Peasant of the Fields
A hot Italian sun beat mercilessly on the handful of workers in the rocky field. Mopping the sweat off their well-tanned faces, they labored on, their hands burrowing into the soil, skillfully setting the delicate vines in place and tying them tenderly with wisps of straw onto thin sticks. But it was so hot in the glaring sun! Gradually, one by one, they began edging away toward the shade, till a single girl remained in the field, her sturdy, young body bent firmly over her task, her swift fingers deftly caressing the vines and sealing them into place. Now and then, as a lock of her black hair fell across her eyes, a quick movement of the hand pushed it back into place under a white kerchief - and then immediately back to work! "Mary," called a friend, "come on in out of the hot sun. It's much more comfortable here!"
Mary looked up. "But no work was ever done in the shade!" she laughed. "Since when have you all become afraid of the sun?"
"We're not afraid. We just prefer to wait till it sets lower in the sky!" retorted a young man.
"Cowards!" the girl in the field chided. "The sun is God's gift to us! You'll never have any wine this winter if you hide in the shade!"
A peasant woman laughed heartily. "Some girl, that Mary Mazzarello! She can beat anyone of us in the field, and that goes for the men too! No use calling her. She'll stay there till her line is done and then go on to ours!"
"Mary," teased a young fellow resting under a tree, "did you hear that? Is it true you can beat us working on the farm?"
"On the farm and anywhere!" came the decided answer.
"She's right," interrupted a young woman. "You've never done a day's work equal to hers."
"No use teasing her, lad," broke in Mr. Mazzarello, going out to join his daughter in the field. "Ever since she was just a tiny thing of a girl, she has never given in to anybody. Her mother and I know too well!"
But as Mary bent back to her work and the perspiration trickled freely down her cheeks, her thoughts were far from boasting, even far from the friends that called out to her from the shade. Her eyes were fixed on the tiny vines that seemed to look to her hands for assistance in their first moment of life. Those hands, roughened and cut by pebbles and briars, were meant to be helpful hands, to labor for others - hands of tender mercy to comfort and heal, to lift and strengthen. She was eighteen now, and, though most girls at eighteen think only of love and marriage and a warm hearth and children nestling in their arms, such thoughts seemed alien to her mind. Much as she loved her people, their priceless heritage of Faith and simplicity, much as she admired the sincere and well-intentioned approaches of the young men of Mornese whom her mother made her find every opportunity to meet, she could not think of herself as a housewife. She felt there was another call for her, other tasks than a housewife's reserved for her. What it might be, who could tell? Father Pestarino, the pastor of Mornese, who had guided her in her spiritual life ever since her First Communion, would tell her in good time when prayer and meditation had revealed God's will to him. Till then, she would labor, as peasant among her people, yet not entirely one of them.
The work grew tedious. Impatiently she tugged at handful of tendrils, which refused to fit the contour of her slender fingers. They broke, and petulantly she flung them aside. She paused. No, she must not lose her patience, even in the hot sun. Had she not promised these hours of broiling heat to the Lord who had come to her that morning in Holy Communion? She must check these outbursts, even if only as reparation for the many girls of her age who lived in the wicked cities beyond the citadel of hills that protected Mornese and who, Father Pestarino said, often bartered away their souls for false pleasure and tinsel glory.
Poor deluded children! Maybe someday in the future she might be able to help them. But then she blushed at the thought as she always did when it came to her in the hours of prayer. What could she do for the Lord - she, an ignorant farm girl who could neither read nor write even her own name? Yes, of course, she knew her catechism thoroughly - she had beaten all the children of the village in that years ago, much to the joy of her parents, who bragged openly of their daughter's remarkable memory. And she could do sums faster on her fingers than the village clerk could on paper, even big sums for the patron of nearby farms. But with all that, she was still an illiterate peasant and would have to be content with just menial tasks in God's work.
Yet, what had Father Pestarino told her - God doesn't need the learned ones or the earthy ones of the world? Why, in that case even she might be able to work for God. It might not be much but it would be for the Lord. Her heart leaped for joy! Those hands could work for God!
Angel Of Mercy
Mornese was a "death town." The jolly villagers who loved music and merriment and the open fields now sealed themselves and their children behind barred doors and boarded windows, praying that the grim specter of death would not demand a victim among them. Typhoid took over the town!
The deserted cobblestone street rang dismally with the clatter of heavy wooden shoes, as a young woman, clutching a crying boy by the hand, hastened through the crooked lanes of houses.
"Oh, Mary, what are we going to do?" the child whines. "Mama and Papa are sick, and my big brother is almost dying, and there's no one to take care of us!"
"Hush, hush," comforted the girl. "I told you not to worry."
"Will you stay with us?"
"Of course as long as necessary. And I'll take care of my little cousins."
Mary ran up the stone steps and pushed open the door to find a bedlam of crying children, soiled dishes, and her aunt and uncle lying helplessly on their straw mattresses. Quickly and efficiently, Mary cooked a hot meal, washed and put the children to bed, and fed the sick with her own hands, all the while uttering a thousand gentle phrases that brought comfort and hope to the stricken family. Then she began the impossible task of cleaning a week's accumulation of clutter.
Mary proved an angel of mercy to her aunt and uncle. Her soft words and the tender touch of her hand eased the burning brows of her feverish patients, promised assurance of health, and instilled a deep, comforting resignation to the Divine Will such as they never before experienced. The little ones took to her as to a mother and clustered about to hear her tell of the Lord that loved and cared for then. Day and night she would not spare herself, washing, cooking, and comforting. She would only grasp tiny moments of sleep between tasks.
Within a week her aunt and uncle were able to get on their feet again care for their family. Hearts bubbling over in gratitude, they could only show their thanks through eyes brimming with tears. Mary accepted it all with that humility and gentleness that characterized her entire life of mercy, and then she made up her bundle of clothing to return to her mother.
As soon as she stepped into the house, Mrs. Mazzarello noticed the change in her daughter. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes sunken, her sturdy body broken by the long hours of work and sleepless vigils. Mary tried to smile away her mother's fears, but, admitting she needed rest, went immediately to bed. Within a few hours, she was in the throes of a consuming typhoid fever. She tossed about in burning heat, trembling and perspiring alternately. She raved in delirium for hours, reliving the days of exhaustion she had gone through, muttering prayers for her little brothers and sister as though danger awaited them. Brief respites brought a few precious hours of rest. But the relentless fever hungrily burned every ounce of strength out of her tired body. She hovered on the brink of eternity for a few days. Then her native strength rallied. Longer hours of rest and healthful nourishment from the hands of her overjoyed mother restored the color to her blood-drained face. The fever ebbed away.
Father Pestarino, who had anxiously watched her through the days of crisis, brought her Communion every day, knowing that it would be her only comfort through the long hours of painful illness.
The Mazzarello home now became a small oasis for the Mornese townsfolk, who had heard of Mary's heroic venture into the typhoid-stricken village and had nervously watched her fight with death. They flocked to see her. Her many friends spent long hours in her company, marveling at her infinite patience, as they remembered the sturdy young woman who would yield to neither heat nor fatigue in the blistering fields, and now saw the thin, frail girl that the consuming typhoid had left behind.
Mary was not blind to reality. She knew she would never again be able to work in the fields. Two months of fever and illness had destroyed her iron constitution. She would have to be content with even smaller and more menial tasks now. And yet, she reflected as she sat in the warm October sun, maybe it was all for the better. Maybe this was what she had been waiting for all these twenty years - maybe she and Father Pestarino would now know what God wanted her to do.
Of course, it could never be much now. But, as long as it was for God she would do - and love it!
Mary was enjoying her autumn stroll through the country. Everything was so beautiful in late October; the woods ablaze with bright masses of red and yellow leaves set against a deep blue sky, the soft winds breathing aimlessly over the rolling hills and setting the dry bough alive with music. Certainly, a Great Artist had planned this all out, this pageant of splendor, and had lent it the quickening force of life that seemed to speak to her of the Eternal Beauty.
She was convalescing now, and the long walks, mostly spent in spontaneous prayer, did her a great deal of good. Over the hilltop she strayed, kicking up the leaves in splashes of gold. But she stopped in surprise - that building set in the midst of the field! Where had it come from? And those Nuns playing with the village girls, who were they? She rubbed her eyes fiercely. Surely she was not delirious again! She took her hands from her face and saw... nothing, just the bare field swept by the wind. The building and the Sisters and the children were all gone.
Mary turned back. What had she seen? A vision? Impossible. Her religious training had always been very earthly, practical, passed on to her by a plain, hard working priest who had little trust in visionaries and dreams. And yet, so many things had come up of late, little things that fit into a pattern. Her illness, so abruptly changing her life - her twenty years of waiting for God to speak - her growing attachment to the care and teaching of children were they accidents? And then Father Pestarino kept telling her that Don Bosco, the great priest of Turin who had erected schools for poor boys and founded a religious congregation, was interested in the Immaculate Conception Society of Mornese. Did it mean anything?
She sat under a tree to rest. The Immaculate Conception Society was a wonderful thing, she knew. Yet, it was so unstable, more a foretaste of the future than an existing reality. Fifteen girls of Mornese, all of them anxious to leave the world and live the religious life but drawn to no particular order, desirous of living at home with their families, while bound by their vows, and benefiting the village children, that was the Immaculate Conception Society to which she belonged, but it would not last forever that way. Father Pestarino kept dropping hints to that effect, always bringing up the name of Don Bosco and his work of education. Certainly, that meant something! Mary took up her Rosary. She was dizzy with thought. She needed prayer.
Back in Turin, miles from Mornese, Don Bosco was also deeply engrossed in thought. A certain "dream" puzzled him, because he knew it was one of those "Dreams" that became the signposts of his ministry. He had strangely found himself in the midst of a crowd of girls in one of Turin's great squares. For the most part they were poor - just the tattered homespun dresses, bare feet and unkempt hair of the peasant folk and the city slums. They rushed to him and tugged at his cassock.
"Please come to us!" they pleaded. "We need you too!" Their thin faces, outstretched arms, and moist eyes begged as no orator could do. Then they faded into the nothingness from which they had emerged.
Girls? Was he called also to work for girls?
Don Bosco fingered the letter he had just received from Father Pestarino. He read again of the Immaculate Conception Society - fifteen young women, already partly trained in religious life, anxious to work for girls, poor girls. Some hand was shaping the future!
He took up his pen and wrote to Mornese: "I shall come with my boys for a few days. And I would like to meet and speak to the Immaculate Conception Society.
"Mama," announced Mary one evening after a meeting of the Immaculate Conception society, "I am going to leave home."
Her mother looked up from her sewing. The children stared in mute surprise.
"Fr. Pestarino is going to allow some of us girls to live together in the cottage he owns near the church. He told us tonight. And I have decided to be one of them."
"And what are you going to do there?" her father asked skeptically.
"Live as a religious. During the day we will take in village girls to teach them religion and sewing and cooking. The rest of the time we will spend in prayer, like nuns."
"And starve!" he suggested.
"Oh no, Papa, we won't starve. We'll get a little something for teaching the girls, enough to live on."
"But are you going to teach fancy sewing? You don't know it yourself, dear," broke in her practical mother.
"Oh, we're going to learn it, Mama. Mr. Campi, the tailor, is going to teach us, and the seamstress in Mornese is going to show us how to cut and piece dresses. So, you see, we can do it."
"My dear, I'm worried to death!" muttered her mother.
"Now, Mama, you know there's nothing to worry about! We'll live just like religious, so God will take good care of us! Just think of all the good we can do the girls of Mornese. We can make fervent Catholics out of them, and good housewives!"
"It wouldn't be a bad idea if you became a housewife, Mary," chimed in Mr. Mazzarello.
"No, Papa!" was the girl's decisive answer. "You know I've never wanted that. It's not my life. Oh believe me," she pleaded. "This is the life I have always wanted! I know God wants me to follow it!"
"Very well, Mary," sighed her mother quietly. "We won't stop you if that is really what you want. But," she struggled to choke a sob, "we will miss you at home. And I suppose I'll worry night and day about you."
Mary kissed her mother. "Please Mama, there is nothing to worry about. God will be with us!"
And thus the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians had their lowly beginning: a handful of young peasant girls, with only the love of God to warm them, living together in rudimentary religious life, sharing a small cottage which they proudly called "The Immaculate Conception House," taking in small village girls to teach them their religious and domestic duties.
Even begging was necessary for the "Sisters" in those hard beginnings. Mary often knocked at the door of her own home to ask her mother for food. With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Mazzarello would heap steaming dishes of meat and vegetables into her daughter's arms and Mary would kiss her and say, "You are a darling, Mama!" Then she would turn her back on the warm hearth to return to the cold cottage.
Through those crucial days, only one thing kept the new community together and gave them a charm that gradually won the hearts of even the most skeptical of the villagers, and that was the love of God. It served them as fuel, nourishment, and comfort.
Don Bosco drew up the first rules of the new community in 1867. Mary Mazzarello, then thirty years old, was considered the natural Superior or Mother, though of course her position was very informal. Yet Sister Petronilla, who had grown up with Mary in the fields and always shared her most intimate secrets, asserts very resolutely that most, if not all, of the community's good humor, patience, fortitude and absolute trust in God came from her.
July 31,1872, was just a normal day for the farm folk of Mornese, but a day that would make the town famous. In the chapel of the new school, which had been built by Father Pestarino and, on Don Bosco's advice, had been turned over to the Daughters of the Immaculate Conception in spite of the vigorous protests of the village fathers, fifteen young women knelt in anxious anticipation before the altar. This was to be the day of their mystic espousals with Christ. In the sanctuary sat the Bishop of the diocese; near him stood Don Bosco, the saintly priest of Turin who advised Fr. Pestarino who steered the new congregation through troublesome beginnings.
The fifteen young ladies arose. Mary Mazzarello, her face radiant with joy, hardly showing her thirty-five years except for a few stray wisps of graying hair that showed from under her bonnet, went first to the Bishop's chair. He handed her the new habit, which she herself had devised and first sewn together: upon her head he placed the veil of Sisterhood. And she arose Sister Mary Mazzarello. One by one, the other heroic young women stepped forth to receive the habit. When the last one had donned the black outfit that would always mark her out in life as one of God's chosen, Mary Mazzarello arose, and with her companions, uttered vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The promise she had made to God at her First Communion was now complete! She was infinitely happy. God had told her what he wanted.
The new Sisters received their official name of "The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians." Their work was clearly outlined for them by Don Bosco: they were to consider themselves as the complement to the work of the Salesian Fathers and Brothers founded by Don Bosco in Turin, and what the Salesians were doing for boys they would do for girls.
There was as yet no duly elected Superior in the community, so, before leaving, Don Bosco asked Mary Mazzarello to assume temporary charge - to the joy of the Sisters and her own embarrassment. She objected, alleging her ignorance as an excuse, but, on the Saint's reassurance that it would be for only a while, she humbly acceded to his wishes and became Mother Mary Mazzarello.
The temporary job lasted two years. And then the wisdom of Don Bosco's choice was apparent, for in the first elections of the Congregation, Mother Mazzarello was chosen to be the first Superior General by a unanimous vote - except one - her own! The temporary job became permanent.
Mother Mary Mazzarello remained Mother General until her death. In those seven years she endeared herself to her sisters by a genuine, deep-seated humility and extraordinary sense of motherly understanding. The conviction that she was a peasant girl, fit only to do the humblest task, never left her and gave her every work and action an attractive pleasantness that took the barb out of correction, sweetened even a gentle reprimand, and won all hearts to her. The little incidents of her life, cherished by the Sisters as a precious heritage, have long become a byword in their communities and, when looked upon as a whole, form a marvelous portrait of a woman who had the heart of a mother and the soul of an angel.
One day a postulant ran into her room. On the verge of tears, she exclaimed: "Mother, I have to go home - today!"
Mother Mazzarello looked up in surprise. "Why, my dear, what's wrong?"
Gradually the story came in bits between sobs, a combination of homesickness, and childish worry. Mother explained it all to her.
"But I still want to go home!" the girl protested.
"Well, now, there is no sense in dashing off before you even know your own mind. Why don't you stay with us for month on vacation? Then we'll pray together, and if you want to return home after that, I'll go with you myself. How's that?"
The girl agreed. She stayed and became a wonderful Salesian sister!
Catherine, a novice, had happily gone through her period of novitiate and was ready for her religious profession, when a storm of doubts overwhelmed her. She could not make up her mind; so many difficulties, worries, hesitancies shook her soul to its depths. She consulted her superior and her spiritual director, a Salesian Priest.
"Go ask Mother Mazzarello," was the answer.
She did. Mother analyzed the problem and unquestionably told Catherine it was all a temptation. "Take your vows, Catherine," she concluded.
But Catherine could not make up her mind. She went to her superior again and once more manifested her doubts.
"What did Mother Mazzarello say?"
"To go ahead, because these are only temptations. But I cannot!"
The Sister tried repeatedly to assure Catherine, to no avail. The temptation was grave, and the girl was evidently suffering. Just then the spiritual director of the house entered. Catherine repeated her bitter story. The priest listened patiently. Then, kindly taking her hand, he told her firmly: "Mother Mazzarello gave me a message for you this morning: 'Tell Catherine that she is to receive the habit and make her vows. God has called her to do a great deal of good.' Well Catherine, now you know God's Will. The decision is up to you."
"Yes, Father," the girl answered slowly. "I'll do as Mother says."
Seven years later, Catherine Daghero was elected Superior General to succeed Mother Mazzarello on her death. Her life of profound holiness was rivaled only by that of her canonized predecessor.
Wash day was not a private affair in Mornese; everyone did her laundry in public at the mountain brook that skirted the village. Squatting low, the housewives would dab their linen with homemade soap, beat and scrub it vigorously on the flat rocks, and rinse it in the icy stream. It was a village event and a rather noisy one at that. But at the end of the chattering line of women, one could see a small group of the new Sisters washing the community laundry, and in the group Mother Mazzarello, the superior, industriously banging away at the soiled clothing, absorbed in her task, chatting amiably with her companions.
"But, Mother," one Sister complained, "you shouldn't be scrubbing clothes like the rest of us. Look, everyone is pointing at you."
Mother smiled. "Now, child, don't be so curious as to see who's pointing at us. And what if they do? Am I any better than you or the other Sisters? I am just a peasant, and there is no sense in my putting on airs."
No, Mother Mazzarello was not one to put on airs. Her humility was real. Studiously she attended class with the other Sisters and learned how to read and write. Though she was naturally quick, it was no small task for a woman of thirty-five to learn the elements of her language, and she made silly blunders, but she would laugh them off with the other Sisters and persistently try again.
Her lifelong friend, Sister Petronilla, one day asked her, "Mother, don't you think our community is becoming too important? Look at all the intelligent young ladies who are entering - all of them with years of schooling."
"Hush," whispered Mother Mazzarello as though afraid of being overheard. "Not so loud! You and I are just plain oxen. Let's be thankful that they don't throw us out!"
Mother Mazzarello, leaning heavily on the arms of two Sisters, stumbled into the convent of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians at Nice-on-the-Sea. Smiling to all the good nuns who rushed to greet her, she tried to brush away their fears with gentle reassurances. But her face, taut with pain and haggard with long days of illness, belied her words. Her companions rushed her to a room and set her into an armchair.
"Thank you," she said gratefully, attempting a light laugh and failing miserably. "I'm feeling so much better already. Now, Sisters, why those tears? Is that the way to greet your Mother after such a long absence?"
She broke short all their sniffling apologies with a soft, "You must not grieve so. I feel my strength returning already, and I'll soon be as strong as ever. Now go about your work again, and let me rest a moment. "
The sisters reluctantly obeyed, leaving her with an attendant.
In the hall, the companions of Mother Mazzarello were the focus of all attention.
How was Mother? Was she improving any? She looked so poorly!
The information was far from pleasant. Mother Mazzarello had left Mornese some two months before to accompany a group of Sisters, who were to go to the Missions of South America, to their port of departure, Genoa. From there she decided to take a ship with a part of the missionary contingent, to stop off at Marseilles, a port of call, and from there to visit the houses of the Sisters in France. Throughout the journey, she suffered from persistent seasickness, but, true to her native stubbornness, she hid her pain behind a smile and a thousand little attentions on her companions. At Marseilles, bitter disappointment waited them. Their ship broke down in sight of the harbor and had to be towed into dry dock for repairs.
Late at night the little group of tired Sisters ventured into the unlit waterfront streets of Marseilles in search of an address where they had been told lodgings had been prepared for them. But, due to a careless blunder, no beds had been made up for the nuns. Noticing her host's utter confusion at having the Sister walk in on him to find no accommodations, Mother Mazzarello speedily assured him they could care for themselves.
"We have clean bedclothes with us. If you can give us some straw, we will shift for ourselves quite easily."
And so, plying her needle, Mother Mazzarello set the example by sewing up an armful of straw in a sheet, setting the bed on the floor, and lying fully clothed upon it. Her companions good-naturedly imitated her and spent a miserable night on the floor with only a few inches of straw to keep the draft off their backs.
The next morning, Mother Mazzarello was unable to rise. A high fever kept her on her straw pallet. Her Sisters clustered about her. But the next morning she staggered to her feet and escorted the Missionaries to their ship, bidding them a tender farewell. Then she hastened to the town of St. Cyr, where the Sisters conducted an orphanage. Once there, she was put to bed for a few days of rest. But the unrelenting fever developed into pleurisy, followed by complications.
For forty days the saintly Mother had been confined to her bed, running high temperatures, spending interminable hours in burning heat and acute pain. Yet, throughout it all, she had always remained the center of joy in the house, calling the Sisters to herself, chatting amiably with them, and endeavoring to make herself as little bother as possible, never realizing that the Sisters treasured every moment they could shower their solicitude on her.
As soon as she felt her strength returning, she decided, against the doctor's orders, to return to Italy, so as to die, she said, in her own community. The Sisters had been heartbroken but, reassured by Don Bosco, who had been to see her, that she would not suffer by it, they acceded to her wishes. Mother had decided to make the journey in short stages. With two companions she had started that morning and would remain at Nice-on-the-Sea for a few days and then proceed to cross the Italian border.
While the Sisters outside hustled about their task, stealing every moment they could for a quick prayer in the chapel for their Mother, their frail patient remained in her room, trying to recover her strength. By good fortune, Don Bosco had just arrived a few hours before her. Knowing of her presence, he went to call on her.
In that little room the two Saints faced each other for the last time. St. John Bosco, sixty years old, looking tired and a little stooped at the shoulders, smiled upon the drawn features of this forty-two year-old woman who had been God's chosen instrument to fulfill a great part of his apostolate for youth. Their names, he knew, would forever be linked together. Now their hearts beat in unison, and their thoughts ran along the same channel, only seeking God's will and endeavoring to burn out their last energies in a flaming holocaust to Him.
"Father," asked Mother Mazzarello, "will I ever recover?"
After a moment's pause, the priest ran his fingers through his bushy hair.
"Mother," he said diplomatically, "I want to tell you a story. Once Death decided to pay a call to a convent. 'Come with me, Sister,' he said to the portress as she opened the door. 'Oh, but I cannot,' the Sister responded. 'There is no one to take my place, and the convent must have a portress.' Death crossed the threshold and stalked through the convent halls. His order was the same for everyone he met: 'Come with me!' The response was invariably: 'I cannot! I have so much work to do!' Finally Death knocked at the door of the Superior's room. 'Come with me,' he announced. 'I cannot!' was the startled reply. But Death would take no excuse. 'If no one else will come, you must!' he ordered, and taking her by the hand, he took her through the convent halls into the dark night"
The Saint stopped. Throughout the narrative, Mother Mazzarello had sat perfectly still, her head bowed, her hands folded on her lap. Now she looked up at Don Bosco, smiling at his delicate handling of a difficult task. The priest arose. How great a woman was this who could not even rise from her chair! He had not been mistaken when he had chosen her years ago to be the cornerstone of the new community of Sisters, a complement to his own Congregation. Now, as then, she was still the guileless, humble, self-effacing peasant who considered it her greatest privilege to be God's little girl, to do the lowliest tasks for Him, and to rest confident in His all-embracing love. Here was no worry, no struggle to live, but just peace and holiness that so radiated from her sparkling eyes and imparted a delicate touch of beauty about her pale features. He blessed her, knowing that from her, too, a blessing flowed into him and into the house that sheltered her. Slowly he turned around and left the room. Mother Mazzarello was still smiling, fingering her Rosary.
Come, Bride of Christ
Exhausted and feverish, Mary Mazzarello arrived at Mornese in early April. After a few days rest in her invigorating native air, enjoying the new burst of life that made Mornese with its vineyards and hillsides a veritable garden, she felt much stronger and got up from bed maintaining that she was no exception in the house and had to do her work along with the other Sisters. For several days she stubbornly followed the routine of the community, rigorous in its demands for a sickly convalescent till, finally, her resistance broke down and she collapsed. The doctor analyzed it as a relapse into pleurisy and recommended absolute rest.
But Mother Mazzarello knew her days were numbered: Death was knocking at the door of the Superior. There was little time to lose now, and she used every moment in prayers or in the care of Sisters, the needs of the houses, and the individual problems of those who daily came to her with their troubles. To all, she was ever the considerate sympathetic mother, hiding her own pain in solicitous regard for her daughters giving her undivided attention to every detail.
Toward the end of April, she steadily grew worse. No remedies brought her relief. Her only comfort in the long days and nights of pain was the thought of our Blessed Lady, to whom she would pray aloud or even sing hymns in a soft undertone. She asked for the Last Sacraments and followed the ceremony and prayers attentively. At the end she looked at the priest and asked cheerfully, "Now that all my papers are in order, I suppose I may leave at any time at all?"
But for three more weeks she lingered on often in pain, always in prayer. One particular evening she became so weak that she thought it was the end and called the superiors of the Congregation to her. Gasping for a few painful breaths of air she whispered her last counsels:
"I am afraid jealousies will crop up among you after my death, envy of a younger Sister who may be placed as Superior. Remember that Our Lady is Superior of this Congregation. Always obey the one who receives the task of leading. And, secondly, always help each other, but let your spiritual guidance be in the hands of the one appointed for that purpose."
The strain was too much for her feeble frame. She drew a deep breath and muttered, "Oh if I could only explain myself! But I cannot."
Finally, in a soft undertone, she sighed. "The Sisters must not leave the world only to build up a new one of their own in the Congregation! And then they say they desire Christ! Dear Lord, if they only knew You as I know You now!"
The few days remaining of her earthly life Mother Mazzarello passed in prayer and final words of counsel. As she lay on her deathbed, resolving to make use of every second left to her, her resoluteness was so reminiscent of the hardy peasant girl of Mornese who persisted in her stubborn determination never to yield to anyone or to anything! Not even illness or death!
But, if her sickness was marked by an enviable calm, the last hour of her life was tortured. It was three o'clock on the morning of May 14, as the mountain ridges outside her window were scarcely outlined against the first haze of a spring sky, that Mother Mazzarello entered her purgatory of spiritual agony. She moaned and tossed about, uttering prayers to Our Lady, trying to boost her trust in God.
"Don't give in, Mary," she pleaded with herself. "Where is your courage? Tomorrow you are going to begin the Novena to Mary Help of Christians. You must not give in! Take heart! Come, sing Mary's praises!"
Then straining every nerve and muscle, in a feeble and broken voice she painfully sang a hymn to Our Lady. With that, the struggle was over. As the hymn died away on her lips, she sank back in restful sleep.
The priests and sisters about her began the Church's prayers for the dying. As they neared the end, she feebly raised her hand and whispered, "Good-bye. I am going now. I will see you in heaven." With the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on her lips, she paid her last tribute of obedience to the Divine Will, in utter confidence of his limitless mercy.
Sunset and rest came early for Mother Mazzarello, just in the midst of her day. But at the age of forty-four, she had lived a complete life, had carried out all the work God had assigned to her, and was ready to return her Divine Master.
The peasant girl of Mornese became the Mother of a congregation of Sisters that today covers the globe and numbers thousands. On that religious body of self-sacrificing souls is stamped the indelible character of Mother Mazzarello's humility and in each one of the Sisters she lives again and continues her apostolate for the souls of girls. Thus, St. Mary Mazzarello walks today in the broad streets of European and American cities, in the jungle paths of the Amazon, on the sun-drenched deserts of Africa, in the mudflats of India, in the mountain recesses of the Andes. She lives a Citizen of the World, for there is no death for God's Saints!
In 1936, Pope Pius XI, proclaiming the heroic nature of Mother Mazzarello's virtues, aptly summarized her remarkable life thusly: "Here is a woman of simplicity, extreme simplicity - a simplicity as pure as that of the simple elements, as simple and unmixed as gold without alloy!
"The characteristic mark of Mary Mazzarello is her humility, a profound consciousness and continual remembrance of a lowly birth, a plain way of life, and her work. She was but a peasant girl, a village seamstress, endowed with the most elementary education, one that lacked all the refinements we generally associate with the term. There was in her only that simplicity which God had predisposed in such an elect soul."
Gold Without Alloy: A Brief Account of the Life of St. Mary Mazzarello By Paul Aronica, SDB