Don Giuseppe Puglisi was born in the district of Brancaccio in Palermo on September 15, 1937, the son of a shoemaker,Carmelo, and a seamstress, Giuseppa Fana. He was killed by the mafia in the same area on September 15, 1993, his 56th birthday.
He entered the diocesan seminary in 1953 and was ordained priest by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini on July 2, 1960 at the church of La Madonna dei Rimedi. In 1961 he was nominated assistant priest at the parish of Santissimo Salvatore in the district of Settecannoli, close to Brancaccio, and he was also in charge of the church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi at Romagnolo.
From 1962, he was the confessor of the Basilian sisters Figlie di Santa Macrina at the institute of the same name. He also started to teach at different schools: at the vocational school Einaudi (1962-63 and 1964-66), Archimede high school(1963-64 and 1966-72), the high school at Villafrati, the primary school of Godrano 1975-77), the teachers’ training college Santa Macrina (1976-79) and finally at the grammar school Vittorio Emanuele II (1978-93).
In 1967 he was nominated chaplain at the institute ‘Roosevelt’ at Addaura for orphans, and parish priest at the parish of Maria Santissima Assunta at Valdesi. In 1969 he was nominated vice rector of the minor archiepiscopal seminary and in the same year he participated in a mission in the area of Montevago which had been hit by an earthquake.
From these early years, he followed the young with particular interest and became engaged in the social problems in the most run-down areas of the city.
He followed the proceedings of the second Vatican Council attentively and immediately distributed the texts among the believers, particularly documents regarding the renewal of the liturgy, the role of the laity, the values of ecumenism, and the local churches. His desire was always to spread the message of Jesus Christ locally, thus taking on all the challenges involved in making the Christian community accept it as their own.
On October 1, 1970 he was nominated parish priest at Godrano, a small village in the province of Palermo, known for a sanguinary vendetta, where he remained until the July 31, 1978, by which time he had succeeded in reconciling the shattered families with the force of forgiveness. During this period he also joined the movement Crociata del Vangelo (from 1987 called the Presenza del Vangelo) together with Lia Cerrito and other volunteers, the movement founded by the Sicilian Franciscan friar Placido Rivilli.
During these years, he also followed the social conflicts in Scaricatore, (another run-down area in the eastern outskirts of the city) in collaboration with the center Decollati, which was managed by the Assistenti Sociali Missionarie, including Agostina Ajello.
On August 9, 1978 he was nominated vice rector of the minor seminary in Palermo and November 24 the following year he was chosen by the archbishop Salvatore Pappalardo as director of the Centro Diocesano Vocazioni. On October 24, 1980 he was nominated vice regional delegate of the Centro Vocazioni and from the February 5, 1986 he became director of the Centro Regionale Vocazioni and member of the Consiglio Nazionale.
With passion, he dedicated many years to the young and to the students at the Centro Diocesano Vocazioni through a series of school camps, which proved to be a model from a pedagogic and Christian point of view.
Don Giuseppe Puglisi taught mathematics and then religion at various schools. He was a teacher at the secondary school Vittorio Emanuele II in Palermo from 1978 to 1993.
In Palermo and Sicily as a whole he was among the inspirers of numerous movements, for example Presenza del Vangelo, Azione Cattolica, Fuci, Equipes Notre Dame, Camminare Insieme. From May 1990, he also worked as a priest at Casa Madonna dell’Accoglienza at Boccadifalco on behalf of Opera Pia Cardinal Ruffini in aid of young women and unmarried mothers in difficulties.
On September 29, 1990 he was appointed parish priest at San Gaetano at Brancaccio and in 1992 he also assumed the office of spiritual director of the propaedeutic course at the archiepiscopal seminary in Palermo. On January 29, 1993 the center Padre Nostro was opened at Brancaccio, a landmark for the young and for the families in the area. During this period he was also helped by a group of nuns, sister Carolina Iavazzo among others, and the assistant priest Gregorio Porcaro. He cooperated with laymen of the area in connection with Associazione Intercondominale to claim civil rights for the district, denouncing crimes and collusions between politicians and mafia, and thus exposing himself to threats and intimidations.
He was killed at his house in piazzale Anita Garibaldi 3 on the day of his 56th birthday: the September 15, 1993. He was buried at the cemetery of Sant’Orsola, in the chapel of Sant’Euno, property of the lay confraternity of the same name.
As stated in the legal investigations his pastoral work proved to be the motive for his assassination, the mafia instigators and perpetrators of which have been arrested and condemned with final verdicts.
Because of these events, numerous voices were raised immediately to recognize his death as a martyr.
In memory of his commitment, innumerable schools, social centers, sports centers, streets, and squares have been given his name in Palermo and all over Sicily and Italy.
Commemoration and other initiatives have also been organized abroad, from the United States to the Congo and even in Australia.
From September 15, 1994, the anniversary of his death has signified the beginning of the pastoral year in the diocese of Palermo.
On September 15, 1999 Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi appointed the diocesan ecclesiastical tribunal for the recognition of martyrdom. The investigation has been closed at the diocese level in May 2001 and the documents have been delivered to the Congregazione per le Cause dei Santi in the Vatican, and are presently undergoing examination.
An archive of published and unpublished documents, tape recordings, testimonies, and articles has been built up at the Centro Diocesano Vocazioni in via Matteo Bonello in Palermo (Archivio Puglisi; 091-334669).
His life and death are evidence of his fidelity to the one Lord, and have highlighted the evilness and the absolute impossibility of compatibility of the mafia with the message of the Gospel.
“The believer who has seriously considered his Christian vocation for which martyrdom is a possibility, already announced in the revelation, cannot exclude this possibility from the horizon of his own life. The 2000 years from the birth of Christ have been marked by a continuous testimony of martyrs.”
(John Paul II, Incarnationis Misterium, no. 10)
(Translated by Kjell Norlin)