Exploring the early years of our founder, St. Gaspar, whose feast day is October 21.
If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Downton Abbey,” or watched Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” you know that there’s a lively and bustling milieu going on behind the scenes at a palace.
Cooks and bakers, maids and valets, groomsmen and groundskeepers, all working long days to keep up appearances, in Italy, la bella figura, a fine appearance or impression.
That was the world in which St. Gaspar del Bufalo, our founder, born in 1786, grew up. Gaspar’s father, Antonio, moved the family to the Altieri Palace (Palazzo Altieri) when he took a job there as a cook. Gaspar was one year old.
While his father was part of the working class, life in the environs of the palace, across the street from the impressive Church of the Gesù gave Gaspar and his brother, Antonio, his only sibling, a measure of protection against the harsher aspects of life in Rome in the late 18th century.
The best and most complete description of St. Gaspar’s early life is described in the definitive biography of the saint’s life written by Amilcar Rey, C.PP.S., the postulator of Gaspar’s cause for sainthood, published in 1950.
“Rey paints a rather glowing picture of what life was like in Rome in those days. It seems, in Ray’s view, that everyone was jolly,” said Fr. Jerry Stack, C.PP.S., who served six years as secretary general of the congregation in Rome and was the archivist at the generalate. “Rome’s population at the time was around 100,000 people, much smaller than it is today. Its boundaries did not go on much beyond the walls. Where our generalate is today was probably farmland.
“Many of the people of Rome would have lived in grinding poverty. Afflictions like head lice and other skin conditions were very common. The city was dangerous, with a murder rate of something like 400 homicides per year. There were many babies who were abandoned, given up to convents and raised by nuns.
Gaspar was never abandoned by his devoted parents. The del Bufalo family lived downstairs at the palace, with the other hired help. “The Altieri Palace really is very grand. It was built in the 17th century by relatives of Pope Clement X. Gaspar’s family lived in what today we would call a garden apartment; it was probably relatively comfortable.”
Early in his life Gaspar displayed an interest in spiritual matters, and a determination to serve the Church. When Gaspar was 10 or 11, Fr. Stack said, he and two of his playmates who also lived at the palazzo, Maria Tamini and Pippo Berga, decided to become missionaries and run off to Turkey. Maria was concerned because she was a girl, so her friends told her to “disguise yourself as a man.” She stole a pair of pants from her brother. But their plans were thwarted by their parents before the young missionaries could set sail. Gaspar remained friends with them throughout his life. Maria became a nun and Pippo became a monk.
Gaspar knew from an early age that he wanted to be a priest. He asked to join an order of Benedictines who ministered out of Santo Stefano, a church that was near by the palazzo, but he was turned down, “probably because he was too young,” Fr. Stack said.
He was influenced by his mother, Annunciata, who was devoutly religious, and his father, who was described by C.PP.S. historian Fr. Andy Pollack as “a big-time operator.”
Antonio del Bufalo had “all kinds of money-making schemes,” Fr. Stack said. “He put on plays; one biographer said that he organized soccer matches, though I’m not sure soccer existed at that time. It might have been a game more like lacrosse. Antonio never was terribly successful, but he was a good breadwinner and provided for the family.”
Gaspar’s parents supported him in many ways. “His parents made sure he got a good education,” Fr. Stack said. “From a fairly early age, he went to the Collegio Romano, founded by the Jesuits, a block or two away from his home. The Collegio educated adolescent boys up to their preparation for the priesthood. While studying there, he became the president of the Santa Galla Hospice when he was 20 years old. It was a fairly large operation with room for 200 people.”
Young Gaspar could have been described as a joiner—for instance, he belonged to a burial society whose nickname was the “black sacks,” named for the black habit they wore. He saw the value in joining with others to work toward a common goal—to build community, such as the Congregation he formed in 1815, which is still carrying on his mission today.