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December 24

 Institute of Sisters of the Holy Family

Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli

Widow, Foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Religious of the Holy Family

(1816 – 1865)

“The humility, simplicity, poverty and love of work found in the Holy Family of Nazareth is what makes up the specific spirituality of this Institute.   The Sisters that belong to it must strive to model themselves on this life, full of the recollection, hiddeness and with the same spirit of humble labour that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in this blessed home.”

Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli summarizing the charism of her new Order

Saint’s Life Story

Her Early Life  

Costanza was born on January 28, 1816 in Soncino, Cremona, Italy, the last of 16 children born into the noble family of Francesco Cerioli and Francesca Corniani. She was a frail child plagued by a heart condition throughout her life.

Comfort Found in God Alone

Costanza lived at home until she was 11 years old, when she was sent off to school in Bergamo. Here, she remained for five years, suffering terribly from the loneliness of being away from home. But this experience helped her grow to depend on God, finding her comfort in him alone.

Arranged Marriage to Gaetano Busecchi

At age 19, Costanza returned to Soncino where a planned marriage awaited her.  Gaetano Busecchi, a 59-year-old widow of a countess, was set to be her husband. Seeing it as God’s will, Costanza accepted this proposal and was married on April 30, 1835. Her marriage lasted 19 years and was marked by suffering on all sides. Her husband’s difficult character and poor health weighed on her.  In addition, three of the four children that Costanza gave birth to died prematurely. While Carlo, her greatest “consolation”, lived to be 16.

Before his death due to serious illness in January 1854, Carlo spoke these prophetic words to his mother: “Mama, do not cry… the Lord will give you other children”. At the end of that same year, on 25 December, Gaetano also died.

Dark Times

This marked a dark period for Costanza, causing a profound existential crisis. Never had she found herself so alone and abandoned, her life so seemingly senseless. It was during this time that the words spoken by her son became a constant echo in her soul and sustained her, becoming her “guiding light”.

She sought spiritual direction and entrusted her tragedies and entire life into the hands of God, asking constantly for the grace to live her life with eyes of faith.

Spiritual Maturity

Costanza continued to feel the need to express her “maternity” and to “give of herself” to others, as she had done with Carlo. She was now 38 years old and, inspired by the Gospel, understood that charity was the only truly meaningful road.  She thus began to visit and assist the sick and share her belongings with the poor and orphans. Looking into the searching and frightened eyes of the orphaned children who begged along the streets inspired her to make even more courageous decisions.

She began to give all her wealth and belongings to the poor and opened her home to welcome orphans. Her family and neighbours would remark: “The anguish that this devout woman passed through must have driven her crazy… she does not realize what she is doing”. The money she received once she sold her jewellry was used to purchase materials for the orphanage. Even before giving away all her goods, she had made the most important decision: to give her entire self to God, making a perpetual vow of chastity on December 25, 1856. And with her confessor’s approval, she made vows of poverty and obedience on February 8, 1857.

It was not long before other young women desired to join Costanza and “follow” in her works of charity. God’s plan was unfolding before her eyes with greater clarity; in silence, prayer and recollection she began to draw up the Rule for her “work”.

Foundress of Sisters of the Holy Family and Religious of the Holy Family

On December 8, 1857, Costanza, “mother of many orphans”, founded the Institute of the Sisters of the Holy Family in Comonte, Italy. She took the name “Sr Paola Elisabetta”, and summarized the charism of the Congregation in this way:

“The humility, simplicity, poverty and love of work found in the Holy Family of Nazareth is what makes up the specific spirituality of this Institute. The Sisters that belong to it must strive to model themselves on this life, full of the recollection, hiddenness and same spirit of humble labour that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in this blessed home”.

From that day, Mother Paola dedicated herself to the growth and development of the religious community. On November 4, 1863, in Villacampagna, a male branch was also founded by her, the Religious of the Holy Family.

Under the Protection of Saint Joseph

With the House of Nazareth as the model of both branches, Mother Paola entrusted her “work” to the special protection of Saint Joseph. She willed that the orphans under their care be known as the “sons and daughters of St Joseph”.  She was very attentive to the education of these parentless children and to the problem of poverty. Her motherly spirit was limitless and she understood the importance of carefully and properly forming her religious sons and daughters, so that they would be able to love and educate well the children God placed under their care, these “neglected and lost ones”.

Her Death

At the age of 49, Paola Elisabetta Cerioli died unexpectedly in her home in Comonte di Seriate, Bergamo, Italy on 24 December 24, 1865. 

At Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli’s canonization, Saint Pope John Paul II stated:

“Contemplating the Holy Family, Paola Elisabetta understood that families remain strong when the bonds among their members are sustained and kept together by sharing the values of faith and a Christian way of life. To spread these values, the new Saint founded the Institute of the Holy Family. She was convinced that in order for children to grow up sure of themselves and strong, they needed a family that was healthy and united, generous and stable.”

Born :                  January 28, 1816 in Soncino, Cremona, Italy

Died:                   December 24, 1865 age 49 in Comonte di Seriate, Bergamo, Italy

Beatified:           March 19, 1950 by Pope Pius XII

Canonized:        May 16, 2004 by Pope John Paul II

Feast Day:          December 24

Patron Saint:     Religious of the Holy Family; Sisters of the Holy Family

Source:

Reflection

Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli lost everything. Three of four children died prematurely. Her sole surviving child, Carlo, died at 16. Then, her husband, Gaetano, also died that same year. However, her son Carlo spoke these prophetic words to his mother: “Mama, do not cry… the Lord will give you other children” and this became Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli guiding light to found the Institute of the Sisters of the Holy Family and later the Religious of the Holy Family, a male branch – both focused on the Holy Family of Nazareth.

What hardships and tragedies have you had to deal with? Like Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, the Gospel can inspire us that charity can lead us to a meaningful life helping others, even facing hardships and tragedies in our lives.

Prayers

Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, through your intercession, may God help us provide a healthy and united, generous and stable family for the children in our lives. In every daily situation, may we be witnesses for these children of the love of our merciful God through our sharing of the Christian values in all our acts.

Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, pray for us. Amen.

Saint Links 

AnaStpaul – Saint of the Day – 24 December – Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli (1816-1865)

CatholicSaints.Info – Saint Paola Elisabetta Cerioli

Heralds of the Gospel – December 24 Featured Saints

The B.C. Catholic – St. Joseph and the interior life by Father Anthony Ho

Vatican – St Paola Elisabetta (Costanza Cerioli) (1816-1865)

Wikipedia – Paola Elisabetta Cerioli

Video Link

St. Paola Elisabetta Cerioli –  YouTube (The Way of Saints)