The Story of A Happy Missionary
Bro. Felice introduces himself to a young member of the Akha Hill tribe in Myanmar.
“Felice” means happy in Italian; a prescient choice for Bro. Felice, a man who was happy in name and in deed. From the Valsassina valley to the forests of Myanmar: The human and spiritual adventure of a layman, a PIME Missionary who was in love with his vocation. Nowadays many hold him in veneration and pray to him as to a saint.
Felice was born on June 28, 1898 at Introbio in Valsassina in the Lecco state of Italy. The sixth of eight children born to Mr. Baptist Tantardini and his wife Maria Magni. Felice’s family was large and deeply religious; they prayed the rosary together every evening. After finishing the third grade, which he took a second time in order to improve his basic education, Felice worked as blacksmith apprentice in the workshop of his older brother Giuseppe. In 1911, at the age of 13, Felice lost his father, tragically, in a flashflood that overran his electrician workshop, built on the bank of the Troggia Waterfall. At 17 the Ansaldo Power Plant of Genoa hired him, just as Italy was entering World War I.
In 1917 he was drafted, but was exonerated from active service, as he was an employee of a war-supporting industry. After Italy’s defeat at Caporetto (October 24, 1917) he was called back, and after a couple of months of training he was sent to the front. Only two days later he was captured by the Germans along with 60 other comrades and led to Vittorio Veneto, in the Northeast of Italy, where he was assigned to work on the railroads. A long and tedious odyssey began for Felice; an odyssey marked by the pangs of hunger and exposure to the cold elements. He was transferred from one work camp to another: from Udine to Gorizia and Belgrade, Serbia. Finally, with four other comrades, he planned his escape: crawling like a sewer rat through a drainage channel, he gained his freedom and, in an adventurous journey, he reached first Greece and then Italy. In June 1919 he finally made it back to Introbio. After a respite of only 18 days, he was sent with other Italian foot soldiers to occupy the Greek island of Kalimno for three months time.
After being discharged from the army, Felice resumed work. He found employment first as a blacksmith, then as an electrician with a mining company (The Camisolo Mine Limited). Meanwhile, his missionary vocation was maturing in his heart from reading old issues of The Catholic Missions, which his younger sister Anna had saved just for him. Thus, Felice began to daydream about the missions, even if his employer was thinking of giving him one of his three daughters’ hands in marriage. His mother became his confidant about his wish to be a missionary. She warned him to make sure that his enthusiasm about the missions was real and not just a passing feeling. If this is truly his vocation, she won’t deny him her consent; she would give him her blessing. Felice joined the PIME Missionaries on September 20, 1921. On June 24 of the following year he received his clerical garb; on August 15 his mission Crucifix; on September 2, 1922, he headed for Burma. There he would remain for almost 70 years, with only one vacation back to Italy from April 1956 to January 1957, just enough time for a general overhaul of his health and to try in vain to “put some flesh on that body which was just skin and bones.” He was assigned officially to the Taungoo mission, but, in fact, he had to move from one mission to another, covering enormously long distances on foot or horseback, under the burning sun or in torrential downpours, occasionally stumbling upon brigands and guerrillas, snakes, tigers, and other wild beasts.
Bro. Felice was reknowned for his hard work and significant strength despite his small form. He was most notable for
his smith work and is often called “The Blacksmith of God”.
By profession, Felice was a blacksmith, but in fact he did a little bit of everything. Willing to accept with dedication and the spirit of sacrifice – as a true Brother and Missionary should – every request for help, coming from his confreres and the local people. At a moment’s notice he turned into a carpenter, orchard gardener, farmer, bricklayer, builder of churches, schools and convents, mechanic, nurse, plumber, and, if necessary, catechist. With his inseparable pipe in his mouth, Bro. Felice passed his days alternating the rosary’s recitation to very intense, humble and discreet work, which, contrarily, represented his essential contribution to the missionary cause. He worked in various missions, training many local workers, it was for this reason that the Italian Government awarded him the title of “Master of Labor” in 1973 for “contributing to honoring Italian work abroad.”
A peculiar feature that distinguished Brother Tantardini, was a kind of Franciscan joy that accompanied him throughout his life. “This name [that is, Felice] expresses the ideal of my life” Bro. Felice detailed in his writings, “I strive to be happy, always and at all costs, and to make others happy too.” Various confreres have experienced the contagious joy of Brother Felice. Father Clemente Vismara wrote: “Brother Happy … The name is appropriate. Anytime, in any place and circumstance you meet Brother Felice, you will always notice on his lip a serene, peaceful, spontaneous smile as one who is a friend of God, a friend of people and with no enemies.” There are very beautiful words dedicated to Bro. Felice also by Father Cesare Colombo: “Anyone afflicted by worries but willing to spend 15 minutes with Brother Felice will see all his worries disappear. That little saint exudes happiness from all the pores of his skin. My lepers love him most dearly. He can conquer even the most hardened of hearts. “ At age 85, by his bishop’s orders, he went into “retirement” and his work became prayer: he prayed all day, almost always in the private chapel of the priests, in morning and evening, in the cathedral saying rosaries or reading some books on spirituality. His daily portion of Hail Mary’s rose dramatically: up to 15 – 20 rosaries a day, mostly said on his knees. He died on March 23, 1991 at the age of 93 and was buried in the garden of the Disabled Center “Holy Infant Jesus” at Payaphyu (a suburb of Taunggyi).
Brother Felice was very devoted to Mary: she was his “dear Madonna”, who during his captivity saved him from despair and from the temptation of letting himself die from hunger and the cold. It was always Mary who supported his missionary vocation. Lastly, through her intercession he was miraculously healed. In 1924, at Leikthò, Bro. Felice was struck by severe abdominal pains and the only way to reach Toungoo’s hospital, would be by being carried on a shoulder stretcher for over 30 miles. However, as he was about to be put on the stretcher, he insisted on being taken first to the altar of Our Lady: “My good Mother, heal me from this strange disease and I promise you to say the whole rosary every day.” The request was granted: he got up by himself, the pain gone, his belly deflated, he walked out of the church, threw away his cane and kept shouting: “Our Lady has healed me!” The local pastor, the stretcher carriers and the village folk shouted that it was a miracle. Felice, completely cured, kept the promise of reciting three rosaries a day: 150 Hail Mary’s!
Bro. Felice (bottom right) lends percussion to a band of Lepers. Bro. Felice was known for his contagious joy and happiness.
His fame of holiness among the Burmese people is vast and profound, many already venerate him and pray to him as to a saint and speak of the favors received through his intercession. A few years after his death, PIME promoted the cause of his beatification and canonization, initiated in 2001 at Taunggyi by Archbishop Bishop Matthias U Shwe and, in Milan, in 2002. The cause is now in the Roman phase. The documentation about his level of holiness as “Servant of God” is dated 2011.