The "Napoleonic Whirlwind"
The decree of April the 25th, 1810, introduced an epochal change in the society and cultural history of the Kingdom of Italy, i.e. that part of the peninsula between Lombardy and Veneto and, to the south, Marche, of which Napoleon Bonaparte had been crowned king in 1805. The law prescribed the suppression of all ecclesiastical institutes, corporations and associations and the prohibition to wear the habit of any religious order: the men and women who until then had spent their lives within the walls of the cloister suddenly found themselves without a home and were forced to return to their families or, if foreigners, to return to their countries of origin.
The consequences of the "Napoleonic whirlwind" were also felt in Padova and, specifically, also affected the community of Augustinian nuns of Santa Caterina: the congregation was dissolved, the church became a subsidiary of Santa Sofia and the young women who had found hospitality in the complex returned to their parents or, more often, ended up begging on street corners. Their number grew year by year, until the situation became unsustainable: it was thus decided to remedy the situation with the foundation of new institutions of hospitality.
The action of the priest Antonio Malucello
In this phase of Santa Caterina's history, the action of Antonio Malucello, a former churchman who, like many, had seen the dissolution of his congregation in 1810, stood out in particular. After remaining in Padova as a secular priest, at first he gathered the street maidens from honest families and supported them through his pension, and then founded three institutes to give them hospitality:
- the Conservatorio di Santa Rosa (1813), in the street of the same name inside the former monastery of Dominican nuns, intended for the «reception of young girls educated in religion and female works»;
- the Conservatorio di Santa Caterina (1815), in the former monastery of Via C. Battisti, for the «education of abandoned girls»: this was the shelter for the poorest young women;
- the Conservatorio di S. Antonio in Vanzo (1822), in the former convent of the Virgins of Vanzo, for the «education of young civilized girls and young people called to spiritual retreat without vows». (Casarini, 1846, pp. 56-57)
and placed at the head of each one a community of the faithful directed by a single superior, Rosa Agosto, residing in the Conservatorio di Santa Rosa (Sorgato,1856, pp. 300-302).
In the meantime, the priest also worked to recover funds by resorting to the alms of the families of the city, through the sending of letters of request for offerings on the model of the one presented here.
Such was Malucello's action for the benefit of the city through these institutes, that in 1825 he was awarded the medal of civil merit by the Emperor of Austria and King of Lombardy-Venetia Francis I of Habsburg-Lorraine and his wife Caroline Charlotte Augsburg of Bavaria, then visiting the provinces of Veneto.
In the following years the attention of the priest was directed to the purchase of the complex of Santa Caterina, until then owned by the Royal Government and used by the Conservatorio against payment of a rent. Negotiations on the price were long: initially Malucello proposed the figure of 8,400 lire, but an appraisal made by the Royal Finance Department of the government to the engineer Pivetta established its value at 11,606.22 lire. In the end the two parties agreed on the price of 9,000 lire, which was further reduced to 7,500 following the damages caused by a storm in August 1834. So, the following year, Malucello was on the point of completing the purchase of the building of Santa Caterina, which would be added to its properties, already including the Conservatori of Santa Rosa and Vanzo: and yet, this patrimony never came to be constituted.
The death of Rosa Agosto and the economic problems that arose forced the priest to hesitate about the purchase until 1837: on September the 6th of that year the agreement was quickly concluded and on the same day, after a preliminary contract that had been drawn up on August 30th, the Santa Caterina complex was resold. The new owner, as shown in the Austrian Land Registry of 1838, became Maddalena Franceschini del fu Angelo, who came into possession of the building in the name and on behalf of Msgr. Jacopo De Foretti, director of the Pio Luogo del Soccorso.
Bishop Jacopo De Foretti and the foundation of the Pii Luoghi di Santa Caterina e del Soccorso
So it was that, starting in 1837, the history of the Conservatorio di Santa Caterina was intertwined with that of the Soccorso and Soccorsetto located near Pontecorvo: organizations with the same purpose of assistance to young people, the first was founded in 1576, the second in 1743 and intended, specifically, for young girls who «because of their age it was not appropriate to bring them into contact with young penitents, although they were still in need of protection because of the danger of corruption to which they were exposed» (Un'opera di redenzione, 1931, p. 10).
The events of these two institutes followed step by step those of the former monastery of Santa Caterina: closed during the Napoleonic suppressions, they were reopened immediately afterwards in the same place in private, thanks to the alms of the population and the economic support of the new founders, Giovanni Battista da Chiarano, who died shortly afterwards (1814), and Jacopo De Foretti.
He was a pivotal figure both in the history of relief in Padova and, more specifically, in the places we are concerned with, and to his action we owe their reunification into a single entity, the Pii Luoghi (or Conservatori) of Santa Caterina e del Soccorso, at that time still divided into two separate locations: the Soccorso-Soccorsetto in Via San Francesco (which the ancient plaques recall as Via del Soccorso) for older girls; the complex of Santa Caterina reserved for those under 15 years of age. This became the main center of the institute, whose direction was entrusted, as mentioned above, to Maddalena Franceschini del fu Angelo.
Franceschini collaborated with De Foretti since 1826 as a lay woman of the Secular Third Order; when she was appointed to direct the two Conservatories of Santa Caterina e del Soccorso she decided, in agreement with the priest, to found a new cloistered religious community, the Terziarie Collegiali, observing the rule of St. Francis and aggregated to the order of the Frati Minori del Santo: the ceremony of the dressing of the religious habit took place on August the 12th,1840.
The years between 1840 and 1850 were of intense activity for De Foretti, who dedicated himself not only to the religious and administrative care of the Pii Conservatori, but also to their spatial reorganization: in that decade, in fact, he bought some houses and vegetable gardens located near the church of Santa Caterina in which to move the Soccorso, which at the time was still in Via San Francesco. Knowing the names of the private individuals who sold it to De Foretti and helping us with the Austrian Land Registry of 1838 it is possible to understand precisely the extension of the area destined to the construction of the new Soccorso, which it went on to occupy:
- the plots 2740 and 2739, a house with porch for public use and a garden belonging to Giuseppe Cristofori (sale of July the 26th, 1841);
- the plot 2742, a house with public porch owned by the widow of Nicolò De Lazzara, Caterina Degli Oddi (sale of March the 14th, 1849);
- the plots 2743 and 2746, houses with their respective gardens behind (2744 and 2745) by Giovanni Troiano (sale of September the 24th, 1845).
Between 1852 and 1853 the construction of the building, with only one floor, was started and it was inhabited from May 1854: from that moment and until recent years, the headquarters of the Conservatori of Santa Caterina and Soccorso were united in a single area that included the church of Santa Caterina on three sides, as it is clear from this plan of 1930.
The second half of the nineteenth century opened with a dispute between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, in which the object of the dispute were the Pii Conservatori: on the one hand the Provincial congregation aimed at making them subject to its jurisdiction as charitable Institutes, arousing the opposition of De Foretti, who in the meantime had left Padova to hold the office of Bishop of Chioggia. On the other hand, De Foretti himself, in agreement with the Bishop of Padua Federico Manfredini, used the situation to his advantage to issue the deed of foundation of the Pii Conservatori as ecclesiastical bodies (August 2, 1862), submitted to the bishop's authority and entrusted to the Collegial Tertiaries in matters of education and direction. However, this act did not immediately resolve the disputes with the civil authority, which continued in the following years and, indeed, were reinvigorated by the change of government in 1866: but in the end the ecclesiastical instances were officially recognized by royal decree also by the Italian governmento (Un'opera di redenzione, 1931, pp. 27-34).
Beyond these controversies, life in the institutes continued to flourish in those years, also thanks to the economic support offered by the alms of the Padovans, as these testimonies found in the archives prove.