Celebrating–and Saving–San Filippino

May 23, 2018


The Story of "Save San Filippino"

A guest post by Rita Morgan Richardson

When I  tell the story of "Save San Filippino," I begin with my visit to Cortona in 2010, when I discovered and fell in love with the nearby hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino (CF for short). A year later, my husband Tim and I bought a modest apartment in CF’s enchanting historic center. I describe our street, a narrow pedestrian-only vicolo just under the town’s iconic 14th-century fortress tower.

Then I situate San Filippino Chapel, an oratory dedicated to St. Philip Neri, two doors down from our apartment, and describe its sad condition and rich history. The chapel houses a 15th-century wooden coffered ceiling and some of the finest examples of baroque statuary in Tuscany. For three years, Tim and I asked about this boarded-up, crumbling building and never heard an acceptable reason why no one could or would ever do anything to save it from continued decay and certain doom.

At this juncture in the story, without exception, I run into big trouble, and my words fail me. I say that on a day like any other in CF, Tim and I were walking by San Filippino, and suddenly I just knew that I was the one who had to save this forgotten gem of a church.  I can never find a phrase to explain how or why. Empathic listeners have tried to help me with suggestions: Epiphany! Divine intervention! You were chosen! 

"Oh, no!" I say. I’m Catholic,  but I’m not religious. I’d never even heard of St. Philip Neri. No, it’s something else, intangible but real. It’s a feeling like the one you get when you’re in Italy — a place where extraordinary things have happened to ordinary folks like us for more than 2,000 years.

Extraordinary things certainly started happening ever since that moment on that bright summer day three years ago! As soon as Tim and I returned home to Nashville, we created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Friends of San Filippino, and have been working with Archbishop Riccardo Fontana to raise funds to restore the chapel.

The townspeople, who didn’t realize the oratory even existed, have created a sister nonprofit organization, Amici di San Filippino, and have begun holding fundraisers. Local businesses and professionals have donated services and products; artists have donated their works; high school students are translating into Italian the many stories published about San Filippino in the U.S.

Slowly but surely, we are accumulating the funds needed to bring San Filippino back to life. We can see the day when the townspeople of CF—and visiting artists, writers, scholars and pilgrims of all kinds— will once again live, work, teach and serve in this little chapel and its associated workspaces and apartments.

The town has organized a special celebration on May 26 — St. Philip Neri’s feast day — and I’ve been asked to speak. This time I’ll shift the focus of my story to St. Philip Neri, now my favorite of all saints. I’ll start by saying he was known as the “happy” saint, famed for his sense of humor and humility. I’ll explain that he became a saint mostly because he was among the few Counter Reformation priests who refocused the Church on the needs and aspirations of ordinary folk.

To conclude my talk, I’ll remind my audience that the world is full of special places that need to be saved and revitalized. And it is full of people who are capable of spearheading such efforts — people who will discover an inexplicable passion and desire to do good works that they never knew was in them.

Words and Expressions

Here are two of my favorite maxims from St. Philip Neri:

State buoni se potete –- Be good if you can.

Se volete giungere ad estremi, giungetevi nella dolcezza, nella pazienza, nell'umiltà e nella carità — If you wish to go to extremes, let it be in sweetness, patience, humility and charity.

Rita Morgan Richardson is a French teacher in Nashville and founder of Friends of San Filippino. Write her at for more information. Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered

Click below to see a video of the interior of the chapel of San Filippino,  made possible by the Amalia and Nicola Giuliani Foundation. Photos and Video: Juri DeLuca and Marco Gambassi.

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