Q&A with Fr Flader: Abuse victim became a great Saint

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The only known photograph of St Maria Goretti, taken in 1902. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The only known photograph of St Maria Goretti, taken in 1902. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Dear Father, Some time ago you wrote about several young saints. I have always been interested in St Maria Goretti, who was also very young, and would like to know more about her. Is it true that her killer attended her canonisation ceremony?

We have all known the basic facts about St Maria Goretti – that she was killed at the age of 11 defending her purity – but a more thorough study reveals many fascinating details, including what happened to her killer in later life.

Maria Teresa Goretti was born on 16 October 1890, the third of seven children of Luigi and Assunta Goretti, a farming family from Corinaldo, in the Italian province of Ancona. When Maria was five, the family became so poor that they had to give up their farm and move away to work for other farmers.

In 1896 they moved to Colle Gianturco, some 80 kilometres outside Rome, and in 1899 they moved again to Le Ferriere, near Latina in the province of Lazio. There they shared a house with the family of Giovanni Serenelli and their son Alessandro.

When Maria was just nine, her father became sick with malaria and died. While her mother and siblings worked in the fields, Maria would cook, sew, clean the house and look after her younger sister Teresa.

“When she woke up halfway through the surgery, one of those in the theatre said to her, ‘Maria, think of me in paradise’.”

On 5 July 1902, Maria was sitting on the outside steps of the house, sewing one of Alessandro’s shirts and watching Teresa, while Alessandro was threshing beans in the barnyard. Knowing she was alone, Alessandro returned to the house and threatened to stab her with an awl if she did not give in to his sexual desires.

She would not give in, and told him that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin and he would go to hell. When he attacked her she resisted bravely, screaming “No, it is a sin! God does not want it!” Alessandro first choked her but when she insisted she would rather die than give in to him, he stabbed her 11 times.

Major Relics of St. Maria Goretti in St. Joseph Cathedral (Columbus, Ohio). Photo: Nheyob/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Major Relics of St Maria Goretti in St Joseph Cathedral (Columbus, Ohio). PHOTO: Nheyob/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

She tried to reach the door but he stopped her and stabbed her three more times before running away. Teresa awoke with the commotion and started crying, and when her mother and Giovanni Serenelli came to check on her they found Maria on the floor bleeding.

She was taken to the hospital in Nettuno, where she underwent surgery without anaesthesia, but her injuries were very severe. When she woke up halfway through the surgery, one of those in the theatre said to her, “Maria, think of me in paradise.” She looked at him and said, “Well, who knows which of us is going to be there first?” “You, Maria”, he replied. “Then I will gladly think of you”, she said.

“Alessandro later became a lay brother in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, working as a receptionist and gardener in the monastery until his death in 1970 at the age of 87.”

In the presence of the Chief of Police, Maria told her mother that Alessandro had harassed her before and had made two attempts to violate her. She had been afraid to reveal this earlier since he had threatened to kill her if she did. The following day, 6 July, after forgiving Alessandro and saying that she wanted to have him with her in heaven, she died of her injuries.

Alessandro was arrested shortly after the attack, and was later tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He remained unrepentant until he had a dream in which Maria appeared to him and gave him some lilies, which burned in his hands. After that he was a changed man.

After his release, Alessandro visited Assunta, Maria’s mother, and begged her forgiveness.
Assunta forgave him and they attended Mass together the next day, receiving Holy Communion side by side.

Alessandro reportedly prayed to Maria every day and called her “my little saint”. He attended Maria’s canonisation ceremony in St Peter’s Square in 1950, along with Assunta and her four remaining children. Some 500,000 people attended the ceremony.

Alessandro later became a lay brother in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, working as a receptionist and gardener in the monastery until his death in 1970 at the age of 87.

“He remained unrepentant until he had a dream in which Maria appeared to him and gave him some lilies, which burned in his hands. After that he was a changed man.”

St Maria’s feast day is 6 July, the day of her death, and her body lies in the Passionist Basilica of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti in Nettuno, south of Rome.

Three of Maria’s brothers reported that they had heard Maria speaking to them and giving them messages. Particularly interesting is the account of Mariano, who heard Maria telling him to remain in his trench when the rest of his unit charged the Germans in World War I. He was the only survivor of the charge and died in 1975 after raising a large family.

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