Italy’s coronavirus fight aided by decades-old charity group

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It has been through medieval plagues and wars but the first time the Misericordia of Florence had to cancel one of its most cherished traditions was during the COVID-19 pandemic. The distribution of food baskets donated by members of the public on the day of the organization’s patron saint was canceled this year out of sanitary concerns.

Misericordia has a few meanings in Italian, but in this case, it is compassion from the heart.  The largely volunteer organization is one of the oldest continuously serving charities anywhere in the world. 

It was founded in 1244 to look after the sick and the poor of the city. Noblemen and cobblers signed on to join its ranks, with the intention of doing good but also to wind up in the good graces of God.  

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Navigator Amerigo Vespucci signed up before his voyage to the New World, perhaps to have some blessings.

Fox News was granted a rare look inside its archives across from the imposing cathedral of Florence, the Duomo.

One of the first impressions is of how the volunteers once dressed.

“He would have been dressed this way with a hood and often a hat too to become an instrument of God, to no longer have a name or a position in society,” archivist Barbara Affolter said, describing the foreboding looking distinctive head-to-toe black costume on a mannequin. “Inside would be a brother who had come to help someone in difficulty.” 

It is not clear if the all-enveloping uniform would have had PPE qualities during the bubonic plague, but it would have been uncomfortable in a city where temperatures in the summer often hit 100 degrees. 

Either way, the volunteers who went house by house to check on people during times of plague exposed themselves to great danger. They carried the sick on their backs in baskets to where they needed to go. 

The bell of the Duomo would eventually sound as a summons to the volunteers that help was needed. They would have 15 minutes to arrive at the Misericordia, dress and pray before going on their call.

But the volunteers did their best to be hygienic; sterilizing and afterward burning accommodations hastily built for quarantine. 

Laura Rossi, another archivist, opened up a book with spreadsheets of goods that were delivered to those in need.

“Bread, wine, salt, oil,” she repeated, “and vinegar, for disinfecting.” 

In the days before medicine as we know it, there were different treatments and ways of looking at illness. There was generally the understanding that things were in the hands of God.

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“The first thing was to be in peace, and to have confessed,” Rossi said. “Then before all else people were told it was important not to be frightened, but to understand what was going on, that there was this illness.”

The archive has books of instructions that people followed. They burned herbs to clear air and applied scorpion oil to their bodies in some cases.

“Preferably,” Rossi added, “of scorpions collected in August.” 

Poultry could be consumed– “dry birds, not pond birds like ducks.”

Ledgers of expenses are neatly lined up.  They documented it all from food for the cat-killing mice to foxtails, those old-fashioned Swiffers.

In the far corner of the archive sits an urn. Collections for dowries for poor young women went there. And in a lottery system, the Misericordia would hand out funds to those whose number was drawn. If young women didn’t have dowry money, it was explained, they could fall into lives of crime or prostitution.

The poor knew if they were sick and perhaps had no one, that at least the Misericordia would care for them and when they died would provide them a dignified exit from this world, that they would be cleaned and dressed and buried. As such, Rossi and Affolter explained, the archive is actually full of details of life and death of very ordinary people. 

It is a point of tremendous pride for those who keep the organization going. And it is busy now, running ambulances to collect the sick with coronavirus and other illnesses

“We’ve lasted until now because the Misericordia always knew how to organize itself to confront all necessities and unforeseen occurrences that happened over centuries,” Giovangualberto Basetti Sani of the Misericordia of Florence said. “It was always present, always ready to modernize itself and tackle challenges.”

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And in a sign that this organization still has a stronghold on this city, the Misericordia of Florence had 200 more people sign up to volunteer in 2020.

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