· Vatican City ·


Rita Giaretta, social friendship, and an apartment in Rome

This House is Magnificent

 Questa  casa  è magnifica  DCM-005
04 May 2024

Outside, on the balcony overlooking the apartment buildings of the Tuscolano neighborhood in the southern periphery of Rome, stand out some pots of cyclamens and the peace flag. Inside the apartment, 140 square meters on the sixth floor of a condominium like many others, you are greeted by a triumph of light, colors, paintings, murals, photos, and quotes: “Here Christ is adored and fed” is written on the wall next to a crucifix, and then “Please do not let hope be stolen from you” (Pope Francis), “Think of the beauty that is still within you and around you and be happy” (Anne Frank), “God is the hope of the strong and not the excuse of the cowardly” (Plutarch), “Even the longest journey begins with the first step” (Chinese proverb). Welcome to Casa Magnificat!

A community of consecrated and lay women, mostly migrants, often with young children, starting new paths together.

It was founded by Sister Rita Giaretta, the Ursuline who in 1995 in Caserta, together with other sisters, had given life to Casa Rut, a beacon of hope worthy of having taken hundreds of women and girls off the streets, victims of trafficking and various abuses: Nigerians, Moldovans, Romanians, Albanians, South Americans who had been forced to sell themselves by criminals or to endure domestic violence but who today, thanks also to the New Hope social cooperative, have reintegrated into society by finding work, recovering dignity, and finally imagining a future. Together with her sister, Sister Assunta, three and a half years ago, Sister Rita moved to Rome to continue her mission. “When the cooperative in Caserta started walking on its own legs, I understood that the time had come for ‘deliveries’, and at the same time, I felt a strong desire to set out on a new missionary ‘challenge’,” the nun tells with Sister Assunta over a coffee and a plate of freshly baked frappes in the kitchen of Casa Magnificat dominated by a long table that speaks of daily hospitality. “And so, provoked and inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclicals Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti”, and Sister Rita insists on clarifying sisters and brothers all, “I felt directly called as a religious to give flesh, in the small, to a new dream of fraternity and social friendship that does not limit itself to words”.

Social friendship is a concept that continually resurfaces in the words of the nun of Venetian origin who, before taking her vows, was a nurse, a trade unionist of the CISL, and in 2007 received from the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano the insignia of Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for her commitment to the community. “Social friendship means accompanying others on their path to reintegration, expressing a fraternity that always involves an exchange. Pope Francis is right to remind us that our society succeeds when every person, every social group, truly feels at home. And we, as Ursulines, are always on the side of women. By helping them break free from slavery, we restore to them the ‘power’ to rethink themselves and to act as free women”.

The dimensions of trafficking, defined by the Pontiff as “a crime against humanity”, are chilling: according to data from 141 countries updated to 2022 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 42 percent of victims are women and 18 percent are girls. And in the last 15 years, the number of minors has tripled. Sister Rita has saved many child slaves, especially in Caserta: “They were 15, 16 years old and had been forced into prostitution on the streets”, she recalls. “I still remember with emotion Hasie, a 16-year-old Albanian girl whom I helped to get her child back. I knew she had a child from how tightly she held a stuffed animal”.

But today, the reality has changed. During and after the pandemic, forced prostitution has increasingly shifted from the streets to homes, making the victims more and more invisible and increasingly difficult to help.

When we visit Casa Magnificat, the current guests have just left: Josephine, 38 years old, and her 6-year-old son Michel from Burkina Faso. She, liberated from her husband’s violence, went to take courses for her middle school diploma, and the child is attending school. But in this bright and orderly apartment where the doors remain open, where they eat and pray together, everything speaks of their presence: the books and toys of the little one in one of the bedrooms, the typical African dishes waiting in the oven. “Here the keyword is sharing”, explains Sister Assunta. Some volunteers support women in learning Italian and in handling practical matters, a couple of scouts help children with their homework. But who maintains this reality of salvation and welcome, who pays the expenses? “A bit our small pensions, but above all Providence”, answers Sister Rita. And Providence, set in motion from the beginning, allowed the apartment, marked by tragedy, to be reborn: after the suicide of the daughter who had jumped from the balcony, the old owner decided to donate it to the parish of San Gabriele dell’Addolorata which in turn gave it for free use to the Ursuline Sisters, in the person of Sister Rita. “We redeemed this place from great pain”, recounts the nun, aware from the beginning of undertaking “a challenge”. And once again Providence came into play: a lot of money was needed for the renovation and furnishing, and first a benefactress from Formia, then other people who knew Sister Rita and her mission engaged in a solidarity race and raised the sum. Their names are written on the large tree drawn by a young Bolivian on the wall next to the entrance of the apartment.

In just over three years, Casa Magnificat has welcomed about twenty women from Africa, Romania, Peru, Cuba, Afghanistan, and also Italy. Some liberated from trafficking and others, like a Nigerian mother and daughter, escaped from family abuse. “But we also try to help the residents of this neighborhood, which hides quite a few situations of domestic violence”, says Sister Rita. It is the external network, the word of mouth of the people and sometimes the anti-violence centers or social services, that signal to Sister Rita the women in need of help. Like a sixty-year-old woman beaten by her husband, while a Romanian girl, destined for a forced marriage, was welcomed and enrolled in a three-year school for beauticians with the support of a benefactress. Casa Magnificat then provided shelter to a woman from Congo with two twin daughters, helping the little ones, without documents, “to emerge from invisibility”. “If you don’t support mothers”, reasons Sister Rita, “the problems will fall on their daughters, exposing them to the risk of becoming victims of exploitation. But the paths to true liberation can sometimes be very long, and we have the patience and joy to accompany women for years, even when they are independent. We help them not to feel like outcasts of society, we fight to get them documents, to let them study, to give them professional training. Culture is the fundamental tool for their path of liberation and humanization. Only in this way, as standing women, can they become protagonists of their own future and active citizens. The only protocol applied here is ‘kneading humanity together’”.

At Casa Magnificat, from Caserta, came Joy, the Nigerian girl who, at 23, landed in Italy on a boat with the illusion of finding a job but was forced into prostitution on the streets of Castel Volturno (Caserta) by her captors, burdened by debt contracted with the madam and blackmailed with voodoo. Supported in her path to liberation by Casa Rut, she recounted her story in the book “Io sono Joy” [I Am Joy] by Mariapia Bonanate (San Paolo), with a preface by Pope Francis who writes, “Joy’s testimony is a heritage of humanity”. Sister Rita smiles: “Joy, who is now 31 years old, has studied and graduated. Now here in Rome, after a year of Civil Service and a course as a Social Health Operator, she has found a job at a social health cooperative and is about to marry an Italian guy. With tears of joy, she asked me to accompany her to the altar”.