Milan (AsiaNews) - Fr Luigi Pezzoni died on 12 November in Hyderabad, the state capital of Andhra Pradesh. Born in 1931, he spent 47 years as a missionary in India, where he founded the first parish in Nalgonda (now a diocese) and the Leprosy Health Centre. He came to India in 1966 as a nurse specialised in leprosy, later graduating in India, as a medical doctor. A priest with PIME in 1958, he began his mission in Warangal in 1966. After he studied English for three months at Bishop Alfonso Beretta's residence, the latter sent him to Nalgonda with Br Pasqualino Sala to learn Telugu, Andhra Pradesh's main language. The town had a small church built by Fr Charles Bonvini and a small parish house, but Fr Pezzoni was its first resident priest. The parish was already home to four Indian sisters, aka Little Flowers, (brought by Fr Silvio Pasquali), five families of baptised Catholics. Three small Christian villages were located near the city.
Although Fr Luigi knew little English and almost no Telugu when he arrived, he was not a man to sit quietly at home to study. He had an open, cheerful, smiling face and was so charismatic that he would make friends with everyone and get everyone to love him. He and Br Pasqualino prayed a lot.
Right after his arrival, he began touring the surrounding villages on a motorbike, eating what the Indians ate, sleeping on the floor on a bamboo mat in mud and straw huts, drinking water from the river, in accordance with the PIME's missionary tradition based on a spirit of great sacrifice. He also played the accordion drawing children and teens.
In poor villages, where nothing ever happens, the arrival of the white father was an extraordinary event to remember, comment, and tell others. For the poorest, i.e. Dalits (pariah), the missionary brought medicines. He also began visiting lepers and treat them as much as he could.
From the start, Fr Pezzoni, with the help of Br Pasqualino, spoke about Jesus and Mary, bringing the Good News that the Saviour of man was born. In a region of villages and a nascent Church, Fr Luigi was a volcano of innovations and initiatives for the local people thanks to generous help from Italy and his hometown of Palosco (Bergamo), where he is still very much remembered and where, last 17 November, I celebrated a memorial Mass in a packed parish church. From a deeply religious family, he had three sisters, all of whom became nuns, as well as four brothers - one got married and three became priests, one a missionary in Nicaragua.
In his first ten years in Nalgonda (1966-1976), he surprised his fellow missionary brothers. When he arrived had found a thousand Christians; when he left, they were 10,000 in 53 villages, with 70 catechists trained by him and Fr Silvio Pasquali's Little Flower nuns in charge of the three-year catechumenate
In 1966 Nalgonda became a diocese and its first Indian bishop, Mgr Matthew Cheriankunnel, of PIME, established three new parishes in the territory where Fr Luigi had preached. Today, the Catholic diocese of Nalgonda has 74,150 members out of a population 6,025,347, covering 32,161 km2 with 65 parishes, 80 churches, one hundred diocesan priests, 17 religious priests, and 362 nuns. These numbers show what PIME missionaries were able to do in a diocese that is not yet 50 years old.
In 1974, Fr Pezzoni brought to India his first two Spanish nuns (whom he had met in Spain where he had studied leprology). In the following years, he brought over two more per year. "I got this special permit," he told me in 2005, "after I met with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974 through a friend of hers in Hyderabad. Indira called me to Delhi and I explained to her my plan to train Indian nuns and operators to treat lepers. She was happy and granted me eight visas for Spain, two a year. The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate of Valencia today have 300 elderly nuns in Spain and more than 70 young sisters in India. One of them is Sister Ambika. She is learning Italian, and is already corresponding with donors and acts as my secretary."
Pezzoni founded many charitable and educational works in Nalgonda, a Christian town. The village of Shanti Nagar (Peace Village) has about 100 homes for lepers and ex-lepers, a home for the sisters and the novices, a guest house, a 200-bed hospital, a nice big church (also used as a community centre for lepers), a farm and cattle raised for their meat, four workshops employing ex-lepers (carpentry, car repair, shoemaking, handicraft and artificial limbs), a hostel for about 100 students from nearby villages, and school with 500 pupils, many of them children of lepers, who can now be more easily treated and people cured.
Pezzoni used to say that "With better hygiene and nutrition, leprosy is much diminished. With a combination of drugs, children with some spots heal in a year with nothing left afterward. We have two or three new cases per month, once they were dozens." What is more, the programme has been extended to other villages in Andhra Pradesh, to the benefit of 3,500 kids and 5,000 leprosy patients. And this year, some 5,000 poor children and children of patients got a scholarship from the missionary.
One of Fr Pezzoni's last projects was a new 100-bed AIDS hospital with one-day and long-term care with drug treatment for outpatients and a hostel for visiting students and interns. Construction began in 2012, and should be completed by 2015.
From the start, Fr Pezzoni combined health care and pastoral ministry, building some 30 churches and chapels and other works. In 1977, Fr Luigi chose to stay in a leper colony, a decision that was recognised and rewarded by the government of Andhra Pradesh. He was totally devoted to the lepers and ex-lepers, supported by funding from his friends, PIME and the PIME Mission Aid Office (UAM) in Milan.
His friends in Italy have also provided generous support, and he wrote frequently to them to report on his activities. Pope Paul VI's secretary Mgr Pasquale Macchi, a great friend, sent him two statues by Manzu, one representing Paul VI, the other, Gandhi - and are now placed in two niches in the facade of the great church that was built in small town.
In 2003, Fr Pezzoni started building the Paul VI Junior College, a Catholic university, for the Diocese of Nalgonda, with money provided by Mgr Macchi. A young diocesan priest runs the school, which now has an enrolment of some 500 students. Its goal is to offer Christians and Dalits a university-level education because it is hard for them to get into state universities.
In one of his last letters, dated August 2013, Fr Pezzoni wrote, "We continue our service with joy and love to all those who need our help. What is more, every evening we recite the Rosary for everyone so that God may give his help to those who need it".
A large crowd attended his funeral in Nalgonda, a city of 120,000 inhabitants, including diocesan and civil authorities.