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Adelaide, Elisa
and the others

  Adelaide, Elisa e le altre  DCM-006
29 May 2021

The modernists: opposed to, but also friends of Popes

Bold, strong, and determined. Feminists, those who were committed, single by choice or married, some journalists, others writers, or pedagogues. Some were rich and bourgeois, leaders of philosophical-literary salons, daughters of the protagonists of the Risorgimento. Others originated from the working-class, were self-taught. But all of whom were indiscriminately frontier women who advanced the demand for a faith appropriate to the changing times. All of whom had clung to their faith even in the darkest of moments, even when some were excluded from the Eucharist.


These were the women who, between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, adhered to Modernism. This was a movement which was opposed by the ecclesiastical authorities and the subject of Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominii grecis. In his encyclical, he called men and women who considered themselves Modernists as “rebels”. Feminists ante litteram. These women cultivated strong spiritual and intellectual male friendships, and like Adelaide Coari or Sister Maria even had rapports with Popes.

In 1959, on 25 November, the night of St Catherine of Alexandria, when John XXIII turned 78, he wrote to Adelaide Coari. As one of the best known exponents of Catholic modernism he penned, “Excellent young lady, do not be hurt if my conditions of life, as Providence was disposed for me, do not allow me to tell you adequately how much I still preserve dear memories of your activity of half a century past. Doing the holy will of the Lord, this is our peace. You continue to pray for me and I bless you from my heart”.

This is the last letter (taken from the book by Cettina Militello, Il volto femminile della storia [The female face of history], published by Piemme) that Pope Roncalli wrote to Coari (Milan, 4 November 1881 - Rovegno, 16 February 1966). Many read support and an act of sharing, perhaps even encouragement in the Pontiff’s words, even if this woman will always be considered “out of the picture” by the good Pope.

Coari is perhaps the only one of the modernist women who did not come from a wealthy family. She began her training as a journalist and became a Christian feminist at the very young age of twenty, and her first training ground was L'Azione muliebre [The Female action] where she worked as editorial secretary. Later, in 1904, with the support of Cardinal Andrea Ferrari and the Fascio democratico cristiano femminile (Women’s Christian Democratic Party) she founded Pensiero e Azione (Thought and Action) in Milan, which she directed until it closed in 1908. As Roberta Fossati argues in her book Verso l’ignoto. Donne moderniste di primo Novecento [Towards the unknown: early 20th century modernist women], published by Nerbini Adelaide Coari was a pedagogue who developed an innovative proposal for the time. For years, in fact, she fought for the creation of workers’ associations, home economics schools and legislation to protect working women and their children. She was also responsible for the first minimum feminist programme, which was then illustrated at a conference in 1907 with all the Catholic forces participating. This was a manifesto of support for suffragism and a comprehensive policy of the rights of women. Among the cornerstones were: “equal pay for equal work” (a goal from which today’s women are still a long way off); “special schools for peasants and workers; freedom of administration of married women’s property; search for paternity; extension of the criminal responsibility of men to woman until she has reached 21 years of age; establishment of paid inspectors to check that the law regarding the work of women and children was observed; and, the right to vote administratively”.

These proposals received Cardinal Andrea Ferrari’s private approval.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Elisa Salerno (Vicenza, 16 June 1873 - Vicenza, 15 February 1957) was recognised as the most committed and militant Christian feminist.  She attacked the anti-feminism of some church hierarchies and claimed women’s right to liturgical singing. Her battles include for unmarried mothers, the right to know the name of the father, the obligation of the father to marry the mother. She was forbidden from receiving the Eucharist too. From her famous speech, “I obey ecclesiastical authority in everything except anti-feminism, which is contrary to human and divine laws”. (on Elisa Salerno Una donna nata troppo presto [A woman born too soon] in Women Church World, January 2021, author’s note).  

For twenty years she exchanged correspondence with Gandhi, who wrote her a letter every October 2, on his birthday, to which she invariably replied “Dear Bapu”. Correspondence was also exchanged with Don Primo Mazzolari, Don Orione, David Turoldo and Albert Schweitzer. She maintained a deep and lasting friendship with the priest Enrico Buonaiuti, who was one of the main exponents of Italian modernism. He was excommunicated and reduced to the lay state, but who gave her the chalice that he could no longer use as a result of being excommunicated. This was Sister Maria di Campello’s network of friendships (Turin, 24 January 1875 - Campello sul Clitunno, September 5, 1961).

Considered the “stranger” to the movement, indeed for some historians she should not even be considered modernist, Sister Maria was given the name of Valeria-Paola Pignetti when she was born. In 1901, she entered the Franciscan Missionaries, and became superior of the Anglo-American hospital in Rome. While there she took on unusual approaches for her time and role, for example, she allowed a dying man’s lover to rush to his sickbed. In 1919, she obtained a dispensation from her vows, left the convent and went to the Campello hermitage in the Spoleto valley above the Clitunno springs, where she lived a simple life of prayer.

Sister Maria was a mystic by birth, as great friend, theologian and chaplain of the hermitage Giovanni Vannucci wrote. In fact, so much so that in the period of her deepest crisis, which occurred when she decided not to expel Buonaiuti despite the excommunication, saying she would answer for her actions only to Jesus, thus affirming her total freedom and autonomy, “I have Jesus and Jesus knows that I have nothing but him”. As Sister Jacopa (blind from birth, who was close to her in the experience of the Hermitage and took up its legacy) reported in her diary in July 1925.

For her, the Church was the society of believers, and therefore extended to her brothers and sisters who were Israelites, pagans, of whatever creed. Her relationship with Gandhi developed along these lines. She also wrote a letter that went unanswered to Pius XII in which she asked to be able to live her Catholic faith more broadly.

With a temporary ban from the sacraments and her books placed on the Index, Antonietta Giacomelli (Treviso, 15 August 1857 - Rovereto, 10 December 1949), the great-granddaughter of Antonio Rosmini, paid the price of her sometimes radical activism,  and friendship with Romolo Murri. He was a priest and politician, and one of the founders of social Christianity in Italy who was suspended a divinis and excommunicated (the excommunication was later revoked). Historian and writer Roberta Fossati comments “Giacomelli went through a very hard time, almost cruel from a religious point of view […] It was she who proposed that the faithful should participate in the rite of the Mass, which was to be celebrated in Italian, paving the way for the Second Vatican Council. A courageous woman, who challenged the official Church, and experienced firsthand the awareness of the popular character of religion. In addition, she was a writer, a journalist and the organiser of a literary salon that welcomed believers and thinkers from Italy and overseas. It was here that L'Unione per il bene [The Union for the Public Good], a fellowship that focused on commitment to others, was founded. This was the starting point for the initiative for San Lorenzo -a working-class neighbourhood in Rome-, where Giacomelli and a group of collaborators helped immigrants, the homeless and the poor. The Union bought houses for them and rented them out at affordable prices. Giacomelli was also a staunch supporter of the “separated brothers”; she too supported an ideal of ecumenical brotherhood that transcended the boundaries of religions.

Fossati explains: “In this regard, the “interdenominational women” such as Dorette Marie Melegari, who supported the separation of the Churches from the State, and Alice Hallgarten Franchetti, who combined culture, social ferment and the rediscovery of Franciscan roots, played an important role in modernism. Or rather among the “women of religious reformism” such as Lorenzo Bedeschi, director of the Institute of History at the University of Urbino, defined them”.

The “amazon of pure Catholicism”, or the “vigilant sentinel in the skirts of modernism” as Giacomelli was called by fundamentalist circles, who was marginalised and in the end she retired to live in poverty in a nuns’ home in Rovereto.

 “The example and courage of these women remain. But the female question in the Church is still unresolved”, commented theologian Cettina Militello.

By Lilli Mandara