St. Stephen Bellesini

When Stephen Bellesini was beatified on 1 November 1904 by Pope Pius X, he became the first pastor to be elevated to the honors of the altar.

Luigi Giuseppe Bellesini was born in Trento, Italy, on 25 November 1774 during a period of great turmoil for the Church and society. At the age of twenty he entered the Augustinian Order, taking the name Stephen, and spent his years of religious and intellectual formation in Bologna and Rome, after which he was ordained a priest in Trento in 1797. In his first years of ministry he was occupied principally as a preacher and rector of the small chapel attached to the Order’s monastery in his native city. In 1810, however, he and his confreres were ejected from their monastery during the suppression of religious houses. Stephen withdrew to his brother’s home where he lived as a secular priest. Determined not to allow the anti-clerical atmosphere of society to thwart his apostolic zeal, he established a school to care for the many poor children of the city who were without means to receive an education. His interest in their well-being was comprehensive: to the neediest he provided clothing and food, to the neglected encouragement and friendship, to all religious and moral as well as intellectual formation. Often, the means for his material generosity was his own brother’s table and cupboard. The success of his efforts and the popularity of his educational “system” led to his appointment within a short time as director, and then inspector, of elementary schools for the entire district of Trento.

Despite all the good he was doing as an educator and the great popularity he enjoyed among students, teachers, and government officials, in September 1817 Father Stephen secretly left Trento for Rome, never to return. He had heard that in the Papal States it was again possible to live the religious life, and so he left home, family, and position in order to take up again what had been surrendered so reluctantly years earlier when forced from his monastery. The reaction in Trento was first shock, then indignation, and finally condemnation. Despite all efforts to persuade him to return with promises of greater financial compensation, and by letters of praise and commendation, Father Stephen was determined to remain where he could live the Augustinian life that was so dear to him. The same government that had valued his work so highly now proclaimed him to be an exile and forbade him to return under threat of punishment. Once in Rome, where he was jubilantly welcomed by his confreres, Stephen was given the position of director of novices. In 1826, he was transferred to the shrine of Our Mother of Good Counsel in Genazzano, and five years later, at the age of 57, he was named pastor there.

In 1839 the plague reached Genazzano and Father Stephen devoted himself to the spiritual as well as the physical care of its victims, with exemplary—even heroic—selflessness. On 23 January 1840, while at prayer with his community, he was once more called to care for a sick parishioner. On descending the steps in the choir, he stumbled and fell, causing a cut on his leg. That night he came down with a very high fever. Nevertheless, when the fever subsided on the following day, he went to the public hospital for a pastoral visit. He remained on his feet for two days more, until the 26th when, given his terrible appearance, his brethren forced him to go to bed. He died at four in the afternoon of 2 February 1840 as he had predicted.

His feast is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 3 February.

St. Stephen Bellesini
St. Stephen Bellesini