary Fr Callisto Caravario arrived at the centre in Shiu-Chow in early February. He was in charge of the mission at Lin-Chow, and would accompany Bishop Versiglia on the journey.
They prepared provisions both for the eight day journey and for the needs of the small mission, and at dawn on 24 February the group departed by train, made up of Bishop Versiglia, Fr Caravario, two young teachers who had graduated from the Don Bosco Institute (one a Christian, the other not), the two sisters of Maria (21-year-old teacher), and Paola, 16 years of age (who was letting go of her studies to go back to the family); there was also a 22-year-old catechist, Clara. After an overnight stay at the Salesian house in Lin-Kong-How, on 25 February they left on the boat going up the Pak-kong river as far as Lin-Chow; the group was joined by an elderly female catechist who would be working alongside the younger Clara, and a then-year-old boy who was going to Fr Caravario’s school. The large boat was managed by four boatsmen and as it was going up-river, towards midday they saw some fires on the riverbank that had been lit by a dozen or so men.
When the boat drew level with the men, the latter indicated they should stop and come ashore. Aiming rifles and pistols at them they asked the boatsmen who it was they were transporting, and when they discovered that it included the bishop and missionary they said: “You are not allowed to carry anyone without our protection. The missionaries will have to pay 500 dollars or we will shoot the lot of you.” The missionaries tried to get them to understand that they did not have that amount of money, but the pirates jumped aboard and found the girls who had taken refuge in a kind of hut on deck; they shouted: “Let’s take their wives away!” The missionaries answered that they were not their wives but students they were accompanying as they returned home; meanwhile they tried to block the entrance to the hut with their bodies. The pirates then threatened to set fire to the boat, and carried across wood from a nearby boat, but the wood was green and would not burn immediately. The missionaries managed to quench the first few flames. Furious, the pirates grabbed some large branches and beat the two missionaries. After a few minutes, the fifty-seven-year-old bishop collapsed and two minutes later also Fr Caravario; at this point the criminals grabbed the women and dragged them ashore amid their desperate pleas. The two missionaries too were brought ashore. The boatsmen, the elderly catechist, the boy and the women’s two brothers were set free and allowed to go; they then advised the missionaries at Lin-chow and the authorities who set a squad of soldiers.
Meanwhile the tragedy unfolded on the riverbank. Tied together, the two missionaries heard each other’s confessions, and encouraged the three girls to be strong in the faith; then the pirates led them down a path alongside the Shiu-pin, a small stream flowing into the Pak-kong, in the Li Thau Tseui area. Bishop Versiglia begged them: “I am elderly so kill me. But he is a young man, spare him!” The women, who had been forced to sit in an area near a small pagoda, heard five rifle shots and ten minutes later the executioners returned, saying: “These things can’t be explained, we have seen so many others ... they all feared death. Instead, these two died happy and all the girls want to do is to die.” It was 25 February 1930. The girls were dragged up a mountainside, and were at the mercy of the bandits for five days. On 2 March the soldiers reached the bandits’ hideout, and after a brief exchange of fire the girl were freed and the men fled. The girls became valuable and credible witnesses of the martyrdom of the two Salesian missionaries.