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Salesian foot soldiers

 Le salesiane soldati semplici  DCM-012
30 December 2021

Courageous and unknown nuns. Brief stories of the charism

Sister Clotilde Morano who taught physical education to other religious during Fascism, as an alternative to the dictates of the regime. However, she was destined to be “copied”, with her insights and exercises appropriated and included in published didactic texts. On the other hand, in Slovakia, under communism, Sister Mária Cernà secretly continued to promote the vocations of young girls, and she experienced firsthand the hell of a concentration camp. In Spain, before taking the veil, Sister Virginia Ferraro Ortí had even joined the newly formed union of seamstresses, while in Lombardy, Sister Iside Malgrati founded the Liceo Europeo in Cinisello Balsamo to promote an avant-garde professional education for women. In India, Sister Nancy Pereira committed herself to helping women develop empowerment through microcredit, a useful tool to escape exploitation, and in many cases slavery.

These are just some of the motivated and courageous but unknown protagonists of the Salesian reality. To them, the volume, Volti di uno stesso carisma - Salesiani e Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice nel XX secolo [Faces of the Same Charisma - Salesians and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in the 20th Century] edited by Francesco Motto and Grazia Loparco for the Associazione Cultori Storia Salesiana (Las-Roma) is dedicated. The publication, with 832 exciting pages full of scrupulously documented facts, revolves around 48 biographies of religious men and women who, even though they did not hold top roles in the congregation, distinguished themselves for having developed the Salesian charism in their daily lives. Of these, The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians are prominent.

“But all the protagonists in the book are united by the educational charism that they put into practice in different historical, environmental, cultural and political contexts”. This portrays Sister Grazia Loparco, an historian, who coordinated the research among the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians throughout the world, who relied on a network of local collaborators. The intention was to discard illustrious figures and protagonists of institutional history such as the blessed, servants of God, major rectors, and general superiors (already the focus of previous research) in order to concentrate instead on the “foot soldier”.  These people, who worked in silence, without spotlights or honors, lived the Salesian ideals intensely in conditions that were often adverse, if not prohibitive. We asked all the members of the Association of Salesian History Connoisseurs from five continents to tell us about significant figures from their own Countries”, explains Loparco. “Once we received the profiles, we, the editors, chose those for whom there was reliable documentation beyond the praise passed down verbally. The book is made up of historical reconstructions, not edifying medallions”.

A striking description is that of Sister Clotilde Morano (1885-1963), from Piedmont, who worked in physical education -a rare occurrence amongst nuns-, and was guided by the preventive system that aims at the totality of the person, mens sana in corpore sano. During the Fascism period, Sister Morano, Daughter of Mary Help of Christians, created ad hoc courses of gymnastics to train nuns as teachers. At that time, nuns were forced to exercise together with laywomen, following the “military” approach of the regime and had to wear inappropriate clothing that caused them extreme embarrassment. In addition, Sister Morano wrote books and believed in her ideas at the cost of clashing with her superiors who wanted to curb her initiative, which was not always channeled into obedience. Supported by her lay collaborator Luisa Larese Cella, succeeded in interesting Pope Pius XI in her activities.

The Fascist regime assumed Sister Morano’s ideas, her exercises, her essays, and claimed them its own. The outbreak of war blocked the international foundation in Rome, but not her activity.

Another protagonist written about in the book is Sister Mària Cernà (1928-2011), whose very hard life did not prevent her from being fundamental to the reestablishment of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in Slovakia. This period under communism was when religious orders could not officially exist. Although she may have been unprepared to become a teacher, but sustained by faith, she formed the girls in total secrecy, and promoted vocations. Despite her poor health, like many other religious, she was sent to concentration camps for forced labor. Her work, carried out with Sister Vilma Sutkovà, was the foundation for the rebuilding of the Institute in Slovakia after the fall of communism in 1989.

An active social commitment as a laywoman preceded the consecration of Sister Virginia Ferraro Ortì (1894-1963). A seamstress in Valencia, Virginia joined the needle workers’ union to fight against their exploitation. After taking the veil, she then became the director of a boarding school in Valverde del Camino, which she had to defend during the Spanish Civil War years by exercising her capacity for dialogue with the authorities. In a situation of contextual difficulties and misery, she professionally promoted the education of the poorest girls. Just like the other protagonists written about in the book - intrepid missionaries, educators with entrepreneurial skills - thanks to her enormous faith in Providence she was always able to be generous.

By Gloria Satta