Tale and testimony reported by Sister Wandamaria Clerici and Sister Maria Guglielma Saibene, Gorgonzola (Milan), 4 July 2012
“She was able to listen to a suffering, wounded, and rebellious humanity with sweetness, patience and a creative charity. Her smile and capability to see things with her heart, led the detainees and all those who got to know her to call her “Mother of San Vittore” and “Angel of Goodness”’.
This is what Carlo Maria Martini said about Sister Enrichetta Alfieri, in the world Maria Angela Domenica.
Born in Borgo Vercelli on 23 February 1891, Sister Enrichetta joined the Suore della Carità di Santa Giovanna Antida Thouret in 1911, in the Monastery of Santa Margherita in Vercelli. She immediately showed a great attention for children and proved to be strongly committed to help the neediest. During this time she suffered from a rare illness, Pott’s disease, which causes severe pain that renders her immobile. In 1923, after a pilgrimage to Lourdes, she was miraculously healed. The news spread all over the area of Vercelli: people wanted to see her, they were curious about the girl and her sudden healing. Enrichetta was hence taken awayfrom the pressure of the public opinion and moved to Milan. Here she was assigned to a new service, at the prison of San Vittore, where her superior was an aunt of hers, Sister Elena Compagnone. During the war, Sister Elena took up a mission far from Milan and Enrichetta took her post. The girl started her pathway getting closer to the female inmates, thinking of them not as of guilty people, but rather people needy for help and redemption. She cared about making the life conditions in jail less painful, and she assigned some areas of San Vittore to facilities to welcome the detainess with children, creating labs, nurseries and schools for the kids.
The arrest of Mussolini on 25 July 1943 upset the whole of Italy. The political inmates of San Vitore demanded liberation and organised a revolt, while the town was shaken by the Allied bombings. After 8 September, the Nazis occupied central and Northern Italy and also San Vittore was seized and put under German control. Interrogations, physical and moral torture were a daily routine in the prison, from which convoys loaded with Jews and partisans left for the death camps. The nuns, moved to Brescia at the end of 1943 because of the bombardments, got back to San Vittore on 14 February 1944 upon request of the German Kommandantur.
Without any hesitation, Sister Enrichetta went on assisting and protecting those who asked her for help. Her genuine kind-heartedness impressed even the Nazis. In a note of hers, we find an explicit reference to the mediation with the notorious Corporal Franz for the safety of a Jewish detainee: “Episode: G. deported (to Germany, Editor’s note) and keeping here the Jewish woman in labour with other 5-year old kid. Female branch Infirmary. Release (miracle) for favour I demanded Franz […] The radio has been broadcasting for many days the reports about the discovery of concentration camps in Germany. Things never heard before; for how strong our words of execration may be, those inhumane wicked deeds carried out with devilish savagery by the Nazis, collaborationists, fascists and so on on the poor victims are inexpressible. They are the kind of things that make your blood run cold". Some witnesses will tell about the strength and firmness deployed on this occasion by Enrichetta to shake Franz: “If you, too have a wife and a kid.. then think of these creatures that have nothing different from them. And do something to rescue them”.
Sister Enrichetta Alfieri’s commitment among the detainees stood out particularly during the time of the Resistance. Following her example, the nuns of San Vittore took clearly sides. When they left the jail to go to the church or buy things, they met with members of the CLNAI (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia, Northern Italy’s branch of the National Liberation Committee) to deliver short letters or comfort goods. A member of the Resistance and a partisan courier, Suor Enrichetta often hid in her dress letters and messages for the detainees. For this activity she was accused of espionage and arrested on 23 September 1944. She was detained in a punishment cell, sentenced to shooting or internment in a concentration camp in Germany. She herself wrote in her memories: “At the moment I did not see anything else than a hole that was darker than the basement. So dark that I could not see where I was[…] I, who had been working in the jail for 21 years, had never heard about the existence of such turfs, whose use, probably, had been introduced only inthis last period of inconceivable cruelties”.
Thanks to the concern of the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, her penalty was reduced. Her release was ordered by the Duce on request of the recipient of the Gold Medal to the Military Value Mr. Carlo Borsani, personal friend of Mussolini’s and future President of the War Maimed. Sister Enrichetta was then freed and sent to the internment camp of the Istituto Palazzolo of Grumello al Monte. When the war was over, and more precisely on 8 May 1945, some members of the Resistance accompanied her to San Vittore, where she would carry on her charitable work until her death. In November 1941 she fell ill with hepatitis, and her conditions worsened more and more leading her to pass away in a few days.
In the following years, her memory was honoured through many civil and religious recognitions. In 1955, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities bestowed on her a testimonial to her memory, reading out: “It is nothing but the expression of the Italian Jews’ gratitude to those who have done good to them”.
In 1985, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini assigns to her memory the gold medal with a testimonial of gratitude of the Church of Milan, on the 40th anniversary of the Resistance, “for the work carried out in the years of the Liberation War, fulfilling that “rebellion out of love” that redeemed man from lies, cowardice and fear”. In 1991, Milan City Hall bestowed on her the civic merits, a golden medal usually called the “Ambrogino”, in honour of Saint Ambrose, the town’s patron.
Her beatification pathway started in 1995 and in the following year, immediately after the closure of the diocesan process of canonization, the pieces of testimony of the many people who have got to know her were published. “Sister Enrichetta was actually an incredible character - said Mike Bongiorno, jailed in San Vittore in 1943 for being of American descent- In jail they all talked about this angel, who in the female section helped the inmates and did all she could to ease every suffering, […] She represents a little bit the story of all those who suffered in San Vittore in those terrible years. Who worked inside the jail was a hero”.
Also Indro Montanelli, arrested with his wife for his journalistic activity, wrote: “The whole of us received, under her lead, short letters and information. Still today the memory of Sister Enrichetta and her swishing dress raises in me the devout admiration we owe to saints or heroes, In this cases, both”.
On 2 April 2011, the archbishop of Milan Dionigi Tettamanzi officially declares the accomplished beatification of Sister Enrichetta Alfieri. “We can rightly count her among the saints of the Ambrosian church – reads out the announcement – because for about thirty years she exerted her ministry of charity in the prison of San Vittore in Milan. […] Afterthe Liberation, it was the jailed themselves who demanded her to come back, because they considered her as their “angel”.
Gariwo thanks Sister Wandamaria Clerici for the precious material she provided our Editorial Staff with.
- Apeciti Ennio, Vedere con il cuore. Suor Enrichetta Alfieri, Suora della Carità, “Angelo” e “Mamma” di San Vittore, ITL, Centro Ambrosiano, Milano, 2006.
- Apeciti Ennio, Veramente e sempre Suora della Carità. Beata Enrichetta Alfieri, ITL, Centro Ambrosiano, Milano 2011.
-Damosso Paolo, E lei, invece, sorride, San Paolo Edizioni, Milano, 2011.
- Pronzato Alessandro, Una suora all’inferno, Profilo della “mamma di San Vittore”. Suor Enrichetta Alfieri delle suore di carità di S. Giovanna Antida Thouret, Piero Gribaudi, Torino, 1986.
-Saibene Sr. M. Guglielma, Clerici Sr. Wandamaria (curated by), Memorie. Elle Di Ci, Torino, 2002.
-Stevan Sergio, Suor Enrichetta Alfieri. La Mamma di San Vittore, Editrice Velar, Gorle, Bergamo, 2010.
Reported by Sister Wandamaria Clerici and Sister Maria Guglielma Saibene
Gardens that honour Sister Enrichetta Alfieri
You can find a tree in the Virtual Garden Monte Stella's Stories.