St John Bosco did not only found a congregation of priest and brothers, but together with Saint Mary Mazzarello, founded the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, better known as the Salesian Sisters.DBMM
Born in 1837, Mary Mazzarello grew up like Don Bosco in a hard-working, God-fearing peasant family in northern Italy. She was a normal teenager of her times—intelligent, enterprising, hard working, fun-loving and always in touch with local fashion.

As she grew into young adulthood, she began to sense that God was calling her to belong totally to Himself and she responded by consecrating herself completely to Him. She did not understand immediately what this meant nor how it would unfold. It was a response of unconditional love.

Mary was often impulsive but in the matter of discovering a direction for her life she sought advice from those who knew her well and whose judgement she trusted. Her father was a great source of homespun wisdom.  She confided, above all, in Fr. Pestarino who had guided her for several years and who knew her inside out. Slowly she came to distinguish the way ahead in the events of everyday life.  She weighed up her inclinations and physical strength, took stock of situations around her and considered what she might do to share Christ’s passion for the world.

An event that had an impact on her life and future mission came in the form of illness. When assisting some sick members of her family during the epidemic of typhoid fever that struck her village in 1860, Mary herself contracted the disease. After several months hovering between life and death she recovered but no longer had the strength to work in the fields and vineyards as she had formerly done.

What was she to do? At twenty-three she had her life before her but lacked skills beyond those acquired in helping her father on the farm. Together with her closest friend, Petronilla, she set about learning dressmaking from the village tailor so as not to be a burden to her family and with the declared aim of setting up sewing classes for the village girls. Once their training was finished, the pair did indeed begin their work for the good of the girls, teaching them a life skill and encouraging them to live their Christian life joyfully.

Hers was not initially a choice for religious life, but one of a life consecrated to God by vow while living and working in her village environment. Associations of young women sharing the same desires and aims as Mary were appearing in several parts of northern Italy at this time and Mary became part of one of them, receiving support from others to live the life she had chosen.

But God had further plans for her. She met Don Bosco and they perceived in each other a shared passion for the good of the young. Here was a woman who experienced his apostolic ideals for the young and who was the perfect choice to become the founding member his new religious congregation of the Salesian Sisters. Mary did not hesitate but once again said her wondering but joyful ‘Yes’ to God—wherever that would lead her.

What Don Bosco and his Salesian did for poor boys, Mary and her friends began to do for poor girls.

But Mary Mazzarello had no intention of starting a religious congregation. Young and single by choice, she wanted to do something worthwhile with her life. She became aware of a specific need in her village which she could address. There were a number of girls who were at a loose end, once their meagre schooling was over, and household chores were finished.

nunWith the co-operation of her closest friend, Petronilla, she established sewing classes where the girls could learn something useful for their future life. But that was not all. She also recognised that the girls needed something constructive to fill their leisure time and so she organised a club for them where, as in Don Bosco’s oratory, ‘holiness consisted in being always cheerful’ – games, fun, catechism, outings, were the order of the day on Sundays and holidays.

An experience which she never forgot confirmed her in her mission for the young. One day, when walking in the village she seemed to see a large white building with lots of girls enjoying games in the playground with Sisters playing with them. At the same time she heard a voice saying to her ‘I entrust them to you’. She tried unsuccessfully to put it out of her mind but the image remained. What could it mean?

Slowly a few other like-minded young women joined her and there grew up a small community in all but name. They lived, prayed and worked together - but nuns? No, that was far from their minds - until Don Bosco appeared on the scene. He was thinking of founding a congregation of women to look after girls and young women in a similar way to that adopted by the Salesians for boys. He had looked at some congregations but none just fitted his ideal. Then he met Mary and her companions - here was the answer. A ready-made community living the Salesian dream.

Mary felt a deep spiritual affinity with Don Bosco and in 1872 agreed to be the cornerstone of his new congregation, bringing several of her companions with her.nun

By divine providence, the blossoming community was settled in the large white building Mary had previously seen in vision. It had been built by the villagers for the education of their boys and they were not happy to see it handed over to these new Sisters. Now, amidst adversity and misunderstanding, it became the cradle of the new congregation which was destined to carry the name of the village, Mornese, to the farthest corners of the world.

It fell to Mary as co-foundress to translate the Salesian way into a simple life for women religious, creating the spirit of simplicity, joyfulness, poverty and family-like relationships which came to be known from the place where it all began as the ‘Spirit of Mornese’.

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