The Great War and the Little Sisters of Mother Domenica
During the First World War, the Little Sisters of the Holy Family, founded by Domenica Mantovani (1862-1934) with Father Giuseppe Nascimbeni, were engaged as nurses in the war services together with thousands of other religious sisters called to help the population. A knowledge of their role is an extraordinarily important page of history that is still too rarely studied and valued, yet opens up new glimpses of commitment and spirituality. Thanks also to this experience, Mantovani has brought to maturity some distinctive traits that make his message particularly relevant in the light of the magisterium of Pope Francis. The vocation of the Little Sisters, in fact, which she sums up as “a mission of apostolate, of peace, and above all of charity among children, at the beds of the sick and around the dear old people gathered in the various shelters of our filial houses”, brings to mind that image of “the Church, like a field hospital” that Bergoglio used to indicate the closeness and proximity of the ecclesial community capable of “healing the wounds and warming the hearts of the faithful”.
Mother Domenica’s delicate way of relating to people points to the need that the Pope feels today to recover the Christian virtue of kindness, the disposition to a mysticism of fraternity that is nourished by listening and communion towards a lost humanity (see the encyclical Fratelli tutti). With her, care becomes a sacrament, a sign of God’s attitude towards humanity and a new model of relationality. She and her sisters put the care into the field during the First World War when they had to face the emergencies of war, when they had to defend, welcome, nurture, and rebuild trust by re-educating to the values of life and faith in a God who does not abandon.
Domenica Mantovani exercised care as an educational practice. There are many elements of prophecy that she bequeathed to the Little Sisters. These include: a radical relationship with God through prayer and silence; service to the sick and suffering understood as a mission; the dignity of the female role in support of the Church’s pastoral care; feeling responsible for the common good; openness to new things and the ability to adapt; sensitivity to the Sisters to encourage them to study and professionalize their work; closeness to ordinary people; being the memory of the Holy Family, as a place of encounter and reconciliation.
On 15 May Domenica Mantovani is proclaimed a saint.
by ADRIANA VALERIO
A historian and theologian, professor of History of Christianity and the Churches at the University Federico II in Naples