Mgr John Patrick Carroll-Abbing

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, priest: born Dublin 11 August 1912; ordained priest 1935; founder, Boys' Towns of Italy 1945; Honorary Citizen of Rome 1987; died Rome 9 July 2001.

numerous legends surround the foundation by John Patrick Carroll-Abbing of his charitable organisation Boys' Towns of Italy: depending on which you subscribe to, the priest began his work amongst the waifs of war-torn Europe in Anzio or in Rome; set up his first shelter in an abandoned school or a badly bombed cellar; and received his first supplies of food and equipment from German occupiers or Allied liberators.

No such confusion, however, surrounded the aims of this remarkable Irishman, who remained involved in the American-registered charity until his death at the age of 88. "I dreamed of a future Boys' Town where the innate rights and duties of each child in society would be respected and fostered," he wrote. "A place which would have as its ultimate goal to help each boy find his true place in society as a responsible God-fearing citizen."

Carroll-Abbing left his native Dublin in 1930, at the age of 18, to study for the priesthood in Rome. Five years later he was ordained; with degrees in theology and canon law, he entered the Vatican diplomatic service in 1937.

Wartime mercy missions for the Vatican brought Carroll-Abbing face to face with the plight of the growing hordes of orphaned and homeless children eking out a living by begging, menial work and petty crime. With his army of volunteer helpers – many, according to another Boys' Town legend, sons of aristocrats coaxed by the persuasive priest into Rome's mean streets – Carroll-Abbing doggedly pursued his charity work through 1944 with tacit approval from the Germans and rapturous praise from the Allies. At his "Shoeshine Hotel" shelter near the Termini station in Rome, waifs were expected to return "home" by 5.30pm to clean or cook for their little community.

The theories of self-organisation and self-government hatched in this small experiment were expanded in 1945 when Carroll-Abbing persuaded many of his Shoeshine Boys to follow him to new, more comfortable quarters near Civitavecchia, 45km north of Rome. In this first Boys' Town, the young residents received vocational training and were instilled with a strong sense of their own value within society. Elsewhere in Italy, relief efforts organised by Carroll-Abbing with mainly private international funds provided food and clothing for hundreds of thousands of needy youngsters in the country's poorest regions.

In the 1950s, more Boys' (and later Girls') Towns were founded around Italy, usually after floods or earthquakes left local young people orphaned and in need of practical help to ensure them a self-sufficient future. Once they were established and running smoothly, the handling of individual towns was entrusted to a wide selection of religious groups and orders.

In more recent years, the towns have become a reliable gauge of the world's trouble-spots, offering a refuge for an international range of young victims of war and famine. The organisation's Centre for the Study of Contemporary Youth Issues, in Rome, provides an authoritative voice in debate on children's needs and rights.

Anne Hanley