Dr. Carlo Spagnolli, a giant of good in Africa for more than 40 years, has left his indelible mark in the hearts of thousands of people. Carlo was born in Rome in 1949. His father, Senator Giovanni Spagnolli, had been a politician of great stature: president of the Senate, minister, and then president of the Italian Alpine Club for a long time. Carlo breathed family values and culture. After graduating in medicine, he immediately decided to leave for Africa and remained there as a medical missionary for more than 40 years: Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.
In Uganda he met a very tall, strong and sweet nurse, Angelina, who became his wife. There were several wedding celebrations: in Italy and in Uganda, with Fr Italo Piffer officiating. Carlo did not have a suitable jacket, and Fr Italo lent him his own, with the sleeves too short. The banquet bull thought it best to flee at dawn of the wedding, pursued by the whole village. Carlo and Angelina had three children: Francesco, Giovanni and Elisa.
A doctor between Africa, mountains and love
Carlo was tireless in the operating theatre, spending hours without stopping to save lives, women with difficult births, wounded by arrows and weapons, children. But he did not stop at the surgical act. He planned, sought large-scale solutions, and influenced political decisions. Among his many projects, he was responsible for the birth of cardiology in Zimbabwe. He was responsible for the first project to prevent and combat AIDS.
As a man in love with life, he moved around Africa feeling it to be his home. And along with Africa, he loved the mountains. To see him smile, it was enough to send him a photo of a peak. In the mountains, his blue eyes merged with the sky. He loved the Dolomites and had a particular passion for Monte Rosa. He had climbed the Rwenzori and the main African peaks.
Giant of the Renaissance
Carlo was a Renaissance man. His knowledge ranged from medicine to art, botany, history, geology, astronomy and more. He knew the names of all the plants, could ‘read’ a plot of land, remembered all the dates in history. He enjoyed philosophy and delved into theology.
It is hard to imagine how all that knowledge found its way into one man.
Dr. Carlo Spagnolli, a giant of good in Africa: the spiritual dimension
Dialogue between people, religions and cultures was a fundamental part of his being. He was among the inspirers of Women of Faith for Peace and never missed an inter-religious meeting
Carlo did not stop at the first reading. He studied theologians like Bonhoeffer and the lives of the saints. He loved St Mary Magdalene, Blessed Charles de Foucauld and Carlo Carretto, with whom he had been trained. Carlo had great admiration for Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. In 2012, after an initial heart attack had put Carlo into a coma, Father Paolo celebrated a Mass in Trento to ask for his recovery. Shortly afterwards, Carlo woke up from his coma and started working again. They celebrated his recovery together the following year in the Fassa Valley.
Carlo’ spirituality was the spirituality of the poor, the ignored, the disinherited. Carlo saw the face of Christ in the suffering and responded with all his love. But he also knew how to thunder against injustice; he considered silence as connivance. He was committed to disarmament and the protection of creation.
Our first encounter
In 1993 I was in Ethiopia with my husband Alberto for a development project with the Capuchin friars. In Bonga I got a bad abdominal typhus, I was very sick. I arrived miraculously in Addis Ababa. I remember opening my eyes: “But this is St Peter, I have arrived…”. But it was Carlo’s smile that saved my life. We became brother and sister.
He would come on holiday to Madonna di Campiglio, and we would go climbing together. I would visit him in various parts of Africa. We supported each other. He suffered all sorts of attacks throughout his life, he fought for the truth in all circumstances.
In Zimbabwe, I followed him into the operating theatre to document a project to operate on children with hydrocephalus. The dedication and love with which he approached the sick was incredible. The sick person was his altar.
Dr. Carlo Spagnolli, a giant of good in Africa. He was a great friend of my mother’s, and used to come and eat at her place when she was in Italy. We all went on pilgrimage together to Provence, to Saint Magdalene, to Sainte Baume. Carlo supported all our work, taking part in the Aurora Vision screenings, and always bearing witness at every meeting.
Heroes Without Capes
We worked together on four documentaries. “Heroes Without Capes” was shot in Uganda, in a long journey back to the places that had fascinated him 40 years earlier. He wanted to pay tribute to the missionary doctors who had trained him, first the Corti doctors in Gulu, at the Lachor Hospital, and then Father Ambrosoli in Kalongo. I consider it a great honour to have accompanied Carlo on this journey, along with the crew with Andrea, Alessio and Denis. The documentary has travelled around the world, bringing his bright face everywhere, and has received awards in the USA, Ghana, London with a special mention at the Portobello film festival and in Udine, “Film for Peace”.
You can watch the film here: Heroes Without Capes.
Carlo treated everyone with great dignity, and brought perfect gifts for everyone. How could it all fit in the suitcase? And how could all of us fit in his huge heart?