1967 was an important year for the Italian town of Montaner, as an extravagant episode occurred that seemed straight out of an Alberto Sordi or Luigoi Comencini movie; it’s not hard to imagine Totò as the protagonist – or even Fernandel, considering the theme – although the neighbors didn’t experience it with amusement precisely. The resignation from Catholicism and the subsequent adoption of the Eastern Orthodox religion by the majority, as a way to express their disagreement with the bishop over the appointment of the new parish priest, led to a bitter confrontation among the people. This is what is known as the Schism of Montaner, or Scisma di Montaner.

Montaner is a hamlet of the municipality of Sarmede, in the province of Treviso, Veneto region. Like many towns in Italy, it has a medieval church (Santa Cecilia, from the 13th century); however, the monuments related to the schism are the 19th-century Catholic church of San Pancrazio and the monastery della Trasfigurazione del Signore e di Santa Barbara, built in 1969, the first and only female Orthodox monastery in the country. Both are architectural testimonies of those eccentric events of the sixties.

It all began as 1966 was ending, on December 13, the date on which the local parish priest, Don Giuseppe Faè, passed away. He had lived eighty-one intense years, with an anti-fascist history that led him to clash with Mussolini’s regime; in fact, he was assigned to Montaner in 1927, as a way to confine him to a small and inconsequential place. But Faè was combative. He had participated in World War I as a military chaplain of the Alpini (mountain troops), and in the Second World War, he put his activism into practice.

Location of Montaner
Location of Montaner. Credit: Google Maps

After the Armistice of Cassibile in 1943 (the Italian army’s surrender to the Allies and the commitment to collaborate with them against Hitler), the Germans invaded Italy, leading to the organization of a resistance movement. In March 1944, hand in hand with the partisan Gionbattista Bitto, alias Pagnoca, Faè (who also had his nickname, Don Galera), founded the Gruppo Brigate Garibaldi “Vittorio Veneto”, which carried out a guerrilla campaign and sabotage actions, the most controversial being the massacre of Bus de la Lum (a doline where the bodies of its victims, usually German soldiers but also soldiers of the Italian Social Republic, the Nazi collaborationist regime, were thrown).

Subsequently, the group was integrated into the Garibaldi Brigades of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which included not only communists but also socialists, members of the Partito d’Azione (center-left), and even Catholics (although there were few Christian Democrats). However, they continued operating autonomously, divided into smaller groups that eventually totaled about a thousand men, in Cansiglio (a wooded plateau in the Belluno Prealps). Between August and September 1944, they suffered a massive raid that significantly reduced their ranks, leaving only the Command of the city of Vittorio Veneto and two brigades, the Cacciatori delle Alpi and the Ciro Menotti.

Don Giuseppe did not engage in armed actions, but he did provide the partisans with clothing, food, and shelter in the parish house, where he also hid weapons. This led to his arrest in the mentioned raid, along with his sister Giovanna, as a result of betrayal. Both were sentenced to death, and nothing was ever heard of her again after she was sent to an extermination camp; he, however, was luckier: he was pardoned thanks to the mediation of the archpriest (and future bishop) Gioacchino Muccin and spent the rest of the war interned in the seminary of Vittorio Veneto.

A group of garibaldini, partisans of the Garibaldi Brigades
A group of garibaldini, partisans of the Garibaldi Brigades. Credit: TBD / Archivio Privato Jonio Salerno / Wikimedia Commons

On May 3, 1945, he obtained his release and returned to Montaner. Then began a new battle, of a very different nature: a continuous fight with the authorities to modernize the town. Thanks to his perseverance, electricity, telephone, and running water were brought to the town, as well as a post office and a school. This made him very beloved by the people, who began to gossip about his alleged thaumaturgic powers and the ability to perform miracles, to the point that many considered him a saint.

One of the stories told said that a family of farmers went to him because their animals were not growing normally; the priest blessed them, and the pigs started to grow, in exchange for which he asked for the fattest one, but the farmer didn’t keep his word, and one day he found the whole herd dead. Another rumor had to do with death as well, but in this case, his own: being very ill, the bishop wanted to take him away and replace him, but Faè asked to be allowed to expire in Montaner, and they didn’t listen to him; in the end, he achieved his purpose because the bishop’s car didn’t work until they heard his plea.

To these circumstances must be added another of a political nature. As we mentioned earlier, Montaner is a hamlet of the municipality of Sarmede, from which it aspired to separate considering that it received few resources and municipal services from it despite having more inhabitants. All the town’s parties agreed on this and formed a coalition called Unione Democratica Montenerese, whose main ideology focused on obtaining wheat to make bread. Poverty gripped the neighbors, many of whom had to emigrate. In the 1964 elections, they obtained sixteen councilors, with the remaining four going to the Christian Democrats.

Giuseppe Faè
Giuseppe Faè. Credit: ANPI

Gisueppe Faè supported them. For that reason, and for his work, when his time finally came, there was some consensus among the people that his successor should be the young chaplain who had taken care of him for the last three and a half years. His name was Antonio Botteon, and he had gained popular affection by fully integrating himself with the neighbors, especially the young people, for whom he secured a soccer field and founded a film club. In short, he helped anyone he could and seemed like the perfect replacement, endorsed by the deceased parish priest.

Therefore, a commission went to the bishopric of Vittorio Veneto to request that he be put in charge of the parish. However, the bishop refused because, according to canon 523 of the Code of Canon Law, the parishioners could not choose a parish priest (except in the old patronages), and Chaplain Botteon was not old enough. The alternative they presented, appointing him vice-parish priest – which would allow him to confirm his residence in the town – was also rejected because it was disproportionate for such a small town.

It is curious that the prelate was Monsignor Albino Luciani, who twelve years later would be elected Pope under the name John Paul I (although he would only last a month, dying on September 28, 1978). His refusal was accepted by some Montaner residents, but others did not take it well, and the news that the bishop had already appointed a priest named Giovanni Gava for the position was outrageous to them. During those days, both factions, nicknamed “cats” and “mice,” argued heatedly; so much so that they sometimes came to blows.

The tension not only did not ease but increased, as Father Gava found out when he arrived and found the church’s door and windows bricked up. A hostile crowd blocked his way, and the truck in which he was traveling could only move forward thanks to a squad of carabinieri who had come because of rumors that the neighbors kept their war weapons and were willing to dust them off. Luckily, they didn’t, and the situation remained orderly, with sporadic clashes with the carabinieri. Gava couldn’t unload his belongings.

The Catholic church of San Pancrazio, in Montaner
The Catholic church of San Pancrazio, in Montaner. Credit: Vaghestelledellorsa, Paolo Steffan / Wikimedia Commons

The continuous presence of a police detachment was necessary, intervening every time a candidate from the bishopric presented himself to run the parish. Apparently, women led the opposition because, as mentioned before, their husbands were usually absent, many of them working abroad, and they assumed the labor responsibility of supporting their children on site. So they took turns on guard duty and watched the church even at night, protected from the cold by bonfires. There were many of them; three hundred and eighty-eight families out of the four hundred and three registered supported the protest movement.

The supporters of the chaplain did not give in, so in February, they sent a delegation to Rome to meet with Pope Paul VI. Meanwhile, the bishop tried to reach a compromise by appointing a friar to take care of the parish for six months, after which he would offer the neighbors the opportunity to choose the parish priest from a range of priests. He then sent a Carmelite priest, Father Casimiro, to Montaner to mediate between the two opposing factions and assist the faithful who wanted the sacraments.

The priest’s efforts were unsuccessful because Botteon’s supporters remained steadfast and did not accept the list of candidates. For them, only the chaplain counted, considered the natural heir of the beloved Giuseppe Faé. The bishop did not want to compromise any further and, rejecting the neighbors’ offer to bear the maintenance costs of the parish church, appointed a new and definitive parish priest, Pietro Varnier, who took office in mid-September 1967. The popular reaction was swift; a vociferous crowd stormed the rectory, locking the priest in the attic.

Several hours passed like this, until they allowed him to call the bishop. He decided to face the situation personally and traveled to Montaner accompanied by the deputy commissioner of Treviso, bringing a squad of carabinieri who ended up fighting the protesters. Irritated by the aggression, Luciani gathered all the paraphernalia of the church and officially closed it with an interdict, a condemnation of Canon Law that can result in personal excommunication or a veto – either partial or total – on the celebration of religious services in a place.

The church of the Orthodox monastery of Santa Bárbara, in Montaner
The church of the Orthodox monastery of Santa Bárbara, in Montaner. Credit: Vaghestelledellorsa, Paolo Steffan / Wikimedia Commons

The latter case was chosen for the town: under the threat of suspension a divinis, provided for in canon 1333, every priest was prohibited from administering services and sacraments in Montaner. But if the bishop thought that would solve the problem, he was completely mistaken. If in the 14th century an act of unprecedented individual stubbornness led to the so-called Western Schism, with the dispute over papal authority by three simultaneous popes and a new papal seat in Avignon, now it was communal stubbornness that would lead to another case.

To be more precise, it would have been better to mention the Eastern Schism, three centuries earlier than the one mentioned, when the Catholic Church suffered the split of the Orthodox: it was the year 1054, and a series of theological differences – perhaps magnified then but which had already been brewing for a long time -, combined with the vicissitudes of the historical-political context of the Byzantine Empire in its relationship with Rome, led to the rupture. And precisely that was the model chosen by the irreducible “sons of Montaner”, as the “cats” (in opposition to the “mice”, those who remained faithful to Catholicism) called themselves, to stage their radical response to the bishop.

On December 26, 1967, just a few days after the anniversary of Giuseppe Faé’s death, a mass was celebrated in the town. It didn’t defy the interdict because it was officiated by Father Evloghios Hessler, a Milanese Orthodox priest, following the Greco-Byzantine rite. Since the case erupted, several religious denominations had expressed interest in establishing themselves in Montaner, sending representatives to sound out the neighbors. And the rebellious faction of them apparently embraced the idea by opting for the Orthodox faith, which after all maintains certain similarities with Catholicism and is not considered heretical.

The closest community was established in Montalto Dora, a town in the province of Turin (Piedmont region), and from there, after that primordial mass, a young thirty-one-year-old priest, Father Claudio Vettorazzo, was assigned to Montaner, who would eventually settle in the town permanently in June 1969. That is to say, the Orthodox had come to stay and fill the void left by Catholicism. Nothing demonstrated it better than the construction of their own church, inaugurated in September by the aforementioned Father Evloghios and the exarch of the Moscow Patriarchate in Europe, Anthony Bloom.

Bartolomeo I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, visiting the Orthodox monastery of Montaner in 2008
Bartolomeo I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, visiting the Orthodox monastery of Montaner in 2008. Credit: Pipe360flip / Dominio público / Wikimedia Commons

The subsequent events were tumultuous. The erection of the new temple bothered the Catholic “mice”, who were on the verge of coming to blows. However, the “cats” had become Orthodox more out of resentment against the bishopric than out of sincere conversion, and their religious representatives turned out to be rather shady characters: Vettorazzo, accused of fraud by the law, was sentenced to prison and, consequently, expelled from his position. He was replaced by Father Fanurio Vivan… who, in turn, was arrested in 1994 for possession and trafficking of drugs, later discovered to also organize orgies.

All this led to a period of confusion, in which the neighbors who remained faithful to the Catholic faith reproached the others for falling into a drift in which they now adopted the Russian rite, now the Polish, now the Nestorian. Many ended up returning to their old creed or renouncing all, and only from 1998 did stability return with the definitive establishment of the Greco-Byzantine rite, allowing the Orthodox community to survive. Currently, it is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and immigrants from Eastern Europe also attend its services.

The temple building was damaged by a fire in 2013, and a project was drawn up to rebuild it, also providing it with an anti-seismic system. Not far from its location, there is a statue dedicated to the unwitting cause of it all: Father Giuseppe Faé, alias Don Galera.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 12, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Montaner, el pueblo italiano donde en 1967 se produjo un cisma religioso convirtiéndose la población en masa a la ortodoxia


Giuseppe Giordan, Conversion in the age of pluralism | Nicola Scopelliti y Francesco Taffarel, Lo stupore di Dio”. Vita di papa Luciani | Lo scisma di Montaner del 1967 su Raitre (en Montaner) | Don Giuseppe Faè (en ANPI, Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia) | Wikipedia

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