The youngest of all canonized Catholic saints was ushered out of the rain into a Baton Rouge church on Saturday by a procession of 16 men dressed in brightly colored cloaks. The Knights of Columbus, a fraternal service of protectors of the Roman Catholic church, carried the small glass case holding the remains of Saint Maria Goretti down the aisle of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church.
More than 1,000 wide-eyed onlookers packed the church as it welcomed the 11-year-old, canonized saint into its sanctuary Saturday afternoon as part of the Pilgrimage of Mercy. Coincidentally, it was also a timely celebration of All Saints’ Day.
Recently ordained Father Brad Doyle, of St. George Catholic Church, heard Goretti would be passing through on her way from Orlando, Florida, to Tyler, Texas, and asked the tour to make an extra stop in Louisiana’s capital city.
Goretti, a modern saint of forgiveness and purity, was stabbed 14 times as a young girl in Italy after she refused the advances of a next-door neighbor. She died on July 6, 1902, shortly after the attack but, before her last breath, forgave her attacker and said she hoped he would join her in heaven. The man who killed her would later convert to Catholicism and die a saintly man.
Goretti, who was canonized in 1950, began the Pilgrimage of Mercy in the United States in September and will continue through November, in preparation for what Pope Francis proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy. It will run from Dec. 8 to Nov. 20, 2016.
Visitors from all over Louisiana travelled to visit Goretti on Saturday.
Father Carlos Martins, Canadian historian of Goretti and in charge of the tour, told her story in vivid detail to people who packed the church.
She was born into poverty, and her father died when she was 9 years old, leaving her and her mother to care for her five siblings. Her mother worked the farm while Goretti took care of the cooking and cleaning. Her family accepted help on the farm from their neighbor, Giovanni Serenilli, and his 20-year-old son, Alessandro, as a means to survive.
After repeated sexual advances by Alessandro and repeated rejections from Goretti, one day Alessandro waited until he knew Goretti would be home alone and threatened her with a 5-inch daggerlike weapon used to sharpen blades, Martins said, holding up a replica of the weapon for the crowd to see.
Alessandro stabbed her nine times, Martins said, stabbing her spine so hard that he bent the metal. He then left her unconscious on the floor and locked himself in his room. When she woke up later, she dragged herself toward the front door in an effort to call for help, but when she unfastened the latch to the door Alessandro heard and went running. He stabbed her five more times before he ran off, Martins said. Goretti would go to a hospital for extensive surgery.
During surgery, she was denied anesthesia because the doctors thought her heart was too weak for it, Martins said, but she did not cry out or complain. The surgery was unsuccessful, however, as her internal bleeding continued, and it was determined she would die.
Her last words, Martins said, were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Alessandro was sent to prison for 30 years for the crime. He lived six years in solitary confinement because of his violent behavior until, one day, Goretti came to him in a vision with 14 white lilies representing the 14 times he stabbed her. She gave each lily to him as a sign of forgiveness, at which point Alessandro turned his life around. He was released from prison three years early for good behavior and would go onto become a Franciscan lay brother, devoting his life charity.
On the day Alessandro was released from prison, he sought forgiveness from Goretti’s mother, who was forced to put up Goretti’s five siblings for adoption after Goretti’s death left her unable to support them. Goretti’s mother forgave Alessandro for his actions Christmas Eve 1934, and the two attended Holy Communion together. They would later attend Goretti’s canonization.
At Our Lady of Mercy Saturday, devout Catholics of all ages took turns pressing their fingertips against the glass. A wax statue over the skeleton of Goretti, dressed in white and blue clothing, rested on her back as people flowed past, stopping to ask the saint to intercede with God on their behalf. The ornately framed casket, resting on claw feet, was lined on the inside with a red pallet for Goretti’s relics.
“I was brought to tears,” Doyle said of Goretti’s visit.
Doyle, who set out to bring Goretti to Baton Rouge, said he devoted himself to Goretti as a high school student. He said when he was going through seminary, he was gifted a relic of Goretti’s, a piece of bone from her arm. He lost it and spent two years searching for it, he said, only for it to mysteriously appear two weeks before he was ordained a priest in May. He knew he would have to see her when he heard she was coming to the United States.
“You think of saints as old people with beards that lived a really long time ago, and Maria was a young person who lived relatively recently. She was a little girl. She loved Jesus Christ, and she loved her faith. She protected her purity. She was 11. Her youth is very powerful in this story,” Doyle said. “She’s a saint for this time.”
Jacob and Calena Rudd, a young couple toting their baby, said they’d come from Lafayette to see Goretti on their way to do mission work in Mexico.
“I didn’t realize how much she had suffered,” Jacob Rudd said. “It was inspiring.”
Sheila Troxler, a grandmother who attends St. Joan of Ark in La Place, said Goretti’s life spoke to her, specifically about her relationship with her two grandchildren, aged 11 and 14.
“To be able to see her and hear her story gives me courage to be able to talk to them about things I know they’ll be facing in their lives.”
Doyle said many may not understand the desire to witness Goretti’s remains.
“God chooses to sanctify the world through physical things,” Doyle said. “These are saints that have spoken with their bodies and brought Christ to people through their bodies. The church recognizes that our bodies are good and we experience God through our bodies. These same bodies in which these saints lived their saintly lives, they mean something. And they’re important.”
Follow Danielle Maddox Kinchen on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.