Irish priest who became the 'Pied Piper of Rome'


Mgr Patrick Carroll-Abbing, who died on July 9th aged 88, was known as the "Pied Piper of Rome" for his work with street children in Italy.

Originally from Dublin, he was an official at the Vatican during the second World War when he started a boys' refuge, known as the "Shoeshine Hotel", in Rome for children orphaned or made homeless by the fighting.

Within two decades he had founded nine "Boys' Towns", a "Girls' Town" and numerous day-care centres throughout Italy, providing homes and education for more than 7,000 children.

John Patrick Carroll-Abbing was born on August 11th, 1912, in Dublin into a fervently Catholic family. His three brothers died young and his rather solitary childhood was spent reading Thackeray, Dickens, Jane Austen, Canon Sheehan and Mrs Henry Wood.

He trained for the priesthood at the English College of the Pontifical University in Rome. After his ordination in 1936, he wanted to go to the diocese of Menevia in predominantly Methodist Wales, but the Vatican authorities decided to keep him in Rome as secretary to Cardinal Pizzardo, head of the Holy Office, the central bureau of the Curia.

When war broke out he became voluntary chaplain of the Knights of Malta Military Hospital in Rome, where he ministered to wounded Italian soldiers. As fighting between the Allies and the German occupiers intensified, he became increasingly concerned about civilian casualties. In February 1944, he created Medical Aid for the Battle Areas, which set up hospitals, provided food and supplies and helped with evacuations.

After the liberation of Italy, he was put in charge of all medical supplies sent by American Relief for Italy and was instrumental in setting up clinics and distributing vital foodstuffs across the country. The citizens of Nazi-occupied Rome had been subject to appalling privations, but he was most struck by the thousands of orphaned and homeless children.

"They pushed forward along the road," he recalled in his book But for the Grace of God (1966), "barefooted and half-naked, undernourished and sickly, exposed to every physical and moral danger. I was amazed not by the temptations to which they had succumbed, but by the virtues which they had preserved."

With the approval of Pope Pius XII, he opened feeding and clothing centres in cities such as Rome, Palermo, Bari and Naples. He came to know many of the children by name and found places for most of the younger boys in orphanages. The older boys - who had become streetwise, making money by begging, stealing and shining shoes - proved harder to place. "Their illicit activities," he wrote later, "had solved their immediate needs for food, drink and cigarettes. They had grown accustomed to the hardships of the vagabond life."

He decided to set up a refuge for the sciuscia (shoeshine boys) in the basement of a bombed-out school near the railway station in Rome. On the first night 30 boys slept there and soon it was providing shelter for 100.

Inspired by the Boys' Town founded in the United States by Father Edward Flanagan, he then began to plan a "real town, with streets and houses, workshops and schools" at Tor Marangone, on the coast north of Rome.

During the late 1940s, he built up what he described as an industrial village, a sea village and an agricultural village at Tor Marangone, forming the Boys' Republic of Civitavecchia, a democratic community with its own elected officials, assembly, courts and even a post office.

By 1957 there were nine Boys' Towns, 40 nurseries and day schools for the children of working mothers, and a Girls' Town at a villa on the outskirts of Rome. Over the next 10 years he established communities in Rome, Palermo, Lucca, Pozzuoli, Chieti and elsewhere, all of which are still in existence.

Mgr Carroll-Abbing's other books included A Chance to Live (1952), an account of his wartime experiences, and a novel, Journey to Somewhere (1955). He was awarded an honorary doctorate from St John's University, New York, the Italian Grand Cross of the Order of Merit and the Gold Medal of the City of Rome.

On the day that Rome was liberated by the Allies he was awarded the Silver Medal for Valour on the Field of Battle. The citation commended him for rising "up with the fervour of an apostle in defence of humanity tortured and crushed by an oppressor".

Monsignor Patrick Carroll-Abbing: born 1912: died, July 2001