The Malta Independent 9 December 2018, Sunday

Don Antonio Urso, Salesian Of Don Bosco (1876-1908)

Malta Independent Tuesday, 14 April 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Don Antonio Urso, son of Giuseppe and Fortunata née Gallo, was born in Belpasso (Catania) on 17 January, 1876. He grew up in an exemplary Catholic family and after his elementary schooling and attending the liceo in his native town, in year 1888, the year Don Bosco died, he attended the Salesian Oratory San Filippo Neri, annexed to the College San Basilio at Randazzo, the first Salesian Foundation in Sicily, where he became attracted to the Salesian way of life. There also he met for the first time Don Vincenzo Allegra.

On 23 August, 1890 he commenced his two years as aspirant and then a novice at Foglizzo, ending on 22 April, 1892. Thereafter he left Sicily for Valsalice in Turin where he took his first perpetual vows and received the cassock from the hands of the Rector Major, Don Michele Rua. His final two years of theological studies were spent at San Gregorio and he was ordained to the priesthood in Catania on 23 December, 1899. After his ordination he served for a period as spiritual director of the Salesian Oratory Sacro Cuore for the poor children of San Gregorio. Shortly afterwards he returned to the San Gregorio Institute, were he was appointed as a teacher and confessor of the House and he had the opportunity to establish a musical band.

He he promptly accepted with obedience to leave Sicily for Tunisia to look after the patronage of the Italians in that country.

In 1906 yet another appointment was lined up for Antonio Urso. From Tunisia he proceeded to the Institute at Bova Marina at Sicily prior to embarking on the steamship Birmania for Malta, arriving on 30 October, 1906. He joined the Community of St Patrick’s Institute to fulfil his mission as Music Master, Cathecist and Confessor and was earmarked to assume the directorship of the new foundation of the Juventutis Domus in Sliema. He was involved in the project from the laying of the foundation stone right up to its inauguration with great pomp on 7 May, 1908. Don Urso was the person in particular who made a valuable contribution to the development of the edifice in three structures and was anxious to honour the trust that had been placed in him.

Don Urso, though comparatively a young man of 34 years, of intelligence above the average, of an open and happy character, by his personal hard labour had already won a sterling reputation in Malta. The Juventutis Domus, which was established against a background of some financial difficulty to furnish it, steadily accumulated support and his work among the young members progressed in growing numbers. He made his mark with spiritual lectures in Valletta at the Church of St Francis in Kingsway, at St Catherine’s Church in South Street for University students and his Sunday sermons at St Patrick’s, all of which drew numerous congregations. His discourses in Italian on many occasions were of the best, some of them to the extent of being given prominence in local papers.

During the very early years of his Salesian activity in Malta, Don Urso was among the major promoters and through his skill and flair generated steady growth of income from benefactors and cooperators. Don Urso was the indefatigable Charge d’Affaires in all that belonged to the management and direction of the Juventutis Domus.

Don Urso was the 20th Century priest par excellence. An eminently devout man who had his hand on the pulse of youth, who were attracted by his eloquence, his musical gifts, his versatility and above all by his amiability, which gave him a sort of magnetic influence on their hearts. His name was often cited as a priest diffusing modernist ideas who favoured a modernist movement, also making available certain literature which was not approved by the Church. However the Salesian Superiors, to avoid escalation of unwarranted gossip, deemed it fit to recall Don Urso to the San Luigi Institute of Messina, Sicily. Don Urso left Malta for Syracuse on 24 August, 1908 embarking on the S.S. Carola.

Over four months after departing from Malta, Don Antonio Urso died tragically on Monday, 28 December, 1908 at 5.20 in the morning when still fully dark – he was buried alive under the ruins of the Salesian Institute San Luigi of Messina, destroyed by Europe’s most powerful earthquake that caused a large tsunami and shook southern Italy. The building like all the rest of the city of Messina was totally destroyed. Other Salesians who passed untimely like Don Urso were five priests, two clerics and a lay brother. Also perished under the ruins were 38 students and four employees. There were several others who were injured but not seriously. The solemn funerals took place on 4 and 5 January, 1909 at the Sanctuary of Mary Help of Christians.

On 11 Jannuary, 1909 Don Rua wrote of Don Urso to the Salesian Cooperators in Malta.“..... the sympathy with which you surround the humble Salesians residing in Malta; and after the mournful events of Messina, of which you are aware, I invite you to pray for the repose of the soul of our beloved brother you all so loved and esteemed. I trust that having now acquired the glory of paradise, he will not fail to pray for his many dear friends and admirers in your island. Is it not wonderful, that, while up to the present there is no trace of any of the victims belonging to us, he has been unearthed and assisted for several hours during which he was able to make his confession, and his resignation to the will of God, give us a sure pledge of his eternal salvation.”

In Malta a funeral oration by the Salesian Fr Vincenzo Allegra (successor of Don Urso) was held at the Church of St Francis in Valletta on 27 January, 1909.

The Chapel of the Salesian Oratory at Sliema, built by public subscription, was erected by permission of the Archbishop of Malta, Mgr Pietro Pace in accordance with his decree promulgated on 24 March, 1909. The chapel was completed and opened on 21 June, 1910 in perpetual memory of the late Fr Antonio Urso, a Salesian of Don Bosco who left behind a deep impression as the founding Director of the Juventutis Domus.

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