From the Ashes of War…: The Founding of the Agape Center in Northern Italy
By the Rev. Dr. Kevin E. Frederick
By the end of World War II in 1945, the industrial centers of Italy had been bombed to ruins and few Italian families remained unscathed by the war. Many fathers and sons had become casualties of the war and many civilians had lost their lives, along with their homes and businesses…
It was under these miserable conditions that a small group of Italian young people under the leadership of Waldensian Pastor Tullio Vinay began looking to their faith and to Bible study for a way forward from the destruction and hatred which they had experienced.
Rev. Vinay and his group of young people centered their studies on the Greek word agape, (the biblical word which describes a Christ-like, self-giving love). They felt called by God to build a retreat center in the Waldensian Valleys where young people from every nation in Europe could come to learn the principles of agape love and to discuss their perspectives and cultural identities with each other in the safety of Christian community.
In the fall of 1946, this small band of Waldensian young people began speaking in Waldensian churches throughout Italy, sharing their vision of a retreat center built on love. Their hope was to raise enough money from Waldensian congregations to build the retreat center. Unfortunately, in the post war years, these communities were very poor and, although they encouraged the young people to develop their dream, they were able to give little financial support. However, land was donated outside the village of Prali-Ghigo in the Germanasca Valley, including a significant parcel of land owned by the family of Mr. Albert Garrou of Valdese, North Carolina.
The following spring, with very meager funding in hand, a sizable group of Waldensian young people, led by a local engineer and an architect, broke ground way up the mountain side, in a location accessible only by a foot path. The young people worked all summer with hand tools. No motorized equipment was ever used over the four years it took to complete the construction of the retreat center. Except for a few professional builders, ninety percent of the labor was supplied by student volunteers who were never paid for their work.
From the very beginning this construction project was an act of faith. During the first couple years, the leaders of the project had no idea where they would get money to pay for building supplies or even to feed the volunteers. But often, just as they were completely out of money, another donation would arrive in the mail that would keep them going. Because of the harsh Alpine winters, the building season began each year in late April and concluded in October. In the fall of 1948, the prayers of many for funding to finish the work were answered. The World Council of Churches said it would share in the costs for Agape’s construction.
At the start of the construction season in April 1949, Vinay and his team were hoping that they could complete work on the Agape Center before winter came. Unfortunately, two setbacks impacted the project. First, the lead rock mason took a more lucrative job elsewhere leaving a substantial leadership void. The second setback occurred when a sizable portion of the volunteer student labor was redirected to building the Waldensian Foresteria – guest house – in Torre Pellice. As a result, by the arrival of winter in 1949, there was still a good deal of work to be completed. That winter a small crew was able to stay on-site to continue the interior work. In fact, two more construction seasons were required to finish the final details of the building project. At last, on August 12, 1951, Reverend Vinay and his many student volunteers and Christian leaders from all over Europe and the USA joined together to dedicate the Agape Center.
Since 1952, Agape Center has served countless thousands of young and old people from every continent. Thanks be to God for the dedication and faithful fortitude of Reverend Vinay and the hundreds of volunteer students who gave so much of themselves and embodied Agape for Europe and the world.
This article about the beginnings of the Agape Center was written by the Rev. Dr. Kevin E. Frederick, pastor of Waldensian Presbyterian Church in Valdese, North Carolina, and author of With Their Backs Against the Mountains, a compilation of 26 sequential historical sermons covering the 850 years of Waldensian history. It was originally posted by the American Waldensian Society.