After almost 40 years working in the accounts department of Caritas Internationalis, Antonietta Grando retired this month. She takes Michelle Hough on a trip down memory lane.
When Antonietta Grando first walked through the doors of Palazzo San Calisto, the home of Caritas Internationalis in the heart of Rome’s Trastevere district, it was November 1969. The summer of love had come and gone, the Beatles were about to split up and there were wars raging in Biafra and Vietnam.
Msgr Carlo Bayer, Caritas Internationalis secretary general from 1951-1970, used to live opposite Antonietta and had seen her returning home from college with her accounting books under her arm.
“He asked me to come in for an interview because he was looking for an accountant. I was a bit embarrassed because I didn’t want to work with priests,” laughs Antonietta.
Despite her initial impressions, Antonietta discovered that Msgr Bayer, CI’s founding secretary general, was anything but just a priest.
“Msgr Bayer was brilliant. He was charming and intelligent and a “businessman priest,” she says.
What Antonietta knew about Caritas at that point came from the news reports about Biafra.
“There was a big humanitarian crisis in Biafra that year. Caritas was flying aid into the country. It was a very operational outfit at that point,” she says.
And how does that compare to the Caritas of the 21st Century?
“I’d say there’s an even greater spirit of action now. We’ve become a lot more practical and determined,” she says.
In a given month, Caritas Internationalis has any number of people from the four corners of the world coming to visit. Antonietta casts her mind back to 1979 to one very special visitor.
“I remember Pope John Paul II coming to Caritas like it was yesterday. It was wonderful,” she says. “Everything was polished to within an inch of its life, then at the last minute security decided to bring the Pope in through a side entrance near the chapel. It was all dirty so the cleaners had to get down on their hands and knees and scrub frantically ahead of his arrival.”
Antonietta also can’t forget how the former head of communications, Fr. Larry Lorenzoni, produced a pack of cards and proceeded to perform a card trick for the Holy Father.
Another important visitor was Mother Teresa, who attended the General Assembly at a nearby hotel.
“They say that her speech was so beautiful that the team of interpreters of the CI General Assembly cried,” says Antonietta. “ I didn’t go to this session of the assembly itself, but I did see Mother Teresa. I’d never seen anyone so small in all my life!”
Among the past presidents of Caritas Internationalis, Antonietta remembers with particular affection Msgr Georg Huessler from Germany.
“Msgr Hussler did two terms as president. He was very simple and human, but also very intelligent,” she says.
She also remembers Denis Viénot from France, with whom she worked when he was Finco member, treasurer and finally president of the confederation.
Antonietta also has fond memories of past treasurers Santos Maria Cirujano from Spain and Anthony R. Curmi from Malta, a volunteer and very dedicated professional.
Among the CI ecclesiastical advisors, Msgr. Nelson Viola from Argentina, figures in Antonietta’s memories. Msgr Viola was a great friend and advisor to Antonietta.
Someone who was particularly close to her was the late Fr. Charles Grange from France. Fr. Charly was a friend, but also like a father, a counsellor and a spiritual guide.
Now that Antonietta is retiring, she’s focusing on the future rather than the past.
“I have lots of ideas about what to do. I want to volunteer for Caritas in the long-run; I already do volunteer work in my community – but I’ve never had time to volunteer for Caritas,” she says.
This isn’t surprising considering that Antonietta was usually one of the first people in the office before 8am, and nearly always stayed until well after 7pm.
During the 39 years that Antonietta has dedicated her life to Caritas Internationalis, she’s seen nine Caritas presidents, eight secretary generals and four Popes.
While there have been many people in these roles, there has only ever been one Antonietta Grando.