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Padre Pietro: God's architect? (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Architects bandy around the word “spiritual” with abandon to describe the buildings they design. Usually, they are simply talking about the views out of the windows, or the amount of light that floods in through them, but for Padre Pietro Lavini “spiritual” had an altogether higher significance. His celebrated (and indeed only) creation — the Church of San Leonardo al Volubrio, high up in Italy’s Apennine mountains — was, he would say, divinely-inspired. His own role was simply as “God’s builder”, a phrase that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II later repeated in paying tribute to this remarkable Capuchin friar, who died in August at the age of 88.

Architecture was not Padre Pietro’s first vocation. Indeed, he never took any formal qualifications in the subject. Instead he joined his Franciscan order in the 1940s as a young man, straight out of school, and was ordained a priest in 1952, like his older brother before him. He chose the name “Pietro” for his ordination in honour of St Peter, the “rock” on whom Jesus built the Church.

As well as being a man of prayer, though, he was also good with his hands, as befitted the son of a ropemaker, but the limit of his building experience before 1965 had been helping out on church construction projects in Italy and North Africa.

In that year, when based with his fellow Capuchins at the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Ambro in the Marches region of Italy, he trekked up one day to a ruined 11th-century church, dwarfed by the sheer cliff face behind it, almost 4,000 feet up in the Apennines. San Leonardo al Volubrio had once stood on trade and pilgrims’ routes, but had been abandoned as long ago as the late 16th century in favour of more accessible alternatives.

The floor, Padre Pietro recalled in his 1998 memoir Lassu sui monti (“Up There, In The Mountains”), was covered in a foot of sheep dung — it had been used as a shelter by shepherds — and only one Romanesque arch from the original design was still standing as a witness to what San Leonardo had once been. But, with as clear an eye as any architecture graduate could have mustered on a site visit, Padre Pietro saw at once a vision of what this place could be once more.

For him, its ruined altar was “a green cathedral”, the encircling mountain peaks this church’s very own spires, and the setting, a 45-minute hike from the nearest village, away from all the intrusions of the modern world, represented “a corner of paradise”.

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