Saint Mary Mazzarello

Born May 9, 1837, Mornese, Italy.
Religious profession Aug. 5, 1872.
Died May 14, 1881, Nizza Monferrato, Italy.
Canonized June 24, 1951.
Feast day May 13.

The Mazzarellos lived in a small town in the hill country on the border of Piedmont, not far from Genoa. They were hard-working, pious farmers. The assistant pastor of the town, Fr. Pestarino, guided a group of young women in the spiritual life and a simple apostolate of teaching catechism and sewing to the girls of Mornese. Mary joined these Daughters of Mary Immaculate. At the same time she continued her strenuous work in the family’s vineyards and around the house.

When Mary was 23 she suffered a serious bout of typhus that left her permanently weakened. Spiritually, however, she only drew closer to God. In 1864 Don Bosco passed through Mornese, and he was impressed by Fr. Pestarino and the little circle of young women around him—particularly Mary Mazzarello. Over the next several years Mary and several of the other women began to feel that their future lay with the priest from Turin and not merely in their backcountry town. By 1867 he had provided them with a simple rule of life and was pondering whether he should establish a congregation of women to do for girls what he was doing for boys.

Mary, though simple and unschooled, was the natural leader of the group that had broken with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate and become the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. When they finally were ready to commit themselves publicly to God in 1872, they elected Mary their superior, despite her reluctance to assume such a position. Yet she was admirably equipped for it with her tranquility, wisdom, joy, humor, and love for her sisters and their pupils.

The little group flourished under the leadership of Mary Mazzarello and Don Bosco. In two years they opened a second house, and by 1877 they were sending missionaries to South America with their Salesian brothers. The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, or Salesian Sisters, have grown into the largest congregation of women in the Catholic Church.

At age 35 Mary began to learn to read and write. Her few surviving letters to Don Bosco and her sisters are noteworthy for their spiritual content and good sense. When the harsh climate and inaccessibility of Mornese necessitated the motherhouse’s relocation to Nizza Monferrato, she accepted the move with grace. On a journey to see some sisters off to the foreign missions, she contracted pleurisy. Nevertheless she continued her travels in order to visit other sisters in France. Informed by Don Bosco that she would not recover, she returned to Nizza, where she suffered for several weeks before entering eternal life.