Saint Mother Giuseppina Vannini: a Life According to the Charism of Saint Camillus

By Padre Koffi Médard ABOUE, M.I.


The Institute of the Daughters of St. Camillus (DSC) has no other charism than the charism of St. Camillus, as is demonstrated by the first article of the Constitution of the Institute: ‘In direct transmission from St. Camillus de Lellis through the Blessed Founders, the Congregation has received from the Holy Spirit the gift of bearing witness to the always present love of Christ towards the sick, in spiritual and corporal ministry which is also exercised at risk to one’s own life’ (Const., art. 1). In essential terms, this text refers in effect to the charism that the Order of the Ministers of the Sick received as a legacy from its founder St. Camillus in faraway 1591 and which it has stewarded down the centuries and handed on to the various religious Institutes, bodies and associations that make up what we call today the Camillian Charismatic Family (CCF). Article 1 of the Constitution of the Ministers of the Sick reads: ‘The Order of the Ministers of the Sick, a living part of the Church, has received from God, through its Founder St. Camillus de Lellis, the gift of reliving the ever-present merciful love of Christ for the sick and bearing witness to it to the world’. Here it is right to emphasise with Fr. Angelo Brusco that ‘Since the sixteenth century, when St. Camillus was born and lived, until today, the charism of merciful charity towards the sick, which Camillus de Lellis received from God and handed on to the Church, has been enriched through the contributions of many important people each of whom has enriched the original design of the Founder of the Ministers of the Sick, adding to it new original nuances’ (in Camilliani/s, n. 80, Year VIII – September-October 1994).

In the Camillian Charismatic Family this charism in the various Constitutions is written in golden letters because it is the inspiring source that legitimates in the eyes of the Church’s decision-making bodies their aggregation, with full rights, to the spirituality of St. Camillus. In this, the Institute of the DSC stands out in an excellent way because of its creative faithfulness to the charism of St. Camillus. The beatification of the founders (Mother Vannini, 16 October 1994; Fr. Luigi Tezza, 4 November 2001) and the imminent canonisation of Mother Vannini (13 October 2019) are nothing else but a recognition by the Church of the merits of this religious family in developing the gift that God made to the world through her. Therefore, it is the whole of the work of the founders but in particular of Mother Giuseppina Vannini that is recognised, confirmed and proposed anew to the Church and to the world as a ‘New World of Charity’, to use the happy expression of Pope Benedict XIV (Pope Benedict XIV, 1746). To use the words of Fr. Angelo once again, amongst the founding figures of a branch of Camillian spirituality ‘Giuseppina Vannini occupies a position of special importance: the first red cross of St. Camillus who after him would shine forth in Rome in the light of the Blesseds (and now of the saints), a sign of the value and the continuity of his message on which the sun never sets’. From this perspective, it appears clear that the charism and spirituality of the Blessed Vannini should be understood anew in the light of the charism and the spirituality of St. Camillus, through the mediation offered by the Camillian religious the Blessed Luigi Tezza as well’. To sum up, everything about the life and in the life of our saint proclaims, and breathes in, the charism of St. Camillus.

Mother Vannini and the charism of St. Camillus

There is something strange about the foundation of the Institute, namely that Mother Vannini began from the outset with the idea of a foundation because this what Father Tezza wanted. It is not that Mother Vannini had first lived and practised a charism that was then recognised, as was the case with Camillus and very many other founders. But this fact does not take anything away from the heroism of the experience of Mother Vannini. Indeed, it became, in her case, an original way because God wanted it so. From the outset she had the clear idea that this was by now her true way of sanctification and, a member of the school of Fr. Tezza, she never doubted her new call.

The history of our saint provides abundant information to us about her frail state of health which in the end impeded her from giving concrete expression to her vocation in the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity of Sienna. As Sister Emilia Flocchini writes: ‘At the age of twenty-one she obtained her diploma as a nursery school teacher and asked to enter the novitiate of the Daughters of Charity of Sienna. But shortly afterwards she went back to Rome for health reasons and for a period of trial. Next year she returned to Sienna but she was then definitively discharged from the Institute because she was thought to be not suitable’ (cf. Santa Giuseppina – Giuditta Adelaide Vannini – Vergine, fondatrice).

This state of health would become the point of strength of a rich and strong experience in the foundation of her Institute. Mother Vannini became credible like St. Camillus because, like him, she experienced suffering in her own life and in the first person, and suffering in her had many faces: from the physical to the spiritual, passing by way of the moral, the human, and so forth.

She was made an orphan at a young age with the deaths of both her parents (Angelo and Annunziata) and our beloved Giuditta experienced the not very tender life of the orphanage of the Sisters of Charity despite the maternal love of those good sisters. To all of this was added the unexpected end of her experience with the Sisters of Charity, her difficult economic situation, her physical injuries, and later the wickedness that was said about her relationship with Fr. Luigi Tezza. ‘All of her work, the example that she set in caring for the sick, the very foundation of the Sisters of St. Camillus together with Luigi Tezza was accompanied by the chrism of tribulation and pain. Physical pain, a lasting heart condition, but above all else moral pain, accepted and offered with total dedication and generosity’ (from the short work Pensieri edited by Fr. Carlo Colafranceschi).

In the Rome of that epoch, can you imagine how at the age of thirty-two our Giuditta, already without parents, remained rudderless, we might say without prospects or a future? This was no joke; it was the pure and harsh reality of her life. But as Psalm 149 says the Lord protects the foreigner, the orphan and the widow because our beloved Giudetta would soon discover God’s real project for her. The Lord is great and merciful, slow to anger and full of forgiveness.

The incredible encounter with Fr. Luigi Tezza, a Camillian

    In the short biography written by Fr. Colafranceschi we learn as follows about the circumstance that allowed the encounter of Giuditta with Fr. Luigi Tezza: ‘In December 1891 the sisters of Our Lord of the Cenaculum, resident in Via della Stamperia n. 78, every year offered a course of spiritual exercises to ladies and young ladies who spoke French. As their official preacher was suddenly not available they turned to the Camillian Father Luigi Tezza who willingly agreed. Giuditta’s spiritual director told her about this initiative and as she spoke French she joined the group without any hesitation’.

On 17 December 1891, the last day of the retreat of the encounter that Giuditta had sought, two concerns met each other and gave each other a helping hand in the name of the Lord. Fr. Luigi had the difficulty of establishing the Camillian women Tertiaries and Giuditta, with a solid human and spiritual foundation, was searching for a religious experience that could satisfy her aspirations. With the wisdom that comes from the Spirit alone, Giuditta asked for time to think about the matter when Fr. Tezza proposed to her that she should address the re-foundation of the Camillian women Tertiaries and found an Institute of a Camillian character. After praying, she went to Fr. Tezza two days later and said to Fr. Luigi: “Here I am ready to help you in your project. I am not really able to do anything. But I trust in God”. In fact, in the proposal made by Fr. Luigi and in the Camillian charism Giuditta found her pathway, a journey for her own human and Christian fulfilment, the evangelical pearl of charity, for the acquisition of which everything was worthwhile.

Indeed, we may ask ourselves: what was there that was normal in that fortuitous encounter of two souls? God was commanding events we can say only today, seeing with our own eyes the wonders of God in the lives of these two Blesseds. I am greatly moved by this and I am led to sing Psalm 123: ‘What if the Lord had not been on our side? Answer, O Israel! “If the Lord had not been on our side when our enemies attacked us…Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”’.

The foundation of the Institute of the Daughters of St. Camillus

From that moment everything moved swiftly. Without delaying matters, Fr. Luigi informed his superiors and obtained the authorisation of the Cardinal Vicar of Rome to proceed with this initiative. Giuditta began to live the common life with Vittorina Panetta and Emanuela Eliseo who had been prepared for this by Father Tezza. On 2 February 1892, the anniversary of the conversion of St. Camillus, in the room that was a sanctuary where that saint had died, these three women received the scapular with the red cross: this was the act when this new religious family grafted onto the Camillian trunk was born.

The thought of St. Camillus when he recommended his followers to serve the sick as a mother usually does with her sick only child was fully expressed in Vannini, her companions and very many other women. With them, we behold the typically female spirit of the charism of St. Camillus. They interpreted with their female soul the message of tenderness and compassion (cf. the message of Pope Francis to the CCF, Rome, 18 March 2019) that is intrinsic to our charism. ‘St. Camillus, in inviting his religious to serve the sick with the heart of a mother, had the insight that care for the sick must appeal to those qualities and attitudes that are typical of the ‘female soul’: receptivity, readiness to help, tenderness, welcome, a capacity for listening, insight, sensitivity in understanding situations, an aptitude for taking responsibility for other people’s problems, an inclination to offer help’ (Angelo Brusco in Camilliani/s, n. 80 Year VIII – September-October 1994). This Giuditta Vannini, her companions and the Daughters after them would put into practice every day in their care for the sick.

Another trial in the life of our beloved Giuditta was that ‘while the young Institute was developing rapidly, around Tezza malevolent insinuations gathered, with inferences as regards the Daughters of St. Camillus. Then in May 1899 Fr. Luigi Tezza was moved to France and on 3 May 1900 he received the order to leave for Peru. He obeyed with a great freedom of spirit, the freedom of one who felt that he was truly innocent. He stayed in Lima for twenty-three years which ended with him dying at peace in the Lord on 26 September 1923’.

‘The distancing of Father Tezza was a drama for Mother Giuseppina who had to take upon herself alone the burden of the nascent Institute. But she was not downcast: she had received from him what was needed to carry on. Endowed with admirable fortitude and trusting in the help of the Lord, she managed to spread the Institute in various parts of Italy, France, Belgium and Argentina. Despite her frail health, which meant that she often had fainting fits and severe headaches, the Founder did not spare herself: she visited the religious houses every year, strove to help the sisters and accompanied them with lovingness and vigour. On 21 June 1909, after a great deal of resistance, she managed to obtain the decree of diocesan approval for the Daughters of St. Camillus. In 1910, after her final visits to all the religious houses of Italy and France, she repeated to her daughters: “Have courage! Above all else it is God who pushes things forward and not me. And then from heaven I can do more for you than I can staying in this world. When I am no longer here, believe indeed that things will be done better than they are done now”. Further purified by pain, on 23 February 1911 Mother Giuseppina gave up her soul, in peace, to God’ (cf. Emilia Flocchini).

   In essential terms, ‘we owe to Vannini what the Daughters of St. Camillus did in the care and nursing field in Rome, Cremona, Mesagne, Brescia, Rieti, Bonsecours, Monticelli d’Ongina, Caprarola and Buenos Aires. All this was done in a way that met with the satisfaction of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, overcoming the difficulties that arose because of ideological incompatibilities with a significant number of anti-clerical representatives of the local authorities. Many women religious gave their lives in the exercise of their ministries because of the hard work and the contagion that occurred when helping people sick with typhus or tuberculosis. When browsing the pages of the first list of deaths of the Institute in which are listed many sisters who died at an early age because of their total dedication to caring for the sick, we find the spirit that animated them, the style of service with which they drew near to the sick, obtaining for them through charity great spiritual as well as physical benefits’ (Costanza Petretto, Il femminile del carisma camilliano).

Mother Vannini established the style of the Institute in clear terms: ‘It is the way of being and acting of a woman Camillian towards the community, towards the stick and towards herself, with the heart of a mother, in any part of the world that we go, that we can be recognised as “Daughters of St. Camillus of Rome”’ (Mother Vannini). Indeed  the decree on her beatification reads as follows: ‘With a motherly heart and with supernatural wisdom she guided the Congregation so that it could be for the glory of God and service to the sick, following in this the example of St. Camillus, the teacher and model of loving and merciful dedication to suffering people…She was a lovingly near and assiduous mother with the sisters of the Congregation, the sick, the poor, sinners…concerned as she was with their spiritual and corporal salvation; and she taught the sisters to behave in the same way with kindness and without sparing themselves’(Congregatio de Causis Sanctorum, Decretum Beatificationis Servae Dei Josephinae Vannini – Fundatricis Congregationis Filiarum S. Camilli (1859-1911), Rome, 7 March 1992).

Conclusion: the Magna Carta of the Daughters of St. Camillus

Mother Vannini before dying in the Lord at the age of only fifty-two consumed her life in this very beautiful work of generous dedication to her neighbour in need (whether sick or otherwise). This gospel message which transpires from her life is captured in a practical sense in the rules of the offices that she created for works of corporal and spiritual mercy (the evangelical purpose of her Institute): 1. To give food to the hungry (the sister responsible for the kitchen); 2. Giving drink to the thirsty (the sister responsible for the kitchen); 3. Clothing the sick (the sister responsible for clothes, the sister responsible for washing); 4. giving shelter to pilgrims (the porter); 5. Visiting the sick (the sister responsible for the dispensary); 6. visiting those in prison (the sister responsible for the chapel); 7. burying the dead (the sister responsible for the chapel); 8. giving counsel to those in doubt; 9. teaching the ignorant; 10. admonishing sinners; 11. comforting the afflicted; 12. forgiving offences; 13. bearing troublesome people; 14. praying to God for the living and the dead.