(1890-1902) Italy Died Age 11
the story of Maria Goretti is already familiar as the story of
a young girl who refused to acquiesce in a grave sin against chastity.
Few realise that before the final dramatic refusal, Maria had
also resisted blandishments and threats. The canonisation
of Maria Goretti was not based on a single moment's struggle against
sin but upon her practice of heroic virtue through her entire
short life. To die rather than to sin was a far more natural
choice for Maria than was the alternative - to sin in order to
begins with her home, where the moral basis of her heroic choice
was nurtured. Her mother, Assunta, was an orphan who had
never learned to read or write. Maria's father finished
his military duty, returned to his home town of Corinaldo, married
Assunta and began to farm for a living. This couple had
little to sustain them other than their love for God, Our Lady
and each other.
Assunta had never been to school for any formal lessons, she learned
from the Church about the love of God and transmitted this great
love, by words and actions, to her family. Luigi, her husband,
also had a deep love and devotion to God. Rather than feel
bitter about their poverty and way of life, this valiant couple
accepted all as God's Will and greeted the birth of each of their
children as a great gift from God. The lesson of love was
imparted to each child. After the death of their first son
as an infant, Luigi and Assunta had another boy and on October
16, 1890, a girl was born. In thanksgiving, the child was
named Maria, after Our Lady, and Teresa, after the great saint
of Carmel. She was baptised the day after her birth.
This was not because of any near danger of death but simply because
Maria's mother had such a great hatred of original sin that she
wished to lose no time in freeing her child from it at the first
possible moment. Maria and her brother were also confirmed
in Corinaldo according to the custom of the time.
grew to four children and the poverty that had never been absent
became much more acute. In Corinaldo, the family had a small
house and plot of land. Although Luigi managed the land
well, it simply was not large enough to raise an adequate supply
of food. The family had few possessions and a small image
of Our Lady was considered their greatest treasure. The
children had no toys, so an apple or rock often took the place
of the ball another child might have played with. Maria
never had a single doll. Because of their poverty, the children
never attended school but in spite of this type of life, the entire
family was happy, until the food shortage became so critical that
something had to be done.
Assunta loved their small home in this beautiful part of Italy.
To better their fortune, however, they decided to become tenant
farmers in a different part of the country. They realised
that the needs of the children might be better met by this move.
As Luigi explained it, "We must not think of ourselves but they
(the children) are gifts from the Good God and we must show our
gratitude by taking care of them."
of Maria? At the age of six, her father credited her mother
with having taught her to be obedient, to pray well and to love
God and His Blessed Mother. Like other six-year-old children,
she played, running through the grass and picking flowers, laughing
and smiling. Her mother tells us that even by this age,
Maria seemed to have an understanding beyond her years.
Maria was obedient but rather than waiting to be asked to help,
she begged to be allowed this privilege. She enjoyed playing
but most often she played with her younger brothers to amuse them
and keep them from troubling their mother. Cheerfulness
is the one thing that all who knew her mentioned when giving testimony
for her beatification.
was eight, the family moved to the Pontine Marshes. Although
much of this land has now been reclaimed through reforms, in Maria's
day it was one of the grimmest parts of Italy. Because of
the swamps, disease was rampant - especially those diseases carried
by mosquitoes. Even the air there was said to be unhealthy.
Maria's father, along with his partner, Signor Serenelli and Signor
Serenelli's sixteen-year-old son, Alessandro, became tenant farmers
to Conte Mazzoleni.
di Conca, the Goretti's and the Serenelli's moved into housing
above an old dairy barn. Previously, when the Goretti's
had discussed the move to this area, the worst part of the Pontine
Marshes, Luigi had expressed concern as to what effect the atmosphere
would have on the children. Assunta had predicted that Maria
would be their joy wherever she was. True to the prediction,
Maria remained a happy, helpful child. Because of her exceptional
goodness, Marietta, as she was called, was loved by all who knew
her. She was a pretty child with long, light chestnut hair.
Although she was always clean and neat, vanity had no part in
her personality. Many of Maria's friends and playmates wore
roses in their hair for decoration in the absence of jewellery
or lace. The first landowner for whom Luigi worked in the
Pontine Marshes was on a tour of inspection and noticed this young
girl who wore no flower in her hair. He asked his foreman
to introduce her and after a few remarks, Maria was sent back
to her play with the other children. The foreman told him,
"Everyone loves Marietta. She is as good as she is lovely
and has the intelligence of a grown girl." The landowner
realised that Maria's beauty needed no roses to enhance it.
By the time
Maria was nine, she was sent to do the family marketing.
She always took time to be friendly but did her errands and returned
home where she was needed as soon as possible. Even in these
brief contacts in town, the trades- people recognised something
special about this child sent to do a woman's chore. They
often gave her small gifts, for which Maria thanked them warmly.
One day, in the grocery store, Maria had completed her small purchases.
The grocer, Giovanni, said, "Here, little one, I have a nice red
apple for you." Enthusiastically, Maria thanked him and slipped
the apple into her bag of groceries. In surprise, the grocer
asked her what she intended to do with it. Maria cheerfully
replied that she would give it to her brother Allesandrino, as
he was particularly fond of apples. Hearing this, the grocer
then gave her a sugar cookie. Again, Maria thanked him warmly
but made no move to eat the cookie. The grocer asked, "Marietta,
what are you going to do with that cookie?" Almost apologetically,
Maria explained that she would take the cookie home to her little
sister, Ersilia. She thanked the grocer for being so good
to her family and turned to go. The grocer, however, was
determined to do something for Maria, so he told her that he would
be very hurt if she did not accept a little gift from him.
He handed her another cookie and said that this one must be for
Maria herself. Not wishing to displease him, Maria ate the
cookie there and thanked the grocer again.
Maria's outstanding qualities - kindness, cheerfulness, obedience
and friendliness - many of the people in the area began to notice
and comment on her. Maria was totally unaware of these comments
but her mother heard them. She would answer by saying, "She
is only doing her duty," although from time to time she felt that
Maria was truly a special child. Long after Maria's death,
her mother was to state that she could never remember Maria voluntarily
displeasing or disobeying her. Financially, the Goretti
family did not seem to prosper, even working in partnership with
the Serenelli's. Luigi, tired and run-down from overwork,
fell a victim to the familiar multiple diseases of the marsh -
typhus, malaria, meningitis and pneumonia. During the ten
days preceding his death, Assunta stayed by his bedside.
Ten-year-old Maria did all the cooking, ran the errands and kept
the children quiet. Constantly, too, Maria prayed.
She often wore her rosary around her wrist so it would be at hand
in the odd moments she could find for its use. Before his
death in May of 1900, Luigi begged Assunta to take the children
and return to Corinaldo.
forced Assunta to take upon herself the man's job of labourer
in the fields. She felt it would not be possible to move,
so the family continued to live in the Pontine Marshes.
Maria assumed the position of 'mother,' doing the household chores
necessary for the Goretti family and also for the Serenelli's.
Maria was not a good cook but when rebuked for this fault, she
simply begged pardon for not being able to cook as well as her
mother. Unfortunately, the family seemed to descend into
even deeper poverty, largely due to the stinginess of Signor Serenelli.
At one point, he locked up the cupboard to keep the children from
using any food other than that which he allotted for meals.
Assunta had to resort to going to the landlord in order to straighten
out this problem, a move which served as one more count against
her in the eyes of Serenelli.
One of the
duties that Maria assumed at this time was that of teaching the
children as she herself had been taught. She taught them
their prayers and told them stories. Although she had had
no formal education, Maria would come home from Church and repeat
practically word for word, the Bible stories she had learned there.
Testimony from people who knew the family at this time contains
many references to the fact that after her father's death, Maria
accepted all her responsibilities and carried them out not only
efficiently but with joy and cheerfulness. She never appeared
tired. When Maria played now, it was never to amuse herself
but only to please the younger children. A friend who had
brought a pot of soup as a gift for the family noted that Maria
served all the others first and kept very little for herself.
When questioned about this, Maria gave the excuse that her mother
and older brother had to do heavy work and needed the nourishment
and the younger children were only babies and deserved the treat.
In addition, Maria often comforted and cheered her mother, counseling
total dependence on God and His Blessed Mother to provide and
protect. The death of her father called forth reserves of
strength from Maria.
loss of her father, the only other sadness which Maria mentioned
was the long wait to receive First Communion. In Assunta's
great respect for this Sacrament, she told Maria that because
of her inability to read and because the family had no money for
the proper clothes, she was afraid that Maria would have to wait.
Maria's reply was, "You'll see, Mama; God will provide."
Maria herself thought of a person who would teach her Christian
doctrine and she promised to discharge all her household duties
before walking into Conca to these lessons. Throughout the
spring of 1902, the eleven-year-old Maria seemed to grow spiritually
as she prepared to receive her Lord. This love of God was
translated into an even greater willingness to do her daily tasks
lovingly for those around her.
In May, the
local priest examined Maria and found her well prepared for the
Sacrament. A white dress, lace and pearls were not possible
for Maria. Instead, on the morning of May 29, 1902, she
arose and dressed in the gifts which the poor of the neighbourhood
had provided, gifts which the donors felt it a privilege to bring.
Assunta had provided the dress, a wine-coloured dress with tiny
white dots. One friend had brought a pair of new shoes,
another a veil, a third a candle. Another friend had woven
a wreath of real flowers. At the last minute, Assunta took
the two treasures her husband had given her - a coral necklace
and a pair of gold earrings and put them on her child.
conscience led her to make one final preparation. She went
around the house and begged pardon of her family members and the
Serenellli's for any wrong she might have done them. Then
the entire family, for once, began the walk to Conca for the ceremony.
The message the arch-priest gave these first communicants was
'PURITY AT ALL COSTS.' How well Maria had absorbed this
lesson was shown less than two months later.
month of June, Maria received Communion four more times.
Also during this month, Alessandro Serenelli twice made advances
to her. On both occasions he had managed to be alone with
her in the house. This young man, nearly twenty, had been
accepted by Maria as another brother but suddenly, he was paying
her compliments and attempting to come close and touch her.
Instinctively, Maria recognised something of his intentions and
the purity of her soul was revolted. On both occasions,
he threatened to kill her if she mentioned the matter to anyone.
Maria did keep silent but not through fear of harm to herself.
Rather, she realised that exposing Alessandro would bring worry
and grief to her mother and financial ruin to their family.
During this month, she attempted to keep as far away from Alessandro
as possible and to be in the company of her mother whenever she
had to be in his presence. She hoped by this to avoid any
further occasions for confrontations. And what of Alessandro,
this brutal murderer and would-be rapist? Psychologists
would be interested to know that he was brought up by a stern
and harsh father after the early death of his mother. During
part of his teenage years, he had lived alone, doing work on the
docks and had been exposed to all sorts of vices. He had
some education, although his family had lived most of the time
in the same poverty as that of the Goretti's. Alessandro
was quiet and fairly shy and Assunta later testified that he usually
kept the door to his room closed at all times. In his room,
he read all sorts of violent newspapers. Some biographers
mention that he read a great deal of pornography, although in
the strict sense this material was more sensational than sexually
orientated, with news reports of brutality and murders.
At any rate, it was unhealthy reading material.
On the other
hand, from the time he and his father began living with the Goretti
family, Alessandro exhibited many traits of goodness. He
attended Mass and often joined in the saying of the family Rosary
with the Goretti's. He was a hard worker in the fields and
from time to time actually defended one or the other of the Goretti's
against the verbal abuses of his father. By his own testimony,
Alessandro first noticed how beautiful Maria was while praying
the family Rosary. He also noticed that when praying, this
girl really prayed and did not simply mouth the words.
morning, July 5, 1902, the Goretti's and the Serenelli's were
working in the field about a hundred and thirty yards away from
the house. After the noon meal, Signor Serenelli fell asleep
under the stairs and the others returned to the field. Maria
sat on the landing with her mending, watching over her sleeping
baby sister. The other Goretti children were riding in the
noisy threshing wagons with their mother. Alessandro exchanged
his place behind the lead oxen with Assunta and returned to the
house. He brushed past Maria, went to his room, then came
past her again carrying a handkerchief and went to the storeroom
downstairs. Later, it was learned that he had sharpened
and tapered a nine-and-a-half-inch pointed blade. He returned
again to the house and called Maria to come to him. When
she called out to ask why, he repeated his demand. She told
him she would not come unless she knew why she was needed.
Alessandro came out to the landing and dragged her into the house.
Any cry she made was drowned out by the steady hum of the thresher
going round and round in the blazing sun. According to Alessandro,
Maria's words were, "No! No! No! What are you doing?
Do not touch me! It is a sin - you will go to Hell!"
More than instinctively fighting to preserve her honour, Maria
thought even at this time of the sin which would condemn Alessandro
to Hell. Although she fought with all her strength, she
could hardly expect to hold out long against the husky young man.
He pushed a gagging handkerchief into her mouth but, confronted
with a will stronger than his own, he could not touch her.
At this point,
Alessandro picked up the knife and began stabbing Maria.
Reports as to the number of wounds vary but fourteen major ones
were treated at the hospital. Because of the threshing,
those in the field did not hear Maria's cries for help.
The baby on the landing awakened at the noise and began to cry;
the baby's cries awakened Alessandro's father at the foot of the
stairs and Assunta, glancing up, noticed that the baby was unattended
and in danger of falling off the landing. Signor Serenelli
and Assunta ran toward the house, where they discovered Maria
who had begun to drag herself toward the door. When questioned,
she answered in her direct way that Alessandro had stabbed her.
"He wanted to make me do wrong and I would not."
doctor arrived and as he was binding her wounds, Maria did not
cry out with pain. From time to time, however, she spoke:
"Oh, Alessandro, how unhappy you are! You will go to Hell!"
By the time the ambulance arrived, a crowd had gathered.
Some dragged Alessandro from his room where he had shut himself
up and would have harmed him if the local police had not taken
him away. Many of the others followed the ambulance, on
foot, to the hospital. During the trip to the hospital and
the twenty hours of agony she spent before her death, Maria was
conscious much of the time. She did not complain and rarely
even moaned with the pain. After asking twice for a drink
of water (which was refused because her injuries were internal
and water would have caused further damage,) Maria gave up this
comfort without complaint, as well as the comfort of having her
mother beside her at night. The hospital had a rule that
no visitors could stay overnight and Assunta was forced to sleep
in the back of the ambulance.
was called soon after Maria's arrival at the hospital. Although
the doctors performed surgery, none of the three doctors on the
case had much hope for success. As the priest arrived, Dr.
Bartoli assured him, "Father, you will have little to do.
We are leaving a dying girl but you are finding an angel."
priest who had given Maria her First Communion came to bring her
the last. Before he gave her Viaticum, he asked her if she
forgave her murderer with all her heart. Maria replied with
no hesitation, "Yes, I too, for the love of Jesus, forgive him
... and I want him to be with me in Paradise ... May God
forgive him because I already have forgiven him." Maria
died shortly after three o'clock.
trial began on Maria's birthday, October 16, 1902. In spite
of the defense plea of insanity, Alessandro was found guilty.
Because he was a minor, his sentence was thirty years in prison.
He was sent to a prison in Sicily where he spent the first eight
years with no sign of remorse or regret for his crime but, one
night, after living with a dead soul for all those years, Alessandro
had a dream. He saw Maria in a field of flowers, holding
out some white lilies to him. Within a few days after this
dream, the local bishop requested and obtained an interview with
Alessandro. On November 10, 1910, Alessandro wrote a letter
to the bishop begging God's pardon for the great sin he had committed.
her children and returned to Corinaldo, in accordance with Luigi's
last wishes. There she raised her family. She was
able to obtain work as the housekeeper of the local priest and
worked there for many years. Maria's heroic life and death
were not forgotten. The Passionist priests asked Assunta's
permission to move Maria's body to the sanctuary of Our Lady of
Grace. This was accomplished in 1929. Pope Pius X
had already held Maria up as an example of true devotion and an
inspiration to youth. In this same year, Alessandro was
asked to give testimony in Maria's process for beatification.
By this time, he had been released from prison and was living
a quiet life as a labourer. Alessandro willingly gave his
testimony, taking total blame, repeating that Maria's thoughts
had been for his soul even at the moment of the attack and relating
the dream which had led to his conversion. On Christmas
eve, 1937, Alessandro went to visit Assunta at the rectory to
hear from her own lips the assurance of forgiveness. As
he tearfully begged her pardon, she replied that she could hardly
refuse when Maria had been so willing to extend this forgiveness.
Assunta and Alessandro attended Midnight Mass together at Maria's
Pope Pius XII beatified Maria. Because her death had been
that of a martyr, no miracles were required for beatification
but thereafter, those in need began to cry to her for help and
such a shower of favours was received through her intercession
that the two miracles necessary for canonisation were speedily
and unquestionably certified. Maria Goretti's canonisation
occurred on June 25, 1950, less than three years after her beatification.
mother, by that time an old woman, was present and the crowd was
so huge that the ceremony had to be held outside, in front of
St. Peter's basilica. The interval between Maria's beatification
and canonisation was one of the shortest of any cause recorded
at the Vatican.