Spiritual Maternity, The Anchor, March 6, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
March 6, 2009

During my seminary years, my parents would come to Rome to visit each February when plane fares would drop to as low as $300 round-trip. I would always arrange for them to stay across the street from the North American College in a pensione called Casa Fatima, run by the Sisters of St. Dorothy. Like many of the religious communities in the eternal city, the Dorothean Sisters had converted the unused portions of their Generalate House to welcome guests and earn a little bit of money. My parents loved it there.

My mother enjoyed having early morning access to their beautiful chapel, where I would eventually preach for the first time, the day after my diaconal ordination. My father loved the views from the sunroom on the top of the residence. There were clean rooms, comfortable beds and private baths. The price absolutely could not be beaten: in 1996, it cost about $25 per person, including breakfast and a hearty lunch or dinner. And even though my parents could not speak Italian and therefore communicate easily with any of the sisters except one English-speaking sister from Malta, they grew quickly to love all the sisters by name and their love was reciprocated. In later years I began to wonder whether my folks were coming to see me or to visit with their friends across the street!

I had two great surprises in store that first year when I visited my parents at their Roman “home away from home.” The first occurred when I asked one of the sisters whether the Dorotheans were present and active in the United States. The sister responded, “Si!,” and said that they were active in two dioceses. The first, she stated, was “Provvidenza,” which I interpreted accurately to mean our mother-diocese in the Isle of Rhode. The second startled me. “Una diocesi che si chiama ‘Falla River.’” When I blurted out that that was “my” diocese, another sister was summoned who had more detailed knowledge of their work in the United States. She described that the Congregation has a convent in Taunton where it runs Villa Fatima Pre-School, but that sisters used to administer a parochial school in New Bedford and to help the Portuguese communities in many other ways as well.

The second surprise was greater. An aunt who had traveled with my parents started to ask me various questions about the “body” she saw exposed underneath the altar in one of the chapels in another part of the complex. There were Italian signs presumably explaining who the person was, she said, but she couldn’t decipher them. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was intrigued.

In Italy and in various other parts of Christian Europe, it is common to place the bodies of saints underneath altars. The tradition began with the martyrs; since they had shared in Christ’s suffering and death through martyrdom, it was deemed fitting to build altars and in fact whole Churches on top of their remains. Later, when Christianity was legalized and martyrs were fewer, altars and churches began to be built on top of the mortal remains of saints, who through their holy lives shared intimately in Christ’s life and death which are made present for us each Mass on the altar. This tradition continues still today with the placing of the relics of saints within altars.

Because of my love for saints, and also to answer my aunt’s question, we scampered off to see the chapel she described. Underneath the altar, I discovered, were the remains of St. Paula Frassinetti, whom I soon learned was the foundress of the Sisters of St. Dorothy. What was totally unforgettable, though, was the fact that her remains, although dessicated, were incorrupt, more than a century after her death. St. Paula is one of the rare group of incorrupt saints whose bodies God miraculously preserves from bodily corruption as a sign of their purity and a witness to the resurrection of the dead.  

These memories of St. Paula and of the Congregation God used her to found have come back to me at the beginning of this month of March. Earlier this week, on March 3, we celebrated the bicentennial of her birth in Genoa. Next Wednesday we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her canonization by Pope John Paul II. In August, we will mark the 175th anniversary of her founding the Dorotheans. Without a doubt, 2009 is a special year for the Dorotheans and for that reason a time of rejoicing for all of us who know and love them.

St. Paula’s life is an inspiring story of cooperation with grace in the midst of hardship. She was the middle child, and only girl, of a family with five children. She was, for rather obvious reasons, very close to her mother, whose example taught her the beauty of Christian virtue. When Paula was nine, her mother Angela died, and Paula turned to her other mother, the one Jesus gave her from the Cross, for solace and guidance. One of Paula’s aunts moved in to be a maternal presence in the home, but she, too, died after three years, leaving Paula, at the age of 12, responsible to be the homemaker at a time of strictly-defined gender roles.

Because of her endless duties in the home, she was not able to attend school, which was a great loss for her. But God’s ways are not our ways: little would anyone have predicted that, despite these odds, she would become a great educator and found an educational order! Each night her brothers, all of whom went on to become priests, would pass along the lessons they learned at school. She ended up receiving through their help an excellent education. Because she was not attending school, moreover, she was able to attend Mass daily and learn how to pray her work.

Listening to her older brother Joseph speak of his vocation ignited in her a desire to follow God more closely, but her father discouraged her, wondering who would take care of him if she were not there. But again, God intervened in a surprising way. At 20, Paula developed respiratory problems and her father thought it wise for her recovery to send her to live with her brother Joseph who was a parish priest in the “good air” of the seaside village of Quinto. Because there were so many young girls in the parish without an education, Fr. Giuseppe opened a parochial school in 1834 and placed Paula in charge. Soon six other young women joined her in the communal apostolate they called the “Daughters of the Faith.” A year later, one of her brother’s priest friends from Bergamo asked her to take over the “Pious Work of St. Dorothy,” which he had founded to evangelize and educate the poorest and youngest children. The new Congregation, called the Sisters of St. Dorothy, began to grow, as new vocations made it possible to open houses in Genoa and Rome and later in Naples, Bologna and Recanati. In 1866, the Dorotheans went abroad to Brazil and Portugal and eventually spread to Spain, Malta, England, Switzerland, Albania, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Angola, Mozambique, Cameroun, the Philippines, Taiwan and the U.S. Through schools, catechetical programs, retreats, spiritual direction and other means, the Dorotheans continue to exercise a special and fruitful apostolate with young people, the poor and women.

St. Paula died at the age of 73. Her last words were directed toward Mary, on whose maternal love and intercession she had long depended: “My mother, remember that I am your child.”

When she was canonized in 1984, Pope John Paul II said that we see in her a “reminder of the true values of a woman, an expression of the most refined feminine gifts, an affirmation of the identity and dignity of women.” St. Paula shows us all the beauty and importance of spiritual maternity, a motherhood she learned from her own mothers Angela and Mary, and passed on with tenderness to all her Dorothean daughters.