HUMBLE IN SERVICE
Text: sr Vincenza Mosca
We usually see Caterina Gerosa as she looked on the 21st. of November 1835 at Lovere.
Her face, framed by a black pleated cap looks Caterina has just adopted the religious habit of the Sisters of Charity.
both austere and sweetnatured.
At the baptismal font, she had been named Caterina but at her profession of vows she received the name Sister Vincenza.
It seemed to symbolise that she was continuing the wonderful tradition St Vincent de Paul handed on to the Daughters of Charity bringing together the love of God and love of one’s neighbour.
Caterina Gerosa was born at Lovere, Bergamo, on the 29th of October 1784 to Gianantonio and Giacomina Macario.
Three sisters were to follow.
One went to heaven at the age of two, Francesca died at seventeen, and Rosa remained at her side until November 1829 when she too left this earth.
Gianantonio together with his wife and daughters formed a single extended family with his brothers and sisters.
It was a family that in Lovere in the early nineteenth century
was affluent because of its assets and its business: tanning and dealing in leather.
Despite the family’s sound economic position, it maintained a modest standard of living and concentrated on bringing up the children to be God-fearing and charitable.
In this family Caterina grew in piety, rooted in faith as well as love of God and neighbour.
She learned to read and write at home from her uncles who very soon became partners in the business. It was a common enough situation which did not present economic problems but was not without hardship.
There was little agreement between the brothers. In particular, Caterina’s father, Gianantonio, probably because he was not so adept in business, was squeezed out, to the great sorrow of his daughter.
The uncles did not care for Caterina’s mother Giacomina Macario, and when her father died (Caterina was only seventeen at the time), they cast her from the house (possibly because they felt she wasted money on frivolous things). They also made it difficult for her daughters to stay with her.
Caterina was sorely tried by this situation.
Most people’s reaction to such a situation would be that Caterina should have left her uncles and followed her mother. But her parish priest advised her to stay with the family because only then would she have the means to support her mother.
Caterina stayed on.
She decided to hide this sacrifice deep in her heart. She suffered in silence vowing to keep her mother in her heart from the moment that she was no longer allowed to be with her in person.
Her mother died on the 8th of February 1814 when Caterina was thirty.
The Gerosa family’s situation was not very different from that existing in many families today where there is economic stability but where the air is heavy with tension, misunderstandings and disagreements.
Caterina learned to share her suffering with Christ crucified. From Him she gained the strength to live with her own cross and gradually entered the very heart of the Christian mystery; the mystery of life, death and resurrection. She did not complain with anyone or about anyone. She understood that faced with her domestic situation, there was nothing she could do but see, listen, suffer and remain silent, confident that our frailties and misfortunes do not stop God from loving us and that in Christ’s Cross it was possible to find meaning even in those things which at first for us make no sense such as suffering, life’s limitations and death.
The more Caterina identified with Christ crucified through the martyrdom of her own heart, the more she felt herself drawn to the pauper and any person needing material or spiritual sustenance. Thus she entered into the mystery of a God who out of love for us, died on the Cross. Caterina felt herself impelled to lavish this charity on those who were hungry, thirsty, naked or sick.
We can therefore say that the two great focuses of Caterina’s life were the Cross and the poor.
Her attention moved from the Crucifix to the poor and from the poor to the Crucifix. «He who knows the Cross knows everything».
This is what she would often say to those around her.
And who were the poor in Caterina’s day? History tells us that the people of Lombardy at that time suffered greatly as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars. There were famines and plagues. People did not have the necessary means to live. There was no grain to make bread and no flour to make polenta.
The door of Caterina’s house was always open to these poor people «for food and shelter». It sometimes happened that poor women did not have the courage to tell Caterina there was no more wheat in the house.
Caterina guessed their needs and eager not to humiliate them, would help them in the most secret way possible. This is because she did not want anyone to know about her acts of charity. For her it was enough to know that the poor person found the bread that he needed. She was certain that he would then thank God, the giver of all things good. When mothers needed a wet nurse for their babies and had no money, Caterina would instinctively grasp the situation. She would simply provide and pay for a wet nurse to spare the family any embarrassment. The wet nurse would then tell the mother: «Give me the baby. Caterina Gerosa has taken care of everything».
Caterina did charitable work but with discernment. She gave to those who needed help. She did not, as she herself said, «give water to the sea». Instead she gave water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry. She gave with warmth and gentleness. She would help one person just as she helped two or three because she wanted to give in kindness at their hour of need. Caterina’s poor people included the sick who were abandoned and alone. She went to nurse them and to visit their families. Records tell us that she took no rest until there opened a public hospital built with donations from her family members.
There she worked with another young person, Bartolomea Capitanio.
Other objects of Caterina’s charitable work were young women. She realised how important it was to help them reject bad influences and to provide them with a good education. She therefore began to gather them into her home. It was here that the first ‘oratorio’ started which was later to be run so successfully by Bartolomea.
Families were also among Caterina’s poor, particularly those riven by feuds. To these she restored peace, so much so that she became known as «the peacemaker of the village». She also helped seminarians who were brought to her attention by their rector. She supported them financially but also by her advice that was wise and forthright in faith.
Caterina’s life was made up of these small acts of charity repeated daily in line with the needs of her brothers and sisters.
These had many different faces and names but in all of them she saw the face of Christ.
So why not continue this kind of charitable work? Why does she join with Bartolomea Capitanio at the ‘Conventino’ to found the Institute of the Sisters of Charity?
Caterina belonged to the generation of «the meek» who «possess the earth» because they did not question the will of God. They allowed it to suffuse their lives. They did not presume to tell him how they should behave but accepted what he asked of them and worked with him. «They are meek towards God and therefore also towards mankind».
In fact when Bartolomea Capitanio’s spiritual director Don Angelo Bosio together with the parish priest of Lovere, Don Rusticiano Barboglio suggested to Caterina that she join forces with Bartolomea to found a charitable Institute, she was at first troubled. She felt that she was not suited to working on a grand scale but rather in a small, quiet way just as she was doing inside and outside the houses of Lovere. But as soon as she realised that the request was the will of God she readily consented without regrets because God is God and he always asks us to do what is best. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Caterina understood that the way of obedience was also the way to liberate her from herself and bring her closer to the Cross.
She looks at the Crucifix and obeys.
So it is that on 21st. November 1832 the Institute of the Sisters of Charity is born at Casa Gaia, later called ‘Conventino’.
Caterina understood that she had to give up her own life in order to consecrate herself entirely to God. She had to leave her own home and her familiar way of life. In this way she could belong completely to God and bread could be given to the poor in the name of Christ who nourishes, restores and saves mankind.
This happened when Caterina was nearly forty-seven years old.
She felt the strain of adapting to communal living to the very depths of her soul. She had been accustomed to moving freely practising ‘her own brand of piety’ which for many years fed her faith and her acts of charity. It was not easy to take on the fixed times for prayers allotted under the Institute’s Constitutions. It was her understanding of the Cross that continued to live within her and to give its benefits.
A short time after the opening of the Institute, the founder Bartolomea Capitanio fell ill and within a few months she was dead. She had been struck down by tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six. Caterina remained at the ‘Conventino’ with a sole companion, with the orphan girls, the schoolchildren, the sick in hospital and the poor. She felt unable to carry on with the Institute. She simply felt incapable of continuing and was tempted to return home. The local people were also of the opinion that without Bartolomea the Institute could not continue.
But Don Angelo Bosio, the parish priest Don Rusticiano Barboglio and her confessor, Don Giambattista Verzi persuaded Caterina to stay at the ‘Conventino’ and to trust in God. Once again, she felt the will of God was being expressed in these entreaties from the Church. She placed her trust in Him and stayed. With her ‘yes’, she did not feel at once transformed into a great woman full of confidence. She continued to feel small, even smaller than before. However, she understood that God is great and the acts of charity are His and that he needs poor instruments in order to express his charity to men and women.
She experienced the wonder of a God who wants to reach mankind through men and women. She had been one of those chosen by Him because the Institute’s acts of mercy would, over time, tell men and women that they were loved. Once again it is her understanding of the Cross that comes to life in her own life. 1836 in Lovere saw an outbreak of cholera. Caterina - Sister Vincenza - recognises that this emergency must be a priority. She therefore moves the chronically ill patients into another house and takes the cholera patients into the hospital. Then to her daughters she said those words that sum up her life of faith and charity: «The Lord presents himself to us in a variety of ways. Now he has come to visit us as a sufferer from cholera» She did not order her sisters to nurse them but she took the lead and history tells us that they all followed.
Soon people outside Lovere were seeking help from the Sisters of Charity. Sister Vincenza hesitated. She was not ready for this. Once again God asked her to go against her own instincts.
In the end it was enough for her to know that the voice of need was the voice of God calling her to send her sisters to other places, certain in the knowledge that He would be with them.
And while the Institute of the Sisters of Charity grew, so too came the time for Sister Vincenza to cross to the other ‘shore’. After an illness lasting some weeks, she died at sixty-three years of age on the 29th of June 1847. On her deathbed, she repeated these words of Jesus to her daughters:
«Love one another... and you will have God’s blessing!».
Words of farewell, like those said by Christ in the moments that count. They are also words that count: Living and sharing in love, that love that begins and ends with the Cross.
In 1933, the Church beatified Caterina and in 1950, together with Bartolomea, she was declared a saint.
«He who knows the Cross knows everything!».
The Institute of the Sisters of Charity of SS B. Capitanio and V. Gerosa known as «The Sisters of the Child Mary» was founded in Lovere, Bergamo on the 21st. of November 1832. The founder was a young teacher, Bartolomea Capitanio (1807-1933). She was assisted by Caterina Gerosa (1784-1847), later Sister Vincenza, who was older and already experienced in charitable work. Bartolomea’s spiritual director, Don Angelo Bosio (1796-1863) was an invaluable guide. Bartolomea died eight months after the foundation of the Institute and Caterina was left with the difficult job of continuing to realise the project as had been envisaged.
The Institute became known as The Sisters of the Child Mary (Suore di Maria Bambina) in Milan following the gift of a statue. This led to the sisters becoming devoted to the mystery of Mary’s nativity. The project was a response to the needs of a particular point in history. It came into being at a time of profound social, economic and cultural change. The Institute has as its charism, participation in the merciful charity of Christ the Redeemer.
It demonstrates this by expressing compassion for every human misery, serving brothers and sisters in their need. The Institute has a particular mission to help young people in every situation in life, paying particular attention to the poorest, the lost and abandoned. It also assists the sick, the elderly, the marginalized and those who do not yet know the Gospel. This work is in line with its apostolic origins which have been re-interpreted with energy and care.
The Institute is international in character. It already had a presence in Bengal, India, in 1860. Today it is active in Europe (Italy, Spain, England, Romania); in Asia (India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, Israel, Nepal, Turkey); in the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, California); in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Egypt).