On March 7, in the small Italian town of Nembro, the death bells stopped tolling. Its curate, Don Matteo Cella, tells me: “We decided not to ring them any more since that Saturday, the day of the four funerals. The whole day would have been filled with the sound of the death knell, and this would have caused untold anguish for the entire community.”
Nembro, with its 11,500 residents and numerous churches, all under a single parish, is tended by five priests. Four were taken ill, only one was left standing: the youngest – the curate, 40-year-old Don Matteo.
A small village east of Bergamo in the Lombardy region, Nembro is the gateway to the Seriana Valley and where Italy’s America’s Cup Luna Rossa sailboat hull was built.
It now risks going from being an America’s Cup headline to going down in history as the Italian town with the highest percentage of victims in the coronavirus epidemic.
History has a tendency to repeat itself – the 1630 plague wiped out nearly three-quarters of the town’s 2,700 inhabitants; only 744 lived to tell the tale.
Last year, 120 people died in Nembro – 10 a month; now, 70 have died in the space of just 12 days.
I went in search of the parish priest, but I found Don Matteo, who usually tends to the younger members of the flock. He gave me an account of the terrible events: “From the beginning of the epidemic, according to the parish statistics, we held 39 funerals in the church, 26 at the cemetery, and we have 26 deceased waiting to be laid to rest. That is without counting anyone who may have died in the past few days that we have not heard about yet, or even non-Catholics.”
The village is like a surreal vision: nobody in the streets, the shops are all closed, and the grocery stores and the pharmacy only make home deliveries.
Until a fortnight ago, the town hall square was full of children; now, there is not a soul in sight.
Everything is as if frozen where it was on that Saturday at the beginning of March, when the government decided to close the whole region of Lombardy.
Don Matteo – underlining that he is not a doctor and that he does not wish to overstep the mark – limits himself to chronicling the facts that have devastated his community. “We believe this thing has been around since the beginning of the year or even since Christmas, without being identified. For a start, the nursing home in Nembro had a peak of anomalous deaths: In January, 20 people died of pneumonia.
“The whole of last year, there were only seven deaths there. And so, the number of funerals began to swell, week in, week out, with everyone talking about this severe pneumonia. Before Mardi Gras, half the town was in bed with fever.
“I remember that while we were discussing whether to hold the celebrations and the parade with the children, we had to close down the ‘homework space’ because most of the volunteers who supervised the kids were sick.
“But there was no talk of coronavirus back then in Italy; who knows how many of us were already sick and then got better.
“Gradually, everything ground to a halt; we started off by suspending mass in church, but we kept tending to the sick, meeting their families, for as long as possible, because you cannot refuse them comfort. We tried to exercise as much caution as possible, but today, I am the only priest who is still healthy, the others are all down with fever. Don Giuseppe is in hospital, and Don Antonio, the parish priest, was taken ill but has now recovered.
“Then we started holding the first funerals of those taken by Covid-19, in the presence of close family only. In the week of March 2, we buried 14 people, when usually there are only two at most.”
TALK OF THE TOWN
The whole of last year, there were only seven deaths there. And so, the number of funerals began to swell, week in, week out, with everyone talking about this severe pneumonia. Before Mardi Gras, half the town was in bed with fever.
DON MATTEO CELLA, curate of Italian town Nembro, on how the number of deaths from pneumonia at a nursing home inexplicably started to climb in January.
The last funeral rites to be celebrated before the government put a stop to them were for Massimo, a 52-year-old who worked in graphics and printing. He was a volleyball enthusiast, the sport played by his three daughters, aged 25, 15 and 12.
Don Matteo officiated the last rites on the afternoon of March 7, a Saturday. “Only his wife and daughters were present, a few friends waited at a safe distance in the main square for the passing of the hearse. Massimo was never tested, he died at home in the days when panic was skyrocketing and the emergency was at its peak; our family doctors were the first to get sick or to end up in quarantine, it was havoc.
“He had a high temperature for a week, then he began experiencing respiratory problems. They called for help, but when the paramedics arrived, there was nothing more that could be done.”
Since that week, not only has the death knell been silenced, but when possible, the ambulances go about their business in silence to reduce the fretfulness that the constant sound of the siren can trigger.
FUNERALS CAN’T BE HELD
Now that funerals can no longer be held, Don Matteo can only accompany the dead to the cemetery.
“The families notify us, and we go to bless the coffins or the urns before the remains are buried. It’s very sad, detached, I do my best to bestow a minimum of humanity.
“They are people who died in hospital in exceptional circumstances, in complete solitude, with relatives who saw an ambulance leave with their loved ones, then never heard anything until the announcement of their death, and the call to collect their personal belongings. And I’m not talking about one isolated incident.”
As soon as he felt well enough, the parish priest, Don Antonio, started calling all the families in mourning to comfort them.
When the shops closed, the town council asked the parish to help spread the word that groceries could be delivered; the shops got organised, and Don Matteo put together a team of 40 youngsters, between the ages of 15 and 17, who went door to door to put fliers in all the mailboxes.
“Another incredible thing,” he tells me, “are the volunteers who bring medicine to the sick, the elderly and those in quarantine. A strong sense of community has been rediscovered, and the territory has shown a deeply moving sense of human kindness.”
The town tries to keep updated, people want to know who has died, who has been hospitalised; but sometimes, in this constant back and forth of messaging on WhatsApp, some colossal misinformation gets passed on, often due to confusing people of the same name.
Don Matteo says: “Yesterday morning, there were reports that the former parish priest, who was with us until last year and who is hospitalised, had died.
“A lot of people got in touch with me to express their condolences, but between one call and another, he also phoned to tell me that he was better and that he could finally speak again. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the town was already mourning his passing.”
Amid this sadness, Don Matteo uses technology to celebrate mass in the vacant church and uploads it to YouTube. Parish groups meet in video chat rooms or via video conferencing platform Zoom.
Every morning, he records a podcast with his observations on the day’s Gospel; parishioners find it on every platform, from Spotify to Apple, from Facebook to Twitter, and they share it. Five hundred people download it every day.
He says: “Now I have to go and finish editing tomorrow’s one, it’s the Gospel of Matthew that talks about debt, numbers and forgiveness.”
I listened to it, and one sentence stuck in my mind: “The cold, hard precision of numbers often transforms them into ruthless cages, but we have to forgive until we lose count.”
• The writer is the former editor-in-chief of La Repubblica and a former board member of the World Editors Forum.
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