Maria Goretti was different from other children. Her neighbors in Le Ferriere recognized that soon after her family arrived in the small Italian village in 1896.
That year, Maria’s father, Luigi, lost the family farm and moved his young family, including 6-year-old Maria, to Le Ferriere to find work. Luigi passed away three years later, leaving behind his wife, Assunta, and six children. Because Maria was the eldest girl, she stayed at home to care for the baby, while her mother and brothers worked in the fields. To save money, they shared lodgings with another man, Giovanni Serenelli, and his 20-year-old son, Alessandro.
Throughout her family’s trials, Maria’s neighbors noticed how she worked gladly, without complaining. They also took note of her natural sweetness and piety. Unfortunately, Alessandro took note of her other attractions and began harassing her. She refused his advances, so the harassment continued.
Finally, on July 5, 1902, Alessandro attempted to rape the 11-year-old Maria at knifepoint. She fought him off, begging him not to commit such a terrible sin. Angered by her resistance, Alessandro stabbed her 14 times.
Almost immediately, her mother and Alessandro’s father found Maria, alive but barely. She was rushed to the hospital at the same moment Alessandro was arrested. There, the doctors could do nothing for her other than witness her dying words: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli ... and I want him to be with me in heaven forever.”
Alessandro went to prison for 30 years. Three years into his sentence, he repented of his crime. After his release, he went to Maria’s mother and begged her forgiveness. Unwilling to do less for him than her daughter, Assunta not only forgave Alessandro, but went to Mass with him and received holy Communion by his side.
Alessandro later became a lay brother with the Capuchin friars. He attended Maria Goretti’s canonization in 1950 and died in his monastery at age 87 in 1970.
St. André Bessette
St. André Bessette (baptized Alfred) understood affliction from the inside. Born in Quebec in 1845, the eighth of 12 children, Bessette grew up in poverty. He lost his father when he was 9, his mother when he was 12, and four of his siblings during his childhood. Many were amazed Bessette didn’t join them. After his parents’ death, his chronic ill health made earning a living almost impossible. Bessette tried his hand at farming, shoemaking, blacksmithing, baking and working in a factory, but failed every time.
Finally, at age 25, Bessette’s pastor recommended that the pious young man try religious life. He sought admission to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal and was accepted as a novice. A year later, however, the congregation asked him to leave, citing his chronic ill health. This time, however, the bishop of Montreal intervened and urged the congregation to find Bessette a place. So, they appointed him doorkeeper at the College of Notre Dame in Montreal.
As doorkeeper for a busy college, Bessette crossed paths with hundreds of people each week. Inevitably, they would tell him their troubles, and he would respond by them telling them to turn to St. Joseph. In his free time, Bessette visited the sick, anointing them with oil from the chapel and asking St. Joseph to intercede for them.
Soon, accounts of miraculous healings surfaced. As news of the holy doorkeeper spread, Bessette gave up his work at the college and did nothing but meet with the sick and afflicted. Eventually, he needed four secretaries to help him deal with the 80,000 letters that arrived annually.
In 1904, Bessette began raising money to build a chapel to honor St. Joseph. Although he never lived to see it completed, the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal is now Canada’s largest church. Brother André Bessette became St. André in 2010.
Bearing wrongs patiently
St. Jeanne Jugan
Born in France in 1792, Jeanne Jugan grew up poor, helping pay her family’s bills by working as a kitchen maid, nurse and servant. Although she received two marriage proposals, she refused both. God was saving her for another work, she explained to her family; she needed to wait.
In 1839, at age 47, the waiting ended. That winter, while living in a small apartment with two other women, Jugan met Anne Chauvin, an elderly woman living on the streets. Jugan took the woman into her apartment, giving Chauvin her bed.
Soon, Jugan convinced her roommates to take in more women. Within two years, they acquired a convent that could house 40. They also acquired more helpers, and received permission to found a new religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Jugan wrote their first rule and was elected as their first Mother Superior.
Two years later, the sisters re-elected Jugan.
But a priest who was assisting the women, Father Augustin le Pailleur, had other plans. He forced Jugan to step down, named another sister as her successor and declared himself Father Superior. He then sent Jugan out to beg for the order.
She did that gladly. But as her work continued to gain attention, Father le Pailleur grew even more envious. He began presenting himself as the order’s founder and forbade the first sisters from acknowledging Jugan as their founder. Then, in 1852, he sent Jugan to the Little Sisters’ motherhouse and ordered her to end all contact with friends and benefactors.
Again, she obeyed, reportedly saying, “You have stolen my work from me, but I willingly give it to you.”
Jugan remained confined there for 27 years, until her death in 1879. Those who knew her said she never complained and never protested. Nor did she try to vindicate herself. By the time of her death, the order had grown to include more than 2,500 sisters, but only a handful knew Jugan was the real founder.
In 1890, the Vatican began an investigation of Father le Pailleur, eventually forcing him into retirement. Jugan was canonized 119 years later, in 2009, and the Little Sisters of the Poor credit her patient suffering, in part, with their success.
Praying for the living and the dead
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
As a young girl, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne dreamed of traveling to America and evangelizing Native Americans. God, however, had different plans for her.
Born in 1769 to a wealthy French family, Duchesne defied her family’s expectations for a socially advantageous marriage and became a Visitandine nun instead. When the French Revolution came and forced the sisters out of their convent, she returned to her family’s home. There, she quietly lived her order’s rule of prayer and penance until the anti-religious fervor subsided. Once it did, she rented her former convent with her own money and attempted to convince other former Visitandines to rejoin her. Most refused.
After three years of failure, Duchesne met with Mother Sophie Barat, founder of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Barat convinced the Visitandine to join her, and named Duchesne the new novice mistress for her order in 1804.
For 13 years, Duchesne labored alongside Barat, but she never forgot her childhood dream of evangelizing the American Indians. She finally saw the chance to pursue that dream in 1817, when the bishop of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, William DuBourg, came to her convent, looking for help.
The following year, the 49-year-old sister left for America. Upon her arrival, though, she discovered that the Native Americans had already moved west and the bishop instead wanted her to found a school for American and French girls in St. Charles, Missouri. She obeyed, and eventually founded a half-dozen more.
Finally, in 1841, Duchesne received permission to found a new mission for the Potawatomi Indians in Kansas. Unfortunately, by then, she was too old to learn the language. So, rather than teach, she prayed. Moved by the long hours the sister spent in the chapel, the children nicknamed her Quahkahkanumad, meaning “Woman who prays always.”
After only a year, Duchesne returned to her order’s motherhouse in St. Charles. There, she spent the last decade of her life in a small room near the chapel, offering up her prayers for the work of her order. Pope St. John Paul II canonized her in 1988.