Born at San Remo (Italy), September 10, 1823
Taking of the habit at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, August 14, 1842
Oblation at Marseilles, December 25, 1843 (no. 114)
Ordination at Marseilles, September 19, 1846
Died at Vico, March 13, 1901.
Joseph Zirio was born September 10, 1823 at San Remo, diocese of Ventimiglia, in Italy, son of Antonio Zirio and Ursula Bozio. After his final year in classical studies at San Remo, he went to Marseilles from where he was sent to spend the year of 1841-1842 at the minor seminary of Lumières. He entered the novitiate of Notre-Dame de l’Osier on August 14, 1842 and made his oblation at Marseilles, December 25, 1843. After three years of theology with the scholastic brothers at the major seminary of Marseilles, Bishop de Mazenod ordained him to the priesthood on September 19, 1846. He was immediately sent to Vico in Corsica as assistant priest in the parish of Nesa to replace Father Antoine Gibelli, who died November 17, 1846.
In 1849, he received his obedience for Le Calvaire in Marseilles, first as assistant to Father Antoine Étienne Rolleri working with the Italian population and then as head of this work, founded by Father de Mazenod in 1826. He remained in this work for thirty-three years, up until 1881. According to the report drawn up by the superior of Le Calvaire in 1873, Marseilles boasted a population of some thirty or forty thousand Italians scattered throughout the city. Only a few hundred of them regularly attended the Italian chapel, but many of them came to confession there. And Father Zirio, sometimes aided by another priest, visited many families in the city. Hundreds of marriages were regularized. During the Lenten season of 1863, Father Zirio heard at least two thousand men’s confessions, especially on Sundays.
Monday, June 21, 1875, Father Zirio was invited visit the Consul of Italy at Marseilles, and without being forewarned, was awarded the title and decoration of the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Order of His Majesty the King of Italy. He communicated this news to Father Joseph Fabre, the Superior General, saying: “The reasons this honour was bestowed upon me fall entirely outside the realm of politics. They only allege in their proclamation that my zeal for my fellow countrymen, my devotion to my duties as director of the work for the Italians, my almost permanent residence in the hospitals during the cholera epidemics, their admiration for my persevering care of the sick in the city, the marriages that were regularized, etc…”
For having founded this work, the Piedmontese government bestowed upon Bishop de Mazenod the Order of Saint Maurice and Saint Lazarus. But after the unification of Italy, times were changed. Father Fabre told Father Zirio that it was his duty to refuse such a distinction bestowed by a government that was “a persecutor of the Church […]” “As for myself,” he added, “in virtue of being a Catholic, a priest and a religious, I would look upon such a distinction as being an outrage to my faith, an insult to my filial piety to the Holy Father.”
At the time of the expulsions of 1880, the chapel of the Italians remained open thanks to Father Zirio’s zeal and the intervention of the Consul of Italy. But in 1881, the diocesan administration appointed Father Zirio chaplain of the main hospital. He continued in this function for eight years, until 1889. After a period of rest at Aix, he spent the last years of his life in Corsica where we see, for example, that in 1895 he was still preaching parish missions and, as at the beginning of his ministry as a priest, he was taking care of the parish of Nesa. (Missions O.M.I., 1895, p. 183, 218, 220)
July 16, 1896 a solemn celebration of his fifty years of priesthood was held in Vico. In his report to the Superior General, Father Aristide Hamonic, at that time superior of Vico, wrote: “Who would not stand in admiration […] at the youthfulness of our dear Father Zirio, always joyful, always happy to be of service, either in celebrating Mass at a late hour, or at accepting to hear confessions of foreigners and of a crowd of people who sought him out, or in preaching regularly twice a month to gatherings of “congrégates (sic)” According to Missions O.M.I. 1899, page 405, he was ill for two years and prevented from enjoying the consolation of celebrating Mass. A violent apoplectic seizure carried him off on March 13, 1901.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.