It would be nice to think that married saints always had wonderful marriages, but, of course, that is not the case. St. Paula Cerioli had to live through a challenging marriage, and in part because of the heroic virtue which she exhibited during her marriage, she has been canonized.
The Early Life of Constanza Cerioli
Constanza Cerioli (1816 - 1865) was the sixteenth of sixteen children of a noble family from Bergamo, Italy. Her parents, Francis Cerioli and Frances Corniani, saw to it that she received a good Catholic upbringing at home. Then at the age of ten, they sent her to the Sisters of Visitation in nearby Alanzo in order to continue her education and religious formation.
Constanza was always a bit frail and had a heart condition her entire life. During the years that she was away from home, which was until she was sixteen, she also suffered from loneliness at her boarding school. However, Constanza used the emptiness in her heart to grow closer to God and learn to depend on Him more than she had before.
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Her Difficult Marriage
Unfortunately, her parents' judgment might not have been the best when it came to arranging her marriage. At the age of nineteen, Constanza was to marry the fifty-nine-year-old Count Gaetano Buzecchi-Tassis who was a widower. The couple shared three things in common: noble families, wealthy backgrounds, and poor health. Nonetheless, Constanza saw it as God's will and agreed to the marriage.
It was a difficult nineteen year marriage. The count's health was much worse than Constanza's, and Gaetano had a difficult personality to go along with his illnesses. Where Constanza was pious, he was jealous and suspicious. Of their four children, only one survived very early childhood. The one son, Charles, that survived was looked upon with jealousy by the father who was concerned that more attention should never be given to Charles than him.
It was said that Gaetano loved his wife Constanza, but his irascible personality made it difficult for her. In the face of his fits and moods, she strove to be patient, docile, and generous. Likewise, she had to help her son deal with his father's peculiar requests to monopolize the son's time, often forbidding Charles from playing, and having the son listen to his father play the piano for hours.
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Her Husband's Illness and Death
When Gaetano was seventy-five, he had a stroke which confined him to bed permanently. This latest illness did nothing to alter his personality. Rather, he became even more difficult as a patient under Constanza's care. For four years, she nursed Gaetano. Then, things became even worse when their son Charles was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The same jealousies cropped up with the father being concerned that his son Charles not receive more attention than him in his care.
Throughout these difficult trials, Constanza prayed and found strength to continue through her devotion and ever-growing dependence on God. The year 1854 was a turning point as Constanza watched her son pass away at the age of sixteen in January and her husband die peacefully on Christmas Day.
A Childless Widow Finds Hope
The same feeling of loneliness and emptiness she had felt at boarding school again entered Constanza's heart. She began to wonder about the meaning of her life. After nineteen years, her difficult marriage had ended with the death of her husband. And,on the other hand, she did not have any surviving children. She was a childless widow surrounded with the trappings of wealth and nobility but searching for a reason to continue living.
During this crisis, Constanza would remember the mysterious words that her son Charles spoke to her shortly before his death. She had asked him out loud, "What will I ever do alone without you?" Charles had seemed to reach into Heaven and responded by saying, "The Lord will entrust other children to your care." She had no idea what that would mean for her as she was now thirty-eight years of age with no plans to marry again or to have children.
As she shared her heart with the Lord in prayer, she began to see that the light out of her tunnel of sadness would be through charity. She knew that she must give of herself, but she was not sure how or to whom, she should share of herself. Then in a passing conversation with her pastor, he gave Constanza his take on her situation. He told her that he knew what he would do, if he were in her position. He would find poor children to take care of and to raise. He knew her maternal heart had more to give, and he encouraged Constanza to begin.
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Her Maternal Heart Embraces the Orphans
As if on cue, two orphaned children from her community were brought to Constanza's attention later that day. Constanza did not hesitate, but saw God's Will unfolding before her and adopted the two children. The servants and many of the locals were scandalized that these street children would be raised in the home of a countess. They considered that Constanza had gone insane in her grief or at least was acting very foolishly. Constanza's reply, when she bothered to give it, was that the world considers many things important that are truly foolish and often thinks good things are instead foolish. The reality is that the spirit of the world is what is foolish because it makes you a slave to the world and its empty ways.
Over time, Constanza began to take in additional children. She provided the funding through her personal wealth. Along with the additional children came other young woman who were enthusiastic to help in this growing ministry to orphaned and neglected children. Constanza placed this apostolate under the patronage of the Holy Family, and the children were referred to as the sons and daughters of St. Joseph. Indeed, she saw herself as the co-worker with St. Joseph.
Through prayer, Constanza discerned that the Lord wanted her to found an order. She began to draw up a rule for the order which was named the Sisters of the Holy Family. In 1857, she took vows of poverty and obedience to go along with the vow of chastity she had made at her husband's wake. In addition, the order had a fourth vow to do everything for the greater glory of God. Constanza took the name Sr. Paula Elizabeth and told her sisters to use that name rather than Signora Constanza.
The order was charged with raising orphans in the holy faith with simplicity and purity. They were to provide the children with a good education in order that they might be peaceful, honest, and hard-working. The sisters were to live like the Holy Family in the hidden years through lives of holiness, simplicity, and poverty. Five years after taking her vows, she started a men's branch called the Religious of the Holy Family. She passed away on December 24, 1865 at the age of forty-nine.
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Feast Day (Memorial): December 24th