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The priest who saved boys from a life of crime and girls from prostitution

The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception flourished in Genoa (PA)

Agostino Roscelli (1818-1902) was not one of those saints whose life’s work is defined in a sudden moment of spiritual illumination. Rather, he discovered his mission in the distress which surrounded him as a priest.

Born in Bargone de Casarza, some 30 miles south-east of Genoa, Agostino Roscelli was the son of poor peasant farmers. As a child he helped to mind the family’s sheep, while picking up scraps of education from the parish priest. 

At 17 he attended a retreat given by Fr Antonio Guanelli, which confirmed his instinct that he himself should become a priest. Funded by local benefactors Agostino Roscelli went to study in Genoa, where Guanelli found him work as sacristan and guardian of a church in a girl’s school.

Ordained in 1846, he was sent to the parish of San Martino d’Albaro in a notoriously rough part of Genoa. Here he impressed not only by his spiritual zeal – he spent long hours in the confessional – but also by his determination to combat the degradation pressing upon his desperately poor parishioners.

Many of the girls resorted to prostitution. Fr Roscelli, appreciating that their lives were being ruined by hunger as much as by immorality, gathered together a group of charitable women and founded a “sewing shop” where waifs were given not merely Christian instruction but also practical and professional training.

A few years later, in 1858, he organised a similar institute where delinquent boys were taught crafts which would enable them to survive without resort to crime. He also took up a ministry to prisoners, showing special concern for those who had been condemned to death.

In 1874 Fr Roscelli was appointed warden of the new provincial orphanage of Monte dei Fieschine, where over the next 22 years he would baptise some 8,000 children. He devoted particular care and attention to single mothers.

His charitable work, though, was never allowed to diminish his devotions, which, his co-workers realised, provided the essential inspiration for all his practical achievement.

The women who helped him, “Roscelli’s Collaborators”, eventually decided that they should put their organisation on a more formal basis.

At first Fr Roscelli seemed reluctant; then, encouraged by Pope Pius IX, he oversaw the foundation in 1876 of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

As spiritual director he lived to see the order flourish not merely beyond Genoa, but outside Italy. He insisted, however, that he was merely “a poor priest”.

Pope John Paul II, who canonised him in 2001, thought otherwise. Agostino Roscelli, he explained, “embodied the image of the Good Shepherd who takes care of the flock entrusted to him, who goes in search of the lost sheep and sacrifices his own life for the good of all”.