ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 6, Spring 2012

Florence on the frontline


Armies of tourists prowl the labyrinth of medieval streets in Florence every day – hunting for fashions in the finest leathers and silks. Sara Coen bunks down with a group of visitors who have a different mission in mind. 

Florence failed to escape the floods, famine, war and Black Death that haunted Italy during the early Renaissance. Its people struggled through without services for the sick, poor, dying and the dead.

Out of this socially and politically bleak situation, Misericordia was born – the largest volunteer-led welfare organisation in Florence – occupying humble headquarters in the grand shadow of Giotto’s Bell Tower, for more than 780 years now.

Misericordia provides a range of free services to vulnerable and marginalised people in Florence – including emergency accommodation, food aid, counselling, homecare and ambulance transport – supported by a dedicated troop of volunteers.

And its newest recruits are 13 Australian Catholic University students.

As part of the University’s new Core Curriculum – the students are in Florence for three weeks, completing a unit of study through Fairfield University and serving on Misericordia’s frontline.

Living in the centre of the city, students attend class four days a week at Florence University of the Arts (FUA), do shifts with Misericordia, and visit historic towns such as Assisi and Perugia on their days off.

Classes are run by Fairfield – a Jesuit university in the United States – and are led by research experts in social justice, ethics, human rights, and political science.

On the expert line-up is Frank Hannafey SJ – Professor of Ethics at Fairfield University, and Deborah Spini – Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the School of Political Science at Florence University and Syracuse University, New York. 

Also in Florence with the students are Fr Anthony Casamento, Director of Mission and Identity at ACU, and Catherine O’Donnell, ACU’s National Equity and Pathways Coordinator.

“It’s important for students today to think about globalisation and responses to urgent social and economic issues in different parts of the world,” Professor Hannafey said. 

“How a society is organised – in economics and politics, in law and policy – directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in a community.”

Bethany Gleeson is a psychology student from ACU’s Melbourne Campus. 

“When Professor Hannafey spoke about human dignity and how it can only be realised in community, I understood this intellectually, but it wasn’t until my first shift with Misericordia that I really got it,” she said. “Suddenly, I understood it in my heart.

“I was helping to carry an 80-year-old man down five flights of stairs – he had no legs and was in urgent need of medical attention. I couldn’t speak Italian so I felt pretty useless, but when we got him into the ambulance and off to the hospital, it struck me.

“This is not about speaking Italian. It’s about working together in the community to restore this man’s dignity.” 

For Angela Carnovale, a social work student from ACU’s Canberra Campus, it’s all about coming to understand the fabric of Italian society.

“Italy has a unique social and political thread quite different to Australia,” she said. “I want to understand how things like the Welfare State directly impact people in Italian society.”

Back home, Angela works as a social researcher at the Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) in Canberra – implementing research that is used to advise government about women’s policy and services in Australia.

“I analyse data to evaluate gaps in service provision,” she said. “Social research is really important work, but there is little human interaction. Being physically immersed in Florence and actively engaging with people on its fringes can only enrich my future practice as a social worker.

“Italian society is also interesting to me because my father was born here, so getting a grasp on Italian society is also about understanding my dad’s life and weaving together parts of my own family history.”

Language has certainly been no barrier for 19-year-old Oscar Ryan, a Bachelor of Arts student from the Brisbane Campus who last year spent 10 months studying Italian language and culture at L’Università per Stranieri in Perugia.

“After living here I already have a relationship with Italy, so this time it feels like I’m getting to know an old friend in new ways,” he said. “Italy has so many textures, layers and personalities. On my last visit, I was living on a farm in Abruzzo with an Italian family, surrounded by hills clad in olive groves.

“Now I’m in Florence which is so rich in art – with more art per square metres than anywhere else in the world. It is truly awesome to stand before original works like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. I’ve been getting around to lots of galleries and museums, but because I’m studying and working here as well, I definitely don’t feel like a tourist.

“As part of the European Union, Italy has to get it together with 16 other countries to make things work politically and economically – so being in Italy, and studying ideas about global community, makes a lot of sense.

“I do have a confession to make though. While I love looking at Italy’s bigger picture – the place is just way too beautiful, so mostly I get stuck on the finer details.

“Did you know Botticelli’s Venus appears on the Italian 10 cent Euro coin?”


The Core Curriculum is an innovative program for ACU undergraduates, designed to engage students in discussion about contemporary social issues of importance to our world and society. The units do not cost extra or extend the length of the degree.

An ACU education is as much about the heart as the head. The Core will teach students to think critically and ethically, and be guided by social justice principles.

Students who will begin the Core in Semester 2, 2012, have been notified. Details of when each course comes on-stream for new students will be advised by the individual faculties. 

Visit for more information.

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