Cattaneo, Johann Baptist


The Rev. Johann Baptist Cattaneo (sometimes spelled Cattani) was born in Lavin, Gaubünden, Switzerland, on 27 June 1746 and died in Norka on 16 January 1831. He married in Fläsch, Graubünden, Switzerland, to Barbara Johanna Thomas, daughter of Johannes Thomas and Magdalena Steiner, in 1768. She was born in Lavin, Graubünden, Switzerland, 17 April 1752 and died in Sarepta on 4 December 1808. He studied at the theological school in Zürich, Switzerland, and was ordained on 26 June 1766 in Susch in the Unterengadin Valley, Switzerland, and served in Fläsch from 1767 to 1771. During 1771 and 1772, he served in Schuders, and from 1772 to 1784, he was in Antönien. He became the pastor in Norka on 31 August 1784 and served there until his death in 1831.

He is the author of Eine Reise durch Deutschland und Russland, seinen Freunden beschrieben von J.B. Cattaneo aus Bünden, gegenwaertigen Pfarrer einer reformierten deutschen Colonie zu Norka an der Saratofischen Statthalterschaft an der Wolga in der russischen Tartarei in Asien [A Trip through Germany and Russia, written for his friends and described by J.B. Cattaneo from Bünden, presently Pastor of a Reformed German Colony in Norka in the city administrative center of Saratov on the Volga in Russian Tartary in Asia] - printed in Chur, Switzerland, in 1787.

According to an excerpt from the Kazan Reformed Church, Pastor Cattaneo was known not only in German colonies, but also among nomads, such as the Kalmyks, as a skilled therapist and surgeon. Up to 1819, he has lead 16 amputations of hands and legs, 277 operations for cancer and other tumours and has made more than 8,000 inoculations against smallpox. With his versatile knowledge he helped the colonists with questions about beekeeping, cultivation of plants, and agriculture.


The following memoirs of Johann Baptista Cattaneo, Pastor of the Reformed Church in Norka, were published in the 1923 edition of the Wolgadeutsche Monatshefte (v.2, pp.23-5). The author introducing Cattaneo's own words is probably the Volga German, Peter Sinner, who was editor of the Monatshefte at that time. Translated by Robert Bradley. Read more about Robert Bradley's interest in Rev. Cattaneo.



The following memoirs stem from the pen of one of the first historiographers of the Volga colonies. To be sure, they are only fragments from the active and rich life of an exceptionally educated and gifted man of the era. He devoted himself to the spiritual care of our immigrated ancestors and was always a ready friend and advisor. He was the first formally trained physician in the Volga region. His good name extended beyond the borders of the colonies into the steppes of the Kalmyk tribes. Even today the 'alte Katane' lives on in the reverent memory of our people. These memoirs were first published in the 1875 edition of the Wolga-Kalender--most likely contributed by Cattaneo's successor as pastor in Norka, Samuel Bonwetsch. Pastor Bonwetsch's pen also produced notable annals of the Reformed Church in the Volga colonies; these have been preserved in my possession and will appear in a later edition of this journal. P. S.


On 22 July 1763, Catherine the Second published a manifesto inviting foreign settlers to relocate to Russia. Thereupon our ancestors immigrated into this foreign land and found a new home on the banks of the Volga. They brought with them from their old home above all else something more precious than the finest gold--namely the faith of their fathers and the unadulterated gospel. In this respect they were especially fortunate because not long after their departure a drought of faithlessness befell Germany while the settlers on the Volga enjoyed the care of faithful shepherds of the soul who believed in Christ. One of these was Johann Baptista Cattaneo of whom this chronicler would now like to recount some details--or more accurately, allow him to tell some of his own story. I will only preface a few things as an introduction to his own words.

Johannes Baptista Cattaneo was born on 27 June 1746 in Lavin, a small village in the Unter-Engadin area of the Swiss canton of Graubünden. His god-fearing parents Thomas and Ursula Cattaneo intended him for the ministry from the beginning. They taught him short prayers, verses from hymns, and religious sayings from an early age. Beginning at age 7 he went to the village school and learned to read, write, sing, and acquaint himself with Hubner's biblical stories. Then his father died in 1755. Cattaneo's guardian, the pastor Sebastian Sekka, assumed responsibility for his education. Later in life Cattaneo would often fondly recall the blessing he found in preparing for first communion. After 2 years of education with his erudite uncle Peter von Porta, Cattaneo left for the university in Zürich to pursue divinity studies. While boarding there with a physician he found opportunities to acquire medical training as well--especially in surgery. In 1766 Cattaneo completed his studies with highest honors and became pastor in Fläsch where he was blessed to work for 4 years. After a subsequent 1-year service in Tschuders he was called to be pastor in St. Anthony where he remained for 13 years. In the mean time he had married in 1770. Then, while on a trip to Chur in 1784 he was unexpectedly called to serve as pastor in Norka. He accepted the post and departed for the Volga on the 5th of May in the same year with his wife and 6 children. He arrived on 3 August 1784.(*) He served in Norka with an occasional hiatus until 15 March 1828 and then died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of 16 January 1831.

(*) During his first year in Russia Cattaneo wrote a small book well worth reading: Eine Reise durch Deutschland und Rußland, seinen Freunden beschrieben von Johann Baptista Cattaneo aus Bünden, gegenwärtigem Pfarrer einer reformierten deutschen Colonie zu Norka in der Saratowischen Statthalterschaft an der Wolga in der russischen Tatarey in Asien. Chur 1787. In this work the author describes the impressions he gather in the various lands he traversed on the journey. He present especially valuable material about the conditions in Russia at that time. A postscript offers a cultural description of the colonies on the Volga. This small book has been out of print for a long time and only to be had at a handful of specialty bookshops. P. S.

Now we should let Cattaneo speak for himself. The beginning of his memoirs has unfortunately been lost, so his accounts begin with the numerous trips he was obliged tot undertake to the wide-spread reformed communities. "Night fell during one of my trips to Pobochnaya and I unexpectedly stumbled across 10 to 12 unsavory characters -- Russians -- standing near some saddled horses. I had often been told that the woods near the Moscow highway harbored bandit gangs, and I did not doubt these wood-folk were one of those. It was too late to make an escape because they had already noticed us; to approach them seemed a risky proposition. Nonetheless I decided for the latter, strapped on my saber, equipped myself with a pair of loaded pistols, and made a stouthearted approach to their fire with my waggoner following along. There was embarrassment on both sides. We at the prospect of this sizable little group and they because they feared us to be officials of the Inquisition on the hunt for heretics, and reinforced by a sizable contingent just down the road. Even though I did not attempt to dissemble, and openly answered their inquiries into the nature of our journey, they remained uncertain. I smoked my pipe peacefully in the back of my wagon, etc., and awaited the morning. But when it started to dawn, the others beat a hasty departure without molesting us. -- This occurred in the summer of 1788, and no-one has heard from the bandits since.

Fellowship with the more remotely situated Germans whom I served was all the more pleasant since it happened only infrequently. I found many opportunities to serve both the body and the soul of my fellow man. Although I often experienced adversity on those journeys, the joys of my service caused me to forget the difficulties, and I never feared to undertake future trips.

In 1791 during the winter my wagoner and I lost our way on the other side of the Volga in the trackless steppes. Night fell, and we had to camp in the snow as best we could. In the morning we found our way again and arrived at the next colony after a detour of about 30 versts. -- In the winter of 1816 we had to spend another night in the field during a heavy blizzard. I was in the colony of Huck located about 10 versts from Norka and departed from there in the afternoon in a heavy snow storm. The weather steadily deteriorated, becoming for us especially dangerous because the wind drove the snow into our faces. After a long and arduous journey I thought we had reached the outskirts of Norka. But once again we lost our way although we had already been underway for hours. In fact, we could no longer make any progress at all because of the cold and the icy surface caused our horse to become unhitched; our wagoner was no longer able to re-hitch the horse again and again. Also, the horse was exhausted. We set up camp as night had long since fallen and we found ourselves in unknown territory. I settled down in the snow, but the wagoner declared he could not hold out here; he had become overheated from repeatedly hitching the horse, and now he was freezing in his sweaty clothes. He set out again and fortunately found Norka. Then people came out from the colony to search for me, and brought me home about 1 in the morning. -- In 1790 I was on the way to Huck across the Mühlen-See lake--the usual route between the two colonies in winter. But I broke through the ice and was thrown in. Necessity, my bedding and my furs helped me to stay afloat and swim to shore. The wagoner safely stationed on the opposite bank with his sleigh watched all this frozen with horror while I froze from the cold. We eventually reached the colony about 2 versts further on where I recovered without any ill effects.

In the spring of 1798 after the water had receded some I was dragged into the water at the same location in half of a carriage--we had lost the rear axle and wheels in the descent of the bank. But the horse pulled the floating front half onto the other shore where the nail broke that joined the rest of the wagon to the front. And so good fortune once again allowed me to sit high and dry after another adventure. I had to view it as a miracle of divine providence--as in so many other perils--to escape unscathed. To God be all praise and thanks!

In 1805 I took my son Lukas by post coach to the Imperial University in Dorpat, Livonia, which is about 2000 versts from here. We had many good experiences in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Dorpat. Our educational plans received especially generous support from His Imperial Majesty in St. Petersburg, and my son was graciously awarded a stipendium of 1200 rubles for his 3-year course of study. -- It was more than suitable that I should demonstrate my appreciation for this generosity by continuing my work of inoculating the population of every German village on the Volga against smallpox--a task I had already begun at the imperial request. After I had inoculated 8000 children, His Majesty most graciously awarded me a gilded tobacco canister and then later the cross of the Order of St. Vladimir to wear on my breast.

My aforementioned son Lukas took his exams in St. Petersburg in 1808 after finishing his studies, was ordained to the ministry, and in accordance with my wishes, was assigned as my assistant. In the spring of 1809 he was called by official decree to serve as preacher in the evangelical congregations in Astrakhan. After 2 years there he returned to me with wife and child, where he lived with me at my expense as an unpaid assistant until 1817. In that year I appealed to the judicial council to be relieved of the duties that had become too burdensome for me. My request was granted and my son was installed as my successor.

For 33 years I have served this parish and have been an active pastor for 51 years. Now I devote myself entirely at my convenience to spiritual duties since my 73 years reminds me emphatically that my strength is diminishing. I continue my medical practice daily as there is always a need.


The Lord has also richly blessed me in this work. With humble thanks I give testament: Lord, You are the Master, we are only poor tools in Your Hand. Among the many operations I performed up to 1819 I've noted down 16 amputations of arms, legs, fingers, etc. which all recovered happily. 27 cases of cancer of the mouth, face, neck, and breast were operated and well healed. Many who suffered from dropsy and sought timely help were restored to health. Other growths on various parts of the body as well as many internal and external wounds and infirmities were frequently cured. In my medical practice I have always sought to employ the simplest medications and means to save myself and the patients costs; for the simplest methods often lead to better recovery than do the expensive, more elaborately compounded medications.

I would like to relate several extraordinary cures because of their unusual nature.

The headman in Huck notified me about a colonist in his village who was so melancholy that he talked constantly of suicide and didn't do any work at all. Hence the community had heeded an official decree for the past several yeasts to feed him and his family. I visited the supposed invalid to hear his confession, and made efforts to help him. But the man found his situation all too agreeable and did not show any improvement. Finally I had my fill as had the entire village for some time already. I recruited 4 stalwart, honorable men from the village, and went with them to visit the man. After discussing strategy with my 4 helpers beforehand, I proceeded to tell the man in no uncertain terms that he had sinned long enough by threatening for years to commit suicide, and that the entire community considered him to be a suicide already. So it was high time that he carried through with his threats; he had already burdened his fellow colonists long enough. We had come to be witnesses. I was ready to report back on his successful suicide, and he should get on with it and complete the devilish deed on the spot. With some difficulty we were able to get the well-fed fellow into his clothes. But before we finished, he began to haggle and bargain. First he requested that we must throw him in the water. This we immediately rejected as we desired no part of the sinful act of suicide. Finally he asked for patience and promised to commit suicide by his own hand.

We consented. But then after more discussion we all reached an agreement: he promised from that hour hence to return to his work and never threaten suicide again. He kept his word and has lived for a number of years since an orderly, respectable life, and worked to support himself and his family.

A colonist in Warenburg came to me and lamented the miserable condition of his 30-year-old daughter. Because of her delicate physical nature, she was spared from working in the fields. But since she had a nice, religious education and had an aptitude, she undertook to give religious instruction to children in addition to her normal feminine pursuits. In other respects she led a quit, decent life. Recently though she had begun to develop the peculiar and regrettable habit of mixing together the most sacred and the most profane behavior. She sang and prayed, laughed and danced, and bestowed the gentlest and most sentimental caresses on male passers-by. And amidst all this craziness she acted as if this were the most normal thing in the world. And so I consented for her to be brought to our home in Norka where she wreaked havoc day and night for several weeks. No medicines had any affect. Then during one night--it was between Saturday and Sunday--she took everything that was not nailed down in the house and put it on display on the graves in the nearby cemetery. This was the last straw. I threatened to give her a good thrashing the next time she pulled such a stunt. But she behaved cute, as she did after every misdeed like this, and was convinced I would not carry through on my promise. The following night her insane, self-supposed religious behavior was more deranged than ever. I kept my word and gave her a sound beating on the spot. She crept off--and was cured. Never again did she behave indecently, or cantankerously. From that day she led a quiet, upright, exemplary life.

Once the Norka villager B. brought me his unmarried daughter who was of age, but insane. I found it necessary to open a vein in her foot to bleed her. The moment she saw blood she began incessantly to scream at the top of her lungs to have the foot bandaged. When she was ignored, she exclaimed she was dying. Immediately she fell down and screamed: I are dead, I are dead. Then she began to play the corpse. Her father suffered terrible fits of anxiety, but I reassured him and demanded we begin on the spot to prepare for the burial. I asked a man who happened to be present to have a grave prepared, arrange for bearers, etc. The dead woman heard all this, and not only resurrected, but jumped up and hurried out the door and across the yard with unbandaged foot. Her father had to exert himself considerably to catch up with her. She was cured, married later on in Norka, and never again showed a trace of mental illness.

Now, it seems probable I'll reach the end of my earthly journey before long--a journey filled with sin, but redeemed by Christ. And so it is with humble and heartfelt thanks to my beloved Lord that I exclaim: You have shown me more patience, grace and mercy than I can comprehend! I am of ashes and earth; what value am I? Nothing in me is of value other than what was accomplished by the blood of Jesus. He has loved me so! Oh God, what a gift of love and mercy I have in His death! How do I thank Him now? What can I do for Him? Oh, if only every drop of my blood could be hallowed to honor Him! -- Norka, 27 March 1819.
Today is 30 April 1826, and I am still healthy. Since I am well, and by the grace of the Lord still strong and active, it seems fitting that I should append the following.

In 1821, middle of March, the recently established Evangelical Synod in Saratov undertook an extensive reorganization of the various preachers and parishes. This resulted in my son, Lukas, going as pastor to the Beideck parish, and the parish in Norka unanimously asking me, this old preacher, not to abandon them as long as I should still live. I decided to consent to their wishes. Since that time I have been their sole preacher and spiritual shepherd. And by the grace of the Lord I have remained healthy and able to fulfill all pastoral duties promptly and faithfully! In July of the past year of 1825 I visited the brethren in Sarepta and much enjoyed celebrating there my 80th birthday with my children. I then returned in good health and reinvigorated to my beloved parish where I stand ready to live or die according to the will and mercy of the Lord. May He continue to grant me the consolation of my faith: I know in whom I believe, and that He will delay my burial until the appointed time. Thus end the memoirs of J. B. Cattaneo. 

Johann Baptist Cattaneo Signature


Kazan Reformed Church [Russian].

Schnurr, Joseph. Die Kirchen und das religiöse Leben der Russlanddeutschen – Evangelischer Teil (Stuttgart: AER Verlag Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland.

Johannes Baptista Cattaneo (Norka website - Steve Schreiber)