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Tuesday, 02 June 2015 20:50

The Big War: the courage of the Sisters

THE BIG WAR 1915-1918

and the courage of the Sisters of Charity

Under the High Patronage of the PRESIDENCY of the REPUBLIC, the ASSOCIATION of CULTURE and RESEARCH “ZANARDELLI” of Brescia has encouraged a “Study Day”  on the   “Courage and Strength of WOMEN” during the Big War 1915-1918 which will be officially held on the 24th April 2016 in Villa Mazzucchelli of Muzzano (Brescia).

   Even the Sisters of Charity have been invited to describe across testimonials, articles and interviews, the work of the Sisters who have  faced dangers and adversities of every kind, giving the best of themselves to cure the wounded soldiers, in the field hospitals, on the ships and on the trains hospital.   

At the beginning of the First World War the Superior General Mother recruited Sisters from all parts for the trains-Hospital of the Sovereign Order of Malta. In a circular letter dated 6th May 1915, she wrote:”My dear daughters, the days which we are living are dangerous: the wars, the earthquakes, the floods are hitting the earth which is already soaked with blood and tears … If my commitments did not hamper me, I would be very glad to race in your midst. This kind of service leads you to live continuously among the dead and the dying and make sure that your behaviour is worthy of your vocation...”

Telegram n. 442 – Rome- Minister of War – announced to the Superior General that “The Sisters crusades” would be leaving “from Milan- on Saturday 2nd September, at 70’clock.” 

On the 23rd August, the kind Mother reached Milan near the four trains-hospital heading to the western front: “She wanted to see again and embrace her sixteen daughter, before departing on the on the iron and fire line of the battlefields and the trenches…” (that same night, the kind Mother passed away unexpectedly, perhaps thinking of the 68 sisters who died in the Hospitals field during the first War of Independence ...?!)

  The trains went back and forth among the immediate rear of the battle fronts and the inner Hospitals where the Sisters could also find other Sisters ready to replace them… 

One of these Sisters who remained for two whole years in her place was Sr. Vincenza Giussani who was honoured with the golden medal. 

The other Sisters of Charity contributed in the suffering and difficult events across their work in the various Hospitals of Turin, Novara, Busto Arsizio, Savigliano (CN) Vercelli, Varese, Alexandria, which became Military Hospitals because of the circumstances.

Another three “golden medals” remind us of the untiring work and heroism on behalf of three of our Sisters: Sr. Lucia Borroni, Sr. Mari Rosa Gario and Sr. Agata Sozzi who offered their service for over forty years, in the Military Hospital of Alexandria, which during the first World War had become the central premises of all the therapeutic, pharmaceutical and provisioning organization of the 300 branches of the Hospitals.   

But how many persons died? How many were wounded? The Sisters of Charity cured them, without ever counting them, till the end of the war!

It had been written regarding the sisters of charity: “They work during the day without being scared of the rumble of the cannons, they watch during the night and they attract everyone’s admiration due to their dignified and charitable behaviour….” On the 2nd September, the four trains-hospital left Milan, on which 16 Sisters were present.  

She wrote to them: “If my engagements didn’t hinder me, I would be glad to rush in your midst … The world might appreciate your fervour and your charity but the persons living in the world will never succeed to understand the spiritual good that you can accomplish… Don’t be scared of the sacrifices that this Mission will demand of you, fulfil it as worthy spouses of a Crucified God, without heeding nature… This kind of service leads you to live continuously among the dead and the dying. See that your behaviour is worthy of your vocation!” 

 The other Sisters contributed in the suffering and difficult events across their work in the various Hospitals of Turin, Novara, Busto Arsizio, Savigliano (CN) Vercelli, Varese, Alexandria, which became Military Hospitals because of the circumstances. They did so till the end of the War.

                                                                                                                                                               Sr Maria Grazia Traverso

Published in From our story
Friday, 13 March 2015 11:12

The Missal of the Miracle

The Missal of the Miracle of la Marne 


Last summer, while I was looking up for some documents in the Archives of the community of La Roche sur Foron, in France,  I came across a rather particular missal entitled « the Missal of the Miracle of la Marne ». A quite surprising missal with some religious plates on a background representing the First World War : mass on the battlefield, war,  troops’ retreat, Triduum of the nativity of the Virgin Mary, Adoration of the Sacred Heart, etc.  

Being ignorant of this Miracle event, I was led by my curiosity to know something more. 

In the last pages of the Missal, the preface of the abbot Coubé explains the events which took place during the terrible battle of la Marne, between the 6th  and the 12th  September 1914. This battle stopped suddenly the advance of the German troops over Paris :   

"While with his famous order of the 12th  September 1914, the general Joffre announced to his armies and France  the end of the battle of la Marne and pronounced the word victory for the first time since the beginning of the war, another word, that of the miracle,  came forth from the lips of  Christian France… It was the cry coming from the heart, a spontaneous cry … ; a cry coming also from the mind because one couldn’t explain how an army, who had been chased for eight days and who seemed to  be dead tired, due to exhaustion and lack of sleep, could redress its positions all of a sudden … and repel from la Marne the German army who had been so far victorious. The word miracle had been repeated one hundred times on that day … » 

The reason of this Missal is "to kindle and to continue to express our gratitude to  God for the big blessing of la Marne victory; this is the aim of this prayer book and its holy illustrations" .

But why does one speak about a miracle ? The expression « Miracle of la Marne » has been used for the first time by  Maurice Barrès, in an article of a newspaper dated December 1914.

Several testimonials have been collected and explain what happened. Here are some of them related in the newspaper "Paper of the English Channel" of 9th January 1917:

"A German priest, was wounded and died in a French ambulance where some religious were present. He told them: as a soldier I must keep silent; as a priest, I think that I must relate what I saw. During the battle, we were surprised  to be driven back, because compared with the French, we were an army and we were sure to arrive easily in Paris. But we saw the Holy Virgin dressed in white, with a blue  waistband … She turned her back to us and appeared to be pushing us back with her right hand."

 Another German soldier: "If I were at the front, I would have been shot, because it was prohibited on penalty of death to relate what I am going to tell you : you have been astonished how we moved back so suddenly when we arrived at the doors of Paris. We couldn’t go any further; a Virgin stood in front of us with her arms wide open as she pushed us back each time we had the order to advance. For several days we couldn’t figure out whether she was one of your national saints, Genevieve or Joan of Arc.  After, we understood that it was the Virgin  who confined us to our place. On the 8th September, She repulsed us so strongly that all of us ran away. You will certainly hear later on what I am telling you now, because we were perhaps 100 000 men to see her".

Other witnesses relate this fact in an identical manner. The military authorities of the time remained silent about the event. Yes a Miracle, at this beginning of the war, but it was a war which lasted 4 years and caused a great massacre, but the prayer, the intercession, the mass and the devotions  strengthened the faith of many soldiers who faced this hell of bullets.


Sr. Christine Walczak

Published in From our story

Besançon: The convent transformed in hospital 


In the « annals » and the Council’s minutes of the year 1914, since the 3rd August, we find a list of sisters who were sent in the different military ambulances: 4 sisters in Vesoul, 1 sister in the hospice of Flangebouche, 1 sister in Baume-les-Dames, and for Besançon, the list mentions 20 sisters before reaching the General House of 131 Grande rue, Clermont, Bellevaux, the Novitiate which is formerly in St. Vincent, the Big Seminary, St. John’s College and St. Joseph’s Institution.    The Superior General Mother Marie-Anna Groffe calls the best nurses of the other hospitals and clinics to assign them in these military hospitals.


Among these 26 sisters there are 17 novices who receive the holy Habit and who pronounce the vows for three months.


Mother Marie-Anna offers to the «General inspector of the Military hospitals of Besançon », about forty beds to the Clermont Clinic and to  the Provincial House, which will be  the Auxiliary Hospital n. 15 and she puts at its disposal two operating rooms and 8 nurses religious, more linen for 127 beds and other necessary material, furniture, crockery, table linen, etc.


The « Emergency French Society for the Wounded Soldiers » extends her thanks already on the 20th August, while assuring the financial responsibility.


On the 19th February 1916, general JEANNEROD writes « Madam and most Reverend Superior General and Mother,


…since the beginning of the war, the running of the auxiliary Hospital n.15 is successful in your so called House of Clermont…


On behalf of the Committee, I have the honour to address you the most attentive thanks…  During these eighteen months’ war, you have shown us that one can expect anything from your dedication to the wounded and from that of the chosen personnel whom you have placed in the Auxiliary hospital of Clermont … »


In the Buyer Hotel, a part of one floor and three ground floor rooms have been transformed in hospital rooms. Since 1914, 35 officers and 82 soldiers arrive in these premises.   



And here is an extract, from an administrator’s report dated 28th May 1916 :


« Clermont hospital was opened on the 25th August 1914.


 10 High officers, 144 Officers, 80 Sub-Officers, 684 Soldiers have been received,


which sum up to 918 admissions and 52, 809 days of hospitalization.


7 Officers and 17 Soldiers died here.


Originally, this hospital could cater only for 162 beds, but as from the 1st August 1915 it had 200 beds.  


The hospital installed in the convent of the Sisters of Charity contains 147 beds, 35 of them for the Officers, 15 for the Sub-officers and 97 for the Soldiers. It makes use of the operating rooms of the Clermont clinic, whose rooms are reserved for the officers.  The dining rooms and the rooms of the sub-officers and of the soldiers are adjusted in the premises of the Mother House and put nicely a tour disposition by the Superior general.


All the services are assured by the religious.  Twenty two among them are assigned to the operating rooms and to those of the sick and the wounded. Eleven are in charge of the cloakrooms, the linen, the laundry and the kitchen where they are assisted by the novices.  


It’s not possible for me to end this report without thanking the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity and her Congregation for their dedication and their unfailing altruism.»


From these years of trial, there remain some tangible signs of gratitude like this touching letter dated   31st December 1914,  addressed to the Superior and to all the religious of the Mother-House by the « Train Soldiers and of the Bakery section » for the New Year 1915 ; they express their  wishes  and especially their thanks : they funded and ordered a statue of Jeanne of Arc for the chapel !       


A wounded person who has been housed in this hospital n. 15, sculptures a bust of Jeanne-Antide. The signature reads A. GUENOT – August 1918. This bust stands always on a column in front of the chapel entrance.                  


The « The Emergency French Society of the Wounded Soldiers » awards a medal « To Madame Groffe, Sister Marie-Anna Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Besançon. The grateful S.S.B.M. 1914-1919 »


Memories… Witnesses especially of dedication, courage and love.


Sr. Christiane-Marie Décombe

Published in From our story

The sisters cured the wounded soldiers in the military camps, on the hospital trains and in the Military Hospitals of various localities. 


Many Sisters were employed both in the various Military and  Civil Hospitals which opened their doors to the wounded: also in Turin,  Sondrio,   Bolzano,   Alexandria,   Savigliano (CN),  Novara,   Busto Arsizio (VA),   Vercelli,  Vigevano (PV) and in Pavia where the Boarding School of   Snia Viscosa was transformed in a Military Hospital in Reserve …


“Providence permitted that the Sisters of Charity offered their service, hence giving evidence of  an intelligent and organised activity during the difficult period of the 1915/18 war, when the Mauritian Order in Turin and in his other Hospitals, welcomed generously the wounded soldiers. There excelled the noble and the central figure of  the tireless Sr. Virginia Bolla,  who among the fifty religious was engaged in the charitable work  of the Mauritian Hospital in Turin …”.


At the end of the war in 1920, Sr. Virginia who was only 30 years old, was honoured with the Silver medal for her untiring work in favour of the wounded. 

In 1915, Sr. Maria Rosa Gario received also the highest honour on behalf of the War Minister  for her long service of over fifty years accomplished in the Military Hospitals of the  Kingdom. She was donated the Golden medal especially for her consideration and kindness with which she assisted the wounded soldiers in the Military Hospital of Alexandria in the first place, and later in Savigliano. 

“Who knows how many hours day and night, she spent near the bed of the young wounded soldiers! And with what great tenderness she knew how to accompany them to the operating theatre, as she imprinted a kiss on their forehead, telling them!:“This kiss arrives from your faraway mother” …”.


Sr. Agata Sozzi who served for over forty years in the Military Hospital of Alexandria excelled, together with her Sisters, for her unique organizational   skills, when in  1915, the Hospital became the central head office of all the therapeutic, pharmaceutical and provisioning organization of the 300 Hospital  branches capable to host about 10.000 convalescences. 

In the most dramatic moments, the Sisters moved among the wounded day and night, sustained by the power of God Alone and animated by that charity which they thoroughly learned from their Foundress. 


In 1915 even the  Military - Thermal Holiday Resort – of  Acqui (AL) was used as a Convalescent House for those wounded during the war. Since it had to remain open even during the winter, the permanent presence of three Sisters was necessary: among them was the young Sister Lucia Borroni who will donate a big part of her generous apostolic life to this Military Establishment and will risk deportation to a concentration camp in Germany on behalf of the Germans at the end of the Second World War, because she was accused of having hidden some Italian soldiers …   


“Among the many wounded persons in the war of 1915/1918, I was there too –relates Mgr Amilcare Boccio – Founder of the Congregation of the “Little Daughters of the Sacred Heart” di Sale (AL) – and I remember with deep feeling the caring and the attention reserved for me by the kind Sisters of Charity of Busto Arsizio (VA) … I was a young Chaplain of the Alpines: their attentiveness healed both my soul and my body …”.


These are only some of my testimonials  – oral and written – which arrived to us: everything is written  in that book with  no pages to flip through.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Sr. Maria Domenica Lorenza and Sr. Maria Grazia Traverso

Published in From our story

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