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Saint of the week

The girl who was murdered at the age of 11

St Maria Goretti (July 6) died while resisting a rape. Her murderer later repented and had a vision of the Virgin Mary

By on Thursday, 30 June 2011

St Maria Goretti desperately fought off her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli

St Maria Goretti desperately fought off her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli

Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was an Italian girl who died after being sexually attacked at the age of 11. In 1950 she was canonised by Pope Pius XII.

The third of six children of a peasant farmer, Maria was born on October 16 at Corinaldo, some 35 miles inland from Ancona on the Adriatic coast. Life was always a struggle, especially after her father had been reduced to working as a casual labourer. 

In 1899 he died of malaria, and the family moved to the village of Le Ferrière, about 18 miles south of Rome. Throughout all their tribulations the Gorettis remained strongly attached to the Faith; and Maria received her first Communion in January 1901. 

From infancy the children all helped with the household tasks. Maria looked after the house and her younger siblings when her mother went out to work. The Goretti shared living quarters with another family, the Serenelli, whose son, Alessandro, a farmhand aged 20 in 1902, took an unhealthy interest in Maria. At first he merely pestered her. Then, in the afternoon of July 5, 1902, he turned violent and tried to rape her.

Maria fought him off desperately. “No,” she cried, “it is a sin. God does not want it.” When she insisted that she would die rather than submit, Alessandro seized an awl and stabbed her 14 times.

He then ran off, leaving the grievously injured Maria to be discovered by his father and her mother. Doctors at the nearest hospital did their best, but within a day Maria was dead. 

Although in great pain during those last hours, her innate goodness shone through, as she worried about where her mother would stay the night, and declared that she forgave her murderer and hoped to see him in heaven.

Alessandro Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years hard labour, and for some years seemed to be viciously unrepentant.

Then, around 1908, he experienced a vision of Maria in which she handed him 14 lilies, thought to be representative of the number of wounds she had suffered. 

From that day onwards Alessandro proved a model prisoner. Released in 1927, he found a place as a gardener and lay-brother in a Capuchin monastery. He made his peace with Maria’s mother, and in 1950 attended Maria’s canonisation in the company of her family.

“Always esteem and love purity and virginity,” Pope Pius proclaimed in his address. “Do not be afraid to reject the world’s idols by showing that you belong to a chaste and poor Christ.”

Alessandro Serenelli reinforced this message before he died in 1970, issuing a statement in which he attributed his youthful crime in part to the evil influence of the Press, which had offered titillation in place of true morality.

  • Adam Thomson

    This is a remarkable story. But did he have a vision of the Virgin Mary (as per the sub-heading) or of the girl he murdered (as per the text)? 

  • ….

    Isn’t murder also a sin or is this implying that the 11 year old would be the sinner if she was raped?

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    The one who seeks to violate another is the sinner. The victim cannot be said to sin if, threatened with death or serious injury, she should submit to being violated, since she acts under duress, that is, without full and free consent of the will.

    Maria Goretti’s heroism is twofold. First, although she would not have sinned by submitting, Maria preferred her bodily purity to her life; like another Mary – the sister of Martha – Maria might have chosen either way without blame, but she chose the better part, thus providing a notable example for the many young people of our own era who feel inclined to ask themselves, “What’s the big deal if I experiment a little?” or “It really can’t be so very wrong if I want to enjoy myself and fit in, can it?” For those who ask themselves these questions, Maria provides an example of one who lived the truly Christian answers.

    Secondly, Maria Goretti forgave her murderer, confiding to those at her deathbed, “I forgive him (Serenelli), and I want him to be happy with me in Heaven.” At first, Serenelli was unrepentant, and in fact, expressed the view that had Maria not been such a little prig who stubbornly refused to give in to his advances, he would not have been provoked to kill her. Thus, according to the criminal, her death was “her own fault.”

    Later, Maria appeared to the prisoner Serenelli in a dream and expressed to him her forgiveness for her murder. Gradually, Serenelli’s attitude softened; he came to acknowledge the evil he had done, and begged Maria in prayer to intercede for him to obtain God’s mercy. It was said that in 1950, when Maria’s canonization was broadcast over the radio, that Serenelli listened to the proceedings with tears streaming down his face. Many who knew him believe that when he died, his conversion to God was complete; the genesis of this, they suggest, was Maria’s heroic forgiveness.

  • splashen

    He dreamt that Maria Goretti — the girl whom he had killed–appeared to him.

  • NaomilySpashley

    That is fucked up he only got 30 years. No matter the time period. 

  • Ak Tabler

    This touched my heart!!!!!!!