CHRISTINE ABERCROMBIE RIP January 10, 2011
One of the colorful aspects of Padre Pio's life is the storied road leading up to him, the Viale Cappuccini, and all the people who have taken that road to find him.
With a strange nostalgia, as if I knew them, I think of a certain few who ascended the rocky Gargano mountain in the early days of Padre Pio's fame, long before I was born, and came up this very road, once nothing more than a hilly mule path. They captured my imagination. Some were laden with sin and miseries, others needed to get away from the hollow, deceptive offerings of the world. All of them came to find real, true hope in the presence of Padre Pio. They were seekers.
One was Emanuele Brunatto. He came in 1919, just a year after Padre Pio received the stigmata. Educated by Salesians, he thought of becoming a priest, but was sidetracked by the worst of the world until, at twenty-six, a derelict drowning in dissipation, he read an article about Padre Pio and started out from "a putrid alley" in Naples to find him.
His money ran out at San Severo and from there he trekked up the rest of the way--ten hours through the night, climbing a lonely mountain road. Not only did Padre Pio salvage his life, but Brunatto wrote of the "supernatural presence" he came to see and feel all around him, of how he felt united "with the order of creation: a nest of young chickens moved me to tears, a blade of grass made me shout with wonder." The countryside "exalted me almost to delirium, and walking through the hills I would sing hymns of thanksgiving and joy." (Fr. Bernard Ruffin, Padre Pio: The True Story, p106)
Another who fascinates is the American, Mary Pyle, whom I met briefly in 1966. My impression was that she was resting back in a practical-looking chaise longue, and I stood at the foot, staring at her, absorbing, as she spoke with my mother, who stood more closely beside her. She was talking about Padre Pio, of course, and also giving my mother the name of a trustworthy driver for a side trip we were to take. I had no notion of how much I would treasure that moment for the rest of my life.
Mary Pyle came from a wealthy Protestant family and had always been discontented, searching for deeper spirituality than she had been exposed to. She met Padre Pio in 1923, a few years after converting to Catholicism, and as she knelt before him, he told her, "My child, stop traveling around. Stay here." Although she returned to her work with Maria Montessori, the innovator of education methods, and even continued to travel with her, she at last told Montessori, "There is a living saint in this world and it saddens me not to be near him. I want to return there."
Feeling that pull, that spiritual need, she went back to San Giovanni Rotondo with Montessori, and after their visit, as they were boarding the bus at San Giovanni Rotondo to go back down the mountain, she cried out, "I can't! I can't! I feel paralyzed, as though someone had nailed my feet to the ground." She stayed, this time, and became the first American to ascend the mountain, the road, and never leave. She built her "pink" welcoming house near the friary and church, and through the years it became a stopover for a gracious cup of tea and a talk about Padre Pio for English-speaking and other pilgrims, including American soldiers stationed near Foggia during the Second World War. Her life became a legend, intertwined with Padre Pio's--she built the Capuchin seminary in Padre Pio's hometown, Pietrelcina, and is buried in the same crypt as Padre Pio's mother and father in the cemetery of San Giovanni Rotondo.
Then there are the seekers I came to know...Fr. Joseph Pius Martin's story is famous, too. He made two pilgrimages from Brooklyn, New York, five years apart. "I was searching," he told me--and at Padre Pio's request, he stayed the second time, and entered history. (See "He Shall Stay!" on this website.)
There are others, of course, so many stories remaining quiet and untold. Simple people came up the road and clustered around the friary and church over the decades, as though clinging to the hem of heaven...and that was Christine Abercrombie.
I'm not sure how she made her decision to uproot from Rome and move to San Giovanni Rotondo. But it's obvious that her life in one of the great culture centers of the world, Rome, wasn't enough--like Mary Pyle. It was the St. Augustine truth, Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.
Christine was obviously searching too. . .She told me she'd made a number of visits to see Padre Pio through the years, and after he died she left word with people that if a house ever went up for sale, to let her know. She said she never expected it to happen, really, since property in the area was at a premium, so sought-after, especially near the tomb and hospital. But it wasn't long after that a house did become available. Christine didn't hesitate. It had to be some small miracle, for she could see the window of Padre Pio's cell from the house--a great consolation, and the house was barely a two or three minute walk to the church. Mary Pyle's house was equally close, and Padre Pio's niece was a neighbor. All Pio's history surrounded her.
Fr. Joseph Pius took me to meet Christine during my 1987 solo pilgrimage. She and her two dogs, Mungo (a rescued, homeless dog--yes, Christine was a dog-rescuer) and Ulda, were waiting with lunch. We ate outside by the pool and had lots of talk and laughter. We got along 'swimmingly' from the start, and when the dogs persisted in playing with Fr. Joseph, we both saw the fun of it, and I took pictures.
Christine on the day we met, with rescued Mungo on the floor in front of her, and Fr. Joseph Pius playing with Ulda, who is sitting on the sofa with him, resting against a black pillow. This snapshot was chewed by our adorable dog, Gabriella, who got hold of it while I was posting this piece. Did she know there were other doggies in the picture? I have a negative somewhere, and as soon as I find it I'll print another copy. (Copyright: Jeanette Salerno)
Same day. Christine and Mungo with Fr. Joseph; Mungo wants attention. The dogs wouldn't leave him alone. Fr. Joseph loved animals. (Copyright: Jeanette Salerno)
Another visit: solving the world's problems via Chinese Checkers. Left to right, me, Christine, Florence, and above me, Our Lady of Grace keeping watch. The other players were out of camera view. (Copyright: Jeanette Salerno)
Christine's laugh was easy, a deep and complete laugh, a genuine enjoyment of things, not half-hearted and shallow or pretended. Her clear voice, with a crisp British accent, at least to my ear, imparted confidence in what she was saying. She had a beautiful sweep of long dark hair held back in one soft braid down her back, with possibly a silver thread somewhere in its depth--but I don't recall seeing any. She glowed naturally with hospitality, generosity and graciousness--cosmetics were not a part of her life. There were dinner invitations--I remember her plum desserts-- while Mungo and Ulda were under or beside the table, eager to get some handdowns. Another evening we played Chinese Checkers after dinner--Robert Hacker, Florence Ehrman--RIP (Robert and Florence were two more seekers who found their way to Pio and stayed), Fr. Joseph Pius--RIP, and Charles, Christine's son, who was Fr. Joseph's assistant at The Voice of Padre Pio and who is still there. We played Chinese Checkers with our faces all serious as though we were solving the world's problems. It was the first time I'd played the game since I was a child, and it was delightful to rediscover how happy moments can come from a simple game. In a way, this was Christine's salon.
She was vital and caring, to the point of surprises--I had casually mentioned something I was researching, about an apparition of St. Michael. The next day she left a brand new copy of a book about the great Archangel at the hotel desk for me, with the note, "Keep this little book--you'll find what you want under the title Apparition on Mount Alvernia. Let me know if you want to go to Monte Sant'Angelo. Christine."
One day she drove me farther up the mountain, overlooking the friary and church area in the distance. We explored the strange beauty of the karst rocks and the peaceful slopes with only the wind blowing its mysterious music. Mungo came along with us. We stopped the car to listen to the silence and I got out to take pictures. I heard Christine's voice calling me from the car to notice the passing goats with their shepherds in a nearby field, and to listen to the tinkling of their bells. It was beautiful, a bit of what Padre Pio's youth must have been like at Piana Romana when he came to know and sense God as he tended the sheep, and something of the "supernatural presence" Emanuele Brunatto spoke of. I had my trusty little tape-recorder and caught the tinkling of the bells and also Christine's voice calling to me. Indeed, when I listen and go back there in spirit, I understand the "exalted" feeling Brunatto spoke of, and sense a bit of what Christine was surely seeking...
Christine and Mungo amid the karst rocks the day she drove me high up on Monte Calvo (part of the Gargano mountain). (Copyright: Jeanette Salerno)
During that stay I caught a bad cold and had to stay in bed in my hotel. Christine called, worried, and said if I came to stay in her home for a while, she could nurse me! Wow! What a heart! But I didn't impose on her kindness.
She translated articles and books for The Voice of Padre Pio, working for Father Joseph Pius Martin and Father Alessio, editors. I include a photo of her from the magazine, sitting in the office, with the original picture caption thanking her for all her help.
This delicately lovely picture of Christine (the middle photo--unfortunately dark) is from The Voice of Padre Pio, No. 6, 1983--almost 30 years ago. How long she has been a part of the Padre Pio world. How helpful she made herself.
When I left San Giovanni Rotondo after an almost six-week stay, Christine drove me down the mountain, a long drive of curves, to the station in Foggia, and saw me off--one of her caring and unexpected gestures. We exchanged letters, and I saw her on subsequent visits. Then a day came, years later, when I received a message from Charles on my answering machine--Father Joseph had unexpectedly died. Shocked to the heart, I called back that very day and I can still hear Christine's voice on the phone--the stunned emotion was still there, matching mine, the two of us so shocked and disbelieving. I burst into tears, "I don't believe it!" I was really saying I refused to believe it! "I know, I know!" Christine said, meeting me all the way in the sudden, painful void.
I think that these souls who made their way up the Gargano with their longings for nearness to God, became part of the great allegorical tale of that mountain. "Athirst is my soul for God...Send forth your light and your fidelity; they shall lead me on and bring me to your holy mountain, to your dwelling place." (Psalms 42:3, 43:3)
Those seekers who ascended are each parables to be learned and repeated by all of us. For the seeking can be anywhere, as long as there is an ascent from a world we can get lost in, as long as there is a mountainous climb of spirituality. Waiting for us is a place to stay. It can be anywhere. As the dying priest said in The Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos' great work of literature, "Tout est grace." Grace is everywhere.
The last few times I spoke to Christine, in the last year, she kept using that word. "What a grace it has been, finding the house, living in San Giovanni Rotondo, near Padre Pio. What a grace!"
And now Christine is buried close by the tombs of Padre Pio's mother and father in the local cemetery. Pace, bene, as Padre Pio would say.
Following is Christine's obituary, published in The Voice of Padre Pio this year, 2011: