Life and Soul

Saint of the week: Magdalene of Canossa (May 8)

Born into great wealth

Magdalene of Canossa, one of five children, was born on March 1, 1774 into an ancient and wealthy Veronese family. Her father was the Marquis Ottavio di Canossa and her mother was Teresa Szluha, a Hungarian countess. After her father’s sudden death her mother left their family home – Canossa palace – to marry the Marquis Zanetti of Mantua, and the children were raised by their uncle.

Although Magdalene briefly entered a Carmelite convent, she decided it wasn’t her vocation and returned to the family home. Verona was a city where the poor suffered greatly, especially after the French army invaded, so Magdalene used her considerable wealth to serve the poor and destitute.

On April 1, 1808, she was granted an abandoned monastery where she cared for and educated two poor girls from a local slum. On May 7, she moved out of her ancestral palace and into the monastery, now called the Convent of St Joseph, where she formed the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor.

Papal approval

The work of the congregation spread about the country as the women worked in hospitals and cared for poor children. By 1824, four convents had been established by the Canossian Sisters: in Venice in 1812, Milan in 1816, Berga in 1820 and Trent in 1824.

Magdalene drew up a Rule for the congregation and it received formal approval from Pope Leo XII on December 23, 1828. In order to serve boys in the way that she had served girls, Magdalene invited Fr Francesco Luzzi to establish a small oratory next to the convent of St Lucy in Venice, and he was joined by two laymen.

This small congregation, which became known as the Sons of Charity, continued for nearly a century. In 1860 the men were given a religious habit by the Patriarch of Venice, and in 1897 they were granted a Rule. Magdalene died on April 10, 1835. She was beatified on December 8, 1941 by Pope Pius XII and canonised by Pope John Paul II on October 2, 1988.