The Cistercian Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Saint Joseph, at Vitorchiano, near Viterbo, about forty-five miles north of Rome, is an Italian Trappistine monastery with seventy nuns at present. Founded in 1875, this flourishing monastery has made seven foundations, or new monasteries, in the last forty years. They are now preparing for their eighth foundation, in Portugal.
The first foundation or daughterhouse that the Vitorichiano nuns made was in Italy, called Valserena, started in 1968. Three other foundations followed, all in South America, first in Argentina, in 1973, then in Chile in 1981 and in Venezuela in 1984. In 1987 a foundation was made in Indonesia, then in the Philippines in 1995 and in the Czech Republic in 2007. This kind of growth and starting of new monasteries in fairly rapid succession is unparalleled in the world.
All of the foundations from Vitorichiano Abbey are themselves thriving monasteries and there are still many nuns, most of them young, in the Italy abbey that has made all the foundations! For most of their daughterhouses, women came from other parts of the world for initial monastic formation at Vitorichiano. After some years of being formed in the monastic life and having made solemn, or final, vows, the nuns returned to their countries, along with some Italian nuns, to make their new monasteries.
This spring our Abbot President and some other monks of our curia Sant’Ambrogio drove to Vitorchiano to see the abbey and to visit the chapel and tomb of the most famous Vitorchiano nun, Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, who lived from 1914 to 1939. Like many other modern saints, Maria Gabriella had a relatively shortly lifespan and was beatified in Rome in 1983, forty-four years after her death.
Maria Sagheddu was born on the Italian island of Sardegna on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1914, the fifth of eight children of Marcantonio and Caterina Sagheddu. Her parents were shepherds. Maria’s father and one of her brothers died in 1919, when Maria was just five. Two other brothers of Maria also died while she was a child and she had to leave school after only a few years to assist at home. At school she was remembered as alert and intelligent, especially excelling in mathematics.
Maria’s younger sister, Giovanna Antonia, just a year younger than Maria, died in 1932, at the age of seventeen. Maria, being eighteen, decided to become involved in the Catholic Action movement, an association of Catholic laity devoted to instructing others in the faith and the practice of religion. Maria was especially involved in teaching children, adolescents and seniors in her area of Sardegna. In this work she deepened her own quest for the spiritual and contemplative life. In 1935, then twenty-one, Maria entered the Trappistine Cistercian monastery at Grottaferrata near Rome and was given the name Sister Maria Gabriella. She professed monastic vows in 1937, when she was twenty-three.
The abbess of the Grottaferrata monastery at the time was the famous Mother Maria Pia Gullini, who had a great interest in the unity of the Church, partly due to the ecumenical efforts of the French priest Father Paul Couturier, who lived from 1881 to 1953. Sister Maria Gabriella also became interested in ecumenical relations, especially through praying for the unity of the Church. In the year 1938, when thirty-three, she offered herself as a spiritual sacrifice for Christian unity, during the Church’s annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January, in the days leading up to the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul on January 25th.
Within a year of her spiritual offering for Church unity, Sister Maria Gabriella fell ill with tuberculosis, was unwell for fifteen months after the diagnosis, and died on the evening of April 23rd, 1939, a little more than a month after her thrity-fifth birthday. In his 1995 papal encyclical entitled, “Ut Unum Sint” (That they may all be one), Pope, now Saint John Paul II wrote: “The example of Sister Maria Gabriella is instructive; it helps to understand that there are no special times, situations or places of prayer for unity. Christ’s prayer to the Father (“that they all may be one, as we are also”) is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere.”
About twenty years after her death, the cause for the beatification of Trappistine Sister Maria Gabriel Sagheddu was opened in Rome and twenty-five years later she was declared a “Blessed” of the Catholic Church, the first step toward eventual sainthood or canonization. The current postulator, or person officially involved in the work of preparing documents for the canonization of Blessed Maria Gabriella, is also a nun of Vitorichiano, Sister Gabriella, whom we monks also met on our visit to the abbey in May.
The monastery of Trappistines at Grottaferrata, where Blessed Maria Gabriella lived and died, eventually relocated to Vitorchiano, near Viterbo, in 1957. The nuns acquired the spacious and beautiful piece of property outside of Rome in 1954, finding there more room to roam, farm and to foster solitude and silence, such important features of the contemplative Trappistine way of life.
Today the nuns at Vitorchiano produce various fruit preserves that are distributed throughout Italy, with some distribution outside of Italy, but within Europe. The nuns are also vintners of fine wines, available in Italy, with distribution in the USA as well. They also maintain a frequented guesthouse for private and group retreats.
Visits by pilgrims and guests to the chapel of Blessed Maria Gabriella on the abbey property are frequent and a popular destination for the faithful, seeking to pray for various needs at the tomb of the patroness of ecumenism or Church Unity, the humble nun, “Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity,” as she is called, of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the official title of the Trappist and Trappistine monks and nuns worldwide.
Over the past thirty-five years I have made several visits to the Monastery of Our Lady of Saint Joseph at Vitorchiano. I am always inspired there and rejoice in the community’s continued growth and vitality. Along with the contemplative Benedictine nuns of Rosano near Florence and those at Isola San Giulio near Novara, the Vitorchiano nuns are among the few “pockets” of monastic growth and expansion in Italy, for which we can give thanks to God.
Interestingly, and like Blessed Maria Gabriella, over the years and up to the present, many of the vocations that have come to Vitorchiano have been women who were part of Catholic Action, still an active movement in Italy, before entering the monastery.
Vitorchiano is an international community, comprised of women from various parts of the world, including America. This phenomenon is generally present in those houses showing hope of perduring in the years ahead. Uniculturalism seems to be a concept fading in religious and monastic life today; or at least those adhering to it too rigorously seem to be vanishing. Catholic means universal and membership not being limited to one culture. Religious and monastic life at its best reflects the definition of catholic as well.
Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity, pray for us!