At the invitation of Pope Pius IX, the Brothers of our Holy Mary of Mercy started to work in the Roman prison Saint-Balbina.
The Brothers to Rome
The Belgian priest Xavier De Merode (1820-1874) and youngest son of the earl Félix de Mérode and secret chamberlain of Pius IX, tried to convince Victor Scheppers to bring over a few Brothers to Rome.
Therefore, he named three reasons: the improvement of the prison system in the Papal States, the rich recruit field for new vocations and the support to the pope would reflect honour to the congregation and to Belgium. After a bit of hesitation, V. Scheppers agreed.
The dynamic Brother Paul would become the superior in Italy. On February 8th 1854, the first Brothers arrived in Rome. They took over the government of the decayed prison, destined for minor delinquents.
The Brothers in different prisons
Within a short run of time, different houses were built and the Brothers became active in different prisons. Cardinal Pecci, the earlier Papal nuncio in Brussels and the later Pope Leo XIII, burdened the Brothers with the foundation of a orphanage in Perugia and he also trusted them an old men’s home in his city of birth Carpineto-Romano.
The trips to Rome and the life in the prisons could be extremely hard. In the correspondence among the mother house and the Brothers in Italy, lively echo’s reverberated through the experiences of the young congregation.
Thanks to the arrangement of a private novitiate and a lot of activities, the Italian community soon knew a fast expansion. A cautious V. Scheppers had to restrain Brother Paul several times, who was acting under the impulse of de Mérode. He even had to blame him once.
In Italy, the activities replaced themselves from the prison system to other sectors: education, orphans, older people and insane care.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Brothers would work exclusively in education and youth care.
The reputation of the Brothers in the education field of young delinquents became now known in Britain as well. Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster, asked the Brothers in 1855 to come to London and take over the leading of a house for minor convicts of Catholic origin.
In 1857 the Brothers started an orphanage in London as well. In the first decennia of their existence, the foundations were very successful.
V. Scheppers followed the development of his congregation very closely by personal contacts and a lot of letters. When his illness didn’t prevent him to do so, he visited them regularly. He could also count on fervent cooperators.
They considered Scheppers’ management that was rather central like the one of a severe and didactic father, as his wise interpretation of what was beneficial for the congregations ‘development. Only once there was a bit of resistance against his method like it has been so in the first years of the congregation in Italy.
Source: SCHEPPERS, OUR SCHOOL by An Hermans, printed in 2002