This month Featured

The strength and sacrifice
of religious women

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03 April 2021

On the front line, the virus is taking a heavy toll


Following a nomination by the then Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Sister Anna Agnese Rusconi was made a Knight of the Republic. This came about when she was in her 80s, and still working as a missionary of Saint Anne in Peru. Sister Anna had travelled to Lima immediately after the Second World War, following in the footsteps of two aunts who were nuns. A Lombard from Valmadrera (Lecco), in 2006 she returned to Italy, to Piacenza, to the house of her congregation, where she died on  May 4, 2020. She was 98 years old.

Sister Rosalba Sacchi was the director of Caritas in Arezzo for 13 years, from 1997 to 2010. Then she founded Casa Thevenin, which welcomes and supports mothers and children in difficulty. Because of her tiny body and her incessant work for the benefit of the poor she was nicknamed “God’s little ant”. She died December 30, 2020 in Rome, in the rest home of the Daughters of Charity. She was 84 years old.

Sister Maria Armida Simioni was a nurse, and one of the founders of the Women’s Medicine department at the Ospedale Nuovo  San Valentino in Montebelluna. Then she became the coordinating nurse at Correggio hospital, where she met Ligabue, the rock singer, whom she became friends with. She loved football and Formula One racing, Platini’s Juventus and Alboreto’s Ferrari. She died on January 13, at Villa Salus, the sisters’ rest home in Mestre. She was 80 years old.

Sister Rosanna Bachis was born in Siliqua, in the province of Cagliari. It was there that she joined the Handmaids of the Holy Family at a very young age. In 1993, when the parish of Santa Maria della Pietà decided to open a nursing home and entrust it to her congregation, she was sent to Prato. For 28 years, she dedicated her life to caring for the elderly, including much of this last very difficult one. Sister Rosanna Bachis died of Covid  February 7, in the La Melagrana centre in Narnali. She was 82 years old. It is true that the nuns who died because of the virus were old, vulnerable, and sometimes sick; however, there is something else that explains the high death rate among them. As Francesco Ognibene wrote in an article for “Avvenire” (an Italian national newspaper) this is something that makes it even more moving. Their fidelity to the community charism, which leads their lives to run side by side, as sisters, always together; because, the mission is achieved through sharing, which is a strength that is transformed into a cause of fragility today. All too often, when the Coronavirus enters a convent or a community, it spreads very quickly.

In Italy alone, there are dozens of known deaths. In addition, in some cases they are comparable to massacres. Between 2020 and 2021, in Cervia, near Ravenna, the 45 nuns in the house of the congregation of the Sisters of Charity were all infected; ten of them, aged between 80 and 93, died. On 2 February, the Day of Consecrated Life, Archbishop Lorenzo Ghizzoni celebrated their lives with a service in the cathedral, where each of them were remembered one by one: Sister Jacinta, Sister Egidia, Sister Miradio, Sister Eugenia Pia, Sister Emilia, Sister Damiana, Sister Maria Gregoria, Sister Angela, Sister Elena and Sister Maria Tecla. Five months before, the virus attacked the “mondine nuns”, and 13 died. These Sisters were based in the Father Francesco Pianzola house-hotel in Mortara, near Pavia. The Pianzoline sisters were known for their commitment to the rural workers of Lomellina. For them, Father Pianzola founded the Institute of the Missionaries of the Immaculate in 1919, from where they brought help to the exploited rice-workers in the 1950s.

The pandemic in Italy first struck in Lombardy, northern Italy.  The massacres that occurred in the convents are as follows: the 13 Poverelle of the Palazzolo Institute in Bergamo; the eight Comboni missionaries in their house in Bergamo; the seven Sisters Workers of the Holy House of Nazareth in Botticino, in the province of Brescia; the seven Dominican Sisters of Blessed Imelda in the hills of Bologna: cloistered nuns, all octogenarian, who were attacked by the virus in the rest home of the community of Villa Pace. To this list, we must add, the six Orionine nuns in Tortona; the six Maestre di Santa Dorotea in Castell’Arquato, near Piacenza; the five Daughters of Wisdom in Sanremo; and,  the two Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament in Rivolta d’Adda, near Cremona.

The virus also claimed Sister Alessandra Tribbiani, the mother superior of the Suore Infermiere dell'Addolorata of Como, and general manager and president of the administrative council of the Valduce Hospital. And, with her, four sisters also died, their names: Sister Matilde Marangoni, Sister Egidia Gusmeroli, Sister Antonietta Sironi and Sister Crocifissa Bordin. They were all victims of the battle against Covid on the ward.

Considering the effects of the virus as it travelled down throughout Italy, it is very moving the mourning that has struck the San Bernardino House of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in Porano, in the province of Terni. Sister Paola, the 70-year-old mother superior, has seen elderly sisters die, as she would never have imagined four of them one after the other, starving for air.  Three sisters in their nineties, one was 103 years old, and the terror of contagion for all the others. A lot of help arrived in support of the 39 nuns isolated in the Porano convent, including gifts brought by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Pope's alms-giver.

The four nuns who died in the Cristo Re convent in Eboli, Salerno, between November and December were swept away by the second wave: the youngest, Sister Anna, was 70 years old, the oldest, Sister Gabriella, 93. In addition, the three Ursulines at the Castello di Capriolo, in the Brescia area.  The first to leave us was Sister Lina Guiducci, 90, the convent’s cook, and well known in the city especially among the over 40s who attended the nursery school run for decades by the sisters of the Castello; then Sister Santina (93), followed by Sister Marcellina (88).

To this list, we add the three Sisters of Charity from Arpino, in the province of Frosinone, who lived in the St Vincenzo de’ Paoli Institute. Actually, they had not been outside for some time, for they were already ill. Their names, Sister Lidia, Sister Franca and Sister Maria Grazia, all three of them over 90. Here, too, the convent was a school, and here, too, many adults remember the teacher sisters with nostalgia.

There are many others who have left their mark on their communities. Like Sister Emilia Scaperrotta of the Institute of the Conservatory of the Sisters of St Francis Xavier in Ariano Irpino, Avellino. She had been the director of the parish school and superior of the main house.

Then, there was the passing of Sister Magdalene of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Carmelite of the monastery of Santo Stefano degli Ulivi in Ravenna. And sister Pina Leuzzi of the Marcelline sisters who run the Panico hospital in Tricase, Lecce, who died December 12.

Covid-19 has claimed a high price all over the world. In the United States, for example, eight people were taken last December at Notre Dame in Elm Grove, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  These Sisters were educators, music teachers, nurses, missionaries, and almost all of them over 90 years old.  Nine others died in the Sas José Provincial House in Lathan, Albany, New York State. In July, 13 died at St Felix Convent in Livonia, Michigan. They ranged in age from 69 to 92 years, and some of them were still working as educators, librarians, teachers, nurses, missionaries, and one was serving in the Vatican. As the mother superior, Mary Andrew Budinski, states, “The contagion spread like a forest fire”.

Johana Rivera Ramos died young, at 33, right at the start of the pandemic in Cartagena, Colombia. A year later, the light at the end of the tunnel was shown by Sister André Randon, Europe's oldest woman, who defeated Covid in Toulon, Provence, at the age of 117. The whole world celebrated with her, from the director of the WHO, Hans Kluge, to the Daughters of Charity of St Vincenzo de’ Paoli, her congregation, the largest female congregation in the Church.

by Federica Re David