The lives of saints often fall into a pattern, or at least seem to. This is especially true of saintly women who have founded religious orders. One gets to think that if you know one you know them all.
This is not true, however. Each such saint, while moving in the same direction, was nevertheless a unique individual who struggled for virtue against unique odds. So, when we read the lives of saints, we must look past their resemblance to other saints and search out the particular message that their lives convey.
St. Mary di Rosa is a good example of what I mean.
Mary (baptized Paula) was the sixth of the nine children of a well-to-do couple of Brescia in northern Italy. Unfortunately, her mother died when Paula was 11, and she had to leave school at 17 to become housekeeper for her family. Her father, Clement di Rosa, soon began to look around for a suitable husband for Paula, but Paula gently informed him that she had decided not to marry. Most Italian fathers in those days would have ignored their children’s wishes in this matter. Fortunately, Clement went along with her chosen celibacy, and even cooperated with her in the good works she now began to undertake.
Her first effort was to look after the spiritual welfare of the girls who worked at one of her father’s mills. Then she duplicated this work in another village. Then, with the cooperation of the parish priest, she established a women’s guild and arranged for retreats and missions. The movement proved very successful. Next, when a terrible epidemic of cholera hit Brescia in 1836, she asked her father’s permission to work among the plague-stricken in the hospital. He consented, although the idea naturally worried him.
After that, Paula was invited to supervise a house of industry for impoverished and abandoned girls. Though only 24, she discharged this difficult task well for two years. Then she herself established a small lodging house for girls and worked in a school for girls with hearing problems. Meanwhile, Paula kept studying and reading, educating herself very capably, especially in theology.
Thus far, Paula di Rosa had worked as a devoted Christian laywoman. By 1840 she and a companion, the widow Bornati, began to consider the foundation of a religious order to take care of the sick in hospitals, not just as nurses but as totally dedicated service-people. The congregation they founded was called “The Handmaids of Charity.” It faced many initial difficulties, but it also won acclaim from those who really appreciated what its members were doing.
In 1848, revolution hit northern Italy. Paula staffed St. Luke’s military hospital, and in 1849, her sisters anticipated Florence Nightingale by nursing the wounded both in hospitals and on the battlefield. One day, when some disorderly troops broke into the hospital, Paula met them carrying a large crucifix and flanked by two other nuns bearing candles. The soldiers slunk away sheepishly.
Pope Pius IX finally gave papal approbation to her religious order in 1850, and in 1852 Paula made her vows as Sister Maria. She did not live long thereafter, however. Always physically frail, she died on December 15, 1855, aged only 42.
What special lesson does the life of Sr. Mary di Rosa teach? Listen to her. Once she told one of her sisters: “I can’t go to bed with a quiet conscience if during the day I’ve missed any chance, however slight, of preventing wrongdoing or of helping to bring about some good.”
There you have a truly wonderful lesson in the practical fulfillment of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Thanks for the tip, Sister Mary!
–Father Robert F. McNamara