Magdalen of Canossa (1774-1835), handsome, clever and rich, born moreover into a Veronese family far beyond the pretensions of Emma Woodhouse, was able to break out of the hoops of privilege to dedicate herself to the poor and neglected.
Her life stands as a monument to the beneficent effects of religion. Yet Magdalen’s path was never easy. Her memoirs, which are available in English translation, show a woman tortured by the struggle for faith and constantly discouraged by a sense of unworthiness.
The world at large, by contrast, saw a leader who knew as well as any modern feminist what she wanted and who possessed the will and the talent to achieve it.
Magdalen’s religious vocation took root in an unhappy childhood. The third of six children, she was only five when her father died. Her mother remarried, leaving her children in the care of an ancient uncle. A French governess proved wholly unsympathetic.
At 15, Magdalen was painted as a fashionable young girl by Dalla Rosa, who had earlier portrayed the young Mozart. Her teenage years, however, were plagued by ill health. Aged 17, she tried her vocation with the Carmelites, only to be convinced that she was called to work in the world, not out of it.
For some years Magdalen was preoccupied with looking after her ancient uncles and administering the family’s estates. Every free moment was given to social work. “Should the fact that I was born a marquess,” she demanded, “prevent me serving Jesus Christ in his poor?”
By 1799 she was lodging two outcasts girls in her house. By 1802 she had established a permanent refuge and school near the church of St Zeno in the poorest part of Verona. When the last of her uncles died, she was able to devote herself full-time to good works.
In 1808 Magdalen founded a school in the poorest and most notorious part of Verona, where outcast girls were taught the three Rs and various handicrafts, and educated in the faith. So began the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity.
In the course of time further houses were opened in Venice, Milan, Bergamo, Trento, Brescia and Cremona. In 1828 the Congregation was formally approved by Pope Leo XII.
Anxious to establish a separate Congregation of priests and lay brothers to share in her work, Magdalen founded the Institute of the Sons of Charity in 1831. She also took care to see that the women who taught in her schools were properly trained.
“The religious life,” Magdalen believed, “is only the Gospel translated into practice.”
She was canonised in 1988. By 2000 the Daughters of Charity were working in 21 countries, with some 4,000 members in 400 houses.