Widower, Virginia Centurione Bracelli was born on April 2, 1587, in Genoa, into the family of Giorgio Centurione, duke of the Republic of Liguria in the year 1621-1622, and Lelia Spinola. Both of them were of the ancient noble origin.
She was baptized two days after her birth, and received her first religious and literary formation from her mother and private tutor.
She soon felt the need for a cloistered life but she had to succumb to her father’s strong will and marry Gaspare Grimaldi Bracelli on December 10, 1602. Gaspare’s family was both illustrious and wealthy, but he was wholly taken up with gambling and living a dissolute life. She gave birth to two daughters: Lelia and Isabella.
The conjugal life of Virginia did not last long. Gaspare Bracelli, despite his marriage and his fatherhood, did not abandon his pleasures, and these brought about his premature death. Virginia, with great patience, prayer and affection, tried to convince her husband to lead a modest life, but unfortunately, Gaspare became ill and died on June 13, 1607, in Alessandria.
Thus, at the age of twenty, Virginia became a widow. She promptly pronounced a perpetual vow of chastity, and refused a second marriage proposed by her father. She lived in her mother-in-law’s house, taking care of the education and the administration of the goods of her children and dedicating herself to God through prayer and acts of charity.
In 1610, she felt a special call “to serve God through the poor”. Although she was strictly controlled by her father and never disregarded the care for the family, Virginia began to devote herself to the needy. She personally helped the poor by sharing half of her wealth with them.
After arranging the marriages of her daughters, Virginia totally offered herself to the needs of abandoned children, the aged, the sick and marginalized people.
In the autumn of 1624-1625, war broke out between the Ligurian Republic and the Duke of Savoy, supported by France, increasing unemployment and starvation in the nation. This led Virginia to accommodate 15 abandoned youths, and then, with the expansion of the refugees in town, to provide for the needs of many others, especially poor women.
In August of 1625, with the death of her mother-in-law, she started not only to receive the youth but began to go into the town, mostly to the disreputable quarters, in search for the needy and those in danger of depravity.
To alleviate the increasing poverty among these people, Virginia founded the “Cento Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo”, with the collaboration of the resident organization of “Otto Signore della Misericordia”.
To accommodate an ever growing number of homeless youth, during the plague and famine of 1629-1630, Virginia was obliged to rent the empty convent of Monte Calvario, where she transferred on the 13th of April 1631, together with her beneficiaries, placing them under the protection of Our Lady of Refuge. Three years later, the Institution expanded into three houses accommodating 300 inmates. She took the opportunity to ask for official recognition of her Institute from the Senate of the Republic, and this was granted on December 13, 1635.
The beneficiaries of Our Lady of Refuge became for Virginia her excellent “daughters”, with whom she shared food and clothing. She taught them catechism and trained them to work so that they could earn their own sustenance.
Virginia wanted to purchase the Monte Calvario’s convent, but it was very expensive. So she bought two villas next to Carignano’s Hill which, with the construction of a new annex of the Church dedicated to Our Lady of Refuge, became the Mother House of the Institution.
The spirit which inspired the Institution founded by Virginia was generally presented in the Rule compiled in 1644-1650. The Rule required that all the domiciles should form a single Institution of Our Lady of Refuge, under the supervision and administration of the Protectors (noble lay persons appointed by the Senate of the Republic). There was to be a separation between the “daughters” wearing the religious habit, and those not in habit, but all must live – with or without vows – like the most observant monks in obedience and poverty, working and praying. Moreover, they must be ready to lend a hand in the public hospital, considering it as a vow.
The Institution which Virginia founded is divided into two Religious Congregations: the “Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge in Mount Calvary” (Suore di Nostra Signora del Rifugio di Monte Calvario) and the “Daughters of Our Lady on Mount Calvary” (Figlie di Nostra Signora al Monte Calvario).
After the nomination of the Protectors (July 3, 1641), who were considered to be the real superiors of the Institute, Virginia disengaged herself from the government house. She was subdued to their needs and behaved according to their consent even in the acceptance of some needy youth. She lived as the least of the daughters, devoting herself to the household chores, and going out morning and evening to beg for the sustenance of the poor. She was a mother to everyone, dedicating most of her time to care of the sick.
In her final years, Virginia instigated action to cure the roots of evil and to prevent corruption in the Institute: the sick and the disabled were hospitalized in the Institute; the able men weresent to work; the women were trained to embroidery and knitting of seamless stockings, and the children were obliged to go to school.
However, with the increase of activities and efforts, the collaborators of Virginia declined, particularly the women of the middle and upper class, who were afraid of compromising their reputation by dealing with corrupt people.
Abandoned by the Auxiliaries and by the Protectors of the Institute, which the government had deprived of its power, Virginia, despite her failing health, once again took full responsibility for the sisters in Carignano’s House.
On March 25, 1637, she declared that she desired that the Republic of Ligoria should choose the Blessed Virgin as its Protectress. She pleaded with the Archbishop of the town to institute a forty hours devotion, which started in Genoa at the end of 1642, followed by the preaching of the common missions (1643). She intervened to settle the common and bloody rivalries, which rose up, for petty reasons, between the noble families and the knights. In 1647, she achieved reconciliation between the Archbishop’s See and the Government of the Republic.
Gratified by the Lord with exultations, visions, interior locutions and other mystical gifts, she died on December 15, 1651 at the age of 64.
She was beatified on 22 September 1985 and canonized on 18 May 2003 by Pope John Paul II.
Let us pray:
God, in St Virginia Centurione Bracelli, you have provided us with an example of life long service to the less fortunate among us. Move our hearts with the same compassion as You did hers, so that we too may follow in her footsteps by directing all our efforts in this life to love and service of You in our neighbor. St Virginia Centurione Bracelli, pray for us. Amen.