Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti, O.S.B.
1827 – 1922
Was Blessed Fortunata Viti a woman of great achievement? No. Was Sister Maria Fortunata recognized for her holiness by others during her life? No. Was Blessed Maria Fortunata a great leader? Did she establish or reform a religious order or community? Did she write or say inspiring things? No. No. No.
Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti lived her life as a Benedictine lay sister in the cloistered Abbey of Santa Maria dei Franconi in the town of Veroli in the province of Frosinone south of Rome, Italy. Hers was a hidden life filled with prayer and work, dedicated to the observance of the monastic life. She spent her entire religious life in the sewing room of the monastery; spinning thread, weaving cloth, sewing garments and repairing the clothes of the sisters in the monastery. It was her desire to take the lowest place in the monastery even though she had the potential to “do great things.” Her desire was to serve and love in humility; to become a saint.
Anna Felice Viti was born on the feast of St. Scholastica, February 10, 1827; the third of nine children born to Luigi Viti and Anna Bono. Both Luigi and Anna came from prominent families. The Viti family was quite wealthy owning a lot of land, a factory in a nearby city, and were merchants in Veroli. Anna Bono’s family resided in the nearby town of Ferentino, but not much is known of her family. But life was not easy for the Viti’s. Luigi developed a gambling habit and his business went bankrupt. Some say Luigi was defrauded of his wealth besides having a gambling problem. None the less, the family was impoverished by the time our future blessed was ten years old. Luigi also developed an alcohol addiction causing him to be irresponsible in regard to his family responsibilities, leaving his wife Anna to provide and care for the large family alone. But love prevailed for Luigi’s wife and children. Despite her father’s drunken condition, Anna Felice would seek his blessing and kissed his hands every evening before going to bed. She never spoke ill of him.
Four years after the bankruptcy, October 27, 1841, Anna Bono passed away at age 36 leaving the Viti children to fend for themselves. Luigi’s mother, the children’s grandmother, Lady Teresa Viti-Paniccia provided food for the family, but at age 14 Anna Felice took on the responsibility of being the parent, mother and father, for the family. The oldest daughter, Agnes, entered the Benedictine Convent of St. John the Baptist in 1843. Filippo, the second oldest left the home to live in the town of Segni where he married young and led a devout and exemplary life. In time, Anna Felice took a position as a maid in the household of the Mobili family in the town of Monte Giovanni Campano to provide for her younger brothers and sisters, leaving the parental responsibilities to her sister Johanna. Two of her brothers served in the army of the Papal States, two of her sisters became nuns, and the youngest was sponsored by the Marchese Pietro Bisleti to enroll in the academy of the Augustinian Sisters in Frosinone. Now, with all her siblings being cared for, Anna Felice was free to consider her own vocation.
A young man of a wealthy noble family in the town of Alatri proposed marriage to Anna Felice, but she decided to become a bride of Christ instead. Having been accepted to enter the Convent of Santa Maria a Ripa at Pontecorvo, Anna Felice was visiting the nuns at Santa Maria dei Franconi with a local matron on March 20, 1851, when one of the Sisters felt moved to ask the young woman, “Would you like to join our community?” Explaining that her dowry was already at Santa Maria a Ripa and that she was due to enter the next day, Anna Felice was not inclined to consider such a proposal. The sister said that they could easily have her dowry sent over to their convent. Considering the invitation to be providential, Anna Felice accepted the proposal and was interviewed by the Mother Abbess and other nuns. The entire chapter agreed and the next day, March 21, 1851, Anna Felice was received as Sister Maria Fortunata into the Convent of Santa Maria dei Franconi. She was 24 years old.
Sister Maria Fortunata was offered the opportunity to study and be a choir nun, but instead she chose the way of humility recommended by Saint Benedict and asked to be a lay sister in service to the nuns of the Convent. The next 71 years were spent in the lowest position in the monastery. She remained virtually illiterate, and lived her monastic life like a servant in a large family household.
Life was not always easy for Sister Maria Fortunata. Some of the sisters could be unkind, demanding and rude, but Sister Maria Fortunata was never known to respond in anger. Instead, she would accept the rebuke and thanked the offending sister promising to pray for her. There was no question of offense. Sister Maria Fortunata had a forgiving heart and forgiveness was given at the very time the offense was occurring. Sister Fortunata exuded joy and remained quiet. Her love for others as Christ was very real.
Silence was indispensable for Sister Fortunata. Her silence was closely associated with her prayer. Once she commented to a younger sister, “We must be silent in order to speak with God. When we are silent we hear in the soul the voice of the Savior who teaches us many things.” Sister Fortunata prayed as she worked and the whole community knew that when she did not sleep at night, she spent the time in prayer. She was very devoted to the Blessed Trinity especially in the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. The sisters often found her praying before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle of the church.
The beauty and wonders of nature filled the Blessed’s soul with delight. She would exclaim, “O the power and the love of God.” Song birds gathered outside the window of the sewing room to lighten her spirit as she worked. They would come to perch on her hand or head. Sister Fortunata provided odd bits of cloth and thread for the birds to build their nests and she brought them a part of her own meager allowance of bread and enjoyed sharing it with them. If another sister came by, the birds would fly away, but they gathered in numbers when Sister Fortunata was alone at her workplace.
Because of her virtual illiteracy, Sister Fortunata always had to ask another sister to write her letters for her. She could become quite a pest and the sisters would avoid her in the monastery. This isolation caused her sadness but Sister Fortunata never complained. Her love for the sisters, the visitors, the sick, the children who came for catechism, was simply an expression of her authentic love for Christ. If ever she was denied assistance from a sister, she would apologize for bothering the sister, acknowledging her burden of work, promising to pray for her and agreed to come at a better time.
Sister Fortunata was a hard worker. She could do the work of three nuns. For a three year stretch Sister Fortunata served as a nurse to the aged and infirm sisters along with her sewing work. She testified to enjoying her work because it gave her the opportunity to show charity to the sisters. She commented, “Not even in heaven will I want to rest, since I feel pushed to do something good for others.” Indeed, this “heavenly work” was observed when numerous miracles were reported by people who prayed at her grave.
In her declining years, Sister Fortunata suffered the pain of spiritual aridity. In addition, rheumatism relegated her to her bed and she eventually went deaf and blind. It was difficult for her to receive the expressions of loving care shown to her. She would rather be serving others in some way, but requests for her prayers made her happy and she was faithful in remembering them. Since her prayers seemed to be “especially effective” she was sought out often by sisters and the townspeople with prayer requests.
When the old sister died on November 20, 1922, at 96 years of age, few seemed to notice or mourn. She was the last among her siblings to die and the sisters in the convent anticipated her death. She was buried the next day in the common grave of the Sisters outside the town with a simple ceremony.
During her lifetime, Sister Fortunata often repeated the words, “When I am in heaven, I will continue to do good to my neighbor.” Before long after her death, hundreds of reports of favors being granted through her intercession were reported. Sr. Fortunata’s reputation as “the Merciful Helper of Veroli” spread throughout Italy and beyond. Even miracles of instantaneous healing were reported. As a result, the Sisters of Veroli began to keep records of the reports and collected facts of her life and virtues to be placed before the Church with a view to her beatification. At the end of the year 1929, Fr. Peter Ricci, O.S.B., was appointed postulator of the cause. In the spring of 1930 the Bishop of Veroli began the preliminaries of the diocesan process for the beatification of Sister Maria Fortunata Viti, O.S.B.
Shortly thereafter both the bishop and the postulator passed away and the process was postponed indefinitely. But Father Gabriel Locher, O.S.B., of the Abbey of Seckau in Austria and a professor of Theology at the Benedictine University of San Anselmo in Rome, was appointed postulator. He published a German biography of Sister Maria Fortunata in 1934. The Diocesan process was started up again by the new bishop of Veroli on July 11, 1934. The choice of the feast day of Saint Benedict was not intentional but it was seen as an indicator of St. Benedict and the Lord’s desire that Sister Fortunata should be beatified.
Numerous requests from the townspeople of Veroli were made to have Sister Fortunata’s body moved from the common gravesite of the Sisters in the country to the Church of Santa Maria Dei Franconi, the Convent Chapel, in Veroli, so that it would more accessible for prayer and veneration. With the approval of the Benedictine Sisters and the various other authorities the translation was set for March 21, 1935. Although the Bishop stressed that the canonical directions for the translation of a body should be a rite resembling a funeral, the Church and people of Veroli could not be contained. The translation was a festal event attended by more than twenty thousand people. The lay sister with the hidden life had become a hero returning in glory.
A monument now marks the residence where Blessed Fortunata was born. Her work room and cell are kept as a shrine, in the same condition as when Blessed Fortunata died. Her remains are now encased in a wax effigy inside a glass casket located in the convent chapel of Santa Maria dei Franconi. The city of Veroli commissioned a beautiful statue that graces a lovely little park adjacent to the Cathedral where our Blessed was baptized, confirmed, and received her first communion. Murals depicting Blessed Fortunata adorn the cathedral interior.
After the translation of her remains, the process of Sister Fortunata’s beatification captured the attention of the Roman Curia so that the cause for her canonization moved quickly. She was declared a Servant of God and her writings, as few and simple as they are due to the blessed’s virtual illiteracy, were collected and submitted to the Congregation of Saints for review for freedom from error. They were approved and Sister Fortunata could now be a Venerable; February 24, 1937.
Father Locher’s biography was translated into English by Father Stephen Radtke, O.S.B., and published in the United States by the Sisters of the Benedictine Convent of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri. It was already in its second edition in 1940. Accounts of Venerable Fortunata’s life and of the miracles received through her intercession were published by periodicals around the world. American Father Henry Becker, O.S.B., was appointed vice-postulator of Sister Fortunata’s cause. A group of co-workers were chosen from Benedictine monasteries throughout North America, which included Father Martin Pollard, O.S.B., of Mount Angel Abbey.
The monks of Mount Angel began to promote Sister Fortunata’s cause in earnest through their national publications, The Saint Joseph Magazine, and the German language newspaper, the Saint Joseph’s Blatt. The Benedictine Press at the Abbey printed and distributed leaflets and prayer cards in English and German which were translated and further distributed in Italian and French. After World War II, Father Thomas Brockhaus, O.S.B., editor of the Saint Joseph Magazine was appointed vice postulator and continued to work with the Sisters in Veroli. Stories of Sister Fortunata and testimonies of favors granted were regular parts of the St. Joseph Magazine.
On October 8, 1967, Sister Fortunata was beatified and the Benedictines around the world began to celebrate her feast day liturgically on November 20. In his homily on the occasion, Pope Paul VI extolled the virtues of Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti and acknowledged the favors granted through her intercession. The Holy Father summarized the greatness of Blessed Fortunata in one word; humility, which she practiced to perfection and which defined every aspect of her life as a nun.
Her cause for canonization continued. When the Saint Joseph Magazine ceased publication, Fr. Thomas and others after him continued promoting the cause for Sister Maria Fortunata, but somehow the effort stalled and the Mount Angel promoter ceased to exist. However, the annual celebration of Blessed Fortunata kept devotion to her alive. Brother Claude Lane, O.S.B., wrote an icon of Blessed Fortunata in 2018 which is prominently placed in the monastic refectory.
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., of Mount Angel Abbey, led a pilgrimage to Italy in October of 2019 which included a visit to the tomb of Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti and the Benedictine Sisters of Santa Maria dei Franconi in Veroli. Fr. Odo Recker, O.S.B., accompanied him and assisted him in planning and directing the pilgrimage. The Sisters in Veroli made the visit a grand event.
Abbess Maria Aloysia Ferrante, O.S.B., lifted the rule of enclosure and invited the entire pilgrim group into the cloister; a rare and extraordinary privilege. With both the Bishop and the Mayor of Veroli in attendance, Abbess Maria Aloysia welcomed the group and thanked Abbot Jeremy and the monks of Mount Angel for their support in promoting the cause for beatification through the years. Special tribute was paid to Father Thomas Brockhaus, O.S.B., for his involvement in the process. He was fondly remembered by the Sisters especially for the joy that exuded from him during his visit with the sisters at the time of the Beatification in 1967. Abbot Jeremy addressed the gathering in Italian (and translated in English) expressing his gratitude for the sisters’ gracious hospitality and promising to pray for the community and requesting the sisters’ prayers for Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary.
Once the speeches were over the pilgrims proceeded to the tomb of Blessed Fortunata. A prayer card had been printed with Br. Claude’s icon with a prayer for a miracle. Together the pilgrims prayed the prayer and proceeded to kiss and touch the tomb in silence. Everyone was deeply touched by the visit. Some pilgrims have witnessed how it “changed their lives.”
Upon their return to Mount Angel, Abbot Jeremy and Father Odo related the experience to the community. It was decided to add Blessed Fortunata to our list of patrons and she is invoked along with other patrons every day after the noon meal. Fr. Odo volunteered to re-start Mount Angel’s promotion of the cause for canonization of Blessed Fortunata and communicate with the sisters in Veroli.
The initiative is now underway, starting with the posting of information on Blessed Maria Fortunata and the cause for her canonization. Prayer cards and leaflets will be produced again and people will be encouraged to seek favors and miracles from God through the intercession of Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti. Once another miracle is “credited” to the intercession of Blessed Fortunata, she will be eligible for canonization and universal liturgical celebration of her feast.
For more information or to obtain prayer cards for Blessed Maria Fortunata Viti, please email Fr. Odo Recker, O.S.B.