Its origin goes back to the donation to the Holy See of his villa in Gazzada, made by Guido Cagnola on 2nd May 1946, with the goal of establishing an Institute that would combine both the scientific aim of promoting the “study of religious issues” and the practical purpose of training “the clergy and the laity” in order to elevate the “religious and spiritual life of the Italian people".
This “beautiful design” was suggested by don Luigi Bietti to his friend Cagnola, who had been pondering on it for a long time before reaching his final decision. It also aroused the interest of Giovanni Battista Montini who, first as a Deputy to the Secretariat of State and later as Archbishop of Milan, encouraged the donation and the enhancement of the cultural service of Villa Cagnola as an instrument for dialogue, discussion and inner maturity.
The Villa, with all its charges, was entrusted to the Lombard Episcopate, which, on the one hand, took care to create appropriate receptive structures by ensuring the financial support from the various dioceses; and, on the other hand, outlined a convincing identity of the institute, through the promotion of meetings favouring the development of theological thought and the dialogue with the secular world, thanks to the persuasive work of Mons. Adriano Bernareggi on bishops of the region and the commitment of don Carlo Colombo and other professors from Venegono Seminary.
The role of culture in the dialogue of the Church with the contemporary world was already clearly perceived since the early contacts between Montini and Villa Cagnola and resulted in the foundation, on 2nd June 1960, of the Istituto Superiore di Studi Religiosi, as a meeting place and centre of studies at the service of Lombard Bishops in view of a common action.
The Institute, whose members -president and director- are directly appointed by the Lombard Episcopal Conference, has carried out and is still organising researches on issues of pastoral interest and meetings of ecumenical character (as well documented by its archive and the Chronicon of more than half a century of life). It also promotes studies on issues concerning the relationship between Christianity and contemporary society, with particular focus on the region of Lombardy, and it favours opportunities for discussion between the Catholic culture and the secular one.