The development of the Focolare little towns can be traced through a series of events and intuitions experienced by Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement.
There is a note in one of Chiara Lubich’s diaries which recalls a visit to a Swiss abbey in 1962 where she experienced the first intuitions of the idea of having ‘little towns’ inhabited by the people of the Focolare Movement. She wrote: “It was at Einsiedeln that I understood, from looking at the abbey church below and all that was surrounding it, that a town of the Movement should develop, which wouldn’t be made up of an abbey or hotels, but rather of simple houses, work places, schools – just like an ordinary town.” These developments grew and are known today as little towns or permanent Mariapolis.
Even earlier in the summer of 1949 due to unforeseen circumstances the men and women focolarini had withdrawn to the Dolomite Mountains for a period of rest. During this time many understandings developed which in turn became very significant for the future of the Movement. Over the following years they withdrew in the summer to the Dolomites and each year the number of those that came with them increased significantly. The people came from all age groups and walks of life. It was in 1951 that these summer gatherings were attributed the title ‘temporary town’. The only law within the ‘town’ was evangelical charity which roused within the participants a rich sharing of material, cultural and spiritual goods.
1952 saw a number of priests and religious from a variety of orders joining the summer retreat. The presence of people from different spiritualities brought another depth and harmony to the gathering.It was from 1955 that the town took on the name “Mariapolis” (City of Mary”), and from then on it has developed to become an expression of that Mariapolis that the Movement wanted to help build in the world.
Those who lived through those summer gatherings in the Dolomites during the ‘50s shared in extraordinary times which could only be last as the holiday period or at the most a few months.
However, during one of these Mariapolis events a young man called Vincenzo Folonari got to know the Movement and was drawn to its genuine evangelical spirit. He donated all his wealth to the Movement, including a large tract of land in the hills near Florence which he had inherited.
Vincezo died prematurely in 1964 which was the same year that building began on the land he had donated. This was the first little town of the Movement coming to life, as Chiara has envisaged it 2 years earlier in Switzerland: Loppiano became the first permanent Mariapolis.
Loppiano has, currently, a population of 900 of whom 70 come from the 5 continents: there are men and women focolarini, families, young people, lay people involved in working for society, priests, religious and occasionally a bishop. The citizens live, work and study there and through their daily actions give witness to the phrase from the Bible: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. Each year an average of 40 thousand visitors pass through Loppiano.
Other little towns have sprung up since the first in Loppiano. They are scattered around the world and are at various points of development. Each town has its own characteristic in harmony with its own environment.
Montet is in Switzerland and, like Loppiano, it too has an international population and provides formation courses for members of the Movement. Ottmaring in Germany has more involvement in ecumenism as does Welwyn Garden City in Great Britain. Rotselar in Belgium, has a focus on ecology.There are other little towns in other European countries: Poland, Spain, France, Ireland and Portugal. The little towns in Brazil engage in social action, whilst O’Higgins in Argentina has many young people who play a real part in the activities.Tagatay in the Philippines centres on interreligious dialogue, whilst the building of unity in a multi-ethnic society is typical both of Luminosa in New York and the little town of Krizeyci in Croatia.
In Africa the emphasis is on inculturation based on the Gospel. The first of the African little towns was established in the heart of virgin forest in Fontem, Cameroon. Some focolarini doctors were invited to help the Bangwa tribes people of the region who were suffering due to a range of illnesses and a very high infant mortality rate. Many Bangwa and others in the surrounding areas moved by the way the focolarini gave real practical love and support, through their medical assistance and care, were drawn to follow the same path of faith and fraternity. This impact can be seen in the other two little towns, one in Kenya and the other in Ivory Coast.
These little towns are very modern within their context with shops, arts centres, workshops, schools, churches, meeting places and relaxation areas. They are cosmopolitan centres where the distinctions between religion, culture and tradition are not erased, but are valued as a means for meeting one another united in the commitment to see Jesus’ dream fulfilled: ‘Father, may they all be one, as you and I are one’.