We usually consider the life of a nun as quietly routine. The life of Bl. Augustina of the Thouret Sisters of Charity was anything but quiet, anything but routine. It reads as melodramatically as the plot of an Italian grand opera.
She was born Livia Pietrantoni, the daughter of a poor peasant couple who farmed near Rieti, Italy. At the age of 22, she went to Rome and joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne Antide Thouret. Clothed in the Order’s habit, on August 3, 1887, she took Augustina as her name in religion. For the next two years she worked at various assignments in Rome’s ancient Hospital of the Holy Spirit.
In the summer of 1889, Sister Augustina began to engage in the care of tubercular patients. It is only since World War II, approximately, that tuberculosis has been brought (finally?) under control. Before then the “white plague” killed millions annually in every land. Once they caught it, the victims of consumption could seldom hope for a complete cure. And those who associated with the tubercular were at great risk of contracting the disease themselves, and suffering for their own charity.
Sister Augustina was one who paid for her devotion. By the time she was ready to make her final profession in 1893, she had become a casualty along with her patients. She suffered doubly from her situation. In the first place, she was obliged to continue her work despite the physical discomfort and pain that the disease imposed on her own constitution. In the second place, she had to deal with the bitter irrational resentment of other patients, most of them poor and inconsiderate, many of them on the verge of despair.
Her double jeopardy was further complicated by conditions in Rome in the 1890s. The political unification of Italy’s many petty states, including the Papal States, had been accomplished only at the price of a widespread antipapal and anticlerical agitation. Even among the consumptives at Santo Spirito there was a blind distrust of the Catholic Church and its representatives, including members of religious orders.
Among those under Sister Augustina’s care was a man named Giuseppe Romanelli. Extremely touchy and quarrelsome, he had to be dismissed from the hospital because of his aggressive violence. Once cast out, he decided, without any evidence, that Sister Augustina had been directly responsible for his expulsion. He therefore started an unswerving vendetta against her. His vengeance reached its peak on November 13, 1894. Slipping into the hospital through the unguarded main entrance, he concealed himself in a recess off one of the main corridors. When Sister Augustina finally passed by, he lunged at her with a knife and stabbed her fiercely time and again. The nun cried out for help, but it was too late to rescue her. Assuring her superior that she was happy, and wanted nobody to worry about her, she died shortly afterward. The murderer was, of course, apprehended.
All Rome hailed Augustina as a heroine. It was not simply because of her grisly death, but because of her whole life of service: her humble charity, her sincerity and openness, her constant prayerfulness.
Sister Augustina Pietrantoni’s body rested in Rome’s chief cemetery, the Campo Verano, until 1941. Then it was transferred to the church attached to the motherhouse of her Congregation. Pope Paul VI declared Augustina “blessed” on November 12, 1972. She was beatified as a martyr, apparently because of the anticlericalism that motivated in part the mad violence of her slayer. Augustina was canonized on April 18, 1999.
The grace of martyrdom can be granted in many surprising forms along the years!
–Father Robert F. McNamara