Mother Maria Enrica Dominici

Author: Amato Pietro Frutaz

Mother Maria Enrica Dominici

Amato Pietro Frutaz
Undersecretary of the S. Congregation for the Causes of Saints

"God was calling me and I had to obey!". This unmistakable declaration made by a young twenty-year-old girl clearly tells us what her character was. This girl was Anna Caterina Maria Dominici, born at Borgo Salsasio, commune of Carmagnola (Turin), on 10 October 1829. In 1850 she asked to be admitted, after a period of waiting full of suffering, to the Institute of the "Sisters of St Anne and of Providence", founded . in 1834 by the magnanimous Marquis and Marchioness Falletti of Barolo: Carlo Tancredi and Giulia Colbert. It was given the title of "Sisters of Providence", to which there was added that of "St Anne" in 1835.

The Sisters of this Institute were to educate "girls from good families, not rich" and girls left orphans by the outbreak of cholera in 1835. The Marquis and Marchioness entrusted to them also .the nursery school for poor children, the first set up in Italy, and the daily preparation and distribution of the soup for the poor at the expense of the Marchioness.

Educator of youth

Anna Dominici, with her exquisite and marked femininity, though she had not carried out higher studies, at once grasped the loftiness of the mission of educator of youth and of charitable assistance for the needy; an ideal, together with contemplation, to which every consecrated soul should aspire. Throughout her whole life she was, despite poor health, an indefatigable worker, and a soul that reached the highest peaks of Christian contemplation. "My prayer — she wrote — is silence, it is the look of the mind in God, where his goodness enables me, seeing nothing, to see; hearing nothing, to grasp and know things with such certainty that I am left without any doubt about what is to be done".

On 26 July 1851 she received the religious habit and the name of Maria Enrica — in the presence, among others, of the Marchioness and of Silvio Pellico, the French teacher at the Sisters' Institute, whose Le mie Prigioni she was to read during her last illness. On the same day in 1853 Sister Mary Henrietta dedicated herself definitively to God.

On 17 September 1854, the Mother General assigned to the young professed nun a field of action very different from the Piedmontese one. She was sent to Castelfidardo, in the Marches, which was then a large agricultural town. Here the Blessed was teacher, an improvised but heroic nurse during the sad months of the cholera epidemic in 1855, vicar and mistress of novices. Contact with the reality of everyday life was hard but salutary, because she learned to overcome the difficulties involved in her daily duties, which the interior sufferings she felt at that time made even heavier. She wrote, in fact, that she no longer knew "whether she was on earth or in hell".

Wise and sincere

At Castelfidardo Sister Maria Enrica felt a strong desire to dedicate herself to the missions in India and for this purpose her confessor, Fr Pellicani, S.J., permitted her to take a vow, on 2 February 1858, to dedicate herself to this fascinating apostolate. But the Mother Superior informed her that the Institute did not have this purpose.

The hard but beneficial apprenticeship at Castelfidardo was about to end, because the Mother General Mary of the Angels brought her back to Turin (25 June 1858). There the authorities of the Institute were going through a serious crisis for various reasons, not least of all the misunderstandings of the Mother General with the foundress, the Marchioness of Barolo, and the harsh attacks of anticlericals on religious institutions. The Mother General often sent Sister Enrica to the chapel to pray until midnight "for the conversion of the ever dear Marchioness; I, on the contrary, prayed for her who sent me", and she was not wrong?

Her sincere behaviour and wise advice soon made her, in spite of herself, a point of convergence and approval of many fellow Sisters, disturbed as she was by the state of the central administration of the Congregation in the Mother House of Via della Consolata, Turin. It was not by chance that the Chapter on 29 April 1861 elected her Superior General. Mother Enrica was 32 years old! Before accepting, she asked the advice of Canon Luigi Anglesio the successor of St Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo. He urged her to accept the heavy responsibility, giving her the following advice: "Put all your trust in God, and then if you are not capable of governing, you will at least have the humility to let yourself be removed from office". Sister Enrica accepted and guided the Institute for 33 years, until her death, by the express will of the General Chapters which took place every 6 years.

Missionary desires

Sincere, prudent and humble, she started a new and effective method of governing, centred on charity, respect for the human personality, love of poverty and simple lifestyle and on filial affection for the Foundress, the Marchioness of Barolo, who was approaching the conclusion of her charitable life. She died, in fact, on 9 January 1864.

Bent entirely on filial union with God, Mother Enrica governed her Institute with firmness and boldly undertook works that were rash on the human plane. If we think that in 1861, when she took over the management of the Institute, it had 12 Houses with 79 Sisters, and that in 1894 when she died there were 33 Houses with 290 Sisters, we get some idea of the efficiency of her rule.

In Turin, for example, she created, with the help of eminent benefactors, the great building complex in the area of S. Secondo, inaugurated in 1879, still known today by the name of St Anne's Institute. In Rome, the little house erected in Via Gioberti in 1880 became, in 1885 at Via Buonarroti and in 1956-57 at Viale Marconi, a great scholastic centre. In Sicily she accepted the direction of the important College of Santanoceto at Acireale in 1886.

But the work that characterizes her rule was the opening in India, which was unexpectedly offered to her in 1870. She was thus able to fulfil her youthful dream and the vow taken at Castelfidardo in 1858, after meeting PiusIX at a public audience at Loreto. A first group of Sisters set off for Secunderabad (today archdiocese of Hyderabad) in 1870 and was followed in 1879 by a second group which she herself accompanied. When she died, there were already three Indian houses with 23 Sisters, including two native ones.

Friend of Don Bosco

In 1871 Don Bosco presented to Mother Enrica the rules of the Congregation of "Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians", which was about to be set up, so that she might revise them, that is, "take away and add as you in your wisdom think fit", Don Bosco wrote to her on 24 April of that year, "in order to found an institute whose daughters will be real religious before the Church". In 1873 she consented to Don Bosco's desire to send some Sisters to Mornese to initiate the "Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians" to religious life.

If her 33 years as Superior General were for Anna Dominici rich in works and generous efforts to arrive at divine intimacy in an attitude of continual prayer, they were also marked by disappointments, conflicts with the administrators of the Barolo Charitable Institution, by every kind of sorrow, by worries of a financial nature, and by intense moral and physical sufferings. During these long years of government, she accepted everything from God's hand, happy to do his will, and she wanted her spiritual daughters to do the same. She wrote to one in July 1886: "Wish what God wishes, as God wishes and as long as he wishes". She urged another Sister who was at Acireale "to see God in one's superior and for his sake to obey promptly; to see God in the Rule and for his sake to observe it perfectly; to see God in one's office and for his sake to carry it out exactly; to see God in difficulties and ordeals and for his sake to tolerate them patiently; to see God in the inspirations of grace and for his sake to follow them generously and promptly".

This wanting what God wants and this seeing God everywhere, are autobiographical features which reveal where she drew the heroic fortitude to accept the atrocious spasms of the cancer of the breast which became evident in 1890. She kept her suffering hidden as long as she could, continuing to work. But about the end of the month of November 1893, the disease got the better of her iron will. "I have kept up as long as I could", she said, "now I must resign myself. I can do no more". Her doctor, Senator Prof. Bruno, edified by her conduct, declared; "I have seen many people die in the nearly sixty years of my work as a practitioner, but I have never met such patience and resignation in any patient as I have met in Maria Enrica". Destroyed by the disease, she died on 21 February 1894, leaving the memory of a strong-willed and magnanimous woman, and the example of a hard-working and holy life lived only for the glory of God and for the good of her neighbour.

The features of Mother Enrica's moral figure and the data concerning her activity for 44 years, within the Institute of St Anne and of Providence, are seen, not only from her writings — particularly the autobiography and correspondence — but also from the many well-pondered testimonies collected in the Informative Process (1929-1931) and in the Apostolic Process (1946-1948).

The beatification Cause of Anna Dominici was introduced by Pius XII, on 4 April 1943, and her heroic exercise of virtues was proclaimed by Paul VI, on 1 February 1975.

The Postulation presented in view of beatification a solid reputation for miracles and a cure obtained miraculously, through the intercession of the venerable Servant of God by the boy Bruno Colla in the night between 12 and 13 December 1947. The immediate recovery of little Bruno was recognized as miraculous by the Holy Father Paul VI, on 7 July 1977.

Paul VI, raising to the honours of the altars this humble and noble figure of a woman of God, calls upon all those who dedicate themselves to the difficult task of the education of youth, in particular the 937 spiritual daughters of the new Blessed, spread all over Italy — (74 houses. 495 religious), India, (40, 418 religious), Switzerland (1, 6 religious), USA (1, 9 religious), Brazil (2, 6 religious) Australia (1, 3 religious) — to fulfil Enrica's ideal. This is: to make God known so that he may be loved; to do one's own duty in order to be sanctified; and to dedicate one's intellectual and physical energies to making youth fit to carry out their mission in society.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 May 1978, page 9

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