Poor Clares Under the Bombs

Author: Nicola Gori

Poor Clares Under the Bombs

Nicola Gori

A museum dedicated to Sr Maria Chiara Damato at the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception near Castel Gandolfo

When Montini promised the community would flourish again after the destruction of war

The Museum the Poor Clares set up in Albano preserves the breviaries, Rule and Constitutions of the Poor Clares. Also on display are their handkerchiefs, hairshirts, instruments of penance, sandals, habits, fragments of their rosaries, of their veils and cinctures, and crucifixes. However in addition there are various everyday objects that were used by the nuns over the past century: water jugs, hand-warmers, bells, buckets, wooden baskets, hourglasses, fonts, basket-work trays and stone mortars. A wealth of historical photographs document important events and people in the recent life of the Order are also on display.
A little of everything can be found in this Museum which the Poor Clares have dedicated to Venerable Sr Maria Chiara Damato who lived in the monastery in this small town in Lazio in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibits guide visitors on an original itinerary to discover this celebrated figure and it reveals the way of life of these cloistered nuns who follow in the footsteps of Clare of Assisi. After two years of hard work coordinated by Iladria Carocci, the museum was opened by Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano on 11 August, St Clare's liturgical feast.
A few days later the nuns had the opportunity to present their project to a special guest: Pope Francis. He visited the monastery on 15 August and spent 45 minutes speaking with the community and stopping to pray at the 1,000-year-old stone sarcophagus that contains the incorrupt remains of Sr Damato. The religious died on 9 March 1948 and the cause of her canonization is currently under way.
Who was Sr Maria Chiara Damato? To understand exactly who she was it is necessary to take a step back in time, to the beginning of 1944 when, after the Allies landed in Anzio, the Alban Hills were severely bombed and many local people died. Neither civilian homes, hospitals and monuments, nor places of worship — including cloistered convents and monasteries were spared.
Even the "perfect joy" of the daughters of St Clare of Assisi was profoundly marked by this climate of war. The Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Albano Laziale founded in 1631 by Sr Francesca Farnese housed 33 nuns during World War II. The Abbess, Sr Maria Teresa Camasso, did her utmost to protect her sisters who every day prayed and offered up their sufferings for peace. One of the most zealous in this spiritual task was Sr Maria Chiara .Damata who came from Barletta and was barely 25 years old.
In this dramatic situation the Poor Clares demonstrated their desire to respond to Pope Pius XII's call in 1943 and made a solemn vow to sacrifice their lives for the advent of peace. It was Sr Damata herself who recounted this: "Complying with the wishes of the Holy Father, Pius XII, we have consecrated the entire community, offering ourselves as victims for the longed-for peace in the world".
On 1 February 1944, this offering became a sacrifice. For several days the Allies' bombing had become ever more frequent, aiming to destroy bridges, roads and railways. Sr Maria Assunta Curci, an eyewitness, recalled that on first day of the month almost seemed as if spring had come. There was no sign of alarm and silence reigned in Albano. The Abbess, fearful of this apparent calm, wanted the community to anticipate the recitation of Vespers of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Compline and Mattins.
At about 1:15 p.m., Sr Curci said, the bell for chapel rang. The nuns began to chant the Psalms. An hour later, while the religious whose turn it was recited the antiphon and intoned the Psalm Cantate Domino, a tremendous explosion shook the monastery walls and shattered the stained glass windows of the chapel. A bomb had fallen on the cathedral, only a few metres from the choir of the Poor Clares. It is easy to imagine the moments of terror and shock that the poor nuns lived through. What were they to do? Where were they to go? Several stayed in the chapel, others in the grip of fear began to run outside. However they did not even have time to take 20 steps; as Sr Curci tells, they were hit directly by another bomb exploding. Practically half the monastery collapsed.
The surviving nuns did not lose heart. One of them fetched a ladder, climbed on to the wall that separated the cloister from the Pontifical Villas and began to cry for help. About 80 men, Swiss Guards and Carabinieri on guard duty rushed up. Armed with pick-axes, hoes, and other tools they began to remove the rubble in search of possible survivors. So it was that they succeeded in saving Sr Maria Assunta Curci who was buried under almost three metres of debris. The religious attributed her escape from danger to the intercession of the Virgin Mary.
The bodies of the other sisters who were killed were extracted from the wreckage after hours and hours of digging. One of them was recovered two months later. Given the state of the monastery, the nuns were taken by lorry to the Propaganda Fide building where they settled in the kitchen on the ground floor. They adapted to this place which they shared with various evacuated families. As soon as Pius XII learned what had happened he expressed his wish to go to Albano himself, but because of the dramatic situation he instead sent Msgr Giovanni Battista Montini, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, as his representative asking him to express his closeness to the community and his desire to help the religious. Montini met the nuns: and assured them that it would not be long before the monastery flourished anew.
Yet the bombing did not cease; indeed it continued with greater violence. On 10 February, at about ten o'clock at night, three successive waves aircraft dropped numerous bombs on the Pontifical Villas, where people from various place in the neighbourhood had been given shelter. For about three and a quarter hours, Sr Curci recalled further, bombs rained down on the Villas. The Propaganda Fide building suffered immense damage and by the end of that day there were hundreds of victims. It wa a real slaughter. Once again the Poor Clares paid a new and generous tribute of blood. Three of them were killed and two injured: among the latter was also Sr Maria Chiara Damato who was hit on the head and the shoulder.
It was in those very moments that the young religious renewed the offering of herself to God for peace, for priests and for vocations to the consecrated life; and she asked the Lord to make her resemble ever more closely her beloved Thérèse of the Child Jesus. That very evening, at the orders of Cardinal Gennaro Granito Pignatelli, Bishop of Albano, the surviving nuns were taken to the Capuchin women's monastery in Via Piemonte, Rome. They stayed there until 3 March when they were moved to Prince Barberini's palace where they remained until 1 November. Only then, thanks to the intervention of Pius XII, could they return to their own monastery in Albano — half of which had been raised to the ground. So it was that reconstruction began, at the price of hardship but with such deep trust in God.
Sr Maria Chiara Damato consistently and silently gave herself while the tuberculosis with which she was stricken took its inexorable course. Remembering the offering of her life to the Lord, she spared herself no form of penance. In silence and in prayer not only did she wish to be like St Clare but also St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose life had so fascinated her at the age of 19 that she had chosen to enter the cloister. The cross she was bearing brought her close to the many people suffering because of privations, poverty and the war that was still raging and leaving its tragic trail. Suffering could not frighten her; on the contrary, she was glad to embrace it with that "perfect joy" which caused her to exclaim: "I am happy to suffer with Jesus suffering on the Cross, but with a happiness full of inner joy".
In August 1945, Msgr Montini's prediction was confirmed. Four postulants entered the monastery, and two months later others followed. It was a new springtime for the community. However Sr Damato was physically wasting away, day by day. Her sisters were alarmed and the illness which until then had remained unknown to them was fully and dramatically revealed: consumption. On 4 November 1945, the religious was obliged to see a doctor. The diagnosis was stark: pleurisy and seriously damaged lungs. Sr Maria Chiara was coughing up blood and the doctor's fears were confirmed: she had to be admitted to hospital.
It is not hard to imagine her distress at being obliged to leave the monastery to go to San Camillo Hospital in Rome. Despite the disease undermining her body, her mind was serene. She went through that experience in union with Christ with the intention of offering it up for the good of all mankind. Indeed, she felt that she was not alone but was part of the great family of the Church and an instrument of grace in God's hands.
In the following days her health continued to deteriorate. The doctors decided to send her to the Domenico Cotugno Sanatorium in Bari, Apulia. This transfer was a further trial to her: she felt even more distant from her community, but continued to be grateful for the gifts she had received from God. She would repeat "Semper Deo gratias". It was in this spirit that she died on 9 March 1948, the day and at the time that she herself had predicted.
Sr Damato's life thus became the seed that was to make her community flourish anew. On 3 September 1971 Montini returned as Pope on a visit to the monastery and rejoiced to see that there were many vocations, just as he had predicted. He paused in front of the stone slab bearing the names of the 18 nuns who died in the 1944 bombardments and stressed that his visit had been "intended as a response to the tacit objection which viewed cloistered nuns as marginalized from life, from reality and from the experience of our time". On that occasion he reaffirmed the value of the Poor Clares' ideal of contemplative life, telling them among other things: "You represent so many things that the Church appreciates and that the Second Vatican Council has confirmed. Faithful to the Rule, to common life, to poverty, you are a seed and a sign". Sr Damato's longing to return to her community was completely and definitively fulfilled when in 1999 her mortal remains were taken back to the monastery and translated to a sarcophagus kept in the church.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 August 2013, page 6

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