San Giuseppe da Leonessa (St. Joseph of Leonessa) is a special saint who divided his life between the desire to be a martyr and to help the needy. And he did both things in an original and incredibly pragmatic way.
San Giuseppe was born in Leonessa on 8 January 1556 with the unusual name of Eufranio, which means ‘bearer of joy’, and lost his wealthy parents when he was only ten years old. His uncle sent him to study at Viterbo and shortly afterwards he opposed the family and took the vows as a Capuchin friar in Assisi.
The Rieti area near Leonessa is called the ‘Santa valle’, and this is the place where the path of Saint Francis, patron of Italy, and Saint Benedict, patron of Europe, meet.
In this area, St. Joseph developed the desire to do something special for others and to purify his intentions underwent much corporal punishment.
His first great idea was for a mission to go to Constantinople to help Christians in trouble. These missions usually were led by the Jesuits but a plague had decimated the order and Pope Sisto V entrusted the task to the Capuchins.
St. Joseph was 31 years old and did not belong to the priests of the mission, but at the last minute one became ill and so he left for Constantinople, which for over a century had become one of the major Muslim centres. The Turks had left the patriarch and “eastern bishops” in their place, separated from the Church of Rome after the schism in 1094, but persecuted Catholic bishops.
The Capuchins were committed to restoring a convent in the Pera district and to give help to Christians and the infirm.
At one point, he decided to face the problem of Islam radically and went to convert Sultan Murad III directly. He got into the palace but was discovered, arrested and subjected to incredible corporal punishment. He was tied with one hand and one foot to a beam under which a fire burned for three days.
Perhaps because of his experience of suffering, perhaps because of his destiny, St. Joseph was saved and expelled from Constantinople. The legend says an angel came down to save him and heal him of his wounds.
Back in Italy he was even more convinced of the role of monks in supporting the souls and bodies of the needy and began an intense preaching activity throughout Central Italy. Turning and talking with everyone, he realized what people needed and dedicated himself to the promotion of the Seed Banks.
Thanks to his activity, confraternities were born in his name throughout the area and when he dies in Amatrice on February 4, 1612, his body was subject to a particular embalming. Everyone wanted a piece of his body as a relic because they were certain he would be sanctified.
A few years later, taking advantage of an earthquake, his body was brought to Leonessa into a dedicated sanctuary and he was then proclaimed holy by Benedict XIV in 1746.
But what are Seed Banks (Frumentari Monti)?
They are a form of support that we can define today as the micro-credit innovator. A kind of seed bank that gave seeds to farmers in trouble who otherwise would not be able to cultivate their fields.
Sometimes poverty pushed peasants to eat the grain and barley they were planning to plant the next year. But if you do not sow you cannot reap and the problem of poverty becomes impossible to solve and people often become victims of ‘wear and tear’.
Thus, the monks engaged themselves in various ways: the Franciscans in the Monti de Pietà and San Giuseppe in the Seed Banks.
Just as the Chinese proverb says to not give fish but a fishing rod and teach to fish, Saint Joseph of Leonessa worked hard in promoting the cultivation of fields.
The earliest Seed banks were born in the 15th century. Rieti was founded in 1488 and the peasants participated in their creation by giving some days of work and seeds. When a surplus of seeds occurred, then these were sold for the creation of Pecuniary Banks that provided low-interest money (5%) to farmers.
The Seed Bank concept spread widely thanks to Cardinal Orsini, Archbishop of Benevento, who was then elected pope with the name of Benedict XIII and ordered all bishops of southern Italy to facilitate the birth of the Seed Bank.
After a period of decline, the Seed Banks were resurrected by Francesco I Borbone in 1826 and at the time of the unification of Italy there were more than 1,000 in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They were abolished by the Savoys.