St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello was born in Mornese, Italy on May 9, 1837. Her parents, Joseph and Mary Magdalene, were proud of their eldest daughter. Mary learned common sense and deep faith from her parents.
One time, when she was a little girl, Mary asked her father Joseph, “What did God do before He created the world?” Her question says something about her idea of God…she saw God as active and involved. Her father answered, “God contemplated Himself, loved Himself, and was happy with Himself. You see, God is not alone. It’s kind of like, me, you, your mom and your sister, Felicina…we love each other, right? That’s how God is. He loves. That’s what He did before He created the world.”
Mary was clever, but wanted to abide by the rules. She would find ways to get a hold of extra cheese, milk or eggs, which she loved, and would blame the cats or the hens for any missing food. Mary had certain dislikes in regards to prayer and faith. She would sometimes stay with an aunt in the summer, who would bring her to long sermons. She used to say, “I like to pray, but not to spend long hours in Church.” She also had a great aversion to celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Her pride inhibited her from easily admitting her fault.
Young Mary was known for her cheerful spirit and willingness to help others, even at a cost to herself. Mary had a feisty temperament, and her quick wit could often turn sour when she was angry. Controlling her temper was something she would have to work at all of her life.
Her parents were hardworking, family farmers. In the Mazzarello family, each day brought with it long hours in the vineyard, carefully tending the delicate vines in the glaring sun. Mary, the first of seven children, was physically strong and sturdy. Her father’s farmhands often complained because his oldest daughter was giving them a run for their money.
When she was fifteen, Mary joined the Association of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, run by her parish priest, Fr. Pestarino. The Daughters of Mary Immaculate were known for their charitable works and Mary soon set herself apart for her sound judgment, dedication, joy, and love of the young. Wherever she went, the village children were drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet. The girls were eager to hear her jokes and stories, or to ask her for advice.
When Mary was 23, a typhoid epidemic hit Mornese and many families were ill or lost loved ones. Soon her uncle and aunt were sick, as well. Fr. Pestarino turned to Joseph Mazzarello and his family for Mary’s help. Although Mary had the intuition that she would contract typhoid, she agreed to care for her aunt and uncle and their many children.
Under Mary’s loving care her relatives began improving, and eventually, they were healed. Mary, however, became ill and was brought home on the brink of death. She received the last rites of the Church and her family even had her casket prepared. In time, though, she recovered, but the illness left her weak. The strength which had formerly sustained her in the fields was no more. Mary was now thin and frail; a shell of her former self.
One day, walking home after Mass, Mary saw something strange. She saw a building, where there was an open field, and in the courtyard, she saw Sisters and girls playing and laughing. She heard the voice of a majestic and kind woman, which said, “I entrust them to you.”Mary shared this with her best friend, Petronilla, who was also a member of the Daughters of the Immaculate. While they wondered what it all meant, they began caring for young girls.
Mary’s practical nature lead her to find other means to sustain herself, so she took an apprenticeship with the town tailor and worked diligently to learn sewing and dress-making. She began to gather in a small workshop and teach them how to sew. Unbeknownst to Mary, God was setting the groundwork for the foundation of a new religious community with her as its co-foundress.
At the same time St John Bosco (who had specifically shunned working with girls), had a similar experience where he was shown a group of abandoned girls in a courtyard. A woman’s voice spoke to him, saying, “These are my daughters; take care of them.”The Holy Spirit was preparing the hearts of St Mary Mazzarello and St John Bosco to act upon their inspiration to found a society to care for young girls, just as the Salesian priest and brothers cared for young boys.
The Daughters of Mary Immaculate was now comprised of fifteen young women. Fr Pestarino had busied himself with training them in the spiritual life and managed to secure a place for some of them to live in community, thus was the beginning of religious life in Mornese. The Daughters took in a few young girls and housed them, schooling them in the dress-making and handing down to them their knowledge of the faith. Their work was in high demand because of the great attention which Mary paid to detail, insisting that nothing be done half-heartedly, and she was always perfectly fair, returning all of the unused materials to their customers.
Because so many girls were showing up every day, and there were so many mouths to feed, life was difficult and full of sacrifices. Mary and Petronilla would often have to beg for food while the girls scrounged for wood and sticks for the fire. They were cold in the winter, and often hungry, yet they all accepted it with a cheerful spirit, sharing everything they had.
Don Bosco was told of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate by Fr Pestarino, himself. Fr. Pestarino went often to Turin, since he was a diocesan priest who wanted to transition to the Salesian Community. Considering Fr. Pestarino’s esteem for the group of young women from his parish, Don Bosco felt an impulse to meet with them. He went to Mornese with his boys’ band under the guise of raising funds for his Oratory, but his true intention was to investigate the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. From this group, which was already engaged in the mission, he hoped to found a female counterpart to the Salesian Priests and Brothers. His dream was to call this group the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, and to make them “a living monument of gratitude to Mary Help of Christians.”
In 1867, after meeting with the Daughters of the Immaculate and receiving their enthusiastic response to his proposal, Don Bosco drew up their first rule of life. Some of the Daughters of the Immaculate accepted this rule, and the idea of becoming religious Sisters. Others did not. Thus, Mary, her friend Petronilla, and a few others left the Daughters of the Immaculate to begin living as Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, our first Sisters! Although she did all that she could to not accept the title, Mary Mazzarello was a natural choice as the first superior because of her good spirit, sense of humor, optimism and charity.
During Don Bosco’s visit, he had encouraged the townspeople of Mornese to build a school for boys. When circumstances would not allow the school to be used by the boys, Don Bosco decided to make it the first home for the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. After much formation, and quite a few struggles, the day of their profession arrived. The fifteen young women, lead by Mary Mazzarello, knelt on the cold floor of the chapel of the new school and professed their vows as religious women in the presence of the Bishop of Acqui, their spiritual father Don Bosco, and Fr. Pestarino, their gentle guide.
At age thirty-five, donned in a habit which she herself had designed, she was now Sister Mary Mazzarello. She and the fourteen other newly professed brides of Christ that were the founding Daughters of Mary Help of Christians beamed with joy, and a sense of relief that their sentiment that God had called them into his vineyard was correct. Don Bosco looked on his new daughters as a happy father; indeed the mutual visions of the founders had come to pass. The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians would care for young girls as Don Bosco and the Salesians cared for the boys! As the feminine branch of the Salesian religious family, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians sought to do for girls what the priests and brothers were doing in Turin for boys. They brought to their ministry the particular feminine genius which lends itself so well to nurturing, teaching, and encouraging the young along the way of salvation and personal growth; they became well-loved by the townsfolk.
Mary was asked by Don Bosco to temporarily fulfill the role of superior until he could call together a council of the sisters to for an election. At first she did not want the role, feeling that she was too ignorant and poorly educated to guide a newly founded religious congregation, but she yielded to Don Bosco’s pleas. For two years she was the “temporary” superior until the election took place in which she was permanently elected, much to her chagrin. Mary Mazzarello said, “Our Lady will be our true superior, and I will be her vicar.”
After being elected Mother General of the Salesian Sisters, Mary Mazzarello felt that it was important that she and the other Sisters have a good understanding of how to read and write; it was a skill which many of them had never had the opportunity to acquire. Mother Mazzarello would sit alongside all of the other Sisters and learn with them – an example of humility and dedication, as well as an encouragement to the others in their struggles.
Her dedication to her Sisters was not limited to their intellectual development alone. In every way she was an attentive mother, which is why to this day she is still fondly called “Mother Mazzarello.” When several of the Sisters were headed to launch the South American missions, she accompanied them to their port of call in Genoa, Italy, and then took a boat to France so that she could visit the Sisters there. In Marseilles, France, their ship broke down and had to be repaired. All of the passengers were forced to disembark while it was dry docked. Although the Sisters had been told that lodging had been prepared for them, there was a mix-up and they were left without beds to sleep on. Mother Mazzarello was not one to let events such as that discourage her; eminently practical, she took the sheets that they brought with them stuffed them with straw, and made makeshift beds for all of them.
After a miserable night of sleep they all awoke, but Mother Mazzarello could not get up. A fever was ravaging her body and she was in terrible pain. The day after that, more out of a concern for worrying her already exhausted companions, she was able to get up, see the missionaries off, and then journey with her remaining Sisters to their house and orphanage in St. Cyr, also in France.
Once in St. Cyr, she collapsed and was in bed for forty days; the diagnosis was serious – pleurisy. Although she felt very ill, Mother Mazzarello did all that she could to be cheerful and alleviate the worry of her Sisters. Eventually she returned to Italy, even though the doctor advised against it. She said that she wanted to die in her own community.
She made her return journey in stages, as she did not want to push herself too much; she was painfully aware of her delicate condition. Fortunately on one of her stops Don Bosco was near and they were able to meet for the last time.
As soon as Mother Mazzarello saw Don Bosco she smiled even more than she normally did; when she asked Don Bosco if she was going to die and he replied in the affirmative, her smile did not cease – here was a strong woman, whose greatest consolation came from knowing that she was doing the Lord’s will.
Mother Mazzarello knew that after her death there would be another Sister to replace her and that God would carry on the great Salesian work, because it was the work of Mary, the Help of Christians. As Mary’s daughter, she had nothing to fear.
In early April, Mother Mazzarello returned to the Mother House, which had been moved to Nizza, Italy. Her native air strengthened her and since she felt stronger she insisted on keeping the community schedule and doing her usual work. Unfortunately it was too much for her and she relapsed. Near the end of April it seemed that death was coming for her and ever the caring and concerned mother, she was able to force out a few painful words, “I am afraid jealousies will crop up among you after my death, envy of a younger Sister who may be placed as Superior. Remember that Our Lady is Superior of this Congregation. Always obey the one who receives the task of leading. And, secondly, always help each other, but let your spiritual guidance be in the hands of the one appointed for that purpose.”
Regarding those who would enter the religious life she said, “The Sisters must not leave the world only to build up a new one of their own in the Congregation! And then they say they desire Christ! Dear Lord, if they only knew You as I know You now!”
Finally, in the pre-dawn hours of May 14th, 1881, Mother Mazzarello began her death agony. It was a terrible thing to witness, but ever resolute to praise God for all that he sent her, she began to force out a weak, yet sincere hymn to the Blessed Mother. It exhausted her and she fell into a deep sleep. After receiving the last rites she turned her attention to those around her and weakly whispered, “Good-bye. I am going now. I will see you in heaven.” Shortly after she died at the age of forty-four.
She was beatified on November 20, 1938 and canonized on June 24, 1951. Mary Mazzarello’s life of utter devotion to the will of God and love for others continues to serve as an example of dedication and holiness. For every Daughter of Mary Help of Christians, Mother Mazzarello is a true mother in every way!