Maria Bertilla gave witness to Christian stewardship through her simple living and caring for others as a nurse and consecrated religious. She was born in 1888 in a village near Vicenza, in northern Italy, to a poor farming family headed by a violently abusive and alcoholic father. She lacked a normal education and was ridiculed for her seeming lack of intelligence. She worked as a house servant in her youth.
At age 16, Maria joined the Sisters of St. Dorothy in Vicenza and was assigned to work in the kitchen, laundry and bakery. Eventually she was given permission to be trained as a nurse and displayed a special gift for working with children suffering from diphtheria.
During World War I, the hospital was taken over by the Italian army to care for its wounded. Sister Bertilla became well-known to military authorities and others for her compassion, dedication and unwavering care of those who could not be moved, even in times of terror, when the hospital was under fire and subject to bombing and artillery barrages. She wrote in her diary: “Here I am, Lord, to do your will whatever comes.”
When she and her patients were finally transferred to a safer area Sister Bertilla’s religious superior transferred her back to the laundry. Soon thereafter, however, the mother general of the religious community countermanded that order and Sister Bertilla was reassigned to the hospital to take charge of a children’s ward. Her reputation for simplicity and hard work left a deep impression on those who knew her.
Sister Bertilla had suffered for a number of years with a painful tumor, and in 1922 her health declined rapidly. After an unsuccessful surgery to remove the tumor she died on October 20, 1922. Thousands of people attended her funeral in Vicenza, Italy, and her tomb became a pilgrimage site. A plaque remains at the hospital in her honor, describing her as a “chosen soul of heroic goodness…an angelic alleviator of human suffering …”
Family members and many former patients attended Maria Bertilla’s canonization in 1961 by Saint Pope John XXIII. Her feast day is October 20.