Saints for Our Times: St. Magdalene focused on education for boys and girls

By Mary Lou Gibson
Columnist

By all the standards of 18th century aristocracy, Magdalene Gabrielle di Canossa was destined for a life of wealth and privilege. She was born March 1, 1774, in Verona, Italy, to a noble and wealthy family, her father was the Marquis Ottavio of Canossa and her mother, Marchioness Maria Teresa Szlugh, was a court attendant.
Magdalene’s charmed life changed abruptly after her father’s death when she was 5. After a short period of mourning, her mother remarried and left Magdalene and her four brothers in the care of their uncle Jerome and estate servants.
These were sad years for Magdalene who endured sickness and misunderstandings with her family. Richard McBrien writes in “Lives of the Saints” that after Magdalene survived a serious illness when she was 15, she told her family that she wanted to become a nun. Her relatives were horrified when she left the family estate and joined the Carmelites for a short time. But she did not take to the strict rules of enclosure and decided that life as a cloistered nun was not what she wanted. Instead, she wished to help people in need, especially the poor. She later described her vocation as serving Christ in the poor.
She left the convent and returned to manage the estate. For the next several years, Magdalene found herself working with the sick in hospitals and in their homes. Editor Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that she began to care for poor and abandoned girls she saw living in the slums of Verona. 
She took several girls into her house and encouraged by her spiritual director, she increased her activities to include a refuge and a school in the poorest part of the city. In 1808, Magdalene took over a disused monastery and moved the school and teachers into it. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that the school prospered offering girls education in practical subjects. She also devised a plan for training young women from rural areas as primary school teachers.
Other women joined her and a new Congregation of the Daughters of Charity began to take shape. Magdalene wrote a first Rule for the Congregation which became known as the Canossian Sisters of Charity. Pope Pius VII gave the Congregation provisional approval in 1816. Over the next 20 years, the houses spread to most major cities in northern Italy. Magdalene wanted the spirit of the Daughters of Charity to be detached from everything and from everybody and to be available to serve the Lord in every country. 
Magdalene focused on providing every young boy and girl an education. Burns writes that her practical work was sustained by an intense personal spirituality with mystical experiences that she tried to describe in her memoirs. She wrote, “I felt at a certain point as if I were enraptured in God. I saw God within me like a luminous sun. This absorption in the Divine Presence made me unable to stay on my feet. I had to lean against something. The strength of heavenly joy was almost suffocating.”
She had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, seeing Mary as becoming “mother of charity” as she stood at the foot of the cross. Burns noted that her inspiration was the Gospel, especially Christ crucified. She always saw the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering.
Magdalene extended her work to a men’s Congregation, the Institute of the Sons of Charity, and opened schools for boys in 1831.
Pope Leo XII gave the Congregation formal approval in 1828. Magdalene died in Verona on April 10, 1835. She was canonized by St. John Paul II in 1988.
Today, the Canossian Daughters of Charity are present in six continents and 36 countries where they spread the apostolic options of education, evangelization and pastoral activity, assistance to the sick and suffering, formation of the laity and spiritual exercises. They are also praying to St. Magdalene for the many young women who are caught up in the sex trafficking epidemic of our day. For details, visit www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-magdalen-of-canossa/.