“Where the saints go, God goes with them
And their charity is like a heavenly scent which attracts and comforts”. (Elisabetta Girelli)
“I felt my heart set on fire with zeal:
let’s love, let’s love God who is Love; let’s become saints!” (Maddalena Girelli)
|Maddalena ed Elisabetta Girelli|
|Stemma della famiglia Girelli|
|Palazzo Girelli in via Cairoli, Brescia|
The Company of Saint Ursula of Brescia, after the suppression by Napoleon, was re-established by the Girelli sisters, Elisabetta (September 26, 1839-January 21, 1919) and Maddalena (October 3, 1888-March 7, 1923), who were born in Brescia, in Cairoli Street. Their father, Giuseppe Girelli (1787-1875), distinguished himself in the field of charitable institutions for young girls at risk, as chairman for forty-seven years of the “pio luogo” of the “Zitelle di Sant’Agnes” (young unmarried girls) and “Zitelle adulte” (unmarried adult women). Their mother, Camilla Moro (1812-1859), was fully devoted to her family, and performed her duty with great care, looking after her daughters “like the apples of her eyes”. Later Elisabetta would say: “In my family there were two great elements: order and peace. The whole day was spent in housework, charitable commitments and some simple entertainments which we enjoyed all together”. In order to give a suitable education to their daughters, the parents sent them to boarding school at “Le Vergini di Castiglione delle Stiviere”, where their aunt Caterina Moro was prioress: Maddalena from 1848 to 1856, Elisabetta from 1849 to 1856.
Maddalena showed a sensible and composed attitude, Elisabetta was livelier, but her sister’s patience and her educators’ perseverance were successful and persuaded her to let herself be guided by Maddalena, so that she developed good behaviour and maturity. When they returned home, the two sisters found their mother in poor health, already affected by the illness which would cause her death in August 1859. The tendency of the two sisters to live and work together and to emulate one another was confirmed by their parents at the time of death. Their mother whispered to Elisabetta, “You two, always together!” Their father wrote in his spiritual testament (1872), “I ask you, my beloved, to live always together with that love which the Donor of every gift has placed in your lovable hearts”.
The two sisters chose Father Giuseppe Chiarini, an Oratorian (1812-1890), as their spiritual director. He guided them with steadiness and kindness. As they did not wish to marry, the priest directed them separately, without their knowing of each other’s choice, towards the way of perfection. Elisabetta devoted herself to God with a vow of chastity on September 8, 1856; Maddalena followed the same path, devoting herself on August 5, 1657. Their consecration to God might have called for entry into a convent, but family problems prevented this. On March 11, 1860, when Elisabetta, openly explained to her father that she intended to enter the Institute of the “Suore di Carita”, he did not hide his unwillingness. Already seventy years old and alone after his wife’s death, he did not feel like accepting such a request, not even to let his daughter freely follow her vocation. Elisabetta’s request had saddened her father, but became also a heaven-sent moment, as the two sisters had to reveal each other their intentions. Maddalena, who also wished to become a nun, said to Elisabetta, “How many means God gives us for doing good, even staying at home!” Having given up the idea of entering a convent, the two sisters went on helping in the family and taking care of a younger sister, Marietta, devoting themselves also to the local mission in their parish church of Saint Agatha. Elisabetta said, “If I am not a Sister of Charity, I’ll be a servant of charity”.
The sisters held to the idea of living as consecrated women. They shared their intention with friends who wished to follow the same ideal, gathering as a spontaneous group and adopting some rules. On April 8, 1864, twelve young women held their first meeting at the chapel of the Dorotee Sisters in Marsala Street. The little group put itself under Father Chiarini’s direction and formed a small community, with Maddalena as superior, Elisabetta as treasurer, Maria Tagliaferri and the sisters’ aunt as protectresses. The aunt had belonged to the suppressed Company of Saint Ursula. The Girellis prepared a simple book of regulations. These were inspired by the experience of similar groups which were arising in Italy, founded by a Genoese priest, Father Giuseppe Frassinetti (1804-1868) under the title of Mary Immaculate. The members of these groups intended to devote themselves to God while living in the world and ministering to young girls.
However, the Girellis wanted official approval and, through their spiritual director, Father Chiarini, asked for the intervention of Bishop Gerolamo Verzieri of Brescia,. The bishop realized that in this small group Saint Angela’s ideal might be reborn. For that purpose, he gave the sixteenth-century Rule of the Company of Saint Ursula to the Girellis to study and update. The following events developed very quickly: on June 13, 1866, Bishop Verzieri declared by a formal decree the rebirth of the Company in the Girellis’ group. On July 29, 1866, in the chapel of the Dorotee Sisters, the bishop presided over a celebration in which about sixty Daughters expressed their commitment to observe the Rule of the Company of Saint Ursula. Maddalena Girelli was the superior, Elisabetta the novice mistress, and Father Chiarini their superior.
At last the Girellis had found their vocation. Elisabetta said about that, “Since then my life hasn’t been mine anymore; the spiritual family which God had entrusted to my sister’s maternal love required of me the pleasant task of working hard for the spiritual training of the young”. Maddalena was involved in the birth of new groups, the management of the works of the Company, the relationship between the Daughters and the parishes and everything concerning the government of the Institute. Elisabetta took care of the training of the young women who wanted to enter the Company. Their work was always increasing, as the groups spread into nearly all the parishes of the diocese, so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the members numbered more than three thousand.
The Girellis worked for the moral safeguarding of girls, establishing boarding schools for them in Marone (1877) and in Carpenedolo (1885), the Angelini orphanage of Pontevico, setting up the nursery school of Borgo Poncarale (1901), helping invalids through the Society of the Visitation, housing students first in their house in Cairoli Street and then in an appropriate place. They were interested in the needs of parishes, beginning the organization of the Blessed Sacrament and one on behalf of poor churches (1881), which gave vestments and furnishings to parishes affected by the suppression laws of 1866-1867. In times of great financial difficulties, they supported the review Scuola Italiana Moderna founded by Blessed Giuseppe Tovini. However their greatest care was focused on supporting the Daughters who, in their respective parishes, undertook all sorts of activities, from catechism to church vestments to social welfare. In order to provide a meeting-place in Brescia for their sisters, through their inheritance from their mother the Girellis obtained a building, Casa Sant’Angela (1899), for meetings, retreats and spiritual exercises. From the beginning the Girellis wanted the Daughters to be close, even physically, to their Mother Saint Angela, whose body lies incorrupt in Saint Afra. For that reason, in 1867, they bought the small house of Saint Angela next to this parish church.
Elisabetta carried out her charitable activity also with her pen. In fact, she proved to be a writer and made her talent available, following her spiritual director’s advice. She began to write books about Jesus Christ: The School of Jesus Christ with a hundred contemplations for devout adolescents (1865); the life of Jesus Christ and the deeds and martyrdoms of the holy apostles (1876). She explained the ideals and the example of the Company in her books: a practical description of Saint Angela’s Rule for the virgins of the Company (1867), the life of Saint Angela Merici in her institute (1871). She gave devotional and moral manuals to young girls: Efforts and food for piety (1873); a whole manual of devotion to the Sacred Heart (1880); Faith and Virtue; Educational and edifying readings for youth (1886). She also explained the spiritual and moral features of the Daughters of Saint Angela and of nuns and priests in deft biographies.
In their projects of spirituality and activities, the two sisters let themselves be guided as docile daughters by their Mother Saint Angela.
Maddalena’s apostolic action sprang from her sincere and deep tie with Jesus Christ regarded as her “Spouse”, as Saint Angela taught, encountered in the Eucharist, and imitated in His spirit of humility, charity and sacrifice. Elisabetta gave special emphasis to Jesus’ teaching, explaining it through publications which would motivate readers to enter the Saviour’s school as careful and obedient disciples.
The sisters imitated the spirit of Saint Angela, establishing, between themselves and the Daughters, a real community in which they welcomed, understood, and corrected each other and treated one another with “pleasantness”. Elisabetta used to say, “We had very different temperaments, but God led both of us along different paths to become unanimous in our thought, desire, and commitment to spend our life and all the little which God has given us in order to obtain His greater glory and the salvation of souls, through any means available.”
The sisters had the spirit of Saint Angela, maintaining a consistent will for perfection, applying themselves generously to the virtues of Christian living, submitting to a constant daily examination, formulating careful programmes of spiritual life, not allowing themselves to fall back in their commitments. Supported by that spirit of vigilance regarding their inner life, the Girellis were able to guide their sisters as trustworthy guides, Maddalena as mother and superior and Elisabetta as teacher, through their example of prayer, humility and sacrifice. Their convincing words were nourished by faith, prayer and sound doctrine, always clear and practical in teaching how to love God, to live for God and to find God in everything and above all.
Such an active life as that of the two sisters, supported by a sound interior life and expressed in persevering efforts for perfect charity, was recognized by the Church on July 3, 1998, by a decree that declared their virtues heroic.
Such shining examples were admired by Pope Paul VI. In a meeting with the Companies of Saint Angela in Rome on August 27, 1966, he mentioned the Girellis with words of praise and said that he had celebrated one of his first Masses, in 1920, in the room where Maddalena was lying ill. He expressed a warm hope for the canonization of the two blessed sisters, with these words: “I cannot leave unspoken the names of your two great sisters, two Ladies consecrated in the Company of Saint Angela, who strove to bring it back to life. I mean Elisabetta and Maddalena Girelli. By the way, these two would really deserve that you might be able to say to the Church: Acknowledge that they are truly holy souls”.
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