An Italian priest is unrepentant after turning his parish into a camp for migrants and refugees and attracting the ire of the faithful.

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There’s hardly a square centimetre of free space now in the parish of Santa Maria Maggiore a Vicofaro in Pistoia, a city of some 90,000 people in the region of Tuscany.

That’s because Don Massimo Biancalani, the parish priest, has turned the parish into a welcome centre for some 250 immigrants.

Statues of saints, pews and other Catholic bric-a-brac in both the new and old churches in the parish have given way to mattresses, bunk beds and the clothes, backpacks and shoes of the newly-arrived foreigners.

Not just the churches, though: in the Pistoia parish immigrants are living too in the parish hall, the corridors and even Don Massimo’s rectory.

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The priest’s hospitality to migrants and refugees has gone so far as to have turned him into one of Italy’s most famous priests.

But not everyone is on board with his generosity.

Not least of all his own parishioners, who last week organised a petition of complaint to the Pistoia Town Hall, police and bishop.

Those Catholics denounced that the presence of so many migrants in the neighbourhood is making it dangerous to live there.

Don Massimo admits his hospitality towards migrants and refugees has been controversial.

“We are isolated in our territory”, the priest acknowledges.

“This is the largest parish in the city, with 7,000 faithful, but many have abandoned us. This year, in catechesis, we’ve gone from 120 children to 20.

“But we have won lay people who come to practice the Gospel: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food… I was a foreigner and you welcomed me'”.

Don Massimo is unapologetic when it comes to his initiative.

“Many people have understood that we shouldn’t be afraid of immigrants; we’ve never had security problems”, he says.

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Why it matters

Life isn’t easy in the church welcome centre.

Organised on a model of self-management, the migrants and refugees there don’t eat together at communal meals.

Instead, they serve themselves from multiple refrigerators on site, or from the two communal kitchens open 24 hours a day.

They rely on donations, food collections, the generosity of some local associations and a very small contribution from the immigrants living there who have been lucky enough to find work.

“They cut the gas because we didn’t pay a bill of 4,000 euros. I’ll pay it with my savings from my work as a religion teacher”, Don Massimo explains.

But still, the priest doesn’t regret a thing.

“I’m only responding to the call the Pope made in 2016 to open churches to these people”, he says.

“Unfortunately, his call fell on deaf ears”, the priest laments.

And it’s true: very few are the priests like Don Massimo who have been brave enough to live the Gospel mandate of welcoming the foreigner, with all its consequences.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.