· A sister in the degraded districts of Palermo with a style of daily presence likeleaven in the dough ·
In Palermo I met Sr Anna Alonzo who has thrown open degraded and besieged parts of the city to the enjoyment of being together. She spotted an abandoned building in the Guadagna district, no different from Brancaccio in its poverty and dense permeation by the Mafia, and occupied and transformed it. Month after month the square metres accessible to the community increased and attacks, provocations and violence were not met with a reaction of alarm systems or bullet-proof doors. Today it is known as Centro Arcobaleno 3p, since Fr Pino Puglisi is still called here only by his initials: a large portrait of the blessed hangs inside the building, Sr Anna told me. The canvas is full of stitches, because one day someone burst in with a knife, wanting to kill him a second time, perhaps as if to say “enough” to this Church with open doors. The discretion of the parish church beside it is better: worship and then silence. Today the image of the martyr with its scars defines a style: a daily presence, cost what it may, as leaven in the dough. “Of course, with my work in such a rough neighbourhood I disturb various balances”. She was followed, beaten up and intimidated with a knife by young men sent to stop her. This was one episode which she gladly passes over today as if to refrain from casting aspersions on the reputation of Palermo and on young men whom she prefers to look straight in the eye. Nevertheless this episode does document too many distractions and absences: “As for the work done in Guadagna, it does not matter to the city. Here they have stolen everything they could steal, even the food from the food bank. They have vandalized doors and windows, stolen the copper, but no one enquires into it or intervenes”. However positive the feelings the religious may have in her heart, she experiences a bitter loneliness. Yet Anna is prepared to recall the consolation which comes from the poor, a pledge as it were of a possible change: “The only help I had in the most dramatic months was from the prisoners in the Pagliarelli Prison. They collected € 3,200 which I used to reorganize a part of the centre which was falling down: they said that thanks to my work perhaps their children could have a different future”. Two hundred boys and 80 women were involved in a continuous multiplication of projects and initiatives to be followed up. And last 23 December there was almost a miracle, which the religious attributes to Don Puglisi’s constant activity in heaven: the Mayor and the Archbishop of Palermo came together to the Centro Arcobaleno 3p to inaugurate two playing fields and, above all, to mark a turning point, the commitment of an entire city to the consolidation of all that has come into being thanks to her.
Anticipating what Pope Francis recommends in Evangelii gaudium, Sr Anna has in fact initiated processes, rather than occupying spaces. She gives the Centre’s keys and the possibility of meeting there to anyone who shows a yearning for good: she accommodates, educates and lets people get on with it. She makes no plans: she enjoys whatever the young people, the women and the poor want to initiate. If anything, she helps to structure: she protects, cultivates, motivates and connects. Thus an idea grows, a need to find a response, and some projects last and develop: day after day, for years. The children at the Guadagna centre were the first to enter it. To tell the truth, they were already climbing all over it before Sr Anna began everything: it is thanks to them that, in passing, she was able to see in the hell of that place the garden that didn’t yet exist. Soon, as well as the little ones, people of every age and from every background approached: a miracle, in the neighbourhood in which crime discourages strangers in order to keep the police at bay. A revolution on streets which those living in the centre of Palermo would never have ventured into. These people do not come only to take but, increasingly to give, for this is natural: if something that belonged to no one becomes communal – accessible, beautiful and authentic – then one feels that one belongs. Responsibility comes into being, a sense of sharing, in which no one is passively on the receiving side or is eternally assisted.
I let Anna tell of all this and she was like a river in full spate. I realized that her adventure is not personal but a history of the Church, barely known in Palermo itself. She lives in poverty with several sisters, she has four degrees but is devoid of academic conceit, even though she taught at the university for 22 years. There is almost no one in the municipal social services who did not study with her. We walked on the roads in the city centre and noted that it was the lowliest who knew her: they stopped her or she stopped beside them, and I witnessed her immediately immersing herself in very personal conversations. I glimpsed bonds which endure or which are born, one after another. Studies, qualifications, a professorship? They are indispensable, for “We must give the best to the poor”. She willingly quotes Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini’s revolutionary words. He was Archbishop of Palermo from 1945 to 1967: a father of whom Anna Alonzo speaks with veneration, refuting the anachronistic interpretations which describe him as reluctant to denounce the Mafia’s power over the city. If she is there, if she is a sister, if she has shown the energy to turn upside down the stratification of power which paralyses entire neighbourhoods, it is thanks to this bishop who after the Second World War had already opted for the poor and took their side. The missionary action which through “his” sisters still continues today, before being “against” must be born “for” someone: for the last, treated as the first. In founding the Institute for Missionary Social Workers, but also by building churches in the suburbs, nursery schools, spaces in which to gather, popular housing and social assistance centres, Cardinal Ruffini confronted criminal clienteles with the Gospel lived, dedicating himself to the wheat even while recognizing the weeds. The times of the open denouncement by a Pope who in Sicily thundered out a call for the conversion of the Mafia, of a parish priest who spilled his blood for the redemption of his people, were yet to come. However, few know that Palermo was witnessing an excellent, silent preparation, whose potential consequences were only partially understood: a hidden, slowly swelling current capable of transforming young people allergic to empty formalities into holily restless protesters. Exactly like Anna Alonzo, who as a child was driven to school by the chauffeur: belonging to an influential family with luxury, etiquette, culture and a privileged future. She confided to me that the earthquake happened during a trip to Tunis with her well-to-do Palermo high school: the impact of the children and of the poor on the roadsides in the urban peripheries and in the countryside was unexpected and devastating. Eye contact through the windows of a bus, scenes that were impressed for ever on a lively mind, a thirsting heart. The return home of an 18-year-old girl struck by a reality until that moment denied to her, rebellion welling up within her, the lack of air: there outside, even in Palermo, a city never seen, people artificially avoided. Thus a continuity of family values was cut short: “From my father I learned who I did not want to be”.
Anna discovered that a few steps from the places she had always frequented, sisters were already living among the poor and a Church was developing which smelled of them rather than of incense. She studied classical literature, but she was not the same. She sought and found a religious life that combined intelligence and charity: she left everything, departed, trained, discovered the saints, read the mystics, dedicated herself to social sciences, worked, was consecrated and travelled. A free life in obedience which, to hear her speak of it, enchants and raises the question: who knows all this? Who sees in the Church and in the village the female revolution incarnated by women like this? “I want you to be souls of great sensitivity, capable of registering all the vibrations of human pain” was the hope expressed by Ruffini, delineating the symbolic and practical work necessary if the city was to continue to be for those who dwelled in it a daily place of wellbeing which structures life. As Mariella Pasinati from Palermo maintains, “It is often not a question of weaving ex novo, but rather of sewing up wounds caused by heedless practices and rash decisions, strengthening bonds and the sense of community. It is an art of recomposition of the human weft in which women have distinguished themselves since the dawn of time”. Of course, as the great sister Anna Alonzo shuns the glare of the limelight she asks newspapers to write about the Centro Arcobaleno, Guadagna and the poor who are redeemed, rather than about her. And yet I realize that her name, the circumstances, and the events all count if we are to explain the plausibility of an underground Church in which the effectiveness of mercy is demonstrated. She says “providence” with simplicity, to tell of her God: even while working from morning to night, she makes everything depend on him without false humility; pro.vi.de. is the acronym with which she has baptized the association of volunteer workers which backs her projects: a paradoxical conjunction of heaven and earth, of faith and sleeves rolled up, of expectation and hard work. Indeed, one might imagine that a missionary social worker might be absorbed by activity at every hour of the day and even at night. In some aspects this is true. And yet in her presence one is aware of a grace, the vertiginous depths over which everything is as it were lucidly suspended. She likes John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of the Child Jesus and gladly speaks of them: a contemplative yearning shines in her eyes, invested first of all in her property. Her family house at the seaside, for example, was used to take the poor on holiday: a Rom child asked her whether it was a queen’s palace. And she says that immediately, on that beach, she understood: “A queen’s house, of course!”, hence the complete reallocation of the building and its addition to promoción vida derechos with the title “Queen of Peace”. Anna, without any fuss, sees God, the action of the Spirit and the great mystery in the processes in which she is both protagonist and witness. In this regard the most impressive feature is that she does not speak of anything as though it belonged to her: every place, every project, in her thoughts are to be left as soon as possible, as soon as they can stand on their own two feet. It is – clearly – not a question of property but of people, of children whom the mother has already watched grow up and who are, she hopes, strong and ready to set out. Like the itinerant Jesus in the Gospels, Sr Anna, a missionary social worker, proceeds, goes about vibrant with new intuitions: neither threats nor applause stop her. All the doors opened so far are, of course, the fruit of a life which has remained open.
Born in Palermo on 12 July 1949, she studied in the city at the Garibaldi Secondary School focusing on humanities, later graduating with top marks in classical literature. She then entered the Società di servizio sociale missionario [missionary society for social service], which was founded by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffino in 1954 to face the great poverty in Palermo after the Second World War. She earned degrees in social assistance and in theology and continued her training with a four-year course in gestalt counselling and a master’s in social planning. A university teacher for more than 20 years, a religious active in Italy and abroad, today she is dedicated full time to the care of the poorest people in Palermo. She lives modestly with several other sisters and coordinates the projects of the non-profit organization Pro.vi.de. Queen of Peace, which she founded.
St. Peter’s Square
March 18, 2018
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