St. Magdalene de Canossa’s mission very much mirrors the work I do at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. I feel a special kinship toward her and her calling.
Despite being born into nobility in 1774, she experienced profound suffering as a child. Her father died in a geological expedition when she was five years old. Her mother later remarried, leaving the Canossa Palace and her children behind when Magdalene was only seven. Without parental affection, she turned to Mary for consolation, invoking her name in tears and calling her “Mama.”
At the age of 17, Magdalene spent time in a Carmelite Monastery, but decided this was not her calling. Upon leaving the cloister, the extreme poverty of her city’s indigent population, made worse by the upheavals of the French Revolution, jolted her. Such hardship provoked her to serve the needs of the less fortunate, especially children.
Using her inheritance, she began her charitable work—retrofitting an abandoned monastery where she took in poor girls, providing them with care and education. After moving out of the ancestral palace to live among those she helped, she soon was joined by other women. Together, they formed the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor. They began caring for other sick and needy children. Word spread of their great work, as did requests to start similar communities in other regions. Soon, they had convents in Venice, Milan, Bergamo and Trento.
Though primarily concerned with the poor and neglected, Magdalene’s Daughters of Charity also opened schools and colleges. As well, they made unique provisions for the deaf and those with special needs, organized retreats for girls and women, and even expanded their services to young boys.
St. Magdalene died in 1835, in her native Canossa. Her feast day is May 8.
Father Scott Donahue is the president of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.