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Few of us do so well!

How a Simple Parish Priest
Came to Displace the Archangel Michael

[image ALT: A large stone church with a square belfry. The front door, at the top of a flight of 10 steps, is immediately surmounted by a separate window shaped like a square with an additional triangular cut-out at the top. It is the sanctuary of Don Pietro Bonilli, in Cannaiola di Trevi, Umbria (central Italy).]

The Sanctuary of Blessed Father Pietro Bonilli
— originally and more formally, the church of S. Michele Arcangelo.

On March 15, 1841, in S. Lorenzo di Trevi, Pietro Bonilli​1 was born to Maria Allegretti and Sebastiano Bonilli, an Umbrian farming family. Ordained on December 19, 1863, he immediately took charge of the parish church of S. Michele.

Fr. Bonilli had very early on developed a particular devotion to the Holy Family. Though he was following a popular tradition going back to the 17c, it was he who, thru years of work and the foundation of several associations (among which a Holy Family Missionary Society and an Association of Families consecrated to the Holy Family) finally won over Pope Leo XIII, who gave official approval to the cult of the Holy Family in 1893; it was extended to the Church worldwide by Benedict XV in 1921.​2

Don Pietro was mostly, however, a man of his time, deeply concerned with the problems fa­cing his flock, farm communities and the working class: working conditions, illiteracy, and, logically, the plight of orphans. In 1884 or 1887 (my sources differ) he founded the Nazarene Institute for Orphan Girls; in 1888 the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, who worked to provide family counseling; and in 1893 a hospice for the deaf and blind. Somewhere in all that, he also found time to write Cannaiola, Memorie storiche raccolte negli anni 1873‑74, a valuable historical record of life in the plain of Trevi and its traditions and buildings, some of which have since disappeared.

Like many people with a social conscience, he was also, refreshingly, somewhat of an eccentric: among his five cardinal principles of a Christian life, #4 was that every family should post in their living room or some similarly prominent place in their home, a large sign stating that In this house we don't swear. He gave another example of his different mindset when in 1886 he commissioned a statue group for this church, showing the Holy Family alright, but not Joseph, Mary and a Baby Jesus as is almost universal: rather, Jesus is depicted as a teenager. Now most of us who know teenagers will find this almost antithetical — yet again, it's only good logic: Jesus was once an adolescent, fa­cing the same problems as any of us.

The success of the associations he founded led Fr. Bonilli to move the 29 km to Spoleto, a larger, more convenient place from which to manage them, where he was also appointed canon of the cathedral and rector of the regional seminary. He died there on Jan. 5, 1935; Pope John Paul II beatified him on Apr. 24, 1988; and after the beatification, the church of St. Michael, while still retaining its dedication to that saint, also became the Sanctuary of Father Pietro Bonilli, the name almost always used for it today.

The church of S. Michele Arcangelo, as built around 1602, was much smaller, in the shape of a Greek cross, but has since been much reworked: extensions have given it the form of a Latin cross, and a major modernization in the 20c saw the original ogival vaults replaced, as occasionally elsewhere in Umbria, by a Franciscan-style wooden truss and tile ceiling.

The belfry you saw above, however, has remained substantially the same as when it was completed in 1606.

[image ALT: The interior of a single-nave church, with a wooden truss ceiling, about 7 meters high and with two arched side chapels on either side. It is the sanctuary of Don Pietro Bonilli, in Cannaiola di Trevi, Umbria (central Italy).]

As a result of these many changes, the interior of the church is now best described as streamlined provincial baroque. In addition to the new ceiling, the photograph shows over the altar the 1886 statue group commissioned by Fr. Bonilli.

In April 1998 the body of Don Pietro was moved here from its first resting-place, the church of S. Filippo in Spoleto; it lies in a glass casket in the grilled chapel on the left, along with his manifesto of the principles of a Christian life.

Further Notes:

1 For considerably fuller biographical sketches of him, see Key to Umbria.

2 As stated, Catholic devotion to the Holy Family is much older. The 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia has no entry on the cult per se, but its article Congregations of the Holy Family lists seven such orders, all of them founded earlier than that established by Fr. Bonilli, which is not mentioned; see also the article on the Archconfraternity of the Holy Family, a Belgian foundation of 1844.

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Page updated: 23 Jun 24