Maria de Mattias (1805-66), handsome, clever and rich, might easily have spent her life in frivolity and self-regard; instead, she devoted herself to founding schools, and worried about how happy it made her.
She was born at Vallecorsa, in the mountainous region between Rome and Naples, at the southernmost extreme of the Papal States. It was wild country, infested by bandits. Maria was kept at home without any proper education, though her father taught her the Catholic faith.
As a girl she was bored and self-absorbed, given to admiring herself in the mirror. One day, however, she noticed a statue of the Virgin, which seemed to say: “Come to me.” From that moment her life changed. She taught herself to read, and became absorbed in works of spirituality.
Then, during Lent in 1822, she was intoxicated by a mission to Vallecorsa led by Fr Gaspare del Bufalo (canonised in 1954), the founder of the Society of the Precious Blood, which aimed at restoring true religion and morality.
Two years later this impression was reinforced by another preacher, Giovanni Merlini, to whom Maria was powerfully attracted, to the extent of questioning her own motives.
In 1827, when a religious association opened a school for girls in Vallecorsa, Maria followed Merlini’s suggestion and lived in community with them for three years. Her ambition was to establish a women’s branch of the Society of the Precious Blood. When opportunity proved elusive, however, Del Bufalo had to dissuade her from joining a purely contemplative order. At last, in 1833, she was invited to start a school at Acuto, 30 miles north-west of Vallecorsa.
Maria was able to extend the original plan; she wanted not only a boarding school to train female teachers, but also a retreat house to provide educational and devotional opportunities for elder women. To this end she founded the Institute of the Sister Adorers of the Precious Blood on March 4 1834.
Over the next 30 years Maria would tirelessly mastermind the creation of more than 50 Precious Blood schools in Italy. There were also foundations in Austria, England and Germany.
She had to cope with more than shortage of funds and secular opposition; there were also Catholics who liked to throw in her face the injunction in 1 Timothy 2:12: “A woman shall have no leave from me to teach.” Modern scholarship is nearly unanimous that this Epistle was not written by St Paul. In any case, Maria remained deeply convinced of the role to be played by women in spreading the Christian message.
She was buried in Rome’s Verano cemetery, in a tomb provided by Pope Pius IX. “Dry bones,” runs the inscription, “hear the word of the Lord.”
Maria de Mattias was canonised in 2003.