Joseph was born to parents of modest means, the eldest of 12 children (six of whom survived childhood), and one of three to become a priest. He became a priest in 1811 and received a Doctorate in Theology in 1818.

The times were difficult in Northern Italy, which was experiencing the Napoleonic invasion. The rural people were flocking to the city of Torino creating a crisis of poverty, illiteracy, epidemics and crime. While leading a relatively comfortable life teaching at the college he struggled with how he could best direct his energies to alleviate the suffering around him. He studied the life of St. Vincent de Paul and as fate would have it, had an experience remarkably similar to that saint which changed his life.

A young woman who was pregnant and traveling with her family from Milano to Lyon found herself dying among the destitute because she had tuberculosis and the hospital would not admit her. The only person willing to assist her was Joseph, who felt helpless to alleviate her physical sufferings. He gave her last rites and baptized her prematurely born baby before it, too, died.

This traumatic experience led him to pray to the Blessed Mother for guidance. Inspired by her intercession he rang the bells at the church and had all the candles lit at her altar. Then he sold everything he owned and opened a small house where anybody could receive medical care. Like St. Vincent, he gathered people to help: his friends (one a doctor, another a pharmacist) and women volunteers (who eventually became sisters in one of Joseph’s congregations).

“The poor are Jesus,” he said, “They are not just an image of him. They are Jesus in person and must be served as such.”

Everyone who was turned away from the hospital came to him, and with an audacious trust in God, Joseph refused no one, knowing that God would provide.

When cholera ravaged Torino, the health authorities demanded that Joseph close his house lest it become a source of contagion. Undaunted, he gathered his belongs, and, after referring to the town in which he was born as the “cabbage center” of Italy, said, “Cabbages gain in size and quality by being transplanted. We must change our quarters and look for more spacious grounds.” With the continuing support of his priest friends and laypeople, he started a new enterprise in Valdocco: The Little House of Divine Providence.

Despite its small beginnings St. Joseph’s “Little House” grew into a “city of charity,” with additional houses built to serve the poor, sick, elderly, and abandoned. He also started 14 religious congregations to staff these homes. His work for the poor, sick, and abandoned was so prolific, he was dubbed the “Italian Vincent de Paul.”

While caring for the sick, Joseph contracted typhus and died. Pope Benedict XV beatified him in 1917 and Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1934. He is prayed to for liver and infectious diseases, and was listed as one of “the saints, who exercised charity in an exemplary way” in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

Adapted by A.J. Valentini from: Tiblis, L. (2021, March 26). Name That Saint: Joseph Benedict Cottolengo. The Miraculous Medal Shrine.