6 October 2017

Maria Bertilla Boscardin – wartime nurse

Brave nun was prepared to die caring for others

A depiction of Maria Bertilla Boscardin from Catholic Church literature
A depiction of Maria Bertilla Boscardin
from Catholic Church literature
Maria Bertilla Boscardin, a nun who was canonised for her devoted nursing of sick children and air raid victims in the First World War, was born on this day in 1888 in Brendola, a small town in the Veneto.

She was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1952, just 30 years after she died, and made a saint by Pope John XXIII nine years later.

It was one of the quicker canonisations of modern history. Sometimes many decades or even hundreds of years pass before a person’s life is recognised with sainthood. 

Boscardin’s came so swiftly that relatives and some of the patients she cared for were present at her canonisation ceremony. Indeed, her father, Angelo, was asked to provide testimony during the beatification process.

Born into a peasant family, who knew her as Annette, her life in Brendola, which is about 15km (9 miles) southwest of Vicenza, was tough.  She was seen as rather a slow-witted child, mocked by her peers and unkindly nicknamed ‘the goose’ even by the local priest. Her father, a drunkard, was often abusive and violent.

She wanted to become educated but her attendance at school was at times only sporadic because her family required her to work.

Her ambition to become a nun was in part to escape from this unhappy childhood.  She was turned down by the first order to which she applied but the Sisters of St Dorothy in Vicenza admitted her to their convent, assigning her the religious name Maria Bertilla.

After a tough upbringing, Maria found her calling as a carer for sick children
After a tough upbringing, Maria found her
calling as a carer for sick children
Her first job was at the order’s large charity hospital in Treviso, where she worked in the kitchen, peeling potatoes.  What she is said to have told the novice-mistress of the convent indicated that she had very low self-esteem but she asked for their help to become a better person.

She found her calling after being assigned to work with the children being treated at the hospital, many of whom were suffering from diptheria, and needed constant attention.

One of the doctors at Treviso later testified that many of the children, separated from their families for the first time, arrived at the hospital so agitated that they would cry constantly for several days.

But Sister Bertilla, he recalled, “succeeded in rapidly becoming a mother to them all. After two or three hours the child, who was desperate, clung to her, calmly, as to his mother and followed her wherever she went.”

When the First World War spread to Italy in 1915, Bertilla vowed she would make the ultimate sacrifice, if necessary, to care for the wounded.  An entry in her diary read: ‘Here I am, Lord, to do according to your will, under whatever aspect it presents itself, let it be life, death or terror.'

As Treviso came under attack following the defeat of the Italian army at the Battle of Caporetto, she is said to have stayed with patients who could not be moved, praying and providing marsala wine for those who needed it.

After the war, she was sent to a sanatorium to care for soldiers with tuberculosis. Next she was sent to a seminary to care for survivors of an epidemic.

The statue of Maria Bertilla Boscardin at the
church of Saints Peter and Paul in Cagnano
She was unlucky with her own health, however.  Discovered to have a tumour in her early 20s, after which she underwent surgery, she fell ill again in her early 30s.

The cancer had recurred. The only hope of a cure was to have another operation. But she was much weaker this time and died in October, 1922, two weeks after her 34th birthday.

Having suffered so much cruelty as a young girl and left home with little sense of self-worth, Maria Bertilla ultimately left a deep impression on those who knew her.

She was initially buried in Treviso but after crowds regularly gathered at her grave, it was decided to erect a tomb for her in Vicenza. A memorial plaque placed on her tomb described her as "a chosen soul of heroic goodness ... an angelic alleviator of human suffering in this place."

The tomb became a pilgrimage site where several miracles of healing were said to have taken place.

A number of churches in the area around Vicenza have been dedicated to Saint Maria Bertilla Boscardin, including one at Via Antonio Federico Ozanam in the west of the city and another in the village of Cagnano, about 40km (25 miles) south of Vicenza, which has a statute of her.

Travel tip:

The house of the Sister Teachers of Santa Dorothea, where Maria Bertilla Boscardin took vows, is located in Contrà San Domenico in Vicenza. It contains a chapel dedicated to her which was built in 1952, in view of her beatification. In the same year the urn containing the remains of the saint, originally buried in Treviso, were placed under the altar table.  In 2002 thanks to architect Paolo Portoghesi the altar - previously in burnished copper - was replaced with one in white marble and the urn containing the remains of the saint was placed in front of it.

Waterways lined with weeping willows are a common sight in Treviso
Waterways lined with weeping willows are a
common sight in Treviso
Travel tip:

For many visitors to Italy, Treviso is no more than the name of the airport at which they might land en route to Venice, yet it is an attractive city worth visiting in its own right, rebuilt and faithfully restored after the damage suffered in two world wars. Canals are a feature of the urban landscape – not on the scale of Venice but significant nonetheless – and the Sile river blesses the city with another stretch of attractive waterway, lined with weeping willows. The arcaded streets have an air of refinement and prosperity and there are plenty of restaurants, as well as bars serving prosecco from a number of vineyards. The prime growing area for prosecco grapes in Valdobbiadene is only 40km (25 miles) away to the northeast.

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