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An unpublished portrait of the nun of the ‘anni di piombo’ [years of terrorism]

Teresilla, the heart inside

 Teresilla,  DCM-005
06 May 2023

I visited her assiduously for twenty years, but I never knew how old she was. After all, a nuns’ time, at the time cloaked in any weather and their faces always framed by a dressing that looks like a seal, seems perpetually suspended. A mystery. Nor did I ever ask her, because with Teresilla it was better to avoid useless talk.

She was a practical and down-to-earth person. Gruff, but never rude; simply just the necessary. Nevertheless, still smiling. Perhaps this, too, helped disguise her age. The smile, often sly, sometimes disenchanted, or useful to conceal some bitterness. This stemmed from the trust betrayed by someone she had helped, or from dietrological suspicions that wanted her at the centre of obscure and unconfessable negotiations between terrorists and the state.

She suffered, she questioned (to a certain extent: a limitation, but perhaps also a virtue), but she did not fret or allow herself to be influenced. Because she was selfless. Moreover, what else can a woman be who takes her vows and then dedicates her life to the sick and the imprisoned, if not selfless?

Regarding her assistance in hospitals, I knew very little, except when I looked for her in the hospital - while she was on duty - because there was no other way to get hold of her, and whoever answered the phone would put down the receiver and then shout: “Teresì!” About her volunteering in prisons, however, something more. Because she acted as an intermediary for so many prisoners, with their stories, their needs, their miseries and their riches. Valuable human material, whichever way you want to consider it and recount it. Nevertheless, to be handled with care. As she did.  

Teresilla made the headlines for being “the nun of the anni di piombo [years of terrorism]”, a friend to repentant, dissociated or diehard terrorists of all sides, but this is an incomplete portrait. Because she was also like this to many 'normal' prisoners, the bandits and criminals, who had nothing to do with the armed struggle, some even famous but many anonymous and unknown to most. Burnt lives that she tried to rekindle to make something good inside burn again. Of all of them, she was able to win their trust, but for the veterans of the failed revolution she was a bridge to re-establish a dialogue with the outside world, the society they wanted to fight or tear down. Italian laws allowed them to be welcomed back into the context they had disowned, rejected and fought against, and she guided and accompanied them on this path. For some it was short and smooth, for others longer and bumpy, for others still interrupted; but for none did Teresilla ask for anything in return or regret that at some point they took a different direction. She saw some of them move away as quickly as they had approached her, without this changing her attitude one iota; because she went into prison (and continued to have relations outside, once they were out) to give, not to receive. Moreover, what she received, whether it be good or bad, did not affect what she gave and would continue to give.

It could be that someone used or instrumentalized her, either among the detainees (or former detainees) or among the people she had approached. However, she did allow herself to be used or instrumentalised, whether that be out of generosity, probably out of naivety, perhaps out of calculated risk; but - I believe - not out of complicity. All too often I have seen her open her arms wide and, indeed, break into a half-smile in the face of a defeat; whether it was the someone’s escape who had been helped out with a permit, a new crime (even a serious one) committed by a pardoned person for whom she had interceded, or some accusation hurled by someone who had previously urged her to do what she was accused of.

Disappointments - even bitter ones and in every environment, including the religious one closest to her - she had taken into account, as if they were a price to pay for doing what she considered her mission; the helping of people to be what they wanted, and to regain a life worth living. Inside and outside the walls of a prison.

An existence spent in the service of others, almost stubbornly, never stopping to think too much, because she was in a hurry to act. Broken precisely because of a sudden and probably rash movement she had made, during a night procession, dressed in black and along a dark street.

As a former terrorist who was her friend behind bars and then as a free man said to me, commenting on her death a few hours ago, “You know what she was made of, don’t you?”

A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, Corriere della sera