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Church of Anatolia

Father Andrea Santoro

Capuchin Brothers


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web: Simone Matteoli


Fr. Basil from Novara is "the modern" founder of the catholic church that is found in Antiochia. He brought back the catholic Latin service in that city after centuries of absence. For this reason it was killed in 1851. Beheaded, its body was spread from its executioners on the altar of the church and its head was placed to the feet of the same altar.


Fr. Basili da Novara and Fr. Andrea Santoro

On 5th February 2006, Fr. Andrea Santoro, a priest from the diocese of Rome, was murdered while praying in the Catholic Church in the Black Sea town of Trabzon. A 16 year old Muslim Turk was convicted of the murder. He claimed to have been motivated by the appearance in a Danish newspaper of caricatures of Mohammed, and by hatred for priests who had been accused by the press of proselytizing in Turkey.
Here I want to remember another martyr of the Catholic Church in Turkey: a Capuchin called Basil of Novara who was murdered by Muslims out of hatred for Christianity.
This year marks the 155 th anniversary of the death of this 'modern founder' of the Catholic Church of Antioch who brought Catholicism back to the city after 600 years - the time since the crusaders left.
In 1983, a Lebanese Capuchin, Fr. Selim Rizcallah, produced about twenty pages of typescript on Fr Basil. The manuscript is currently in the archives of the Capuchins in Beirut and Antioch (MS Antioche 1) and is so interesting that I want to give a synopsis of it here.
In his introduction, Fr. Selim reminds us that there had been no Catholic Church or Catholic priest in Antioch for more than six centuries and that Basil of Novara filled that void with zeal and paid for it with his life.


Fr. Basili from Novara, Missionary

Fr. Basil of Novara was born Guiseppe Antonio Galli in Granarolo, Pontedellorio on 3rd November 1804. He entered the Capuchin order in 1828 and was given the name Basil of Pontedellorio, also called, for political reasons, Basil of Novara. He was ordained priest in 1830. He distinguished himself during the cholera outbreak in Polignano 1836-37, and in 1839 was sent as a missionary to Georgia. After seven years there he was sent to the missions in Syria. On his way there he stopped off in Antioch which at that time was a small town of about 13,000 inhabitants, 3,000 of whom were Christians of various rites. There was also a small Jewish population. The Orthodox Christians, the majority, were the only ones to have their own church and priest.
Fr Basil could not hold back tears seeing the state Antioch was in. Antioch, the first capital of Christianity, where the very name "Christian" had been coined, had no Catholic priest, no Catholic Church. The same was true in the port city of Alexandretta, 60km away.
When he reached Aleppo he immediately wrote to the Congregation of Propaganda Fidei asking to be allowed to volunteer to work in Antioch. Illness forced Fr Basil to return to Italy but, once he had recovered and before going back to Syria, he had an audience with the Pope, Pius IX, where he explained the situation in Antioch and again volunteered for a mission there. At that point he was officially given a new destination - Antioch - but was urged to act with 'great prudence'.


Fr. Basili begins its ministry in Antioch between the persecutions

We can imagine his joy at this news; but on arriving in Antioch, he realized immediately he was regarded as an interloper. One of his superiors left this testimony, 'No one could resist the perseverance of this energetic man. With an annual income of only 1200 piastres, equivalent to 48 Roman scudi, he built a chapel with an adjoining room which served him as a residence. With no means of support, he earned his living teaching the children of European families and in this way he could just make ends meet. It was not until 1849-50 that he was able to escape poverty and expand his mission, saying mass, teaching catechism and administering the sacraments in other places in the area. This was thanks to the help of the organization Opera Pia della propaganda della fede di Lione . (From a letter of 1851, written after his death).
At the beginning of his time in Antioch he wrote to the Vicar General, 'We are descended from the martyrs. I am a soldier of my Lord and the defender of his Name in the missions. They put a rope round my neck to make me say some words I did not know the meaning of. They kept it there for a quarter of an hour and threatened to strangle me but I did not want to say these words. They could contain a denial of the faith. I have borne other trials for the good of others and in the service of the Lord'.
Fr Basil lived a life full of deprivation but he was always happy and at the service of the Christians of Samandag, Alexandretta and other places where there was no priest to preach or administer the sacraments. He became all things to all men, visited the sick, succoured the poor, and reconciled the discords.


Fr. Basil construct convent, church and school

In 1850 he finally got a real house, acquired with the help of Vincenzo Giustiniani-Marcopoli who was the Consul in Aleppo of the King of the Two Sicilies. Fr Basil immediately wrote to Propaganda asking them to reward his benefactor with an honour.

It in the photo is possible see the left in front of the trees the house acquired from fr. Basilio and on he of her had set you the bell that continues his mission today in the catholic church like is seen under.


Reading this reminds me of another Capuchin of our own day. The newspaper La Repubblica called Fr Roberto Ferrari 'fighting monk and brigand of the faith.' Between 1970 and 1980 he saved our presence in this city. The authorities had decided to put an end to the glorious history of the Capuchins in Antioch but, despite having been ordered to leave by the Nunciature, Fr Roberto did everything in his power to remain. He found us the place we presently occupy. It is important to remember that the presence of the Catholic Church in Antioch, through the Capuchins, has never been easy.
To return to Fr Basil. When he took possession of the house, he set aside the best room for a chapel so the believers could meet, another section for a school, and the rest for the residence. His dream had come true.


Fr. Basil falls in the sights of the governor of the city

He had not counted on the reaction of the governor of the city, however. The governor was both a fanatical Muslim and a nationalist, with influential supporters in both Istanbul and Aleppo. He immediately threatened the man who had sold the house with prison for having sold it to a 'European infidel'. He told him to withdraw from the contract, but the governor was unsuccessful in this, since the law was not on his side. Following the sale of this property to the 'accursed Catholic priest', the governor prohibited the sale of any more buildings to Catholics.
There is also a deposition by Soleiman Abdel Hak, made during the trial after the friar's murder. 'About twenty days before Fr Basil's murder, my son went to school and found the Father sitting on a chair fixed to the floor. My son greeted him but after a while, Father got up looking angry and fierce, and banged his fist on the table. When my son asked what was wrong, the priest answered, "Osman Bey [the governor] summoned me and asked where I received permission to convert the house into a church, to say prayers and ring the bell. And he told me not to forget I was in a Muslim city!" Fr Basil also said he had answered the governor courageously, knowing no one could hinder or stop his duty as a priest. This interview with the governor sealed Fr Basil's fate. The governor hired two assassins, telling them to stop at nothing. They were both workers in a soap factory, making the city's famous laurel soap; the foreman of the factory was to testify against Osman, and lost his job because of it.


The killing of Fr. Basil

According to the files of the Curia of the Capuchins the murder happened as follows. 'On 12 th May 1851, Fr Basil had just finished saying Mass when two Turks arrived and asked to speak to him. Suddenly one of them grabbed him from behind, while the other cut his throat with a knife. They took the martyr's body and, without knowing what they were doing, but moved by some divine inspiration, they laid it out on the altar and covered it with a carpet. Then they left quietly, happy to have taken out their rancour on a minister of Christ'.
The first two pupils to come to school found the body. They were the children of a man called Piciotto. The dreadful news soon spread through the city and Turks, Greeks and Jews alike all hurried to the church. The only person who did not come to see was Osman Bey, who, as representative of the law, was the one person who should have come.
A relative of the French consul in Aleppo said Fr Basil had been killed whilst playing the harmonium; and that the murder was meant by religious fanatics as a warning to missionaries to give up the idea of building a church. This proves the action was directed against the Catholic religion, not the missionary himself. He was respected by everyone; Christians, Turks and Jews all praised his character and behaviour.
In a report to Rome, the prefect of the Capuchin mission in Beirut, Fr John of Termini, wrote: 'While I was visiting the brothers in Mount Lebanon, I heard about the murder of our missionary, Basil of Novara, who had served the Syrian mission for five years. He was a man of truly apostolic zeal, a true son of St Francis, drawn with bold courage to the city of Antioch, formerly capital of Syria and the first seat of the prince of the apostles - the city in which Jesus's followers were first called Christians. With tears in his eyes he vowed to consecrate a chapel where Peter and the apostles Paul and Barnabas had laboured with so much sweat, and the crusaders with so much blood. On 12 th May he was found murdered by Muslim fanatics, his throat cut at the foot of the altar of the chapel he had opened with so much difficulty. Everyone receives the news of the murder of this well known missionary with great sorrow, not only the Europeans but also the local people, who liked his gentle manner and the practice of apostolic charity by which he wanted to draw all men to Christ'.
Two other capuchins who were murdered in the preceding ten years are also remembered in this letter. Fr Thomas of Sardinia was killed by Jews in Damascus and Fr Charles of Lorette was burned by the Druse in Mount Lebanon (From a letter of 5 th June 1851, within a month of the murder).
In the Capuchin archives in Rome there is an accusation against the Orthodox of Antioch, referred to as "Greco-schismatics". 'Fr Basil's mistake was wanting to resurrect the Catholic church in Antioch, and that is why the Greco-schismatics gave money to the Turks to kill him for them' This accusation is repeated in an interview between the Orthodox and the governor Osman Bey. 'An European emissary has settled in our city, sent by the Pope who lives in Rome, head of those who call themselves Catholic and the enemy of our religion If you leave this man free you can be sure that the Muslim religion will be greatly damaged even more than our Greek religion will be. Governor, letting this man live dishonours you" (Antioche 2 no 21 of the 9 th June 1856: A letter sent to Rome, some 5 years after the murder, by Fr Damien, prefect of the Capuchins in Beirut).


The motive of the killing

Fr Selim, author of the texts I have drawn from, wonders about the source of this information. None of the documents which we have here in Antioch try to implicate the Greek Orthodox. I have some reservation, then, in presenting this theory.
Leaving aside who actually ordered him murdered, we can be sure Fr Basil paid with his life for his zeal and fidelity to Christ and the Church. He was a martyr in the true sense of the word. He was murdered by two Muslims out of hatred for his Christian faith.
He was buried in front of the cave of St Peter in the garden that served the Christians of the town as a cemetery. Nowadays, the headstone is preserved in the church. It reads:


In memory of


apostolic missionary
of the Capuchin Order.

Moved by zeal
for spreading the faith,
he founded the mission in Antioch
in the year 1846.

At midday on 12 th May 1851,
because of hatred for the Catholic Faith,
he was killed by having his throat cut.
He was 48 years old.

His remains are buried near to this sanctuary


Memory of Fr. Basil

The main reason for remembering our founder here is to remind us that being a witness of Christ in a Muslim country could mean, as it did for Fr Basil and later for Fr Andrea Santoro, paying for that faith and the proclamation of the gospel with your life. Years, even centuries, may pass but man must not forget that life belongs to God, and that no one may suppress people who have other beliefs, as has happened in the past and still happens despite the progress of civilization and the respect that should spring from that. Remembering our brother here should encourage us not to lose our identity and to be believing witnesses to the only Truth, which is Christ Our Lord.