Blessed Louis Versiglia And Callistus Carabario

Author: Salesians


"The good shepherd gives his life for his flock".

This came true also in far-off China in the 30's. The Celestial Empire, land of mystery, aroused a strange fascination among the first generations of Salesians. Not even Don Bosco was immune to it. In 1874 before beginning the American missions he had negotiated the foundation—not then completed—of a technical school in Hong Kong, and had assured his confreres that when time would be right, a mission would be established in China.

According to a dream handed down by the first Salesians only by word of mouth and directly concerned with this future mission, Don Bosco had seen two large chalices raised up in the sky, one filled with sweat and the other with the blood of Salesians. This dream recounted to the Salesian clerics had increased their fascination for the Celestial Empire.

A Padded Hammer

Among those clerics was Louis Versiglia, born at Oliva Gessi, Pavia in 1873, lively and gifted with a penchant for mathematics and horses. In 1885 he had been a student at Don Bosco's Oratory in Valdocco. Being "a studious, disciplined and pleasant lad", he had the honor of reading a composition on Don Bosco's feast day two years later.

"Come and see me", the Saint had added congratulating him, "I have something to say to you". However, through shyness or because Don Bosco towards the end of his life was not easy to reach, little Louis had not gone to see him. He would spend the rest of his life wondering what it was that Don Bosco wanted to say to him... Was it perhaps the dream of the two chalices.

Meanwhile, he decided to stay with Don Bosco, and in 1889 he became a Salesian. Tall and slim, endowed with steady nerves and physical strength, almost distinguished looking; he was a natural leader among his companions without losing his friendly and cheerful touch. He became a student at the Gregorian University and obtained a doctorate in philosophy, just like Don Delaney many years later. At 22, with a dispensation because of age, he was ordained a priest. At 23, again with a dispensation, he was appointed rector and Novice Master at Genzano, Rome. (The Congregation too was young and had great confidence in her young members).

"How severe and exacting!", someone recalled of him at Genzano.

Demanding with us, he was even more demanding with himself. He was a padded hammer with those who showed a tendency to laziness".

For nine years he was Master of Novices, idolized by them, despite his austere method of forming them. In the meantime he waited impatiently to go to the missions. "My trunk", he would say, " can be ready at a minute's notice". He prepared himself with physical exercises and, when time allowed him, horseback riding on the Alban hills.

Sons Of An Unfortunate Father

The order to depart came at the end of 1905. By the beginning of the following year he was in Macao (then a Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast) at the head of the first Salesian missionary expedition to the Far East. There he founded an orphanage which was to become the mother house of the Salesian foundations in those lands.

The enormous country of China was still quite poor, without railways and with rudimentary industries—exploited by foreign powers which for centuries had carried away her best products and resources on their ships. In 1902 a revolution had overthrown the last emperor, and with him the Celestial Empire had fallen.

In the new republic internal difficulties and hatred for foreigners—there were solid reasons for such hatred—created waves of tension, revolt and destruction. But in spite of all these difficulties, the Catholic missionaries continued their works. In 1917 a region in the interior of China was offered to the Salesians. The following year Fr. Versiglia sent there the newly arrived confreres, taking also some from the mission of Macao.

The leader of the new expedition, Fr. Sante Garelli, had brought him a gift from the Rector Major, and gave it to him at the end of the dinner the day after he arrived. It was a chalice—a thing that did not mean anything special to Fr. Garelli, but which awakened in Versiglia a host of disturbing memories. "You brought me a chalice", he said, "and I accept it. Don Bosco saw the Chinese missions flourish when a chalice would be filled with the blood of his sons. This chalice was sent to me and—his voice trailing away in a whisper—I will have to fill it".

In 1920 the territory entrusted to the Salesians was erected by the Holy See into the Vicariate Apostolic of Shiu Chow, and Fr. Versiglia became its first bishop. The consecration took place in the cathedral of Canton. The Salesian Fr. Charles Braga was at the organ. For the final hymn Father, caught unawares, played a hymn very dear to the first Salesians, which speaking of Adam said: "We are the sons of an unfortunate father". The choir sang vigorously, but perhaps too few did notice the unsuitability of those words. The new bishop smiled and murmured: "You're right, I'm a miserable father, but I'll do my best to be a real father." He absolved them all embracing them in his first episcopal blessing.

Callistus—Totally The Lord's

At Shiu Chow he plunged into his work. Each small mission center would have its school. He began by founding at the main center a secondary school for boys and girls, a training school for catechists, a trade school, a home for the aged, a medical dispensary and a junior seminary. He knew how to do everything, and he did it. He was printer, sacristan, gardener, painter, even barber. In 1922 he went to Turin for the General Chapter. His long beard added an extra touch to his charming personality. His words could arouse great enthusiasm. Many a young Salesian at Valdocco wanted to go with him. "Monsignor, I'll join you in China", a cleric assured him. "You will see, I'll keep my promise".

His Name Was Callistus Caravario.

Born at Cuorgne near Turin in 1903, he had grown up in the Salesian Oratories at the school of an active apostolate, and had decided to give his life to the missions. He kept his promise. In fact in 1924, still a cleric, he was sent to Macao, and later to Shanghai and Timor in far-away Indonesia. Meanwhile the situation in China was deteriorating. The revolutionary party in power, the "Kuomintang" (in which Chiang Kaishek was the new rising star) allied itself in 1925 with the Chinese communist party (which among its brilliant intellectuals had Mao Tse-tung).

Two years later, however, the two parties split up and then opposed each other. Official troops and irregulars, armed bands and pirates ran riot through the country and fought to gain control of the government. The situation of the missionaries became critical. Many of them were accused of being enemies of the people. The Vicariate of Shiu Chow was especially vulnerable. "We are completely under Bolshevik control" Versiglia had written in 1926, "and we don't know how things will turn out."

Fr. Caravario returned to China in March 1929, because Monsignor wanted him to be with him in Shiu Chow. In May of that year he ordained him a priest. "Now your Callistus is no longer yours", he wrote to his mother in Italy, "he must be entirely the Lord's, wholly consecrated to his service".

Sent to Lin Chow, which was a very promising Salesian mission center, Fr. Caravario threw himself into his work. His small community was growing in size and strength with each passing day. He was highly esteemed by everyone.

Six months later he returned to Shiu Chow to report to his bishop, and the latter decided to go and see for himself. So both set out on the two-day journey for Lin Chow—but were never to arrive.

The Ambush

The first day they travelled by train, the second they hired a boat. They had with them four young school teachers—two male and two female—who had recently qualified at the mission school, and a young school girl. All of them were happily returning home, never imagining that someone was hidden among the bamboo on the bank waiting for them. The ambush had been set up in an ideal spot out of sight. There were about ten or twelve men—some were communist soldiers, others plain bandits and a young man was after one of the female school teachers. (He had asked her to marry him, but she had refused since she wanted to become a nun. Nevertheless, he was determined to take her by force).

It was noon on the 25th of February 1930. The large boat was gliding along the edge of the Lin Chow river. At one point a voice called out loudly: "Stop". The men jumped out suddenly from the bush with their guns levelled. "Get on board", the voice ordered. There was nothing to do but obey.

At first Bishop Versiglia was not too worried. He had been captured by bandits before—once on that very spot—and he had always been set free, leaving them whatever he had. But this time the pirates' demand was excessively absurd: 500 dollars on the spot. Bishop Versiglia, ready to do anything to save the defenseless girls from attack, tried to bargain with the bandits, but when these jumped on board to seize the girls, he shielded them with his own body.

Fr. Caravario was standing his side. An uneven and desperate struggle ensued. The two missionaries were clubbed with rifle butts on their chests, arms and heads. They fell back into the boat unconscious. The three young girls were forced to get off the boat and then the two missionaries were dragged ashore. They were bound, searched and pushed around. No longer could they do anything to protect the girls. "We're going to destroy all religions" screamed one of the soldiers. "If we win, no woman in China will ever go back to study catechism".

The missionaries were dragged into a thicket a short distance away. Bishop Versiglia knew what was about to happen and told the soldiers: "I'm an old man. Kill me if you will. But he is young, spare him". (Fr. Caravario was 27). " No", they retorted, "the foreign devils must all die". The missionaries prayed in silence.

A moment later the silence was shattered by five rifle shots.

"There's something inexplicable here", wondered aloud one of the soldiers after the executions. "I've already seen many die, and they all were afraid. These, instead, were happy".

The good shepherds are indeed happy to give their lives for their flocks.

Source: from First Centenary of Don Bosco's Missions