It seems that almost anywhere you go in Italy, at least at shrines, monasteries and other holy sites, a saint or blessed of the Catholic Church is connected to the place in some way. A recent visit for the funeral of one of the Benedictine nuns of Santa Lucia Abbey in the beautiful Umbrian hill town of Trevi was the occasion to learn of yet another Blessed of our Church, Maria Luisa Prosperi, who lived from 1799 to 1847.
Geltrude (Gertrude) Prosperi was born in Fogliano di Cascia, Umbria, on August 19, 1799, the daughter of Domenicantonio Prosperi and Maria Diomedi. Raised in the Catholic faith, Gertrude was especially influenced by the good example of one of her aunts. Feeling called to religious life, on May 31st, 1821, when she was twenty-one, Gertrude entered the Benedictine monastery of Santa Lucia in Trevi, and was eventually given the name, “Maria Luisa Angelica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
The new name was given to Gertrude at her solemn monastic profession, immediately after her year-long novitiate. This was a time before there were first or temporary vows, something common now, which provide a person more time in religious or monastic life for discernment prior to professing final or solemn vows. The now universal custom of temporary vows after the novitiate came into practice only with the 1917 code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church.
During her early years as a professed Benedictine nun, Sister Maria Luisa served her community as infirmarian, taking care of the sick sisters. She was also sacristan, in charge of the monastery church, and also served as novice mistress, being entrusted with the formation of new nuns. All of these works she carried out for several years, quietly fulfilling the tasks she had been assigned.
Maria Luisa Prosperi was elected abbess of her monastery in 1837, when she was thirty-eight years old. That is very young to be abbess, but she was recognized already as a person capable of such a work. She held the position of abbess of her monastery until her death, just ten years later, when she was only forty-eight years old, on September 13, 1847.
Maria Luisa left some writings when she died that became part of the first biography of the abbess, which was written by her Jesuit confessor, Father Carlo Paterniani. His life of Maria Luisa Prosperi was completed in 1870, twenty-three years after her death.
Abbess Maria Luisa was remembered by her community, and by others who knew her, as a promoter of a careful observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict and as one who emphasized the Holy Rule as fundamental for a community’s “ongoing formation,” as we would call it today. In times past the idea was simply to live the life and never give up and remember that death is inevitable. That was and is the essence of “ongoing formation.”
Maria Luisa Prosperi was buried in the abbey church of her monastery of Santa Lucia at Trevi, where she is venerated today. Her mortal remains are in a wooden casket placed on a side altar in the nuns’ church. Next to the casket a candle is always kept burning.
Many of the Blesseds and Saints of the Church had a special devotion in their life of faith, and for Abbess Maria Luisa Prosperi it was an intense devotion to the Holy Eucharist as well as to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was granted a vision of Christ carrying the Cross, as well as a revelation of the Sacred Heart and of Christ dressed as a pilgrim. Such extraordinary supernatural experiences are not required for a person to be declared a Blessed or Saint of the Church, but nonetheless were part of Maria Luisa Prosperi’s experience.
The process of beatification began in 1914 and it was determined that Abbess Maria Luisa of Trevi lived her Catholic faith to a heroic degree. After some delay, partly due to the War years, Maria Luisa Prosperi was beatified, that is, declared a Blessed of the Church, on November 10, 2011. As can be imagined, her community was overjoyed, as well as the people of Trevi. It is one thing to honor the memory of a saintly founder or member of a community, and quite another to have that person declared a Blessed or Saint of the Church!
The Benedictine nuns of Santa Lucia in Trevi are rightly proud to now call a former abbess of their monastery, “Blessed Maria Luisa Prosperi.” Somewhere over time her additional monastic names of “Angelica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” seem to have gotten dropped or at least set aside. Most often she is referred to with the two monastic names, Maria Luisa, as well as her last name, Prosperi.
In ages past, the ceremonies for beatification and canonization of Venerables, that is, persons on the track to being beatified or canonized, only happened at the Vatican, in Saint Peter’s Basilica or in the Piazza outside the Basilica. In modern times, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these ceremonies have been held in various and sundry places, usually, though, at a church connected to the one being beatified or canonized.
In the case of Mother Abbess Maria Luisa Prosperi, her beatification took place in the cathedral at Perugia, not far from her monastery. Cardinal Angelo Amato presided over the beatification ceremony on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day each year is kept on September 12th.
About herself, Maria Luisa Prosperi wrote, “From my earliest years I always desired to do great things for the love of my God.” She lived in a difficult time for the Church, during the Napoleonic era, which lasted from 1799 to 1815, when the Church was being viewed as coming to the end of its existence. Of course that didn’t happen, and the Napoleonic Empire was in fact coming to an end, but the times were difficult nonetheless for those who aspired to live their Catholic faith to the full.
The monastery where Mother Maria Luisa Prosperi lived was founded in Trevi in 1344. Flourishing for many centuries, it was closed during the time of Napoleon, who deemed cloistered contemplative Orders useless. Only after 1815 was the monastery reopened, just a few years before Gertrude Prosperi crossed its threshold, ultimately to become a Blessed, and hopefully one day declared a Saint, of the Catholic Church.
Apart from leading her community as its abbess, the life of Mother Maria Luisa Prosperi was mostly taken up with fidelity to the daily tasks of the monastery: praying, working, receiving her community members, as well as guests and pilgrims.
While she experienced some mystical states, they were not constant or prolonged, and Maria Luisa must have been immersed in the “ordinariness of life” that her monastic commitment entailed. Though dying young, she was faithful until death in living her life and is an example to us today to go about our daily responsibilities with joy and willingness, fighting against tendencies to resentment, anger, laziness, or whatever else might hinder us in our loving service of God and neighbor.
Blessed Maria Luisa Prosperi, pray for us!