Gemma Galgani was an extraordinary young Italian woman, who had intense mystical experiences and a great love for the passion of Jesus. When she died at the age of twenty-five, a Passionist convent was founded in her home town of Lucca. Patrick Duffy tells her story. Early life Gemma was born at Borgo Nuovo di Camigliano […]
Gemma Galgani was an extraordinary young Italian woman, who had intense mystical experiences and a great love for the passion of Jesus. When she died at the age of twenty-five, a Passionist convent was founded in her home town of Lucca. Patrick Duffy tells her story.
Gemma was born at Borgo Nuovo di Camigliano near Lucca in Tuscany, the fourth of eight children and the eldest daughter. Her father Enrico was a pharmacist; her mother Aurelia a devout Catholic from whom she picked up her desire for holiness. A month after her birth the family moved into the city of Lucca. But when Gemma was two-and-a-half her mother contracted TB; so Gemma was put into a private nursery school where she showed herself an intelligent child.
Her mother’s death
Gemma’s mother died when she was eight and it was around this event that she first began to have mystical experiences. She had just received her confirmation and at the Mass she heard a voice saying to her: “Will you give me your Mama?” “Yes,” Gemma replied, “if you will take me as well.” “No,” the voice said, “Give me your Mamma without reserve. I will take you to heaven later.” She could only answer yes and ran home as soon as Mass was over. It was she who consoled her brothers and sisters after her mother’s death. “Why should we cry?” she said. “Mama is gone to heaven.”
At the school of the Sisters of St Zita
Gemma went to the School of the Sisters of St Zita in Lucca and was a good student, especially in Religious Knowledge. She developed a strong devotion to Our Lady and the Rosary. “If God has taken away my mother,” she said, “he has left me his own.” She longed to receive Holy Communion, even though at that time Communion was only given around thirteen or fourteen.
Gemma and Jesus can do everything
“Give me Jesus,” she would say to the Sisters at school, “and you will see how good I will be: I will not sin again.” At first the parish priest said she was too young. But by special permission she received Communion on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, 17th June 1887, just before she was ten. She said she felt a fire burning within her breast, but did not think that was unusual. “Gemma is good for nothing,” she would say, “but Gemma and Jesus can do everything.”
Foot injury and operation
Gemma continued at the school run by the Zitine Sisters until she was about sixteen. At this time a foot injury she took no notice of became painfully infected and she had to stay in bed for some months. In the end she had to have an operation for which she declined an anaesthetic, just fixing her eyes on the crucifix and enduring the pain. The doctors were amazed at her courage.
When Gemma recovered, she stayed at home looking after the household, making altar linen for the church and clothes for the poor. She would also give religious instruction to children and visit the sick in hospital. Her brother Gino who was a seminarian died when she was sixteen and her father died when she was eighteen, leaving the family destitute. But she also developed a devotion to the passion of Jesus and often expressed the desire to share in his suffering. She did not have long to wait for soon she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. This illness lasted for almost a year. A friend brought her a pamphlet on the life of the Italian Passionist Saint Gabriel Possenti. She called his name in a difficult time and he appeared to console her.
By February 1899 the doctors had given up all hope of recovery and Gemma received the Last Sacraments. Her confessor from childhood, Monsignor Giovanni Volpi, auxiliary Bishop of Lucca and afterwards Bishop of Arezzo, visited her. He suggested she make a novena to St Margaret Mary Alacoque. Twice she began the novena, but forgot it. A third time she was ending the novena on the first Friday of March. When she received Holy Communion early that morning, Jesus asked her, “Do you wish to be cured?” “Whatever You will, O Jesus!” She was delighted not just that she was cured, but that Jesus had chosen her as his child.
Wanting to enter a convent
Her first thought after her recovery was that she would enter a convent. Whether it was that the diocesan authorities were slow to believe in the permanence of sudden cure or that they were wary of her mystical experiences, no convent would accept her. She began to do a Holy Hour every Thursday.
Gemma receives the Stigmata
On Thursday, June 8th, the eve of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, when she went to make the Holy Hour, Gemma received the stigmata and this happened every Thursday continuing until 3pm on Friday. During those hours she would engage in loving conversations with Jesus in a low voice, often tenderly pleading for mercy for sinners. A Passionist priest Fr Germano was appointed her spiritual director. He made a thorough investigation and and subsequently wrote her biography.
Gemma moves into the Giannini home
In her aunt’s house it was difficult for Gemma where young people were both curious and teasing. Through the influence of the Passionist Fathers, she moved into the home of the Giannini family in Lucca, first as an occasional guest, then finally as an adopted daughter. The household consisted of the father and mother with eleven children, and an aunt named Cecilia, who already knew and admired Gemma and became an adopting “mother” to her. Here she worked, crocheting, knitting and mending socks. She also liked to care for anyone that was sick.
Still wanting to be a nun
Gemma began, as far as she could, to lead the life of a Passionist nun outside the cloister. She had already made a vow of chastity during her serious illness, and to this she now added – with her Confessor’s approval – the vows of poverty and obedience. She wore the Sign of the Passion on her heart underneath her clothing, and recited the Divine Office daily like the Passionist nuns in choir. And she never lost the hope till near the end of her life of joining them. She even predicted the setting up of a convent of Passionist nuns at Lucca, something which happened after her death and continues to flourish.
At Pentecost, 1902, Gemma was suddenly stricken with another strange illness that continued, with one short interval, for the remaining nine months of her life. She could not taste any food, her body was in pain, and she became very thin. Helped by her adoptive mother and friend she went each day to church for Mass and Holy Communion. She thought she was possessed. She seemed to herself to be full of hypocrisy and deceit. However, she continued to pray remaining calm and willing to suffer for Jesus.
Some of the doctors, thinking that her disease was tuberculosis, decided to remove Gemma, much to the disappointment of the Giannini family, to a rented room across the street. From here she could communicate with the Giannini home by a bell fixed to a cord stretched across an intervening courtyard. Here Gemma was removed on February 24th, 1903. But just two months later on Good Friday, she went into a prolonged ecstasy, nailed, as she said, with Jesus to the Cross. On Holy Saturday a priest was called and she was anointed and died that afternoon. She looked so peaceful that those present found it hard to believe she was actually dead.
Gemma Galgani was beatified by Pope Pius XI on May 14th, 1933, and canonised by Pope Pius XII on Ascension Thursday, May 2nd, 1940. Thirteen hundred of the citizens of Lucca headed by their archbishop attended, including the Giannini family who had so befriended her. Also her youngest sister Angelina sitting with the nun of St. Zita who had taught her as a child and guided her first steps in the path of heroic sanctity.