Catholic order spread out from Italy to meet the needs of the Irish

Mike Crowl review The Rosminian Mission: Sowers Of The Second Spring, by John Michael Hill. Published by Gracewing.

Some of my forebears were Irish Catholic who arrived in New Zealand in the mid-to-late 19th century. An aspect of their history I had not been aware of appears in this book on the Rosminian Fathers and their impact on the Catholic Church in England, Wales and Ireland.

This is the second volume by local writer, Father Michael Hill, on the history of the Rosminian Order. The first focused on the order’s founder, Antonio Rosmini.

This publication, after some necessary historical background, introduces us to the tough-minded, tireless and faithful men (and women, there were nuns associated with the order too) who set out to help English Catholics get back on their feet after being second-class citizens for more than two centuries. Before long, they found themselves preaching and ministering to thousands of Irish men and women who arrived in the country after the horrors of the potato famine, penniless, struggling, and disliked by the local people.

Many of these priests were Italian, sent personally by Rosmini. At the forefront was Luigi Gentili. He was one of the most extraordinary of the Italians who came to England. He drove himself into the ground — seldom sleeping more than four hours a night — and allowed himself little in the way of bodily sustenance. His preaching schedule, even with the support of his companion, Moses Furlong, an Irish Rosminian, was punishing. They rarely gave themselves a day off between one mission and another, and that, combined with the hearing of innumerable confessions and the need to withstand the antagonisms of the Protestant English, made  for lives of constant toil.

By the time of Gentili’s death,  the order had grown, and this  community preached widely, built and ran dozens of schools, raised funds for churches and built them, and turned around the lives of countless people.

Education was one of the most notable features of the order. They built  10 Catholic schools in Cardiff alone, alongside industrial schools and orphanages elsewhere in Ireland, England and Belgium. And, of course, the Rosminians have run schools in New Zealand too, notably Rosmini College in Auckland, and St Peter’s in Gore.

Hill’s book is immensely readable, full of fascinating detail from letters, sermons, and other sources, and lays out a piece of church history that many — Catholics and non-Catholics — will be unaware of.

- Mike Crowl is a Dunedin author, musician and composer.

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