Not all those who have migrated from the present Italy to the Western Hemisphere came to North America. In fact, when as a theological student in Rome in the 1930s, I told Italian people that I was an American, they would ask more often than not, “Ah, from Argentina?”; or “From Brazil?”
Blessed Pauline Visintainer’s family left Italy for Brazil around 1875 to make a new beginning. Their home in Italy was at Vigolo Vattaro, in the Alpine province of Trentino. Actually, at the time of their departure, this province, familiarly known as the Italian Tyrol, was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a population that (even today) is largely German-speaking. Indeed, when the Visintainers (a Germanic name) arrived in Brazil they settled with other Tyrolese in a colony fondly called “New Trent”. It is in the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil.
Pauline Visintainer, baptized “Amabilis”, was about ten when her family crossed the Atlantic. Even at that age, thanks to the training of her parents and her own natural disposition, she was an unusually pious child. The life of her Italian parish had already attracted her, and despite her own youth she had taken delight in instructing younger children in catechism and in visiting the sick. No sooner had she arrived in Brazil when she became active in her new parish.
By the time she entered her teens, Amabilis had decided to devote her life to God. The style of her vocation evolved only gradually. When she was 15, she and another girl of like disposition moved into a wretched shack in order to take care of a neglected woman dying of cancer. As they worked, they decided to establish a religious order. Other young women joined them, and when she was 20, the bishop of Curitiba authorized them to form the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception, a congregation dedicated particularly to the care of the sick and infirm. On taking her vows, Amabilis chose the religious name Pauline. She was elected the first superior.
Back In Vigolo Vattaro, those who ran the town hospital had nicknamed little Amabilis “the nurse”. Mother Pauline merited the same title in Brazil by her intense solicitude for the poor and disabled. Her motivation was not mere philanthropy but Christian love, and theirs should always be the same, she told her spiritual daughters. To them she wrote in her spiritual testament, “I exhort you to have among yourselves holy Charity, especially towards the patients in the Holy Houses, the elderly in the hospices, and so forth. Have great consideration for the practice of holy Charity.” Her selfless being-for-others, combining love of God and love of neighbor, was, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, Bl. Pauline’s outstanding trait.
Selfless service implied, of course, complete self-renunciation. Many trials that befell this nursing nun might have caused others to complain. Thus, after one term as mother superior she was not reelected, but demoted in rank among her own sisters. Rejection is hard to bear, but she accepted it with good grace. In her later years, too, “the nurse” herself became a patient. Severe diabetes brought blindness and caused the loss of an arm, but she endured patiently the pains and frustrations involved.
During his visit to Brazil in October 1991, John Paul II proclaimed Mother Visintainer “blessed”. On that occasion he held her up to all as an example of how to win heaven by earthly practices of charity. God had commanded her, he said, as he commanded Abraham, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk, which you are only passing through, leave your father’s house, the home of many generations, and go towards the land that I will show you.” And she, like Abraham, had marched forward in faith.
In answering that call, the devout little Austrian girl from the Italian Tyrol became a jewel in the crown of the Brazilian church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara