Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Disappearance and Death of Don Francesco Bonifacio

Don Francesco Bonifacio
(September 7, 1912 - September 11, 1946)

Whoever is afraid to die for his faith, is not worthy to profess it.” - Don Francesco Bonifacio


Francesco Bonifacio was an Italian Roman Catholic priest, born on September 7, 1912 in the Italian city of Pirano, in Istria, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He was the second of seven children, born to Giovanni Bonifacio and Luigia Busdon. His father was a sailor who worked on steamers in Istria and Trieste, a grueling job which kept him away from home most of the time. His mother was a housewife, but was later forced to work as a cleaning lady due to the family's poor income. Both of his parents were devout Catholics.

In July 28, 1914, when Francesco was barely 2 years old, war broke out between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. Italy entered the conflict on May 23, 1915. When the war ended in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed while the Italians stood victorious, and Francesco's native Istria became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Francesco attended elementary school in Pirano and received a religious education at the local parish of San Francesco where he served as an altar boy. After completing his schooling he moved to Capodistria where he entered the seminary.

His father died on Christmas Eve 1931.

He completed his theological studies at the Central Theological Seminary of Gorizia, and was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of San Giusto in Trieste on December 27, 1936.

Initially he was assigned to his birth city in Pirano, but a few months later he was nominated vicar of Cittanova d'Istria. There he moved with his mother and siblings and founded a local branch of Catholic Action (Azione Cattolica).

On July 13, 1939 he was appointed chaplain of Villa Gardossi (also known as Crassizza), an agricultural hinterland between Buie and Grisignana. Don Bonifacio suffered from asthma, a persistent cough and chronic bronchial and lung problems. Nonetheless, he organized a parish choir, founded an amateur dramatic society and a small public library, in addition to establishing a branch of Catholic Action and promoting recreational activities such as sports for the youth, as well as assistance for the elderly, the sick and the economically disadvantaged.

During the Second World War the area around Villa Gardossi became infested with bands of partisan terrorists, who used the scattered farmhouses of the region as hideouts.

After the Italian Armistice on September 8, 1943, the Yugoslav partisans briefly took control of Istria. During the brief occupation, the Yugoslavs committed several brutal massacres against the Italian population, killing many men, women, children and also clergy.

By October 1943 the Yugoslavs were pushed out of Istria. Miraculously, Don Bonifacio managed to remain unharmed for the duration of the war.

After the end of the war in 1945, Istria was permanently occupied by the Yugoslavs of Josip Broz Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia. Persecution of Italians and Catholics began immediately. The Yugoslavs openly discouraged people from attending church and sent agents to stand outside local churches to intimidate the people.

Shortly before his disappearance, Don Bonifacio was warned by a loyal parishioner that some members of his congregation had defected to Communism and was told not to trust them. The Don traveled to Trieste to consult with bishop Antonio Santin, who advised him to be cautious and to limit his activities, but also to remain faithful to his duties and to not allow himself to be intimidated.

Don Bonifacio was accused by the Yugoslavs of being “a subversive anti-Communist”. He responded to these accusations by holding a meeting in the church, with the doors wide open so that everyone could observe what was being said.

A few days before his death, a parishioner warned Don Bonifacio that his life was in danger. Don Bonifacio privately confided to Don Guido Bertuzzo, the parish priest of Sicciole, that he was under strict surveillance by the OZNA (secret police of Communist Yugoslavia) and that daily activities had become very dangerous for him.

On September 11, 1943 Don Bonifacio disappeared. He was seen alive for the last time around 4 PM that same day by his confessor Don Giuseppe Rocco.

According to subsequent eyewitness testimony, on his way home, Don Bonifacio was stopped near Grisignana by men belonging to the Slav Communist “People's Guard”, which functioned as the Yugoslav police. He was abducted, beaten to death and thrown into a sinkhole, i.e. a large pit in the ground known as a foiba. According to some accounts, Don Bonifacio was mocked, stripped, stabbed and stoned before being thrown into a foiba.

When news of the attack reached Don Bonifacio's brother Giovanni, he approached the “People's Guard” to find out more information about his brother's fate. The guards accused Giovanni of spreading anti-Communist propaganda and arrested him. Shortly after this, he and his family were forced to move to Italy.

The forests were searched by locals, and his mother Luigia continued to search for her child for a year, but no traces of Don Bonifacio were ever found. His remains have still never been recovered. It is believed that his body is still at the bottom of the foiba of Martines, 180 meters under ground.

The disappearance and death of Don Francesco Bonifacio was just one incident among many. It was part of the much larger Foibe Massacres, a systematic genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Yugoslavs (Croats, Slovenes and Serbs) against the native Italians of Istria during World War II. The purpose of these barbaric massacres was to exterminate the Italian population of Istria and slavicize the region before annexing it to Greater Yugoslavia.

These massacres – which inflicted terror upon the indigenous Italian population of Istria, Dalmatia and Julian Venetia, and claimed the lives of approximately 20,000-30,000 Italians – was followed by a mass exodus and forced expulsion of 350,000 Italians, an event known as the Istrian-Dalmatian or Julian-Dalmatian Exodus. The Italian territories were then occupied, forcibly slavicized and annexed to Communist Yugoslavia. These regions today are occupied by the ex-Yugoslav successor states: Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. The victims and their families remain uncompensated by the Slavic governments; hundreds of thousands of Italians remain in exile from their homeland.