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St Paula Elizabeth Cerioli
Widow and Foundress of the Institute of the Holy Family, (entered heaven on Christmas Eve, 1865)
If only you knew how much I long to be with you during this dark time. I knew your mother well (as only brothers and sisters can know each other), and she often spoke to me of the deep consolation and joy she received from her relationship with you, her youngest daughter. I feel the loss profoundly myself, but I know you must feel it a hundred times more intensely. I am consoled that she now will find herself (I am certain of it) in the company of Our Lord and of her beloved husband, but I daresay that will be little consolation to you in your new state of ‘orphanage’, as you called it. I cannot pretend to take your grief away, but I can promise that you will find light and strength in contemplating the life of today’s saint.
She was also a youngest child; she had 15 brothers and sisters. She was born into northern Italian nobility, into a healthy Catholic family, but she spent much of her youth away at boarding school, and her sensitive soul reeled under the strain of being away from those she loved so much. When she was 19, she returned home to marry. It was an arranged marriage – her husband was a 59-year-old count who had recently been widowed. He wasn’t the most tender and attentive of spouses, and although Paula stayed faithful and did her best to please him, she suffered much under his harsh and distant personality. She bore him four children, three of whom died at birth. The fourth, Carlo, her ‘only consolation’ whom she dearly loved, died when he was 16. Her husband died soon after, leaving her, once again, at age 38, terribly alone. It was the darkest moment of her life.
Carlo’s last words to her turned out to be her salvation. As he lay dying he had told her, ‘Mama, do not cry… the Lord will give you other children.’ In her loneliness after the death of her husband, she turned to her spiritual director and to prayer for light, and these words kept echoing in her heart. Although all her children had died, she still felt called to be a mother. And as she poured over the Gospel and spent long hours in prayer and reflection, she realized that she still could be a mother, a spiritual mother to the poor and abandoned of the world. So she began to visit the poor and the sick, the orphans and the dying. She used her large inheritance to start orphanages and poor houses, and eventually sold all her belongings in order to do more for those in need. She made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and devoted herself entirely to mothering those who had no mother. Soon she attracted other women to help with her work, and she wrote up a rule of life for them to follow, modeling their community and their activity on the best model of family life the world has ever known: the Holy Family of Nazareth. Her work was fruitful, and soon she had founded a community of men to do for boys what she and her community of women were doing for girls. Only eleven years after her husband’s death Paula’s Institute of the Holy Family, under the patronage of St Joseph, was well established and spreading Christ’s charity among those most in need. Then, unexpectedly, on Christmas Eve in 1865, she died.
What could have been a horrible tragedy, what could have thrown this talented and loving woman into a tailspin of confusion and despair, turned into the stimulus for a rebirth of Christian charity and joy. I know it may be hard to believe, but your pain and suffering in the wake of your mother’s death could, with the grace of God, be equally propitious. For some reason, God permitted this tragedy; if you let him, I am sure he will turn it into a triumph.
Your devoted uncle,