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The little story

The thread of providence

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03 April 2021

The courage of three nuns, a kindergarten and an embroidery school in Calabria 


In the first, devastated post-war period, on  December 16, 1918, three nuns, from the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, met in Satriano, a remote village in Calabria. There, they stood before the immense ruins of a former Franciscan convent, which a municipal resolution, in August 1917, had destined as a nursery school, so as to “come to the aid of the families of the numerous people called up to bear arms”.

The house “lacks everything”, notes the director Sister Leontina Macchi, “but we enjoyed experiencing the discomforts of religious poverty, and touching with our own hands the loving traits of Divine Providence”. In the centenary year, a historian, Giulio De Loiro, collected the diaries of the former directors of the Satriano House, and drew from it an essay made up of small histories of great interest. These histories are now revived by Don Mimmo Battaglia - the “street bishop” born in Satriano, who has always testified to the “maternal” presence of the sisters in his vocational path, and  called on by Pope Bergoglio to the Archbishopric of Naples.

The three nuns travelled to Soverato by train, and then journeyed up the hairpin bends to Satriano, which winds up the mountain on narrow roads designed for donkeys. This ancient conformation permits the Gulf of Squillace to sparkle in the distance at every turn. Right at the first bend of the town, a high buttress protected and contained the crumbling convent; but the lawyer Giacinto Galateria, to whom the kindergarten will be named, had in the meantime obtained from the Province an adequate contribution for its reconstruction, and from the Inspectorate of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians the commitment to manage the kindergarten (the first House, in the south, dates back to 1907). On  December 21, the kindergarten opened, offering a simple meal of bread and milk, offered by the local doctor; the American Red Cross sent clothing parcels. The headmistress obtained a three-monthly fee from the mayor, and as early as April 4, she opened a sewing and cutting workshop. Attendance in the first month was limited, notes the superior, because “the girls of the village were engaged in silkworm cultivation”.

Due to a postal delay, the unexpected inspector, Sr Felicina Fanoia, arrived on June 29, and on foot, through those hairpin bends. She could do nothing but “instil courage”, yet the oratory was opened and the nursery school obtained state recognition. Private help guaranteed “machines and looms for the popular workshop” and, much desired harmonium and the painting with the image of Mary Help of Christians for the Church. On  July 8, 1920 a Salesian photographer took the first official photo of the house, with the Sisters and the 80 or so children, and there was as many oratories; the girls in the workshop, were always busy working in the fields, and numbered in the range of  20 to 30. The statute of the kindergarten required the presence of a woman among the municipal representatives.

The chronicles continue, with robberies in the henhouse, the opening of a music school, the new presidency of his nephew Raffaele, after Giacinto’s death. These were the years of Fascism and the Crusader Shield.  The diaries speak mostly of the war - an allied bomb fell on the church, but (almost by miracle) after mass was over - and then of the hardships of the second post-war period, when sometimes the midday meal could not be provided. Then the emigration and the depopulation of the village began, but the embroidery workshop (in great demand for wedding trousseaus) became a precious resource for the girls. The mother superiors were rotated every six years, as were the religious sisters, but Sister Maria Fristachi, who had been directing the embroidery course since 1963, remained in the nursery until 2000. Since that year, the F.M.A. have transferred the rustle of their supernatural and industrious serenity to the house in Soverato, which is now run with constant joy by Sister Ausilia De Siena; and Sister Maria Fristachi celebrated her hundredth birthday there.

by Daria Galateria
Essayist, who wrote L'etichetta alla corte di Versailles (Etiquette at the Court of Versailles), Sellerio.