Liturgical celebration: 13 May
The life story of Mary Domenica Mazzarello is relatively brief (44 years) and can be spelt out in four stages marked by particular growth in her Christian and consecrated life.
The first stage covers thirteen years from her birth at Mornese in the Alto Monferrato on 9 May 1837 until her First Communion (1850). Daughter of Giuseppe Mazzarello and Maddalena Calcagno, Mary was the firstborn of ten children. This family circle so rich in interpersonal relationships, very connected to the land, diverse in age, occupation and responsibility and very much part of the lives of others who lived in the Mazzarelli hamlet, had a very positive impact on Mary’s personality, developing an attitude of dialogue and communication in her.
These early years were spent in a family setting marked by a solid Christian life and tireless work on the land. In the family context she learned a profound sense of God, tireless hard work and an outstanding practicality and depth of judgement that she would demonstrate later as superior. Intelligent, strong-willed and endowed with great affection, Mary Domenica was open to faith accompanied by her parents and a wise spiritual director, Fr Domenico Pestarino. She was a simple peasant lass, but she was able to discover the secret of the Creator in the beauty of nature. She was able to overcome the fatigue of daily life in the fields, singing joyfully to the God who made fruitful the seed sown in the furrows, and ripened the swollen clusters on the vine to cheer the human heart. She was a physically robust young woman, but even stronger in the spirit. She lived her youth to the full and was able to give it as a constant and serene gift to everyone: the family, the local setting, her friends, young mothers who turned to her for advice and an opinion.
In 1849, the family moved to a hillside near Mornese known as Valponasca. It was an isolated property with expansive opportunities. Giuseppe Mazzarello, Mary’s father, rented the house with its surrounding land and, once more, life for the family began there. The house was big, able to accommodate a growing family that needed more room. It is there at Valponasca that we find a significant place: the window in Mary Domenica’s room, silent witness to so many encounters, to long hours of prayer. Every evening Mary would invite the family to pray the Rosary there from where it was possible to contemplate the parish church and village in the distance. Mary was a girl like so many others: full of energy, lively, intelligent. She walked the paths through the vineyards to go to Mornese for catechism and to join the early Mass at the parish church. Mary Domenica felt a strong attraction to Jesus present in the Eucharist and did not count the sacrifices involved to meet him there. Christ was the source and end of her existence. By day she worked beside her father in the vineyard with unrivalled energy, her repeated and patient activity filled with all the love she was capable of. The vineyard demanded careful, continuous care, an exercise that formed her personality day after day.
During the second stage (1850-1860) we note a particular internalisation of her faith from the time following her First Communion, a time that led her to give her youth to the Lord through a vow of virginity and to intense involvement in parish life, especially through the Union of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, which carried out an apostolate for the girls of the village. When she was 23 years old the Typhus Epidemic caused havoc among the people. Fr Pestarino, her spiritual director, told her: “Go and help your sick relatives.” There was the risk of contracting the disease, but generosity drove her to volunteer to do good.
The disease affected her violently and seriously; it left her devoid of strength, almost without the will to live! All her dreams for the future seemed to have vanished. But her strong faith was open to the voice of God and she welcomed this with intelligent insight, discovering a new way to do good. The experience of illness and physical frailty that had led her to death’s door, found deep spiritual resonance in her and deepened her abandonment to God. She began educating the girls of the village by setting up a sewing workshop, a festive (weekend) oratory and a family home for girls without a family, so she could teach the girls work, prayer and love for God. From the plough to the needle! She became a seamstress to help girls learn a trade and this way get close to them and help them become good Christians.
One day something strange happened. She was walking along the pathway on the Borgo Alto when she “saw a large building in front of her that had the outward appearance of a college with lots of girls. She stooped to look, filled with amazement and said to herself: how can I possibly be seeing this? There was never a building here. What is going on? And she heard a voice saying to her: I am entrusting this to you”. It only lasted a moment. Everything then disappeared. Thanks to her intense participation in the sacraments and under the wise and enlightened guidance of Fr Domenico Pestarino, she made great progress in her spiritual life.
During the third stage (1860-1872) we see her ever more open to God’s plan for her. In her meeting with Saint John Bosco (1864) this found its fullest response to her apostolic intentions. When Don Bosco came to Mornese (8 October 1864) she had said: “Don Bosco is a Saint and I feel it.” Together, on 5 August 1872 they began a new religious family in the Church for the benefit of young girls. Don Bosco was the Founder and Mary Domenica the Co-founder of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. That day, in the old chapel of the boarding establishment, Mary Domenica and the first 11 Daughters of Mary Help of Christians made their first profession in the presence of the Bishop of Acqui, Bishop Sciandra, and Don Bosco. Four young women began their novitiate. Like Don Bosco, Sister Mary Mazzarello found in Mary Help of Christians the Teacher and the Mother for being the sign of God’s love among the young. And even today still there are reminders of those early times: the well in the courtyard, sign of the spirit of the origins where poverty was lived with a smile, hard work was made up of shared responsibility and relationships were simple and open; the room that Mary Domenica Mazzarello used for seven years from 1872 al 1879.
During the fourth stage, the final stage of her life (1872-1881), Sister Mary Domenica Mazzarello demonstrated her spiritual motherhood through the formation of the Sisters, the many journeys she undertook to visit the new foundations, the growth and missionary expansion of the Institute, her written words and daily gift of her life,consumed by the practice of “patient, benign charity”. As superior she showed herself to be an able formator and teacher of the spiritual life; she had the charism of reassuring and serene cheerfulness, radiating joy and involving other young women in the task of dedicating themselves to the education of women and girls.
The Institute began developing rapidly. On 4 February 1879 Mother Mazzarello moved to Nizza Monferrato. It was heartbreaking to have to leave Mornese, but it was for the good of the Institute since, given the speed of its expansion, there was a need for greater ease of communication and contacts. Mary Domenica Mazzarello spent the last two years of her life in this house, marked by tireless activity: letters, journeys, meetings, preparing Sisters for the missions, new foundations; they were all things that gave her no truce. Mary Mazzarello died at Nizza Monferrato on 14 May 1881, leaving her daughters a solid educative tradition imbued with Gospel values: seeking God who is known through enlightened catechesis and ardent love, responsibility in work, openness and humility, austerity of life and joyful self-giving. God gave her the gift of discernment and made her a simple and wise woman.
The testimony of Mary Mazzarello is a reminder that holiness is possible, it is something daily that we can experience and make resplendent around us as we walk in the furrows of faith. We are not born saints, but we become such by responding to God’s grace, by listening to those who places in our path and by speaking to God in prayer. She was a woman of great faith who knew how to recognise the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in the faces of the poor, of her young students, of her sisters, urging them to love everybody not only with words, but with their example and deeds. In the community that Sister Mary Domenica led, the climate of welcome and the frank humanity of relationships was in tune with a simple and profound faith in the presence of God, and all this gave an unmistakable tone to the environment. Don Bosco, in a letter he wrote from Mornese, alluded to this spiritual atmosphere in clear terms: “Here we enjoy the cool and freshness, despite the great warmth of God’s love.”