Screenshot: From the shadows into the light video

By Cecilia Seppia

Feb 28 2024

No place embodies the contrasts and contradictions of Naples like its Rione Sanità neighborhood. This is where a cooperative – “La Paranza” – supported by the Archdiocese and European funds is engaged in a project to restore the local cultural heritage with a focus on ecological conversion, social entrepreneurship and civil economy.

The famous Italian comedian and actor Totò, whose career spanned more than forty years until his death in 1967, was born on Santa Maria Antesaecula street number 109, in Naples’ Rione Sanità neighborhood. Crowds of fans and tourists gather in front of his house to this day, leaving flowers and mementos. But just a few meters below street level, in the bowels of what is perhaps Naples’ most infamous neighbourhood, lies an enormous underground city where the sacred meets the profane and East meets West. 

It’s where the Catacombs of Saints Gennaro and Gaudioso and the smaller catacombs of San Severo are to be found, and where above ground level, one can admire the basilicas of San Gennaro Extra Moenia and Santa Maria della Sanità, home to the first Marian representation in Naples and to precious works of art including paintings by Luca Giordano, Andrea Vaccaro, Francesco Solimena, Pacecco De Rosa and Giovanni Balducci. There is also the Fontanelle Cemetery, an ossuary, located in a cave in the hillside in the Materdei Quarter from which tuff rock was once extracted to build the city and later used to house the remains of victims of the plague (1656) and cholera epidemics (1836). Finally, the Palazzo dello Spagnuolo, with its grand monumental staircase, one of the main examples of Neapolitan Baroque, built in 1738 to a design by architect Ferdinando Sanfelice.

Despite its vast historical and artistic heritage, concentrated in just 2 square kilometres, the Rione Sanità has become one of Naples’ most degraded neighborhoods where its 32,000 inhabitants live in relative poverty, with low levels of education and employment and where residents are at the mercy of the Camorra criminal gangs. No place embodies the contradictions and contrasts of Naples as does this “Rione”, an existential periphery in the middle of the city center. But it is in this darkness that the “La Paranza Cooperativa” set up business to offer a beam of light, supported by the local Church, the Archdiocese and European funds.

Restoring a lost but immense heritage

Back in the year 2000, the arrival of Fr Antonio Loffredo, the new parish priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, marked the beginning of a slow but fruitful process of redevelopment and enhancement of the district’s historical, artistic and cultural heritage.

Inspired by Dostoevsky’s principle that ‘beauty saves the world,’ a group of foundations, individuals and associations joined to create work and other opportunities for young people. Fr Antonio explains the project ‘creates jobs and takes young people off the street’. With the savvy of a ” Neapolitan streetwise urchin” and managerial determination, and with the Church of the Council behind him, Fr Antonio has uplifted one of the most problematic neighborhoods in Naples with the evangelical intention of ‘turning discarded stones into cornerstones.’ 

Born in 1959, in his third ‘term’ as parish priest of Santa Maria della Sanità, he says that when he arrived in the Rione the other ten churches, spread over the parish territory, had been closed. Today, however, the lights are kept switched on well into the night. One houses a theatre workshop, another is home to the Sanitansamble youth orchestra; one is a boxing gymnasium, one is a music studio, another is an after-school club. The smaller one exhibits 17th century Neapolitan paintings and The Veiled Son by the sculptor Jago, whose workshop is in yet another church.

Generative welfare that lends hope

In a continuous flow between Neapolitan dialect, learned quotations and evangelical quotes, the parish priest’s eyes are on the horizon but his feet are firmly on the ground: “For me as a priest, the problem is not to put the churches in order, but to make them generate, bear fruit”. Just as the more than 60 young people who work with a contract, and who are self-supporting without having to ask for charity from anyone generate more possibilities for work giving life to a circular economy.

The mother of all undertakings has been the recovery of the catacombs of San Gennaro, the creation of an itinerary through the bowels of the Capodimonte hill to the Rione Sanità where it ends in the chapel that was once the storehouse of the San Gennaro hospital and is now an art and conference center. “We care about the catacomb, because we present ourselves differently to the world and earn clean money. Some of the boys and girls in the orchestra have enrolled in the conservatory, those who do acting take the theatre on tour, the neighbourhood has become the set of numerous film productions, restaurants have sprung up, and tourists flow in. For us Christians it should be a dogma: either welfare is done like this or nothing. We don’t need any more of that 19th century, welfarism,” Don Antonio concludes.

La Paranza: a social cooperative with a mission

His philosophy is clear. He does not believe in a state that must feed everyone, but in the triple collaboration: state, privates and civil society, that third sector that gives the freedom to give life to a response that conceives of a real economy with the human person at the centre.

In this open-mindedness one can hear the echo of The Economy of Francesco and of Laudato si’, embodied perfectly by the members of the La Paranza Cooperative. It was founded in 2006 by a group of young people from the Rione Sanità who, with the help of Don Loffredo, decided to rediscover and enhance the cultural, artistic and archaeological heritage of this forgotten part of Naples.

The first activities undertaken involved the management of the Catacombs of San Gaudioso in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, and the recovery of the ancient Franciscan convent attached to the basilica, as well as the re-styling of the “La Casa del Monacone” B&B by the Neapolitan designer Riccardo Dalisi.  At the same time, the cooperative has been active in obtaining funding through both private funds and tenders, winning the ‘Fondazione Con il Sud’ historical-artistic tender for 500,000 euro in 2008, which has set in motion the restoration process of the Catacombs of San Gennaro that have been opened to the public.

Equally important was the 600,000 euro fundraising activity in collaboration with the L’Altra Napoli Onlus association; funding that enabled the site to be cleaned and made accessible, a lighting system installed, the frescoes restored, inaccessible spaces reopened, architectural barriers removed, and much more. In the catacombs, in addition to the ordinary management of guided tour activities within the cultural site, the young people organise ad hoc events and performances, in order to get a greater boost in terms of both communication and audience, but also economically. In addition, they are actively involved in the promotion and realisation of the itinerary ‘Il Miglio Sacro’, a one-mile-long route to discover the treasures of the Rione Sanità

A few numbers

Year by year, the number of visitors has continued to grow: from 5,160 visitors in 2006 to 160,000 in 2019, and up to 200,000 visitors in 2022, counting both national and international visitors. The awareness of having to take care of that common home that is also a treasure chest of treasures that enrich the eye and the heart has also grown.

The growing number of visitors, activities and turnover has allowed for an increase in new human resources within the Cooperative, which has leapt from 5 young people in 2006, to as many as 50 employees in 2023. From year to year, the resources are employed on both fixed-term and permanent contracts.

In addition to activities related to historical and artistic heritage, there are cultural projects of many kinds including performing arts, music, theatre, crafts, food and wine, etc. The Foundation concentrates its activities and resources mainly on those sections of the population that are less protected and disadvantaged, with a series of activities that promote training and job placement projects, so as to enable a process of local self-development.

Vincenzo’s story

Vincenzo Porzio, founding member and Head of Communications of the La Paranza Cooperative, was happy to share his experience and the transformation he has witnessed with Vatican News and L’Osservatore Romano.

He tells of the powerful example of commitment, fortitude and dedication that the boys and girls of Rione Sanità have demonstrated over the years. “Saint Francis of Assisi first and Pope Francis now,” he says, “have taught us and constantly exhort us to take care of our planet and to take care of the people who inhabit it, especially the last, the most fragile, those who are waiting for an outstretched hand. In Laudato si’ we have found so many aspects of our work that we carry out not only with words but with daily gestures and commitments, in particular we take care of what the Pope calls ‘the ecology of culture and common life’, in the sense of community, and thus we commit ourselves in the wake of the exhortations contained in these texts to take care of the ‘discarded stones’ to make them become ‘cornerstones’ of a welfare system that does not wait for a hand from above, from the State in particular, but takes action to achieve its own dignity and well-being.  In everything we do we are moved by our heart, our passion, the desire to take action, to give ourselves, our land and future generations something ‘clean’, something just. It is a generative modality, the one at the basis of our way of seeing things, because it generates good, it does not aim for the profitability of the Church’s assets, catacombs, cemeteries, basilicas that the Church has entrusted to us, giving us the keys to these extraordinary and little-known places, but capitalizes on their capacity to generate hope, on the the desire for care, beauty, and here in Naples’ Rione Sanità, we really needed that hope! An enhancement that becomes evangelisation and bears witness to the revolution of the Gospel, which is first and foremost a revolution of love, even for the environment in which we live.”

Through the extraordinary work of giving value to the Catacombs of Naples, the Rione Sanità youth cooperative has over the years created a model of ‘generative welfare’ that is capable of offering concrete answers in terms of employment development and social inclusion addressed to the local community and especially to its young people. This reignites hopes for a future, leading them to make plans, have dreams, and live the normality of their age in a context that is anything but normal. It is a model that can also be defined as an example of promoting culture ‘from below’, the pillars of which are to be found in the protection of cultural heritage, cooperation and the development of social entrepreneurship and a civil economy, the cornerstones of Laudato si’. – Vatican News