· Vatican City ·


Caterina Daghero, 43 years as Superior General

The great Salesian

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03 February 2024

February 26 marks 100 years since the death of Mother Caterina Daghero, the second Superior General of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, who was the first successor of co-founder Maria Domenica Mazzarello. A fundamental figure in the history of the Salesian Sisters, who governed for no less than 43 years, straddling two centuries. These four decades were full of transformations for the world, be that migrations, natural disasters, maliciousness towards religious Congregations, and wars, in which the female institute founded by St John Bosco consolidated its original features: education of the young, and charity.

To immerse oneself in the life and mission of this woman of great vision is to embark on a journey into a very strong human and spiritual story, animated by a profound faith that has become history.

Her story begins in Piedmont, not far from Turin, in one of the many hamlets of the town of Cumiana, that of the Daghé family, which takes its name from the dialectal abbreviation of the surname Daghero. It was here, in 1856, that Caterina was born into a simple family, not rich in material means but with a genuine faith and love. She developed her dedication to others, her ability to suffer in silence, her innate gift to console those with a pain in their hearts.  She was 12 years old when her mother died and shortly afterwards her father went on to marry for a second time.

Hers has been a journey in which the sufferings and joys, the obstacles and the goals achieved have had a common denominator, to let God take primacy in her life, to welcome his will as a gift and to look upon others as a prodigy of his love.

All this in small and great things: when in 1874 she arrived in Mornese, a small Italian town in the province of Alessandria, to become a Daughter of Mary Help of Christians and confronted a religious life where praying was not divorced from hard work. She began her educational mission in Turin with young girls who were poor in resources and culture, in a city where the working classes lived and worked in precarious and unhealthy conditions and, especially for girls, physical and moral degradation was a daily risk. In 1880, in St Cyr, France, she assumed responsibility for a very poor orphanage and had to beg for bread at the doors of the rich.

Sister Caterina remained true to herself even when, at the age of only 24, she was chosen as vicar general and, a few months later, in 1881, at the death of co-founder Maria Domenica Mazzarello, when she was elected superior general of an institute. Even though it had been founded less than 10 years earlier, it was already present in four nations, in Europe and in America. She was not even of age: the superior general by rule must be 35 years old; Don Bosco granted her a dispensation.

In the forty-three years of her governance, thanks to a convinced Salesian activity combining work and prayer, the Institute developed immensely, clocking up important spiritual and social achievements.

Maria Mazzarello, the first superior general chosen by the founder St John Bosco (made a saint in 1951 by Pius XII) died after nine years of leading the Institute, leaving 26 Houses, with 156 professed sisters and 50 novices

Catherine Daghero multiplied these achievements, and at the time of her death there were 487 Houses in the world with 4,276 sisters. Today there are nearly 11,000 Salesian Sisters in 98 nations.

By following Caterina Daghero, a profile emerges of a Mother who, through the spirituality of care, spent time in different spheres, making a synthesis of her being a consecrated woman. She thought a bit outside the box of her time, with the courage to accept the challenges posed by a social context that straddles innovation and tradition, and taking an attitude that today's language would call synodal, capable, that is, of involving her daughters in shaping the life of the Institute, its spirituality and enculturating it in so many different contexts. In 40 years, this religious dedicated to the fulfillment of Don Bosco’s will and who knew four popes (Leo XIII - Pius X - Benedict XV - Pius XI) made more than 400 trips: Italy, France, Belgium, England, Spain, Palestine where the houses of Jerusalem and Bethlehem had opened in the late 19th century, Africa, and South America where she stayed for two years.

Hence, her prophetic choices, first and foremost were that of opening the doors of education to girls, to the youth people. These are the people who were denied a serene and dignified future and a role in society. A choice that took shape in the establishment of schools, boarding schools, boarding schools, university colleges, kindergartens, and in wanting for girls a quality education, entrusted to religious educators determined to prepare them for teaching - with paths that gradually saw them enter Higher Education and Universities, capable of interpreting culture from a Christian perspective and of making the students breathe that family spirit, the foundation of the Preventive System, Don Bosco’s educational intuition that tends to the integral education of the person, and is based on three pillars: reason, religion and loving-kindness.

The same ideal tension underlies the opening of the innumerable festive and evening oratories too. Mother Catherine desires this to happen in all of the communities wherever Salesian Sisters work, and to whom she often says, “Look for the poorest girls, the neediest, the most defective...do not tur away from making sacrifices for the sake of the girl in the oratory”.

On the four continents, the oratories, supported by a Mother Superior who considers them the Salesian institution par excellence, become, then, not only the place to spend peaceful hours, but a way to respond to the thirst for culture, the desire for creativity, the right to play, to cheerfulness, to a time for oneself, of girls who have no voice in society.

Mother Caterina Daghero did not stop there. When faced with the burgeoning development of the textile industry and the consequent need for female labor, she dared to embark on a new path, which was the management of boarding schools where young female workers could be housed after work and, at times, the presence of nuns alongside them at the Works. With their presence, the nuns can act as intermediaries between female workers and their bosses even during strike action. This work, too, is not limited to a welfare activity, but has an intentional educational purpose: to bring out the treasure that each one - student, housewife or worker - has in her, to accompany all to become women capable of giving human and Christian values in the family and society.

This love for the poor encourages the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, in every part of the world, to place in their hearts the orphans and orphans of wars, to welcome refugees, to care for wounded soldiers, to support families deprived of their homes and possessions by the earthquake, and to be close to migrants.

However, this form of charity has a proceeding blueprint. After all, it is embodied in the social fabric and is developed in dialogue with institutions, governments, action committees, entrepreneurs, women's committees and lay benefactors, to ensure dignity and adequate care for those who do not count in society.

by Angela Bertero
Of the Vides Main Association - promoted by the Italian Salesian Women’s Works Center.