(Died A.D. 1717)
In 17th-century Turin, Italy, there lived a very worthy count named John Donato Fontanella. He and his equally admirable wife, Mary Tana (a cousin of St. Aloysius Gonzaga), raised 11 children. No. 9 in their brood was Marianna, who became Blessed Mary of Turin.
Marianna was highly intelligent, devout in attitude, and very promising. Like St. Teresa of Avila, she and one of her little brothers, already knowledgeable at six in the ways of the saints, decided to run away and become hermits in the desert. Fortunately, she overslept that morning!
But God definitely had Marianna in His eye. When she was eight, on recovering from a serious illness, she had her first vision, and from that time on she focused on works of self-denial. At nine, she made her first Holy Communion – quite early in those days. A strange thing occurred to her in these preteen years. One event in the Gospel that impressed her deeply was the blow that the servant of the high priest gave to Jesus on Good Friday. Once when she and her sisters were attending Benediction, a strange man kneeling at her side turned and slapped her smartly on the cheek. He then withdrew from the church and was never seen nor heard of afterward.
Marianna’s call to the religious life was becoming stronger and stronger, but it would take her a good while to bring it into focus. (We must not think that saints are born with wisdom. They have to learn it, sometimes the hardest way.) When she was about 13, with the cooperation of the Cistercian nuns of Saluzzo, she ran off to their convent to try the religious life. This attempt to foil her mother was neither to her credit nor to that of the Cistercian sisters. Anyhow, she didn’t like it at the convent, and soon returned home to keep house for her widowed mother.
In 1676, the family finally approved her joining the Carmelites of the monastery of Santa Cristina. At first she hated being at that place. She was homesick, was annoyed by the pattern of life, disliked the mistress of novices. But now she was beginning to learn how to deal with contrarieties. She stuck out the period of noviceship, and took her vows as a Carmelite, with the name “Sister Mary of the Angels.”
After seven years in the cloister, Sister Mary experienced a period of great spiritual desolation and violent temptation. Fortunately, she had a very able Carmelite priest as her spiritual advisor. When left to herself, she was usually inclined to try types of mortification and penance that were extreme. (Some saints have acted thus, failing to balance piety with prudence. We must not think we have any duty to follow their example when prompted by unwise zeal. As a biographer of Blessed Mary wrote: “No one is asked to imitate these penances; no one is bound to admire them.”)
Nonetheless, Sister Mary of the Angels became the recipient of many great spiritual gifts. Her prayers and wise counsel were sought by prince and pauper, and when it was proposed that she be transferred to another convent that she founded elsewhere in Italy, the people of Turin demanded that she stay there. They got their way.
Blessed Mary was an able administrator. She served long and well as the superior of Santa Cristina Monastery. (Holiness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive!) When the time came, however, for her to be elected prioress for a fifth term, she felt that her physical weakness would henceforth prevent her from setting the best example of obedience to the rule. She therefore prayed that God would take her to Himself, if it was His will. He chose to answer her prayer. She died soon after.
Of the special gifts that God had given Bl. Mary during her life, one was the sweet odor emanating from her during the last twenty years of her life. An archbishop who experienced it said that this scent, which also attached itself to things that she touched, was “neither natural nor artificial, not like flowers nor aromatic drugs nor any mixture of perfumes.” In our day, something similar happened in the case of the modern Capuchin stigmatist, St. Pio Pietrelcina.
God’s message through scent: it can only be to draw attention to holiness as the object of His pleasure. In the Book of Sirach, He has Wisdom singing her own praise: “Like cinnamon, or fragrant balm, or precious myrrh, I give forth perfume, like the odor of incense in the Holy place.” (24:15).
–Father Robert F. McNamara