It is indeed a rare occurrence that the mayor of any city be considered a saint. But, in 1986, Pope John Paul II began the process of beatification, the third of four steps in the process towards sainthood, for Giorgio La Pira, twice mayor of Florence, first from 1951 to 1958, then from 1961 to 1965.
Although La Pira was born in the Sicilian town of Pozzallo, near Ragusa, on January 9, 1904, he lived most of his adult life in Florence. At age 20, he experienced a profound religious calling that set the pattern for his entire life. Once in Florence, where he became a full professor of Roman law at the university in 1934, he began putting his strong faith into practice. He founded the Mass of San Procolo at the Badia Fiorentina, for the city’s poor and homeless. After Mussolini passed the racial laws, he also became an active antifascist, at one point fleeing to Rome to avoid arrest.
After World War II, in 1946, La Pira was elected on the Christian Democrat ticket to the Constituent Assembly and, as a member of the Commission of 75, contributed to drafting the new constitution. In 1948, Prime Minister De Gasperi made him undersecretary of labour in his cabinet, together with his old friend Amintore Fanfani.
In 1951, when La Pira first became mayor of Florence, coming into office on the heels of the post-war Communist administration, he inherited a city afflicted by high unemployment and a chronic shortage of housing. Nevertheless, the chirpy, bespectacled little man was not to be discouraged. Referring to himself as a ‘free apostle of the Lord,’ until the day he died, November 5, 1977, he lived and worked in his adopted city, his actions always guided and defined by his Christian beliefs.
To achieve the post-war rebirth he sought for Florence, he adopted a lavish programme of expensive public works. He rebuilt the Alle Grazie, Vespucci and Santa Trinita bridges that had been blown up during the war; he created Isolotto as a satellite suburb; designed low-cost housing; set up the local dairy plant; constructed new schools; refurbished the municipal theatre; and repaved many of the city’s streets. Sometimes bending legality to suit his purpose, he requisitioned empty villas to house the poor or evicted. As he believed everyone was entitled to ‘a job, a house, and music,’ he even seized bankrupt factories to protect jobs. His intervention to save the Pignone factory and prevent the dismissal of 1,750 workers became legendary. The result was, however, that some adversaries, even in his own party, accused him of statism or spurious Marxism.
At the international level, La Pira worked tirelessly to promote Florence on the world stage and, as its first citizen, his aim was to be an ambassador for peace. He struck ‘sister city’ relationships with Philadelphia, Kiev, Kyoto, Fez and Rheims, and he made then UN secretary general Maha Thray Sithu U Thant and French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, honorary citizens. Between 1952 and 1956, he hosted five Conferences for Peace and Christian Civilisation in Palazzo Vecchio, convening participants from all over the world.
In 1955, he organised the Conference of Mayors of the Capitals, and between 1958 and 1964 he held the four Mediterranean Colloquia that, among other things, laid the foundation for peace between France and Algeria. In 1959, he visited Russia, and in 1965, he went to Vietnam, where he met Ho Chi Min and presented an outline for a peace plan that, unhappily, was not enacted for eight years and after much carnage; it finally became the groundwork for the accord that ended the Vietnam war. In 1967, he was elected president of the World Federation of United Cities.
A bachelor, La Pira lived in a bare, unheated monastery cell in the Basilica of San Marco; in very cold weather, he bunked in the office of a doctor friend. Florentine citizens called him ‘the Saint’: not only did he attend mass every morning before going to Palazzo Vecchio, but, like a modern-day St. Francis, he frequently gave his food, clothes and most of his salary to the needy. However, for his legendary largesse with the Florentine treasury, which kept the municipality on the brink of bankruptcy, he was also called far less flattering names. In a play on his surname, one opposition party dubbed him La Pirata (‘the pirate’). Not unexpectedly, it was this magnanimity that ultimately cost him his mayoral sash.
Nonetheless, La Pira’s popularity in Florence has never faded. Indeed, when Matteo Renzi was elected mayor of Florence in June 2009, in homage to La Pira, his first official visit was to La Pira’s grave at Rifredi cemetery. A lamp given by Florentine, Israeli and Palestinian children adorns the tomb, bearing the words ‘Peace, Shalom, Salaam,’ a written testimony to La Pira’s lifelong objective.
Il Centro Internazionale Studenti ‘Giorgio La Pira’ (Giorgio La Pira International Centre for Students)
The centre was created in 1978 by the Roman Catholic Church in Florence soon after the death of Giorgio La Pira. The centre’s objective is to welcome and socially integrate ethnic minorities, immigrants and political refugees and to promote friendship, mutual understanding and dialogue between peoples. In addition to holding seminars and conferences, it stimulates projects that foster international cooperation. As one of its main focuses is education, its activities
include running Italian language and history of art courses, supporting intercultural exchanges and organising ethnic music and dance classes-all as a means for bringing closer together people of different cultures.