A few blocks from our Curia Sant’Ambrogio in the “centro storico” (historic center) of Rome is a convent and guest house of the Benedictine Sisters of Charity. They are an active or apostolic Congregation of religious sisters who live in common, pray the Divine Office and wear a distinctive habit, but do not live in monasteries, with an ongoing and permanent resident group. The sisters have their Generalate or headquarters, on the outskirts of Rome, at Centocelle, where the majority of the community lives, and where they have their novitiate and also run a primary school.
The difference between a monastery and a convent may seem slight, but evident to those who reside in a monastery. Because of their active apostolates, the Benedictine Sisters of Charity are assigned to one of their fourteen convents in Italy, Romania or Madagascar, for varying lengths of time. Postulants and novices of the Order reside at the Generalate at Centocelle and after the novitiate and making simple vows, sisters will likely be sent to one of their satellite convents. Somewhat differently, Benedictine monasteries are normally an ongoing and permanent community, with personnel not usually being moved to different houses. Neither the convent nor the monastery “model” is better than the other. They are simply two different expressions of consecrated religious life.
At the Motherhouse of the Benedictine Sisters of Charity near our curia, two sisters are in residence and maintain an apostolate there. The sisters offer hospitality to working women and students, housed in a section of what was once the “Palazzo Sinibaldi,” a several-storey complex that in Renaissance times belonged to a prominent Roman family. The women pay to live and eat at the sisters’ “Casa Famiglia” as it is called (Family House), while doing studies or other work in Rome. The fees paid for lodging and meals are a source of income for the sisters. The sisters also provide lodging to visitors to Rome, coming for a few days or weeks.
Since coming to Rome almost two years ago, I have become aware of a number of Benedictine Congregations of women religious, who are not cloistered or contemplative nuns, but simply “Sisters of Saint Benedict.” Some of the groups include the Benedictine Sisters of the Holy Face of Jesus, near the Vatican; the Benedictine Sisters of Santa Priscilla at one of Rome’s Catacombs, and the Benedictine Sisters of Charity at Centocelle and in the “centro storico,” the subject of this essay. All of the aforementioned Congregations follow the Rule of Saint Benedict as their basic guide, along with specific constitutions proper to their Congregation.
The Benedictine Sisters of Charity were founded by Blessed Colomba Gabriel (her last name was Gabriel), who lived from 1858 to 1926. Joanna Matylda Gabriel, as she was known from her birth and baptism, was from what is today Poland, but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was called “Janina” by her family, and as a young girl she was tutored at home in piano playing and dance, then studied more formally under Benedictine nuns in a school in Leopoli (today, Lviv). Her teachers were contemplative enclosed nuns who also ran a school at their monastery.
Eventually completing a diploma in teaching at the age of eighteen, Janina decided to join the monastery of Benedictine nuns, and was given the name Sister Colomba. She made her solemn profession of vows in 1882 and in 1889, when she was thirty-one, became prioress, or “second in charge” of her monastery, after the abbess. Five years later, Sister Colomba was put in charge of forming the novices of her monastery in the Benedictine life.
At the age of thirty-nine, Sister Colomba was elected abbess of her monastery. Her spiritual director at that time was a Dominican friar from France, who later became Blessed Hyacinthe-Marie Cormier. He lived from 1832 until 1916 and was the seventy-sixth Master General of the Order of Preachers, the official name of the Dominicans.
As abbess, Mother Colomba Gabriel was known for giving excellent spiritual conferences to her nuns and guiding her community wisely, with humility and strength. During her time as abbess, the monastery flourished and eventually made a foundation, that is, a new monastery, also in what is now Poland.
In 1900 Mother Colomba, then only forty-two, retired as abbess and came to Rome, spending a few years with the Benedictine nuns at Subiaco, not far from the famous monastery of monks at the Abbey of Santa Scholastica and the “Sacro Speco,” the holy cave, where Saint Benedict had lived as a hermit for some years and later built his first monasteries.
In 1903, when she was forty-five, Mother Colomba returned to Rome to take up an apostolate and ultimately to form the Benedictine Sisters of Charity. Part of the inspiration for this came from Father Vincenzo Ceresi, who lived from 1869 to 1958. His encouragement led to the opening of the first convent of the Benedictines of Charity in 1908, in a part of the former Palazzo Sinibaldi, in the “centro storico” (historic center) of Rome, receiving diocesan approval and ultimately Vatican endorsement of the project of apostolic (or active) Benedictine sisters.
Mother Colomba Gabriel was greatly helped in her endeavors to begin a new branch of Benedictines by the first Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Hildebrand De Hemptinne, who lived from 1849 to 1913. In 1896, during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, De Hempinne built the abbey of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine Hill in Rome, to this day the center of the world-wide Benedictine family. A number of other prominent Catholics of Italy came to the aid of Mother Colomba in her desire to establish a new community of Benedictine women.
The vision of Mother Colomba Gabriel for a new Congregation of sisters was realized exactly one hundred ten years ago, in 1908. She lived the rest of her life in Rome and died on September 24th, 1926, at the age of sixty-eight. The Benedictine Sisters of Charity, now numbering around one hundred women, have ten convents in Italy and four in other countries, operating fourteen houses in all. They work with young women, children, the poor, the elderly and the sick.
With few Italian women joining them today, the sisters show signs of growth coming from other parts of the world. They have a presence in Romania, where some vocations have come forth. Many more vocations are responding to their way of life in Madagascar. There are now nearly forty sisters from Madagascar who are members of the Benedictine Sisters of Charity. Every year a number of women join or make vows in Madagascar, and they show promise of being the revitalizing of the Italian-based Congregation. Several sisters from Madagascar are assigned to their two houses in Rome and their other Italian communities.
The beatification process of Mother Colomba opened in Rome in 1983 and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 16, 1993. Blessed Colomba Gabriel’s feast day is kept on September 24th each year, the day on which she died. This year some of our curia joined the sisters at the “Casa Famiglia” (Family House) near us, considered their “Motherhouse,” to celebrate the feast of their Mother Foundress, on September 24th. The house is the place the sisters first got underway, so called the Motherhouse, even though their Generalate, or administrative center, is at Centocelle, a peripheral Roman neighborhood, five miles from the center of Rome.
The sisters’ current superior, Mother Malfalda, who lives in the Generalate convent, and a friend of our Sant’Ambrogio curia, was present for the September 24th celebrations in town, along with ten or so other sisters of their Congregation. Some of the lay women who live at the Rome house and other friends of the sisters also attended the 7:45 pm solemn Mass, presided by their long-time friend, Abbot Andrea Pantaloni, formerly the Abbot General of the Sylvestrine Benedictine Congregation. Abbot Andrea now resides at the monastery of Fabriano, in the Marche region of Italy, not far from the city of Ancona. After the September 24th Mass in honor of Blessed Colomba Gabriel in Rome, we all enjoyed a festive meal with the sisters.
Before the meal, though, Mother Mafalda pointed out to us that what is now the chapel of the sisters’ had once been the “game room,” (presumably for billiards) of the former inhabitants of the Sinibaldi Palace. The large room works fine as a chapel, but the ceiling was and is decorated with paintings of unclothed nymphs, somewhat resembling angels, but not the original intent of the artist. Unhappy with this situation, Mother Foundress Colomba, many decades ago, burned some of the ceiling-paintings into disfigurement so as to make the ceiling art look less profane. Understandable though it be, the Italian government, which at that time owned the property where the sisters lived, caught wind of Mother Colomba’s efforts and handed her a heavy fine for defacing historic artwork.
Mother Colomba Gabriel is also remembered as the one who, when begging on the streets of Rome for funds, was slapped in the face by someone from whom she had asked for help. She said to the one who slapped her, “That was for me, but what do you have to give for my orphans?”
Blessed Colomba Gabriel, pray for us.