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The Catholic Defender: Saint Maria Bertilla Boscardin "missionary to the lonely"

Young Anna Boscardin (1888-1922) overcame a variety of obstacles through the grace of God and went on to serve those who struggled with their own.

Her father admitted in the investigations that led up to his daughter’s beatification that he was violent, abusive and struggled with bouts of alcoholism, which forced the young girl and her mother to seek safety often by fleeing the family home.

She was allowed to make her First Holy Communion at eight and a half years old, when the authorized age in those years was eleven.

At twelve years old, she was accepted into the parish association of the “Children of Mary” association. The parish priest gave her a catechism as a gift. They found it in the pocket of her habit, when she died, at 34 years old

If anyone knew rejection, ridicule and disappointment, it was today’s saint. But such trials only brought Maria Bertilla Boscardin closer to God and more determined to serve him.

Attendance at school was a rare privilege for young Annette, as she was called most commonly. She had to leave classes frequently to assist her family at home and in harvesting the fields. During the times she could attend school, she was frequently distracted by working as a servant for a nearby family.

Born in Italy in 1888, the young girl lived in fear of her father, a violent man prone to jealousy and drunkenness. Her schooling was limited so that she could spend more time helping at home and working in the fields. She showed few talents and was often the butt of jokes.

Annette was not regarded well by her peers. Few thought her attractive and many spoke of her mediocre intelligence. And she was frequently picked on for what many saw as mediocrity. She was slapped with the nickname of “goose” by a local priest in reference to her slowness.

The spirit of the world that rejected her was no competitor for the spirit of adoption for this beloved daughter of the Father. Annette had a deep and abiding faith that defined her.

Because of that, she was allowed to receive first holy Communion early and made early entrance into the “children of Mary” association in the parish. A catechism the priest gifted her with became a symbol of her relentless faith and was found in her pocket when she died.

In 1904, she joined the Sisters of Saint Dorothy and was assigned to work in the kitchen, bakery and laundry. After some time Maria received nurses’ training and began working in a hospital with children suffering from diphtheria.

There the young nun seemed to find her true vocation: nursing very ill and disturbed children. Later, when the hospital was taken over by the military in World War I, Sister Maria Bertilla fearlessly cared for patients amidst the threat of constant air raids and bombings.

Sister Maria Bertilla had a willingness to go wherever God wanted her. But it seemed that simple tasks would be in store for her. The first year in the convent was spent in menial tasks no one else wanted, although she embraced them willingly. The next year, she was moved to a hospital, first confined to work in the kitchen but then assigned to work with the patients.

In spite of a lack of support from her pastor — who thought she was unable to amount to much in life — Annette desired to give herself completely to God as a nun. But her slowness was cited as the cause for rejection when she applied to a religious order. The priest indicated that she was at least able to peel the community’s potatoes. The Sisters of St. Dorothy in Vicenza, Italy, accepted her in 1904, bestowing her the name Sister Maria Bertilla. As she told the mother superior, her only desire was “to become a saint.”

She herself internalized some of her earlier criticism, telling the novice-mistress of the order, "I can't do anything. I'm a poor thing, a goose. Teach me. I want to be a saint.

However, things changed somewhat when she entered the Sisters of Saint Dorothy, Daughters of the Sacred Heart in 1904, taking the name Bertilla.

After working in the convent’s kitchen and laundry for three years, she trained as a nurse.

She worked in the children’s ward of the sisters’ hospital in Treviso, and quickly became the children’s favorite due to her simple and gentle way. She cared for wounded Italian soldiers during World War I, even staying with patients while the area was being bombed.

As a missionary to the sick and marginalized, Sister Maria Bertilla found her calling. She was particularly drawn to assist those who were littlest and without much hope for survival. Her gifts to minister among those who suffered and were on the brink of death were readily acknowledged by the hospital’s medical staff.

An envious supervisor reassigned Bertilla, now popular among the patients, to the hospital laundry. When her mother-general heard of this, she made Bertilla head of the children’s ward in 1919. Bertilla died three years later of cancer.

She died in 1922 after suffering for many years from a painful tumor. Some of the patients she had nursed many years before were present at her canonization in 1961.

Sr. Maria Bertilla died on October 20, 1922, after having lived a life of total dedication to God through the service of the sick and the poor. When the Church Canonized her in 1961, a large group of her former patients were present with the Saint's family members in St. Peter's Square to celebrate her holy life, and to pay tribute to St. Maria Bertilla's legacy of selfless Charity and Love.

The simple peasant woman who was once called "the goose" had taken flight and soared all the way up to Heaven.

She was canonized in 1961 by Pope John XXIII before a crowd that included many of her former patients, and many miracles have been reported at her tomb.

As the heaviest bombs were dropped in her city, Sister Maria Bertilla willingly chose to stay at the wounded’s bedside, particularly with those who could not move.

She was a comforting presence, bringing snacks and praying with them. Some of the injured to whom she ministered were present for her beatification and canonization.

Her life was marked by a willingness to go out in love and service to others, giving what she received little of, resigning her will in favor of God’s. She died of a painful tumor at age 34 on Oct. 20, 1922.

Her feast day is Oct. 20.


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