How often, in the history of the saints, the male founder of a religious order of men, has been providentially associated with a saintly woman who has established a parallel order of nuns! One recalls St. Benedict and his own sister, St. Scholastica; St, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi; St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, to name just a few.
St. Mary Mazzarello was another such. She collaborated with St. John Bosco, the famous Italian educator of boys and founder of the Salesians (1815-1888). Under his direction she would found the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians.
Maria Dominica Mazzarello was the first-born child of a peasant who farmed near Mornese, a town in northwestern Italy not far from Genoa. Her father and mother, Joseph and Maddalena Calcagno Mazzarello, were hard-working folk, and their children, too, labored long hours in the fields and vineyards. Teen-aged Mary, tough and strong physically, thought nothing of walking frequently to their distant parish church, both for Mass and to attend events in connection with the parish sodality of Mary, of which she was a charter member.
This “Sodality of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate” was established in 1855 by the pastor, Don Pestarino, in consultation with Don John Bosco of Turin, whom he highly admired. It was almost like a religious order, with a rule of its own and a schedule of devotional and charitable works. Thus, when a typhoid epidemic broke out at Mornese in 1860, the Sodalists were asked to take care of the stricken. Mary was assigned to her uncle and his family. She was rather frightened at the prospect, but she consented. Along the line, she herself became infected, and came close to death.
One of the after-effects of her illness was that she was no longer able to engage in the rugged labors of farming. Looking for less arduous means of self-support, she and a friend named Petronilla took up dressmaking. Not content just to sew in partnership, the pair started a business that also gave training and employment to local girls. Now, Don Bosco had already won note for the vocational schools he had founded for boys, in which he would train them in various skills and at the same time educate them in piety and social behavior. Mary sought to do the same for young women, and Don Bosco himself encouraged her. Thus, he and she established, in 1872, the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians, to be known more familiarly as the “Salesian Sisters” (after St. Francis de Sales). Its earliest members were former members of the Sodality of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. St. John Bosco wrote the rule for the new order and named Mary Dominica, now aged 35, as their superior. He housed them in a building he just had erected in Mornese as a schoolhouse for boys. Incidentally, years before, Mary had a vision of some sort of a school filled with pupils and supervised by nuns in habits, on that very spot.
The new congregation got off to an uneven start. The villagers of Mornese had wanted a school for boys in the building chosen for the convent. They therefore subjected the sisters to many petty annoyances and mockery, and even the relatives of the first nuns gave them the cold shoulder. Some must have wondered why Don Bosco chose Mary as superior, since by her own admission, she could scarcely write. But, as time passed, Bosco’s choice proved justified. By 1878 six of the sisters, trained by her in Salesian ideals, were deemed qualified to accompany the Salesian priests’ second mission to the Indians of Argentina. By 1879, indeed, the order had so many aspirants that they had to move to a larger convent in another locality. During Mother Mary’s lifetime, 13 more convents were opened in Italy and France; and by the 1930s the worldwide total of convents was 800. Teaching was their main task, but they were ready to undertake any good work that would benefit their pupils. The positive spirit of St. Francis de Sales and St. John Bosco characterized their whole approach. They achieved discipline, and achieved it well, not by plying the stick but by using the gracious approach of Christ Himself.
Early in 1881, Mother Mary fell seriously ill when away from home on business. She asked Don Bosco whether she was likely to recover. His reply was basically: “No, it is the office of a superior to lead even in death.” On April 27, Mary received the anointing of the sick. She cheerfully said to the priest who administered it, “Now that you’ve given me my passport, I can go any time, can’t I?” In her last hours she suffered a grievous temptation to despair, but she overcame it by singing softly to herself, again and again, a little hymn to Our Lady.
Mother Mazzarello died, aged 44, on May 14,1881. Pope Pius XII canonized her in 1951. The remains of this lieutenant of St. John Bosco are now enshrined side by side with those of her “captain”, Don Bosco, in Turin.
–Father Robert F. McNamara