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The urgency of female founders

 L’urgenza delle fondatrici  DCM-002
03 February 2024

Clelia Merloni: From Opposition to Blessing

At the age of 33, Clelia Merloni (born March 10, 1861, in Forlì, Italy; died November 21, 1930, in Rome) experienced a vivid dream of the town of Viareggio, a place she had never visited. Prompted by this vision, she embarked on a journey on April 24, 1894, accompanied by her friend Elisa Pederzini and later joined by Giuseppina D’Ingenheim. Together, they became the pioneering trio known as the first Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Central to Clelia Merloni's mission was the embodiment of charity and forgiveness. Despite being the only child of a wealthy industrialist who envisioned a life of marriage and luxury for her, Clelia made a bold decision to pursue religious life. After gaining experience in a couple of congregations, she took the momentous step of founding a new institute of consecrated nuns devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This institute was dedicated to serving the marginalized— the poor, orphans, and the abandoned— with a particular focus on uplifting women and fostering the conversion of sinners.  Clelia's journey was deeply personal, driven by a profound motive: the salvation of her father's soul. Despite his atheism and membership in the Freemasons, her father underwent a transformative conversion on his deathbed, bequeathing Clelia with a significant inheritance, which she selflessly dedicated entirely to the service of the community she had founded.

Her life as a nun was far from easy. Within three years, the administering priest squandered almost all of the funds and fled to France with the remaining money. She took the blame for this misfortune, was dismissed, and later reinstated, only to be removed again in 1911. Persistent misunderstandings with ecclesiastical authorities and within the congregation she had founded led her to leave her institute, which marginalized her for years. She returned in 1928, elderly and frail, relegated to a remote room away from the community. She was beatified on November 3, 2018.

Francesca Cabrini’s turning point

Frances Xavier Cabrini (Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, July 15, 1850 - Chicago, December 22, 1917) is the patron saint of migrants. An Italian naturalized U.S. citizen, in 1946 she was the first American citizen declared a saint. At age 30, she founded the first women's congregation not dependent on male branches and especially “missionary”, a first for women’s religious institutes at the time.

To finance her works, she inaugurated a real business method, new to the Church, namely, attracting investment rather than donations.

Caterina Volpicelli, the anticipator

Caterina Volpicelli (Naples, Jan. 21, 1839 - Naples, Dec. 28, 1894), born into an upper-class family, and a saint since 2009, is the foundress of the congregation of the “Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of St Caterina Volpicelli”.

It was not easy for her to obtain the Holy See's approval for her work, which contrary to the female religious orders of the time, devoted mainly to contemplation and charitable works, arose for the apostolate and sanctification of souls. Spreading the Gospel while remaining among the people. This is why she is called the saint of the “bassi”, the small ground-floor dwellings typical of the historic center of Naples, an icon of the misery of the city's most marginalized social strata.

The Institute had from the beginning three branches, one religious (whose adherents did not wear a defined habit) and two lay: the “Handmaids”, who take religious vows, the “Little Handmaids” who are consecrated in the world, and the “Aggregates” who are brides and mothers of families. The involvement of the laity, along with the study of theology and service to the Church in a spirit of apostolate, are all specifics that anticipate almost a century ahead of the innovations of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.