Locals say worry over his church caused Italian priest's death

A small community in Italy’s Valle di Cadore say their beloved priest died last week because he was worried about his church.

Don (Father) Giuseppe Bortolas, the parish priest at the ancient church of San Martino, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage on Wednesday last week and died of his injuries Friday morning.

Don Bortolas was found collapsed on the floor of parish rectory by Monsignor (Bishop) Renato Marangoni who had paid a visit to the priest in order to encourage him about the future of his church. The Monsignor first called in at the rectory and then, with nobody answering his knocks and the building locked, contacted the parish nuns who told him he would be able to catch Don Bortolas at another church building on the main road, where he was due to lead mass at 6pm.

However, Don Bortolas did not show up to lead mass and, after hastily fulfilling the priestly duties himself, Monsignor Marangoni and the nuns rushed back to the rectory to search further for Don Bortolas. Discovering Don Bortolas’ car in the garage, the town mayor, fire brigade and local police all became involved in the effort to break into the rectory. They discovered the priest collapsed on the floor and rushed him to hospital.

Don Bortolas’ church of San Martino Vescovo in Valle is in the province of Belluno in the Italian region of Veneto, located about 110 kms north of Venice in northeastern Italy. Valle is part of the Cadore Valley, located at the craggy foot of Mount Antelao, the highest mountain in the eastern Dolomites. Pre-Roman and Roman archeological evidence show settlement in the region dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

“This landslide is taking the church away from me.” – Don Giuuseppe Bortolas

The church stands on a rocky spur overlooking the valley where the Boite stream flows – and was built in 1718-1719, to replace a 15th century building, that had replaced the first church building that was there when the parish was established in 1208. It is built on the ruins of a castle dating to Roman times. It has been described as a “treasure chest of art”, containing wooden statues and paintings and preserving works by artists Antonio Bettio, Lazzarini, Francesco da Milano, Tomaso Da Rin, as well as some works attributed to the Vecelliana workshop.

Due to what geologist Mario Cabriel summarised as “continuous and huge phenomena of collapse in intensely fractured limestone and dolomites, documented as early as the late nineteenth century”, the church is currently planted on poles that prevent the mountain from collapsing. But the “Vaia” (or “Adrian”) storm in October 2018 eroded an entire slope of the cliff it stands on, and the following winter delivered heavy snow.

This year, as winter snows again began to thaw, the threat of landslide worsened significantly, forcing the local mayor to order the closure of the building on February 12 – reportedly the first time in more than eight centuries that the people of Cadore were unable to meet there for Easter. And, just last month, Cabriel’s report estimated one to two million euros would be needed to stabilise the building.

Don Bortolas was deeply concerned about the risk of losing the building: “This landslide is taking the church away from me,” he said, according to Il Gazzettino.

Now, some in the Valley and in the diocese are suggesting that the death blow for Don Bortolas was his concern for the church.

“I had heard of it during Lent … Certainly for a parish priest to see that his church is in danger of collapsing is a source of concern and pain,” said Don Giorgio Lise, the rector of the Gregorian seminary in Bellunomo, who was a seminary mate of Bortolas for 13 years.

“He was worried,” his friend Monsignor Marangoni told Italian media.

Don Bortolas is remembered as “a very practical man, only apparently gruff, for his good and generous character” who “was able to make himself well liked and appreciated wherever he was” and “leaves a void in the presbytery and in its parishes to which the diocese now clings in an embrace of solidarity.”

His funeral will be celebrated in the parish church of Venas di Cadore on Monday 12 April at 3 pm, preceded by the recitation of the rosary at 2.30 pm. The body will then be transferred to the Pez cemetery (Cesiomaggiore) where it will be buried after a brief moment of prayer.

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