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The saint who was tormented by her conscience

The duomo in Brescia, where St Maria tended to the sick

Maria di Rosa (1813-55) devoted her life entirely to good works and founded a congregation, the Handmaids of Charity, which still follows her example in Italy.

According to the constitution, a Handmaid is “the property of Charity. She surrenders every kind of jurisdiction and dominion over herself so that youth, health, comforts, strength, blood and life, in a word, her very essence, is laid at the service of this virtue”.

“I can’t go to bed with a quiet conscience,” their founder once said, “if during the day I’ve missed any chance, however slight, of preventing wrongdoing, or of helping to bring about some good.”

Maria had been christened Paola, the sixth of nine children of Clement di Rosa, a leading industrialist in Brescia, at the foot of the Alps in Lombardy. When she was 11 her mother died, which seems to have convinced her of the insubstantiality of worldly fortune.

At 17, Paola left school and took charge of her father’s household. When Clement di Rosa found her a suitable fiancée, she seemed hesitant. A Mgr Pinzoni, the girl’s spiritual adviser, explained that she would never marry.

Clement took this news in good part, and would prove generous in funding his daughter’s charities. Paola lived at home until she was 27.

She ministered to the workers in her father’s textile mill and established a women’s guild at his country property. During the cholera epidemic at Brescia in 1836 she and her friend Gabriela Bornati fearlessly tended to the afflicted.

Paola also worked to rescue abandoned girls, and braved opposition to organise a refuge where they could sleep. Whatever hazards she encountered, she always found the courage and energy to surmount them.

In 1840 she formed the first outline of the Handmaids of Charity. The aim was to look after the sick not merely as nurses but as full-time spiritual counsellors. Soon there were 32 women in the new undertaking. There were also critics. “I hope that is not our last cross,” Paola wrote, “because in truth I should have been sorry had we not been persecuted.”

In 1848 the attempt to shake off the Austrian yoke gave the Handmaids the opportunity to tend the wounded on the battlefield. Next year they further distinguished themselves during the terrible Ten Days of Brescia, when the town was occupied by the Austrian army. At one point Paola cowed the disorderly soldiery by meeting them with a crucifix on the hospital steps.

In 1850 she met Pope Pius IX, and two years later the constitution of the congregation was formally approved. Twenty-five sisters took vows and Paola adopted the name Maria Crocifissa – Mary of the Crucified. She died aged 42, exhausted by her labours.