A LIFE DEDICATED TO CHARITY
di sr Vincenza Mosca
The beginning of the 19th century at Lovere in Bergamo, Northern Italy,
was marked by great poverty, not just material, but moral and spiritual as well. The French wars, drought, the great scarcity of food, made wretched the already impoverished population. Epidemics struck down adults and children. The anti-religious influences of the Enlightenment threatened to extinguish the Christian ideals of life.
There arose a state of emergency that needed the steadfast response of evangelical charity.
A mong those who responded to this crisis was Bartolomea Capitanio. Bartolomea was born at Lovere to Modesto and Caterina Canossi on the 13th of January 1807.
She had two brothers and four sisters, who apart from Camilla all died in infancy causing deep sorrow above all to their mother.
Bartolomea’s family was of modest means. Her father ran a business dealing in grain and also a small greengrocer’s. It was enough to support the family and also to finance some charitable donations. Her mother educated her daughters with care and also a deep Christian faith and Bartolmea grew up to be lively and good.
A tragedy struck the family. The father began to drink excessively and became aggressive at home with his wife and daughters and outside with other people. It reached a point when in the town he became known as ‘Modesto the Madman’. The painful consequences of this situation struck deep into Bartolmea’s heart and encouraged her, while still a child and an adolescent to unite her own suffering with that of Christ crucified and excited a particular compassion for the frailties and sufferings of others.
When Bartolomea was eleven and a half, her mother decided to entrust her education to the Poor Clares who had recently returned to their convent in Lovere after a painful period during the Napoleonic Wars when they were expelled. Her mother’s decision was prompted partly by the wish to protect her from the unfortunate situation at home and also because Bartolomea was obviously intelligent and eager to learn.
At the convent school she learned quickly and with excellent results. Her education shaped friendships with her fellow pupils and her teacher. She was receptive to the holiness of the Poor Clares with their life’s witness which struck a chord in her heart.
Bartolomea was only 12 when,
during a game suggested by Sister Francesca Parpani, she drew the longest straw. It was then that she told them she would be the first of her friends to become a saint. She revealed the ambition that she retained all her life.
«I want to be a saint. I want to be a saint soon. I want to be a great saint!» She said.
It was a sincere wish, but one marked by youthful enthusiasm. Bartolomea had to follow a path towards sanctity in the sweetness of the Holy Spirit who helped her to gradually free her from herself and enabled her to understand that her wish did not come from herself but from God.
Bartolomea finished her education with the Poor Clares when she was 18. With those religious sisters dedicated to God in prayer, she experienced the presence of the Lord in a profound way. As a first step, she made a vow of chastity to him. She felt it was extraordinary that Jesus ‘King of heaven and earth’ had deigned to choose her as his bride (cf. Vow of Chastity, Scr III,691).
It was not presumption but faith in a God who loved her so much that he shed his blood for her on the Cross, that prompted her to exclaim: «I fear nothing because I am married to Jesus» (ib). She asserted that a great light had been lit in her heart. Jesus loved her and had chosen her to be his own! This conviction in turn encouraged her to pass on this great love to the people around her in everyday life.
How could it be achieved?
Bartolomea found the answer to this question by listening to the Holy Spirit, by following the guidance of her confessor, Don Angelo Bosio, by paying attention to God who was speaking to her through the needs of her own people and in the events of her life.
She overcame, not without difficulty, the attraction of a closed order that had blossomed in her heart during her years at school with the Poor Clares because she recognised with growing clarity the call to charitable work for the good of her neighbour.
The little girls without family or education, the young women without motivation, the sick with no one to nurse them,
the poor of the streets of Lovere were calling her.
During a retreat in 1826 she noted:
«After a good hour of considering, to the best of my ability, the various states of Religion, I sincerely declare, before God, that the Lord is calling on me to found an Institute the whole purpose of which would be acts of mercy, and that this is what at the point of death I would be happy to have embraced» (ib III,14).
And to her friend, Marianna Vertova, in 1827, she wrote: «That blessed charity towards one’s neighbour, carried out by Jesus Christ throughout his life, appeals to me so very much, and in practising it one finds great satisfaction which, it seems to me, no nun can ever experience…» (ib I,198).
In 1829, Bartolomea expressed this enlightenment in her ‘vow of charity’. By this time she was thoroughly convinced that «the love of Jesus should not be separated from a true love of one’s neighbour» and that her charitable work was her way of pleasing the Lord.
At the same time, she realised that in order to effectively belong to Jesus and to allow His acts of charity to live in her, she had to gradually liberate herself from her own spirit. She therefore practised a rigorous asceticism comprising self-mortification, examinations of conscience, and exacting self-control. She fought above all against pride which she felt present within herself. Some of her expressions shed light on this systematic exercise aimed at ‘finding the truth within yourself’. «I have made known a good deed I have performed to another person… I have said a little word with the objective of winning praise… I have been tempted by envy…
Today I hope not to have any…».
Don Angelo Bosio kept watch on this strict asceticism inspired by the spirituality of those times.
Bartolomea opened up to him with sound judgment as she wished passionately to do only what was pleasing to God. She was certain that she had been called by God to revive in her heart and in her actions, the charity of Jesus as exemplified in his living and dying for us. She therefore immersed herself in the good works that she could carry out at that time. She taught the young girls in the school she opened in her home, she taught them Catechism, and also practical skills. She brought new life into the ‘Oratorio’ and took the young women under her wing, offering them friendship. She helped the sick in their homes and in hospital, always with the ultimate aim of
helping everyone to meet Christ.
But the Holy Spirit placed an anxiety in her heart. It was necessary to find a way for this response to urgent needs to have continuity. Bartolomea prayed and pondered deeply… and gradually there grew the idea of an Institute founded entirely with the purpose of carrying out charitable work’.
She longed for the Institute to open in Lovere at the earliest opportunity. She wished ardently to kiss those walls that would become the house of the Lord.
At the same time, she was willing to wait 100 years or even ‘not see the project realised at all’ if this was the will of God.
She desired only to obey the will of God and not her own.
order to realise the project,
Bartolomea needed a companion, a house
and also recognition by the Church. Don Angelo Bosio recognised from what Bartolomea told him, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and joined her along the path of discernment and ecclesiastical approval involving also the parish priest of Lovere, Don Rusticiano Barboglio and the Bishop of Brescia, Mgr Gabrio Nava. They in turn recognised they were dealing with work inspired by God.
When she learned that the Bishop welcomed her initiative, Bartolomea cried tears of joy as she saw in his gesture, the seal of God’s will.
After these signs of approval, she in line with her determination «to obey» prepared a «Promemoria» which contained the founding principles of the Institute. She envisaged it as «…totally founded on charity, in imitation of that ‘most ardent’ love of the Redeemer, with a life entirely dedicated to the well-being of one’s neighbour, in particular, that of young people in every condition of life but with an emphasis on poor young women without direction, on the sick and on the needs of the Church».
Don Angelo Bosio and the parish priest worked together to buy a house. In the meantime, Caterina Gerosa who shared Bartolomea’s vision, inspired by pure faith, decided to work alongside her to bring the Institute into being.
On the night of the 21st. of November 1832, Bartolomea woke up in her bedroom in readiness for going at dawn with Caterina Gerosa to the parish church of St George and then to Gaia House to consecrate her life completely to God for the good of her neighbour. She composed the «Humble Offering» in which she dedicated herself to the Lord in poverty recognising that the initiative for her enterprise lay with Him.
«Here I am, most lovable Jesus: I have reached at last the longed-for moment of my sacrifice.
Today, through the hands of Mary, I have the happiness to consecrate myself entirely and irrevocably to your glory and the service of my neighbour… I realise that I am unable, unworthy and incapable of anything, but if you wish it, you can make me do marvellous things… I no longer have anything of my own, I am entirely yours, and yours in the way that you love best…» (ib III,708).
Bartolomea also experienced that moment of revelation from God that inspired St Paul to write: «I am what I am by the grace of God». In this way on the 21st. of November 1832, there was born at Lovere, the Institute of the Sisters of Charity.
Bartolomea with Caterina
brought together at Gaia House, young girls for the school and orphaned girls; they nursed the sick in hospital; in the ‘Oratorio’ they inspired the young people with Christian fervour.
To everyone they were able to say: «Now we are totally yours», because they understood that to belong entirely to Jesus entailed also belonging to their brothers and sisters.
The Institute was launched and one might have assumed that Bartolomea’s life would in this way continue.
But it soon became apparent that God had a different plan. Sickness cast a shadow.
On the morning of the 1st. of April 1833 Bartolomea returned home from the parish church with a fever. She went to bed and never gave any sign of getting better.
A young woman from the town, Maria Gallini, was brought in to take her place at the school. Seeing Bartolomea’s condition getting ever worse, Caterina despaired of her own ability to carry on the work of the Institute. On 26 July 1833, eight months after founding the Institute, and at the age of 26, Bartolomea «fell asleep in the Lord with the sweet names of Jesus and Mary on her lips». Before dying, she tried to comfort those crying by her bed saying: «When I am in Heaven, I will be able to do a great deal more than I can here».
After her death, the people said: «That’s the end of the Institute!». But what is born marked by God never dies!
Caterina, got the better of herself, trusted in God and stayed on to carry out the vision which Bartolomea had envisaged, proposed and lived so briefly herself. In turn, Caterina entrusted this work to the daughters of the Institute, the Sisters of Charity.
In 1926, the Church beatified Bartolomea and in 1950 together with Caterina Gerosa, declared her a saint.
Bartolomea showed the way and then, like a grain of wheat, she was consigned to the earth so that through her own death there may spring forth ‘ears of corn’, and the enterprise of God, who cares for men and women by acting through them, may go on.
The Institute of the Sisters of Charity of SS B. Capitanio and V. Gerosa known as «The Sisters of the Child Mary» was founded in Lovere, Bergamo on the 21st. of November 1832. The founder was a young teacher, Bartolomea Capitanio (1807-1933). She was assisted by Caterina Gerosa (1784-1847), later Sister Vincenza, who was older and already experienced in charitable work. Bartolomea’s spiritual director, Don Angelo Bosio (1796-1863) was an invaluable guide. Bartolomea died eight months after the foundation of the Institute and Caterina was left with the difficult job of continuing to realise the project as had been envisaged.
The Institute became known as The Sisters of the Child Mary (Suore di Maria Bambina) in Milan following the gift of a statue. This led to the sisters becoming devoted to the mystery of Mary’s nativity. The project was a response to the needs of a particular point in history. It came into being at a time of profound social, economic and cultural change. The Institute has as its charism, participation in the merciful charity of Christ the Redeemer. It demonstrates this by expressing compassion for every human misery, serving brothers and sisters in their need.
The Institute has a particular mission to help young people in every situation in life, paying particular attention to the poorest, the lost and abandoned. It also assists the sick, the elderly, the marginalized and those who do not yet know the Gospel. This work is in line with its apostolic origins which have been re-interpreted with energy and care.
The Institute is international in character. It already had a presence in Bengal, India, in 1860. Today it is active in Europe (Italy, Spain, England, Romania); in Asia (India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, Israel, Nepal, Turkey); in the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, California); in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Egypt).