Maria Domenica Barbantini: The Woman and the Saint

Sr. Riccarda Lazzari

The Charism of Domenica Barbantini

The charism of helping the sick is the gift of the Spirit that was given to the Blessed Maria Domenica Barbantini for the building up of the Church and the benefit of suffering humanity. Although this was a freely given gift, it was not improvised in her heart but developed and grew through a long journey of tribulation, suffering and purification.

Maria Domenica was born in Lucca on 17 January 1789. During her teenage years she experienced the pain of four family deaths: that of her father and her three younger brothers, deaths that occurred shortly after one another. At the age of twenty-two, she married another citizen of Lucca, Salvatore Barbantini, but after just five months of marriage her beloved husband died suddenly. In front of the inert body of her husband, the young widow, who was already expecting a baby, wept bitter tears. But she lived this drama with the strength of faith and this enabled her to formulate amidst ‘tears and sighs’ a total consecration to the crucified Christ: “You only, my good crucified Christ, will be from now on my only spouse, my supreme love, my eternal portion’.[1] Her son Lorenzino was then born and he filled her mother’s heart with joy but at the age of eight the young boy died, almost in a sudden way. Maria Barbantini, although lacerated by pain, did not close herself up in the tearing mental pain of a broken motherhood and broken marriage but, rather, she opened her heart to being a total spouse of Christ and to spiritual and universal maternity for her sick brothers and sisters. From that moment onwards, she was the support of the poor and abandoned sick people of her city.

Day and night, under blazing sun and drenching rain, she went down the narrow and dark streets of Lucca to go to be at the bedsides of sick and dying women abandoned in their homes. Sometimes people put soap on the stairs to play tricks on her; others, with bad intentions, followed her during the night when, with a glowing lantern, she went into the dark of her journeys that would lead her to the most squalid dwelling places. But nothing and nobody could ever stop her. Her heart burned with love for Christ concealed in the sick and the poor and for them she gloriously risked every danger and her life itself. Her charism of heroic charity was incarnated in history through the creation of the women Ministers of the Sick of St. Camillus

The Birth of the Institute

Fascinated by the heroic example of charity of Maria Barbantini, some young women joined her, with the wish to share her spirit and her mission. On 23 January 1829 Maria Domenica began the first community of the ‘Sisters Oblate Nurses’, subsequently known as the women Ministers of the Sick of St. Camillus. Rich in zeal and love for Christ, the foundress and the first sisters performed wonders of charity at the bedsides of sick and dying women, in poor dwellings where even dying women lay alone and abandoned. They had one idea: ‘To visit, help and serve God made man, in agony in the garden or expiring on the cross, in the person of poor and dying sick women’ (Rules, M.D. Barbantini). The evangelical witness to heroic charity of the foundress and her daughters led Msgr. Domenico Stefanelli, the Archbishop of Lucca, to approve officially the Rules and the Institute only twelve years after the birth of the first community, and this took place on 5 August 1841.

The Institute Today

The daughters of Maria Barbantini are today to be found in various countries of the world: Italy, Taiwan, Brazil, Thailand, Kenya, the Philippines, Chile, Haiti, Vietnam, Peru, India, Indonesia, the Ivory Coast, and China. In every place they continue their mission of charity. Sensitive to the signs of the times and the needs of local Churches, they care for sick people even when their lives are at risk. During our epoch, as well, the daughters of Maria Barbantini, who work in countries where natural disasters have sown destruction, desperation and death, have gone to the front line to help the populations, bringing food and medicines to people and caring for the wounds of spirits and bodies. To all suffering people they proclaim Christ the Lord as Salvation.

The Famous Relic of the Brain of Maria Domenica Barbantini

On the occasion of her beatification, the mortal remains of Maria Domenica were exhumed in Lucca. During the course of this delicate process the experts found that the brain of the deceased was in good condition.

Because the decomposition of this delicate organ takes place a short time after death, to find this organ in such a good condition 130 years after her death was an event that amazed everyone.

But there is a meaning to this. Maria Domenica was an intelligent woman of deep thought and the letters that she wrote to her daughters and many other people express great wisdom, farsighted views, a capacity to grasp the essential and profound spirituality. Of an enterprising and determined spirit, she had managerial and organisational talents, a practical sense and deep insight.

From her female genius were born very many works for her city:

–        She organised and animated the catechesis in various parishes.

–        She looked after young women in difficulty and established a convent school.

–        She attended to the difficult situations in which some religious communities found themselves and restored in them peace of mind and economic security.

–        For the education of young women, she founded in Lucca the Convent of the Visitation.

–       For the sick and poor, she founded in Lucca the Congregation of the women Ministers of the Sick of St. Camillus.


    That brain, which after a century was found to be in a good condition and well maintained, is a sign of the mental riches of that woman, of the fertility of her ideas, and of her capacity for initiative and courage in serving the sick and the poor.

Maria Barbantini truly left a mark behind her in the Church and society. The newspapers of the time wrote that the whole of the city of Lucca wept when her death was announced. It was above all the sick and the unhappy who were inconsolable because they said ‘we have lost a mother’.


(The famous relic of the brain of the Blessed Maria Domenica is kept in the mother house of the women Ministers of the Sick in Lucca).

[1] B. Brazzarola, Ricerche e studi su la vita e l’opera di Maria Domenica Brun Barbantini (Rome), pp. 54-55.