Blessed Enrichetta Alfieri: her life

Sr Enrichetta Alfieri
The “mother” of saint Victor
A woman for life, freedom and charity.

Her origins

Sister Enrichetta Alfieri -Maria Angela Domenica -was born in  Borgo Verceil, in Italy, on the 23rd February ,1891, by John and Rose Compagnone. She is their first daughter who will be followed by another two sisters Angela and Adele and a brother Charles.

Maria is carefully educated by her deeply christian parents; she lives her childhood by attending an elementary school ; during her adolescence she spends her time doing either housework or working in the fields, as it was common in those days ; besides she becomes an expert in art and embroidery ; thus she forms a character which is at once gentle and strong.

When she was about 17 years old, she thinks of religious life but her parents invite her to reflect and to wait. These years strengthen her decision to give herself totally to God.

On the 20th December, 1911, the twenty year old Maria, enters as postulant in the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity in the Monastery  «Santa Margherita» in Vercelli.

The Superiors see in Sr.Enrichetta a strong inclination to education : on the 12th July1917, she receives the Authorisation Diploma in Elementary School Teaching.

Borgo Vercelli: Alfieri House

The Church of Borgo Vercelli

Family Alfieri

On the cross with Jesus

Afterwards, she is sent as educator in the Kindergarten School « More » in Vercelli. Only a few months later, she is obliged to leave the school because of  health problems.

Having been transferred to the Provincial House of Vercelli, the  seriousness of her disease isn’t diagnosed immediately.

In April 1920, she is accompanied to Milan to for thorough treatment and special tests, but without big results. A serious disease is finally diagnosed: it’s a degenerating spondylitis.

She is sent to the infirmary of the Provincial House of Vercelli and her condition continues to deteriorate. In fact she is immobilised and in great pain for more than three years.

As from this moment, the life of Sr.Enrichetta appears strongly marked by suffering which she herself considers as Jesus’ privilege on her behalf, hence rendering her similar to him :  «If by vocation we are established on the Calvary, by illness we are on the Cross with Jesus – we read in her notes – The bed must be considered as the sacrifice altar on which we must immolate ourselves and let ourselves  be immolated like peaceful hosts and victims of love. It is therefore necessary to suffer in a holy manner for the benefit of the spirit and of virtue. Suffering is not enough; it’s necessary to suffer a lot and to do so it is necessary to suffer with dignity, with love, gentleness and intensity».

Maria-Angela Domenica Alfieri

The community, in the prison of  Saint Victor, in Milan

Saved for the others

In May 1922, just as they declare that her disease is incurable, Sr. Enrichetta is sent on a pilgrimage to Lourdes  « in the hope, writes the provincial superior, that the young sister, this angel of gentleness, could be healed or encouraged  through the Most Holy Virgin…»

She comes back without being healed, but she feels the effects of the grace of the Spirit because every day she feels stronger while accepting her immolated sacrifice.

During this suffering period, the characteristic features of her spirituality emerge : participation in the Passion of Christ through the Cross; fidelity in Love; serene self-surrender to God’s Will manifested by her constant smile and by the simplicity with which she lives the Calvary’s experience. «The true religious, when faced by the Cross or  penetrated by the sword, always answers with a smile» she writes in her notes.

In January 1923, the doctor who visits Sr.Enrichetta declares that she is about to die. On the 25th  February, day of the ninth apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes, at 8 o’clock, while the community was hearing the Sunday mass, Sr.Enrichetta, destroyed by the utter sufferings, makes a great effort and drinks a drop of water of Lourdes. After a brief fainting, she hears a voice telling her:  «Get u». She gets up immediately as she is free from pain and paralysis.

She writes: «…The good heavenly Mother made me reappear miraculously from death to life. Feeling of: gratitude, marvel, disappointment. The doors of Heaven are closed, those of life are opened up again ».

There is big joy and wonder on behalf of the sisters in front of the extraordinary event. The consulted doctors declare the clinical healing and acknowledge the impossibility to give an explanation.

While her health conditions improve, the Superiors, to avoid encouraging the increase of the enthusiastic religious manifestations occurring in the city due to this miraculous event, send Sr. Enrichetta to the detention House of  Saint Victor in Milan.

The prison’s corridors

Sr. Enrichetta and the inmates
in front of the Virgin of Lourdes

Sr Enrichetta

The victorious light of darkness

In front of her, opens up a new world still to be discovered, in which the horizon is always limited due to the very high walls, the very long corridors, the closed portals, the locked up doors and the many bars: yet, in this place Sr.Enrichetta will be capable to live freely, strengthened with charity.

Her entrance in the detention House is marked by faith and by a fervent desire to participate in the difficult mission entrusted to her.

Sr.Enrichetta begins her difficult and new apostolate by bringing the light of faith wherever the darkness of evil seem to be present. She writes: « charity is a fire which likes to expand while it burns ; I will suffer ; I will work and I will pray to draw souls to Jesus ».

Thus, the long apprenticeship of charity begins. The young religious exerts gentleness and hospitality. She passes in the cells, she listens, she consoles and encourages the inmates.

Sustained by an intensive life of prayer, by a constant union with God and a strong experience of community life, her personality is delineated gradually, fascinating, authoritative and capable to instil a strong courage in the inmates.

Her gentle, direct and firm look, her serene face, her calm and convincing word, her moderate and good gestures give her an immediate and communicative ability, penetrated by humanity, hence enabling her to gain the trust of the persons who approach her.

Her presence and her word bring about order and serenity in the inevitable tense situations which crop up in the detention House. Those who knew her confirm that one rarely resorted to the sentries’ intervention to restore order.

Towards the end of 1939, Sr.Enrichetta is appointed Superior of the Community of the Sisters of Saint Victor. She becomes the sure guide of nine religious who across their swift and tireless service, seem to be more numerous : in fact, they are everywhere, in the corridors, in the cells, in the laboratories ; some of these sisters who are still alive, remember her ; a model in spiritual life and in her rich humanity, serene in the adversities, strong in sacrifice, joyful in suffering in which she knew how to see a sign of the Lord’s predilection.

In the inner garden of the detention House, where one finds a small grotto with the image of the Virgin of Lourdes, every evening Sr.Enrichetta likes to gather small groups of women for a moment of prayer ; this appointment is often the right occasion to hear the secrets and the sufferings of these unfortunate individuals.

The charity of Sr.Enrichetta is not limited to the prison walls : when the inmates are transferred or granted freedom, they know that they can rely on the « Mother of Saint Victor », who continues even through writing, to sustain, to encourage and to love her « guests ».

Love triumphs over hatred

When the second world war broke out, Saint Victor is subjected to the Nazi-fascist power and the prison population is changed : the common law criminals are replaced by the political inmates, Jews, priests and religious who collaborate with the opposition.

The Germans are in charge of the detention House like a concentration camp ; it becomes the place of  police-interrogations, of physical and moral tortures, of condemnations and departures to the extermination camps.

Sr.Enrichetta, with her sisters, is the first to defend the victims, to help and  sustain them by slipping through the dark corridors, entering the cells and encouraging encounters.

She manages to bring material help to the inmates and at the same time send messages outside which were intercepted by chance, for persons in danger, so that they might escape, destroy the evidence and evade the  secret agents. In this manner many of them were saved.

Sr.Enrichetta collaborates with Cardinal Schuster, as she is entirely dedicated to protect human lives across the mediation of Father Joseph Bicchierai.

All the community sustains this activity across the ordinary service, but it’s Sr. Enrichetta who personally assumes all the risks and dangers that this joint work entails.

The arrest and the liberation

Suddenly, the complex plot of solidarity woven across the years, seems to break ; on the 23rd September   1944,  a piece of written paper is stopped and the results are immediate : Sr.Enrichetta is arrested together with the two collaborators. She is accused of espionage with the risk and the quasi certitude of being condemned or deported in Germany.  Her register number is 3209.

Put in an isolated cell in the detention Home, Sr.Enrichetta spends days of frightening expectation while she prays incessantly, happy to share the destiny of many brothers while aware that she did her duty as an Italian Sister of Charity.

In the « Memories », she relates : « From that time onwards, prayer and meditation become my sole occupation ; my strength in prison. Didn’t I say several times to the poor inmates : if I were in your place I would spend all my time in prayer? Now the moment has come !… What a grace to be able to pray !… »

And from her heart came forth this beautiful prayer : « For many injustices, oppressions and sufferings, Lord, have mercy of our poor world, of our dear native land which today is destroyed, and grant that these ruins (Italy) watered with tears and blood, will soon rise again, purified, more beautiful, more laborious and stronger ; more honoured and especially more christian and virtuous ».

After eleven days of detention, thanks to the intervention of  Cardinal Schuster and of a personal friend of Mussolini, the fear of the danger of being deported in Germany is wiped out ; Sr. Enrichetta is condemned to be in the residence under the supervision of Grumello del Monte, Bergame, in the Institute Palazzolo, a nursing home for mentally ill people.

There, she spends two months of exile, where she lives moments of inner peace and serenity but even moments of anguish and anxiety as she thinks of those who are still in prison  : « I used to hear their sad cries and their anxious supplications; I used to see again their pale faces, their tearful eyes without expression;   it seemed that I was still feeling their hands in mine like a last goodbye. All this tore my heart apart, and since I couldn’t sleep, I suffered and prayed for them, being sorry that I couldn’t encourage them anymore.

The thought of those who were in prison afflicted me but that of the deported tore me apart!… It remained within me constantly and made me suffer an inner martyrdom…I had to behave somehow like Moses for those whom I left struggling; for those who were suffering. I had to continue with my apostolate of an Italian and Catholic Sister of Charity, through prayer and the forced renouncement to my activity, in the beloved field of my mission. »

When the tornado was over, after her liberation, on the 7th May 1945, Sister Enrichetta can return to Saint Victor, where she resumes her mission of Sister of Charity among the new Prison inmates : yesterday’s enemies. Now the prison is overpopulated with fascists and young women who had joined the Social Republic of Mussolini.  Now that she is more mature, purified by suffering and interiorly more united with God she can start afresh her work in Prison and rebuild the material and the moral aspect of that reality.

Thanks to her attractive bounty, Sr. Enrichetta gets closer to those who suffer and seek a word of peace and support. She alone obtains the permission to enter the cell of a particularly difficult inmate, Rina Fort, accused of several murders. Patiently, she leads this hurt creature to meet God’s mercy.

Sr. Enrichetta with Rina Fort, a well known inmate

The prison’s chapel

Extracts from the memories written by Sr. Enrichetta

The meeting with her Lord

In September 1950, she falls down in the Cathedral square and breaks her femur. She manages to recover but only for a little time. Seriously ill due to bad liver functioning, her heart is highly tired and after thirteen days of agony she is ready to meet the Lord. After receiving the Sacraments to which she participates with full lucidity, she says with an edifying serenity: « I didn’t believe it was so nice to die »

It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Friday 23rd November 1951.

The news of her death is immediately diffused via radio and the press. Her corpse, displayed in the burial chapel becomes the object of touching manifestations of love ; the inmates want to see once more, « the Angel of Saint Victor ».

Her funeral rites,  celebrated in the Basilica of  Saint Victor, were the consecration and the triumph of virtue and Charity. Among the crowd assembled for the ceremony, participated numerous sisters, civil and ecclesiastic authorities and a very big number of people.

The parish priest, Mgr Dell’Acqua put this inscription of the church facade : « Within the sad walls where one atoned and in the dark cells where, during the tragic hours of the Homeland, one paid for having loved freedom and Italy, put to the test for decades, she used to pass like an angel, cried like a mother, silent and daily heroism. In a fervent prayer, like a burning flame which was later extinguished, this was Sr. Enrichetta Maria Alfieri, a true Sister of Charity.»

by Sr Wandamaria Clerici and Sr Maria Guglielma Saibene