The end of the 19th century. In Milan, Italy, the rich and liberal Barelli family’s core values are clear: hard work, honesty and love for the country. But the Church and religion are looked upon with suspicion. The Barelli’s are proud of themselves for their disdainful religious indifferentism and their distrust of priests.

Armida Barelli
Armida Barelli

However, for the education of their daughter Armida, they turned to a boarding school in German-speaking Switzerland, held by nuns who, with traditional severity, guarantee the formation necessary at that time for a young lady of a good family. Little Armida though did not fail to immediately manifest her lack of religious inclination.

In the winter mornings it was quite difficult to wake up at 5:15 am according to the rules, but it was unbearable that a nun would clap her hands near her bed with a loud and guttural “God be praised” in German. So the girl answered by mumbling a curse in Italian.

A Great Design

A small miracle happened when she found a Capuchin friar capable of tenderness. Father Wilhelm first got permission from the superior for the girl who had just arrived to sleep a little longer.

Then the friar explained the meaning of that first morning greeting addressed to God: “Jesus has kept watch over you all night, why do you refuse him your first thought? If you do not learn to give God your first thought,” he said, “you can hinder some Great Design that he has about you. I see that you do not love Jesus as he would like to be loved by you.” “To be loved by me?” The girl stammered. “I am not a nun!”

The good priest explained how we are all unique to the heart of God, but this did not prevent Armida from becoming terribly bored with daily mass. “I’m not a German potato,” Armida retorted when they tried to convince her to meditate. “The Lord does not oblige anyone to die from boredom,” she continued.

Decisive was the friendship with a companion less refined than the others and therefore less sought after but interiorly rich, and who invited her to participate in a very particular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It could have been a sentimental devotion absorbed superficially, and instead became a deep ardor of her soul. So Armida decided to consecrate herself to God in that same Institute where she was educated.

Milan, Italy
Milan, Italy

It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the family. They rushed to get her out of the school and brought her back to Milan, hurriedly organizing a debut party for her to “come out” in society even before she was 18.

Daily Mass and prayers were forbidden. They multiplied the parties, trips and then also games, the dances, clothes and jewelry. After a year, convinced that she had been detoxified, her parents brought her back to school to finish her studies. She graduated with full marks, at 18 years old.

When the day for the last greetings came, the collegiate exchanged greetings, dreams and plans with her classmates. Armida showed to have undoubtedly clear ideas: “In 10 years,” she told her friends, “I will either be a missionary in China or a mother of 12 children, but never an old spinster!”

And yet up to 27 years of age she just seemed to remain a spinster. She was young and beautiful and had everything she could wish for: social life, well-deserved long periods of vacation either in a villa by the sea or in a mountain cabin.

Young Armida Barelli
Young Armida Barelli

She had even a boyfriend whom she did not want to marry, and the circumstances also seemed to favor her since the untimely death of her father forced her to take on the financial management of the large family. In the meantime her vision of the church undergoes a decisive maturation.

A friend opened her eyes to the depressed quarters of the city where abandoned children roamed around unattended and asked her for help to look for institutions and benefactors willing to support them.

Then she met Agostino Gemelli, a known physician, psychologist and fiery socialist who in 1903 had suddenly converted and become a Franciscan friar. In Milan, everyone spoke about that despicable suicide of such intelligence. He convinced Armida of something that at that time seemed almost impossible: to consecrate herself to God by remaining in the world – a lay person but a saint!

The great design unfolds

After the First World War she came to the attention of then
Cardinal Archbishop of Milan Andrea Carlo Ferrari who recognized her for her organizational skills and her moral qualities. He called her and in no uncertain terms offered her a new incredible field of work, recognizing in the woman, an immense reservoir of energy and holiness that had not yet been valued.

But Armida had always been used to thinking of the woman’s apostolate in terms of charity and not as somebody who could organize women’s formation in parishes. Frightened, she withdrew and refused, but was wounded by the farewell words of the disappointed cardinal: “I should have been prepared for this refusal. From the rich you never get anything.”

The next day she went back to the Cardinal and the girls Catholic Youth Action of Milan was born. The program was to train girls who by knowing, loving and living for Jesus Christ were then prepared to sacrifice themselves, knowing how to love and serve.

Then “the fanatics” as they were immediately labeled by anticlerical and clerical right-thinking swarmed to the 8,000 parishes of the diocese to found the circles. After only one year Benedict XV called Barelli to Rome to ask her to found these circles in all the dioceses of Italy. Armida’s ancient dream of entering a religious missionary congregation was resolved authoritatively by the Holy Father: “Your mission is in Italy.” Armida recounted, “I walked down the stairs of the Vatican with the impression that I no longer belonged to myself.”

“Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.”

A young woman, alone, and ardent though often scared, she found herself traveling all over the cities of Italy. After only one year from the beginning of the Movement she had organized circles in 50 dioceses with about 50,000 members, and set up study weeks for delegates who came from every region of Italy.

Fr. Agostino Gemelli
Fr. Agostino Gemelli

In the meantime Father Gemelli was very worried. He was founding a Catholic university. He had three days to come up with one million lire as a deposit for an old monastery. There was a friend-benefactor, a Count, but he was moody and willing to give everything only for works of charity and not even a penny for education because he said it was useless.

The Count entered the room where Father Gemelli and Armida were crying with their heads in their hands. They said they had entrusted everything to the Sacred Heart, and therefore they would wait and hope until the last minute. After three hours the contract would expire.

“I’m glad,” the Count said, “so this utopia will finally disappear from your heads” and went away mumbling. But as he went down the stairs he had a sort of a vision and saw a great building, on which front it was written “Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.” He went back to Barelli and said: “I want my peace back, take this million!”

Armida became the cashier of the university until her death. It would be partly destroyed by Second World War but was the first institute to rise again from the rubble.

The Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy
The Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy

Armida had seen the office building of the Catholic University destroyed by bombing, with its library full of books and magazines burned down. Her own apartment collapsed, burying her every memory and leaving her with only the clothes she had on at that time. She gave a look of love and trust to his Sacred Heart and immediately dedicated herself to raising funds for reconstruction.

An Empowered Woman

Finally peace came and the risky elections of 1948. It was the first time that women were given the right to vote and their generalized absenteeism showed how much they had become accustomed to letting men vote for them.

Sometimes, she held six or seven meetings a day to explain to those interested the seriousness of what was at stake and help save Italy. She was able to gather 200,000 young women together in St. Peter’s Square when a violent storm broke out and it rained relentlessly for 35 minutes. The Holy Father did not move and neither did the 200 000 youth, listening to their pope answering her questions.

At this point Armida knew she had aged and felt that the Catholic Youth Action would need a younger guide, but the Pope always asked her to stay put. Finally, she was given her needed rest when her strength was already ebbing.

She continued to work in her room for the Catholic University and for the secular institute she had founded. She became ill that she couldn’t even swallow and it took 5 minutes to consume a piece of host and more than an hour to finish a bowl of soup.

The sweetness of the presence of the Eucharist in the adjoining room was a privilege granted her personally by the pope. “Heart of Jesus, I trust in you,” she kept on repeating and she was not disappointed.

She died gently in her sleep at dawn on the Feast of the Assumption in 1952.

In 1939, completing her registration for a course of spiritual exercises, on the line where she had to state her profession, she had written, not without humor, “porter of our Lord.”

She had seen so many porters in all the stations of Italy patiently carrying the luggage of passengers and she too had courageously accepted all her life to carry the weight that God continuously entrusted to her.

Carlo Gentile

Excerpts from the book “L’ottavo libro dei ritratti di santi” by Antonio Maria Sicari, Jaca Book 2005.
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