In a beautiful Genoese mansion, the family doctor was giving the Fornari couple serious news. The situation of Giovanni Francisco, the youngest son of Girolamo and Barbara, seemed hopeless.
In the midst of this drama, a voice full of candour strove piously to reassure the parents, saying that there was “a doctor in Heaven who has remedies better than all those on earth, and that it was only necessary to have recourse to Him and to invoke Him with confidence” to be assured that the child would recover his health. “I give you my word,”1 the girl concluded.
Who was this girl who, despite her tender years, displayed the faith and wisdom of a saint?
Family upbringing and marriage
Maria Victoria Fornari Strata was born in 1562 in the bustling city of Genoa. She was the seventh of nine children born to Girolamo Fornari and Barbara Veneroso, a couple known for their good morals and piety.
Of an impulsive temperament, little Maria Victoria learned moderation, inspired by the example of her parents. It is said that she always showed exemplary zeal and great responsibility in the fulfilment of her obligations, which would be confirmed years later in the guidance of her Religious Order.
She had an early desire to follow the consecrated life, but on the advice of her parents she married Angelo Strata at the age of seventeen. He was a devout man, and together they were able to reconcile their religious duties with the responsibilities of domestic life.
They prayed the Rosary as a family every day and, as ardent devotees of the wounds of Christ, they sought refuge in them during the difficulties of marriage, of livelihood and of rearing their children.
Loss of her husband and abandonment to Mary
In 1587, after only eight years of marriage, her husband fell gravely ill and died within a few days. One of the most difficult phases of her life was beginning. Widowed at just twenty-five years of age, eight months pregnant and with five other children to care for, Maria Victoria felt emotionally weak and incapable of carrying out the mission that had fallen to her.
She was able to face this tremendous ordeal by turning with confidence to the mercy of Our Lady. Once, while in her room, she knelt before a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus, and tearfully begged Her: “O compassionate Virgin, I implore Thee as much as I know and can: by thy goodness, deign to take these children of mine as thy servants and children, for, being already deprived of their father, for my part they can also be called orphans and motherless.”2
While she was praying, the Blessed Virgin held out her arms to her, saying: “Have no doubts, for I will watch over not only your children, but also over you: this household will always be under my special care and protection. Rejoice and do not fear. I want only one thing from you; leave everything else to me: from now on, seek to love God above all creatures.”3
After such a consoling vision, she felt that the great anguish that was oppressing her had subsided and, filled with hope, she overcame the temptations of despair and sadness.
Her response to Our Lady’s promise “was prompt and complete, and took the form of a vow of perfect and perpetual chastity, by which Maria Victoria pledged not only to renounce all human love but to reclaim a spiritual virginity.”4 Furthermore, she would no longer wear gold or silk dresses, and would abandon her worldly circles, devoting herself exclusively to the education of her children until such time as she could embrace the religious life in the cloister.
However, her gratitude made her desire even more for the glory of the Almighty, and Our Lady inwardly assured her that this longing corresponded to the divine will: her children would also consecrate themselves to God, and she herself would serve Him by founding a new Order.
A religious outside the cloister
Being a member of a pious association that was directed by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Bernardino Zanoni, Maria Victoria took him as her spiritual director.
A zealous and habile pastor of souls, Fr. Zanoni counselled this strong-willed and determined soul to persevere with confidence in the promises made to Our Lady, spurring her on to constant progress in virtue.
In addition to tending to the duties of her children’s upbringing, she began to perform numerous charitable works, as her condition allowed, which soon garnered her the incomprehension of many of her peers in Genoese high society.
It is said that having a sick maid, her director recommended that she submit to her will in everything that was not sinful. She thus endeavoured, with all her affection and attention, to provide the sick woman with the best possible care. The patient, however, of a capricious and ungrateful nature, disdained this solicitude, preferring to seek treatment from others.
But finding no one who would help her, the servant had to be hospitalized. As soon as she heard of what had happened, Maria Victoria went to the hospital help her with redoubled dedication, without showing the least resentment.
There was also a poor dying woman who, tormented by the devil, violently spat on the crucifix and shouted blasphemies. The unfortunate woman related before she died that the evil spirit disappeared in terror every time the pious widow visited her. The family then asked her to remain at the bedside of the sick woman, who finally died in peace.
Her presence transmitted so much serenity that few suspected that this woman of such simple and peaceful demeanour, willing to help anyone who needed her, was of a choleric and impetuous temperament.
Founding of the Order of the Most Holy Annunciation
Having set all of her children on the path of virtue, there was no longer anything to bind her to the world. The time had come to do what she had promised to the merciful Virgin. To this end, she could rely on the help of Fr. Zanoni, as well as the support of a couple from Genoese society, Stefano Centurione and Vicentina Lomelini, who, after a retreat, had also decided to embrace the religious state. Vincentina was to join Maria Victoria in the new foundation, on the advice of Fr. Zanoni, and Stefano, who was to be ordained a few years later, was to become her great benefactor.
With a series of difficulties behind her, both material and ecclesiastical, the Order of the Most Holy Annunciation was founded on June 19, 1604, “under the obligation of exterior cloister and interior recollection, and dedicated in a special way to the adoration of the Incarnate Word and of the Blessed Eucharist.”5
Temporarily using a small building, the nuns would wear a white habit with a blue scapular and mantle, completed by a black veil. It is said that in order to overcome adversity, Mother Maria Victoria kept repeating “Mary of the Annunciation, Mary exalted, be always our Mother and Advocate.”6
In fact, problems were not long in coming. Stefano Centurione began to interfere in the running of the convent, encouraging the sisters to adopt the Carmelite rule, which would result in the loss of the characteristics proper to the new institute.
This brought dissention and disunity among the religious, causing the foundress great suffering. Accustomed to entrusting herself to the Blessed Virgin as a child in her mother’s arms, Maria Victoria turned now to her intercession, as she had done after the death of her husband, hearing words of comfort from Her again: “What troubles you, Victoria? Why do you weep? This monastery is mine. It was I who established it, and I will take care of it. Have no doubt, everything will be rectified. I will be the Mother of all the nuns of this house and the Guardian of the entire Order.”7
Without Maria Victoria having to take any concrete measures, Our Lady began to move the souls of each of the rebels, making them understand that they should not change the original charism.
On September 7, 1605, the religious made their solemn perpetual profession and received three new sisters.
Mother of many daughters
In 1608 the nuns moved to a new monastery, known as Casteletto. This foundation was a desire that the Mother Prioress had carried in her heart for years, because it would bring her daughters more favourable conditions for meditation and contemplation.
It was here that new supernatural gifts blossomed in the soul of the foundress for the benefit of all. A keen discernment of spirits and an extraordinary ability to solve spiritual problems allowed her to penetrate the interior universe of her daughters in order to help them.
As a biographer said, she “was born to be a mother, and her vocation flourished in a spiritual and supernatural way, of which natural motherhood was but a symbol.”8
One of the nuns, for example, was completely unable to expose a problem of conscience to the superior. Approaching that daughter, Mother Maria Victoria told her to have no fear, for she herself would relate everything. And she began to describe the sister’s inmost thoughts and to resolve difficulties that she had kept in her heart, only for herself and God.
Another nun, distraught over a fault she had committed, had difficulty in asking the foundress for forgiveness. One day, while the sister was praying in the chapel, the mother put her hand on her shoulder and told her not to worry because everything was already forgiven. The sister, who had told no one of her intentions, redoubled her confidence in her spiritual mother.
She possessed, moreover, a rare ability to reassure distressed souls, filling them with consolation and serenity, often without even uttering a word. Sometimes it was enough for the nuns to look at her face for them to feel comforted.
On October 25, 1611, her term as Prioress came to an end, and the community, judging her tired and worn out by the obligations of the office, decided to elect another religious as Prioress. Thus began a new phase of heroism and pure love for the cross in her life.
The new prioress, Mother Maria Giovanna Tacchini, treated Mother Maria Victoria with a harshness and distrust that served to further deepen her humility and submission. She seemed deliberately intent on mortifying the foundress, treating her as the least of the nuns and the most capricious novice.
Yet her meekness in accepting the humiliations imposed on her was exemplary, to the point of edifying the others. One of the novices learned only years later that this religious of impeccable obedience was the very Foundress of the Order…
Mother Maria Giovanna later recognized how unjust she had been towards Mother Maria Victoria, and that surely her fault had been permitted by God to further exalt the latter’s noble virtues and holiness.
In fact, despite these trials, her generosity towards others – the gauge of true love of God – in no way lessened. During her time as infirmarian, she applied herself with outstanding diligence to the care of the others, never giving in to fatigue and devoting herself especially to those who had persecuted her most.
“Everything passes and all is naught, except God”
Nine years before her death, Mother Maria Victoria had predicted that when the nuns of the monastery numbered forty, the maximum stipulated by the constitutions, she would be ready to surrender her soul to God. It was with deep joy that she saw this number reached, for the happy day was drawing near.
The first symptoms of her final illness appeared on December 3, 1617, the feast of St. Francis Xavier, on which occasion she attended Mass and received Communion. Thereafter she spent twelve days in pain and suffering, waiting for her soul to be taken to its eternal dwelling place.
On December 15, 1617, the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom she so loved, came to take her. She was fifty-five years old, thirteen of which she had lived as a nun. Immediately, a sweet fragrance pervaded the room in which she was lying, even permeating the cloths laid out there.
It was not long before the monastery was swarming with crowds who came to venerate the body. The tunic of her habit was divided in tiny pieces to be distributed among the Genoese people, with only her veil and mantle kept intact. Fr. Francesco Ottagio, a Theatine religious who had been pronounced beyond hope by doctors, recovered his health by touching one of these fragments. Various cures and miracles followed. In 1629 the body, incorrupt, was transferred to the monastery choir for the veneration of the nuns.
From mother of several children to founder of a Religious Order, the admirable life of Blessed Maria Victoria can be summed up in her filial abandonment to the will of the Creator, following the example of Our Lady: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). ◊
1 VITA DELLA BEATA MARIA VITTORIA FORNARI STRATA. Roma: Bernardino Olivieri, 1828, p.2.
2 LUPI, Angela. Due volte madre. 2.ed. Milano: San Paolo, 2000, p.36-37.
3 Idem, p.37.
4 Idem, p.38-39.
5 Idem, p.70.
6 Idem, p.89.
7 VITA DELLA BEATA MARIA VITTORIA FORNARI STRATA, op. cit., p.99.
8 LUPI, op. cit., p.107.