During World War II in Assisi, the Bishop of Assisi sometimes had to double as a stonemason; that is, when it was time to hide the valuables, torahs, and documents of the Jewish refugees.
Declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel in 1977, Monsignore Placido Nicolini was one of the seven “Righteous” of Assisi collaborating in the Assisi Network – or Assisi Underground -which included the two printers who falsified the identity cards of the refugees, the world-famous Tuscan cyclist who secretly transported false documents, cloistered nuns who sheltered refugees and Don Aldo Brunacci, assistant to the Bishop who spearheaded the Assisi Underground.
Don Aldo once talked about the Bishop’s masonry skills ………
….describing how the refugees’ valuables and jewelry were hidden in the cantina (“cellar:) of the Palazzo del Vescovado (“Bishop’s Palace”).
The doorway to the cellar was covered over with a wall “that the bishop himself built with his own hands….(for he was) a holy man and followed the precept ora et labora …he knew how to do manual work.” Bishop Nicolini – from Trentino originally – had in fact entered the Benedictine order at the age of fifteen and lived by their motto, “prayer and work.”
Don Aldo recounted that he held the candle – as no electricity in the cellar – while the Bishop executed the masonry work.
Don Aldo Brunacci assisted the Bishop in hiding the political refugees and the Jewish refugees.
Many years after the war, Don Aldo Brunacci reminisced about the Bishop’s resolution in face of danger:
“I will never forget how insistent those threats were, yet how determined the Bishop remained. He would not let anyone intimidate him from performing what he, as a pastor, was required to do. I recall very well the strength Monsignor Nicolini showed in the face of repeated alarms of the ‘big shots’ who felt it was their duty to suggest prudence and moderation. There are times in everyone’s life in which it is easy to confuse prudence with a calm life; there are times when heroism is required. Monsignor Nicolini took the path of heroism.”
The bishop was a calm man, most amiable, always with a pleasant smile. He never desired a secretary, nor a housekeeper. His widowed sister and her daughter helped him as they could.
Graziella Viterbi – hidden in Assisi with her family at age 18 – talked fondly about the Bishop years after the Liberation:
“Monsignor Nicolini was a most special person – a man of extraordinary sweetness, at least in his rapport with my family. He was the incarnation of innocence. Just imagine that he himself kept all of the identity cards of all of us refugees. He hid them in a niche in the wall just above his desk, covered by a small curtain. If one day – God save us! – the Germans had decided to search there, we were all fried.” (NOTE: the Italian expression for “we’re cooked”)
And how did the Bishop feel about his role? Graziella said, “He was most tranquil….even though he always had small details to handle. When we went to visit him, he always had for a us a bottle of olive oil, maybe panini. He was always familiare (i.e., natural, welcoming, at ease).
And he was also Trentino – and so he could talk with my parents in dialect. (Note: the Viterbi family was from Padua so the Veneto dialect had links in common with that of the province of Trento). That united us very much.”
Graziella also remembers fondly her happy reunion with the elderly bishop (born in 1877) many years after the war in Assisi, when he returned to the town from his birthplace, Villlazzano, where he had retired in 1966 (and where he died in 1973):
“He returned once to Assisi and lodged with the Benedictine sisters at the Monastero di San Giuseppe. I went to visit him and I can not even describe to you the welcome he gave me. I told him about my mother who had died not long before and he murmured, ‘la mia povera Margherita..’ just as if he were one of our family.”
Bishop Nicolini died in home village of Villlazzano (near Trento) 1973 at the age of 1966 – and he was buried in the Assisi he loved: in the seat of the diocese of Assisi, the Cathedral of San Rufino, in a side chapel near the main altar:
And as mentioned, Bishop Nicolini had directed all the successful Assisi efforts to hide over three hundred Jews refugees from the Bishop’s palace, Palazzo del Vescovado…
….. the very site of St. Francis’ renunciation of his earthly inheritance when he had stripped himself naked there before his father centuries before – Francesco covered by the bishop with his own robe.
That episode is depicted in a late 13th-century fresco attributed to the school of Giotto in the Upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
And again in World War II, that Palazzo del Vescovado had been backdrop to a significant moment in Assisi’s history – with Bishop Nicolini one of the protagonists. Bishop Nicolini, that gentle Benedictine who had promulgated the cause of elevating the beloved San Francesco to patron saint of Italy in 1937.
On April 6, 1937, Monsignore Nicolini had written to all the bishops of Italy and the Holy See asking the intercession of San Francesco for the care and well-being of all the nation as its patron saint.
In 1938, Mussolini’s racial laws were put into effect.
In June, 1939, Pope Pius XII declared St. Francis of Assisi – and Catherine of Siena – patron saints of Italy.
And a few years later, many of the Jewish refugees were to tell Bishop Nicolini and Don Aldo Brunacci that they had decided to come to Assisi knowing that they would feel secure and protected in the town of St. Francis.
Patron Saint of Italy.