Corleone, Sicily: Town of Churches, Saints ... and the Mafia

CORLEONE, Italy—Once known as the “town of 100 churches,” Corleone on the island of Sicily is better known today as the Mafia capital of the world. The Corleone-Mafia association has been so widely propagated that its name alone conjures up images of the brutal Capo Di Tutti, the fictional Vito Corleone of The Godfather series, or Salvatore “The Beast” Riina and Bernardo “The Tractor” Provenzano.

For generations, the people of Corleone have been unable to shed its unsavory Mafia-related reputation. But it had help in June 2001 when Pope John Paul II canonized St. Bernardo, a 17th-century Capuchin friar with a hint of Cyrano de Bergerac about him. Since then the town has been working to restore its image as a traditional-values city.

“These four or five [Mafia] people have ruined Corleone's reputation throughout the world,” said Father Vincenzo Pizzitola from his office at the Chiesa Madre Cathedral. “But the average Corleonese is devoted to his family and his work and true values of justice and religiosity. They are a people with extremely strong personalities, which makes for either great saints or brigands.”

The town's feelings manifested themselves in a big way during St. Bernardo's canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square from the cheers and tears of more than 1,000 native Corleonese. A group of young people at the gathering held up a large banner thanking the saint for his good example.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Corleone, people cheered as they watched the ceremony on giant outdoor televisions.

“The world thinks of us as Mafia, Mafia, Mafia,” said Bernardo Garofalo, president of St. Bernardo of Corleone Fraternity, inside the newly refinished St. Bernardo Church in downtown Corleone where the saint was born and raised. “St. Bernardo's canonization was a great breath of fresh air for us being able to finally escape this ugly image.”

St. Bernardo's life unfolds as a passionate young shoemaker who used his gifted swordsmanship to defend the Corleone peasants from thieving Spanish soldiers. After nearly killing a man in a duel he sought refuge from the law in a Capuchin monastery. It was during this period of hiding that he had a conversion and traded in his sword for the cross.

But Bernardo isn't Corleone's only saint. Few towns have one saint; Corleone has two—and an anticipated third. There is the patron St. Leoluca, who lived during Saracen control of the island, and recently beatified Theresa Cantimiglia.

“Visitors usually come expecting to see a Mafia society but are always surprised to see how peaceful things are here,” said Domenico, director of the Corleone tourist office.

One of the most tranquil views of the town comes from the Franciscan monastery, which looks out over the sloping hills of central Sicily that surround Corleone's own sea of red terra cotta rooftops peeked by dozens of church bell towers. The monks living inside the walls of this former prison have abandoned all worldly possessions, devote their lives to prayer and community service.

They refuse to even touch money and eat only what people offer them. They are regularly spotted around dusk walking along the old Corleone streets in their brown habits and sandals, off to perform community services.

It is hard to imagine, but not long ago this tranquil little farming town had one of the world's highest murder rates. During just four years of Boss Luciano Liggio's rise to power there were 150 known murders in and around Corleone. But that's nothing compared to Salvatore “The Beast” Riina leaving behind a trail of 800 corpses.

But for the past nine years Corleone has been murder-free.

Riina's arrest in 1993 turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Mafia in Corleone. It was also the year that Giuseppe Cipriani was elected mayor on his firm anti-Mafia stance. This soft-spoken 31-year-old not only talked tough but also immediately began chipping away at Mafia control. He plugged up the leaks and spruced up the town by renovating public buildings and squares. He even went as far as confiscating Riina's villa, which he had converted into a school.

But perhaps the single-most recognized change came on Dec. 12, 2000, when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Corleone and, standing beside Mayor Cipriani, inaugurated the world's first anti-Mafia center and museum. The center provides a database of information for the study of organized crime and its opponents.

The Mafia, or Cosa Nostra (Italian for “Our Thing”), historically has its roots in the fight between peasants and the landowners who oppressed them. In order to run his farm, a landowner would employ a tough peasant called a campiere, a type of middleman who grabbed from both ends. Anyone trying to improve the peasant's stock was ruthlessly dealt with.

Some historians suggest a more noble beginning, connecting the Mafia to a peasant defense league, fighting oppression by feudal landlords. But most Corleonese will passionately disagree.

“The fact is,” said Laura Di Rosa from the mayor's office, “they have always been criminals. In reality, the Mafia has always defended nobody but herself.”

Just as long as there have been mafiosi in Corleone there have been courageous men and women who opposed them—until a bullet or bomb silenced them. These often-forgotten heroes are finally honored along the walls of the center museum.

“The media briefly mentions the victims to the Mafia and they are always quickly forgotten, but they never stop talking about their assassins,” Di Rosa explained in the museum in front of a 1992 photograph of the car bombing that killed Paolo Borsellino, one of Italy's top anti-Mafia judges.

Opposite hangs a portrait of Mafia fighter Placido Rizzotto, who was gunned down just after World War II. Also killed was a 13-year-old shepherd boy who witnessed the murder—silenced after a doctor was summoned to calm his rattled nerves. Some of the photographs on display are more graphic, like that of the shop owner who refused to pay protection. He lies face down in a pool of blood, just outside the door of his business.

One of the museum's most famous photographs is that of the present Capo Di Tutti, taken more than 40 years ago. Adjacent to his last-known photograph hangs an age-enhanced image of how he might look today. Though no one really knows what he looks like or where he is, everyone knows his name, Bernardo Provenzano.

He is another famous Bernardo from Corleone—but he's no saint.

Chuck Todaro writes from Scarsdale, New York.