She was just eleven years old, but she forgave her murderer as she lay on her deathbed. Young Catholic girls all over the world revere St. Maria Goretti as a model of chastity and a martyr for her faith. She is one of the youngest people to be canonized in the Catholic Church.
Maria Teresa Goretti was born into a poor family on Oct. 16, 1890 in Corinaldo, Italy. Her family fell on hard times and lost their farm, so they had to move many times to find work. In 1899, they moved to Ferrier di Conca, near Anzio Italy.
Maria’s father died of malaria when she was nine, adding to the family’s poverty. While her mother and siblings worked the fields, Maria stayed home to care for her baby sister Teresa and take care of the housework. The Gorettis lived adjacent to the Serenelli family, including their son, 20 year old Alessandro. The young man constantly harassed Maria, saying crude and sexually suggestive things to her and making unwanted advances.
On July 5, 1902, Maria was outside her house sewing, when Alessandro approached her, determined to assault her. He chased Maria into the house and attempted to rape her. Maria cried out to him, “No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.” She tried to fight him off, and when she said she would rather die than submit to him, he became enraged and brutally stabbed her with an awl fourteen times.
Her baby sister, Teresa, cried out and Maria’s family came home to find her bleeding to death. She was rushed to a hospital, but there was no hope. In fact, the doctors were surprised that she had even survived the stabbings; Alessandro had pierced Maria’s throat, pericardium, lungs and diaphragm. It was only then that Maria told the police of Alessandro’s constant harassment and previous rape attempts. She feared that he would kill her or a family member if she spoke up about before.
Maria’s last words were those of forgiveness for her murderer: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, and was a bitter, hateful person. One night, after a priest had come to visit him in prison, Maria came to him in a dream, gave him lilies and offered her forgiveness.
Twenty-seven years later, Alessandra was released from prison. The first thing he did was seek out Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness. She said, “If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”
Alessandro had become a changed man, He reportedly prayed to Maria every day, and called her “My little saint.” He joined the Lay Franciscans, working and living in a monastery until his death at age 87.
Maria is considered saintly because she not only resisted her attacker’s sexual advances she forgave him as well.
In 1935, her name was submitted for sainthood. On June 24, 1950, Maria was canonized. Her mother and siblings were in St. Peter’s Square for the occasion, believed to be the only time a parent was present at their child’s canonization. Remarkably, Alessandro was reportedly also in attendance, and if true, likely the only time someone’s murderer was present at their canonization. Reports say that almost half a million people attended the event, the first outdoor one in Church history.
St. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of young women, purity, and victims of rape.
Her feast day is July 6.
She is especially revered by the Passionists. Read more about that here: https://passionist.org/st-maria-goretti/
Before his death Alessandro Serenelli wrote a beautiful open letter to the world. You can read it here: http://mariagoretti.org/alessandrobio.htm
There was an Italian film about her life, “Heaven Over the Marshes”. It won a prize at the International Exhibition of Cinema art in Venice in 1949. See the IMDB listing here: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041248/
Here is a website dedicated to St. Maria Goretti: https://mariagoretti.com/who-is-st-maria/