The Capuchin friar single-handedly returned a medieval church in Italy’s Appenine mountains to its former glory
Architects bandy around the word “spiritual” with abandon to describe the buildings they design. Usually, they are simply talking about the views out of the windows, or the amount of light that floods in through them, but for Padre Pietro Lavini “spiritual” had an altogether higher significance. His celebrated (and indeed only) creation — the Church of San Leonardo al Volubrio, high up in Italy’s Apennine mountains — was, he would say, divinely-inspired. His own role was simply as “God’s builder”, a phrase that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II later repeated in paying tribute to this remarkable Capuchin friar, who died in August at the age of 88.
Architecture was not Padre Pietro’s first vocation. Indeed, he never took any formal qualifications in the subject. Instead he joined his Franciscan order in the 1940s as a young man, straight out of school, and was ordained a priest in 1952, like his older brother before him. He chose the name “Pietro” for his ordination in honour of St Peter, the “rock” on whom Jesus built the Church.
As well as being a man of prayer, though, he was also good with his hands, as befitted the son of a ropemaker, but the limit of his building experience before 1965 had been helping out on church construction projects in Italy and North Africa.
In that year, when based with his fellow Capuchins at the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Ambro in the Marches region of Italy, he trekked up one day to a ruined 11th-century church, dwarfed by the sheer cliff face behind it, almost 4,000 feet up in the Apennines. San Leonardo al Volubrio had once stood on trade and pilgrims’ routes, but had been abandoned as long ago as the late 16th century in favour of more accessible alternatives.
The floor, Padre Pietro recalled in his 1998 memoir Lassu sui monti (“Up There, In The Mountains”), was covered in a foot of sheep dung — it had been used as a shelter by shepherds — and only one Romanesque arch from the original design was still standing as a witness to what San Leonardo had once been. But, with as clear an eye as any architecture graduate could have mustered on a site visit, Padre Pietro saw at once a vision of what this place could be once more.
For him, its ruined altar was “a green cathedral”, the encircling mountain peaks this church’s very own spires, and the setting, a 45-minute hike from the nearest village, away from all the intrusions of the modern world, represented “a corner of paradise”.
There was also, he remembered of that first visit, a voice speaking to him. Again, it is the sort of language many creative souls routinely use, architects just as much as painters and sculptors, but for Padre Pietro it was God’s voice. “I was the workman, the operaio,” he would say, “but God was the impresario whose design I followed.”
He determined to rebuild San Leonardo. In casting it as God’s work, he was following St Francis of Assisi himself, the founder of the Franciscan order and inspiration for the present Pope. In 1206, the young Francis was praying in a dirty, derelict church at San Damiano when he heard Jesus speak to him from the cross that hung there, telling him to “restore my church”.
Francis of Assisi answered that commandment both narrowly — by rebuilding the actual church — and more broadly in initiating a revolution that returned Catholicism to its founding principles of poverty, fidelity and trust in God. Padre Pietro, however, was only concerned with San Leonardo.
Yet the challenges he faced were huge. There was the inaccessibility of the site. To get there he had to navigate a high-sided gorge known locally as “Hell’s Mouth” — “Gole dell’Infernaccio”. And he had no money for materials or workmen. God’s architect was going to have to be a solo self-builder in the manner of Channel 4’s series Grand Designs. You can almost imagine presenter Kevin McCloud filming an episode with him in the Apennines.
He would have had a long wait to broadcast it. It took this Capuchin six years to persuade his religious superiors even to let him base himself alone as a hermit at the ruined San Leonardo, a further four to detect and divert a spring onto the site to give him the water to mix cement, and a total just short of 30 years to see the church rise from the rubble and be reconsecrated by the local bishop in 2000.
The craftsmanship, design skills and ingenuity he showed in doing so were truly remarkable. Architects from their sleek glass and steel offices might point out a certain rough-hewn-ness to the finished result (to which he later added a bell tower), but that is to miss the point of a breathtaking achievement.
This is a building that one man created, stone by gleaming white recycled stone, and exerts a pull that now draws 30,000 pilgrims a year up the mountain, where it infuses them with both a sense of the splendour of God’s creation and awe at what one inspired man can achieve. By architectural standards — as by any other — that surely does merit the word spiritual.