‘100 years of taking care of the interest of Jesus’

IN a vast garden of flora and fauna, there are many varieties of flowers and plants which try to be recognized and appreciated.

There will also be one or a few which remain silent and hidden. Not because they are not that beautiful, but because they choose not to entice the on-lookers with one simple glance but makes the latter take a second look. And there, its beauty unfolds.

The Oblates of Saint Joseph (OSJ), an Italian congregation of religious priests and brothers, was founded in Asti, North Italy, by then Bishop of Acqui, Joseph Marello. The congregation had a humble beginning and a humble intention.

Bishop Marello thought of founding an institution, a group of ordinary men who would help in providing educational and spiritual assistance to the young people of Asti who were made wayward by war, violence and lawlessness.

From a rented room in the Michelerio Institute in Asti, a picture of simplicity and poverty, a religious congregation sprouted and grew. Through the years, it grew in the number of membership and in areas or places of mission and apostolate.

The founder

Joseph Marello was born in Turin on December 26, 1844. His parents were Vincent Marello and Anna Maria Viale. He was baptized on the same day that he was born and was given the name Joseph Jeffrey Steven Marello. He had a younger brother named Vittorio. His mother died during his childhood years, making their father take care of them and provide for their needs. This prompted his father to return to his hometown, San Martino Alfieri.

Even at an early age, Joseph was an epitome of an obedience, kindness and holiness. In San Martino Alfieri, Joseph responded quickly to those in need. He would very often give away his own possessions and invite the homeless and the hungry to the family table.

In those early years he was faithful to his religious duties and eager to help his parish priest by serving as an altar boy. It was there that he began to realize that he, too, was being called to the priesthood. Seeing his son’s good behavior and good grades in school, his father decided to reward him by taking him on a journey to Savona. There Joseph saw the sea for the first time and the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy. Being with the Lady, whom he had considered as his second mother, he made a decision that will change his life. 

On November 9, 1856, Marello began his life as a seminarian at the Diocesan Seminary of Asti. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on September 19, 1869, at the Cathedral of Asti and was assigned secretary to Bishop Carlo Savio of Asti. 

He founded the “Company of Saint Joseph,” with four members on March 14, 1878. He was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Asti and spiritual director of the Major Seminary in 1874. He was named Bishop of Acqui by Pope Leo XIII, who later called him a “gem among bishops.” He was consecrated bishop by Raffaelle Cardinal Monaco La Valletta at the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Concepcion in Rome.

Though in poor health, he travelled by coach to Savona to preside at the celebrations for the third centennial of the death of Saint Philip Neri. On May 30, 1895, he died of cerebral hemorrhage at the Episcopal residence of the bishop of Savona at 6:30 p.m. Joseph Marello was beatified on September 26, 1993, at the Piazza del Palio in Asti, Italy, and was canonized on November 25, 2001, in Rome, presided by then-Pope John Paul II.

Oblates of Saint Joseph

The congregation of the Oblates of Saint Joseph was a long-time dream of Marello. Seeing the sad plight of the young people of Asti, he founded an institution to cater, especially for the spiritual needs of the victims of violence and war. It was founded on March 14, 1878, with the intention of promoting and of taking care of the interests of Jesus in imitation of Saint Joseph.

At first, Father Marello only intended this group to observe the evangelical vows. He wished that the members would dedicate themselves to a life of charity and of availability to the pressing needs of the Diocese of Asti.

The first group of brothers were composed of Giorgio Medico, Luigi Biamino, Antonio Rey and Vincenzo Franco. This took place in a little rented room in Michelerio Institute, Asti. A closet and two drapes served to divide the room into a living room on one side and a work room on the other. There were a few wooden chairs and one table on which they worked and took their meals.

There was only one adornment on the wall: a poor picture of Saint Joseph without a frame. Father Marello instructed them every day. He taught them the spirit of humility and the interior life, as well as the value of working with their hands. They assisted the orphans in the Michelerio Institute and also undertook the most humble manual work. They served as sacristans in the churches that requested them. 

With the turn of certain events, Father Marello saw the will of God for the company he founded to be a religious congregation. The first was, due to the scarcity of priests, Brother Medico was given permission to study and later on be ordained a priest. In 1882 a generous patron gave Father Marello the hospice he founded. This was formerly the monastery of Santa Chiara. But he never changed the name and it became the Casa Madre of the Congregation. Then in 1883, he accepted a diocesan priest, Fr. Giovanni Battista Cortona, to his company. It also paved way to let the brothers to prepare and study for the priesthood. 

When he was appointed as Bishop of Acqui in 1889, Msgr. Marello entrusted his little brothers (by that time known by people as Giuseppini di Asti) to Father  Cortona. By 1893, the OSJ priests were already administering five parishes in the Diocese.  The death of Saint Joseph Marello on May 30, 1895, left a great void in the hearts of the young congregation. But having the fatherly guide of Msgr. Giuseppe Ronco, bishop of Asti, the congregation persevered. Father Crotona continued to lead his fellow Oblates. 

On April 11, 1909, Pope Pius X approved the congregation as a pontifical institute of consecrated life. In 1921, during the First General Chapter, Father Bertagna was elected as the First Superior General.

In 1915 the congregation opened themselves to the world by sending five Oblates of Saint Joseph to the Philippines. Then in 1919 the mission in Brazil began. A decade after, the Oblates arrived in the United States of America.

Missions in Peru and Bolivia were initiated in 1948. It took almost another three decades, before the congregation opened its mission in India (1980) and in Poland (1981). In 1990 the Oblates were sent to Nigeria. The latest missionary frontiers are in Australia (2009) and in Mozambique (2014). The Oblates of Saint Joseph today has 413 priests and 31 religious brothers.

OSJ in the Philippines

The Philippines is the first ever mission area of the Oblates of Saint Joseph outside of Italy. It was in response to the invitation of Msgr. Joseph Petrelli, who was then the first bishop of the Diocese of Lipa.

Guided by the Holy Spirit and with the approval of Pope Benedict XV, the first five Italian OSJ set sail to the then-Philippine Islands.

The five missionaries were Father Giuseppe Anfossi, Father Eugenio Gherlone, Father Ernesto Fornaca, Bro. Giovanni Battista Camera and Bro. Giovanni Maccagno. They arrived in the Philippines, in San Jose, Batangas on August 26, 1915.

They were held responsible for the parishes in San Jose, Cuenca, Taysan, Lobo, Lumang Bayan (now Called Padre Garcia) and Tombol (now called Rosario), all in the Batangas province.

The years of the OSJ presence in the Philippines has a long story written in blood, sweat and tears. It is a story of triumph and inescapable failure, a story of countless human effort made stronger by God’s unfailing grace and providence. In fact, it was also a story of great sacrifice with a number of missionaries offering their lives due to sickness brought about by exhaustion, and a story of martyrdom during World War II. With 21 Italians and one American committing to the work of mission in the country, the mission gradually grew into a delegation, then into a province with currently 117 perpetually professed priests and brothers, 20 junior professed  brothers,  seven novices, eight postulants, 76 college seminarians and 84 minor (high-school) seminarians.

More so, the Oblates of Saint Joseph are managing 21 parishes spread all over the Philippines. They also have five seminaries, two renewal centers, two colleges and eight schools providing pre-school, grade school and high-school education.

Grand centennial celebrations

This year of 2015 marks the centenary of OSJ’s presence in the Philippines. In preparation for this grand celebration, a three-year program was planned with the theme, “100 years of taking care of the Interests of Jesus.”

It started in 2013, a year dedicated to Saint Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and the patron of the congregation. On the second year, 2014, Saint Joseph Marello was given due honor. Various activities were done to remember the memories, the sacrifices and the heroism of our missionaries and, most especially, the providence of God.

National and regional symposia were held. A Caravan for Saint Joseph Marello was held, especially in Cagayan de Oro City. Conferences on the lives and holiness of Saint Joseph and Saint Joseph Marello were held to further develop and promote devotions to the two important protagonists in the OSJ’s lives.

On August 26 the celebration will hold a symbolic walk from the entry point to the town center of San Jose, Batangas. It will be followed by a Eucharistic celebration to be presided by His Excellency Giuseppe Pinto, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, concelebrated by bishops and priests, and to be attended by delegates, foreign and local seminarians, parishioners of the OSJ parishes, faculty, staff and students of the OSJ Schools, members of other religious communities, families and friends.

Send-off ceremonies will be held on August 29, with the Holy Mass to be presided by the Rev. Ramon Arguelles, the Archbishop of Lipa.

The story of the OSJ in the Philippines never ends here and this year. The occasion of celebrating a centenary is an occasion and an opportunity to be grateful and be blessed. It is also a moment of looking into the future with a greater hope and complete trust to the providence of God.

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