1858: The Case of Edgardo Mortara (1851-1940)

posted Jun 4, 2010, 5:53 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Jun 4, 2010, 6:26 AM ]
In September 1858, the police of the Papal States took six-year old Edgardo Levi-Mortara from his parents' house in Bologna, located in that territory.  Years later, in Edgardo Levi-Mortara's Testimony for Beatification of Pius IX, he described what had happened:
I was born to Jewish parents. At the age of about sixteen months, I was taken by a serious illness -- neuritis -- which had severely reduced my strength. The doctor, who is now dead, I believe, classified my case as "most serious." When the maid, Anna Morisi, a good Christian girl of 16 or 18 years, whom my parents retained in their service despite the laws of the Pontifical State at the time, heard about the danger, she decided to baptize me. In the moment when my mother had left me alone in the cradle, she came up with a bit of water and baptized me by sprinkling, pronouncing the sacramental formula. After this act, my mother arrived without knowing anything about it...
The facts were kept absolutely secret by Morisi, who was surprised by my rapid recovery. Six years later, one of my younger brothers, named Aristide, fell gravely ill. When Morisi was asked by a friend to baptize the child "in extremis," she refused to do so, giving as a reason the fact that I had lived on after baptism, and thus the secret was revealed.
When the news of my baptism became known to the ordinary ecclesiastical authority, this body determined that the case was too serious to be in their competence and referred it directly to the Roman Curia. Thus as a result of the process (and I don't know of another), the Holy Father, through a Roman congregation, charged [Cardinal] Feletti to separate me from my family.
This took place, with the aid of civil authorities, that is, the officers of the Inquisition, on June 24, 1858. The officers took me to Rome and presented me to His Holiness Pius IX, who received me with great kindness and declared himself my adoptive father, which he really was, even taking care of my education and securing my future.
Edgardo eventually became a priest, and died in an abbey in Belgium in 1940.  Here is a photo of Mortara (right) with his mother in about 1880: that may be his brother on the left.
There is a newish book of popular history about the case: David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (New York, 1997).