It was the sight of hundreds of street urchins pimping for their "sisters" in wartime Naples 40 years ago that impelled the "Monsignor of the Shoeshine Boys" to found the Boys' Towns of Italy.
"I knew I could not stand by and just watch thousands of youngsters rot away on the streets," says the Rev. John Patrick Carroll-Abbing.
"Monsignor Carroll," as the Irish priest is known to more than 20,000 destitute children whose lives have been salvaged through his efforts, is now 72. He has a worldwide reputation and honors from several countries.
The 10 Boys' Towns he founded in Italy between 1945 and 1955 are still flourishing in one form or another. So are 30 day-care centers his organization set up in Italy's impoverished south and later handed over to local authorities.
His Boys Towns of Italy organization has been incorporated as a charity in New York City since 1947. Its main financial backing has always come from U.S. labor unions and individual Americans, even though his Italian boys' towns have no connection with those in the United States.
They are "based on a different concept of self-administration," he says.
His boys themselves run the towns, meeting in frequent town "assemblies," electing mayors for 2-month terms and appointing town officials to handle the administration.
In the simple office that is his home and headquarters in the Boys' Town on Rome's western outskirts, Father Carroll stresses the desperate need that didn't end 40 years ago.
"Why wait until young people become criminals or victims of drugs?" he askd in an interview.
"Why not teach them when they are very young that their lives have a worthwhile purpose? Why not help them today to discover their hidden talents, to have confidence in themselves?"
He spent World War II as a priest in the Vatican service. At Christmastime in 1944 he went on a relief mission to Naples, a chaotic city at the best of times but in even more turmoil 15 months after its liberation by the U.S. 5th Army.
Thousands of Street Urchins
Father Carroll found thousands of scugnizzi (street urchins) living on their wits in the streets, some "shoeshine boys" scrounging off the U.S. Army and its friendly GIs.
"There were street boys everywhere, shining shoes, surreptitiously holding out packs of stolen American cigarettes, leading drunken soldiers by the hand up ill-famed alleyways, tendering the photos of girls who were up for sale," the priest recalled in a book.
"Ragged, dirty, emaciated, brutalized children, whose own indomitable spirit was the only force to keep them alive," he wrote. "What was to become of them?"
Father Carroll first organized soup kitchens and medical dispensaries that wound up caring for nearly 200,000 children per day. Then, in Rome, he opened a refuge for 100 boys in the cellar of a bombed school building. It was dubbed the "Shoeshine Hotel" and he became known as "The Monsignor of the Shoeshine Boys."
The Rome refuge was an instant success. In August, 1945, he opened his first "Boys' Village" in a bombed-out seaside villa near Civitavecchia, 45 miles north of Rome.
These days they come from famine- and war-stricken countries in Africa and Asia, as well as from Italy. Talk to any of them and you find they are imbued with an enthusiasm and an extraordinary sort of brotherly love.
"This is the basis of my work," Father Carroll says, his eyes shining through gold-rimmed glasses. "There's something intangible there--and that's called love."