By Larry Peterson
Germersheim is a small town that is next to the Rhine River in Bavaria. On July 25, 1821, an unwed woman by the name of Margareta Lichtenberger gave birth to a baby boy and named him Paul Joseph Lichtenberger. The boy’s father remained unknown. Margareta tried her best, but being a single parent, the odds were stacked against her. She ultimately turned baby Paul over to her Aunt Maria Barbara.
Margareta was blessed. Her Aunt Maria Barbara was married to an Italian man by the name of Anton Nardini. Anton embraced the child as his own. He and Marie adopted Paul and raised him as they if he was their natural-born child. Paul’s formative years were filled with a loving homelife where religion and family meant everything. The boy was also receiving the best education possible. Incredibly, the Nardini’s never let Paul lose contact with his birth mom, Margareta.
By the time Paul finished grammar school, he had no doubt that he was called to the priesthood. Several of his teachers recommended Paul to Bishop Johannes von Geissel as a young man who might become a good priest. Bishop von Giessel had the young man admitted to the seminary in Speyer, where he studied philosophy. From there, Paul moved on to the University of Munich. While at the university he obtained a Degree in Theology; Summa cum Laude.
On August 22, 1848, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Speyer. His “higher-ups” wanted him to teach at the university, but Father Paul wanted to do parish work. They acceded to his wishes and his first few years as a priest were spent as a chaplain in Frankenthal, an administrator of a parish in Trebur, and then as a prefect of a diocesan boarding school.
But in 1851 Father Paul Joseph Nardini was appointed as a parish priest at one of the poorest parishes in France, St. Joseph Parish at Pirmasens, a parish with many poor, neglected adults and children. Unknown to anyone at the time, including Father Paul, this would be the parish where he would spend the rest of his life. His adopted parents had taught him well. Upon taking up residence at the parish one of the first things he did was to have his birth mother, Margareta Lichtenberger, take up residence with him.
Father Paul immediately demonstrated the qualities that so many had seen in him as a boy. He loved his Catholic faith deeply and the example he set for those around him was inspiring. He showed an uncommon human and moral piety, a devout reverence toward the Mass and the Sacraments, and was always denying himself for the poor around him and using actions more than words to evangelize the many protestants that lived within his area. It was not long before the people in his parish and in the surrounding area were calling him the “Father of the Poor.”
The need for help was overwhelming so Father Paul he reached out to the Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer of Niederborn. He asked if they could help him, especially in educating the poor kids of the parish. He also asked for their help in caring for the sick and for those who were poverty-stricken and also spiritually lost. Three Sisters were assigned to help but the work was too great for such a small number and after two years they were recalled.
Father Nardini never lost hope. He reached out to four young ladies of the Third Order of St. Francis. These four women would become the first members of the order known today as the Poor Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Family. The date was March 2, 1855. Father personally supervised the care and formation of the Sisters, secured their food and lodging, and even gave up his evening meals to make sure they had what they needed. The bishop approved the order on March 10, 1857.
As the number of women joining the order increased Father Paul’s home visits to the sick and dying increased dramatically. Holy Viaticum was his highest priority on his agenda. It was a freezing cold night when the selfless priest brought Viaticum to a person dying of pulmonary typhus. Father caught the illness. He died from its effects on January 27, 1862. He was 40 years old.
At the time of Father Paul’s death, the order was only seven years old but already had over 220 ladies working in 35 locations. They were all heartbroken over the loss of their founder whose remains are today venerated in the Chapel at Pirmasens.
Father Paul Joseph Nardini was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on June 26, 2006. His feast day is on January 27. We ask Blessed Paul Joseph Nardini to pray for us.