By Father Blaine Burkey, O.F.M.Cap.
Archivist, St. Francis of Assisi Friary
The Capuchin Poor Clare nuns of North Denver’s Our Lady of Light of Light Monastery and their benefactors and other friends are excited about the beatification of their 16th-century foundress, Mother Maria Lorenza Longo, in the Cathedral of Naples, Italy, on Oct. 9. Capuchin nuns and friars worldwide will now celebrate her feast on Oct. 21 as an optional memorial.
Here in Denver, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila will also help them celebrate the long-awaited event with a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at 12:20 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 27, the 109th anniversary of the dedication of that building.
In a rare dispensation, the Sisters who are normally cloistered at the Monastery at 33rd Ave. and Pecos St., will be present at the cathedral, as will representatives from other Capuchin Poor Clares monasteries.
Blessed Maria Lorenza is also the foundress of the Hospital of the Incurables, an ancient and prominent hospital complex located on Via Maria Longo in central Naples.
Early Years in Spain
Born in Lleida in western Catalonia, Spain, in 1463, Maria Richenza married Juan Longo, a professor of jurisprudence, magistrate and royal counselor, at about the age of 20 and is thought to have had three children by him, though only a daughter, Esperanza, can be verified by historical records.
While her children were still young, tragedy fell upon Maria. A disgruntled servant, whom she had reprimanded, poisoned her. She nearly died, but survived in a paralyzed state.
In 1506, King Ferdinand III took the Longo family with him as part of his retinue, when he took possession of the Kingdom of Naples. Two years later, Juan returned to Spain with the king, expecting to return to Maria soon, but unforeseen events kept him in Spain; and he suddenly died there in 1509.
Paralyzed, deprived of her life’s companion at 46, and far from her homeland, Maria bowed in resignation, saying “God’s will be done,” and embraced the cross as her treasure.
Pilgrimage to Loreto
Already in Spain, Maria had wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of a cure; but as it was highly impractical for a paralytic to travel that far, she now settled for a pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy House of Loreto. She set out in 1510, accompanied by Esperanza and her husband. Along the way, they stopped often; but when they arrived at Loreto, though it was very late in the day, Maria immediately had herself taken to the holy place anxious to join in a Mass. No priest could be found, and she resigned herself to it and remained in prayer. Suddenly a pilgrim priest appeared who approached the altar and began Mass. It was the Friday after Pentecost, and he read the Gospel of the paralytic healed at Jesus’ command “Stand up and walk.” Turning to those there, the priest said, “Give thanks to God.” Immediately Maria began to tremble, and by the end of Mass found herself completely cured. It was June 5, 1510, and the pilgrim priest could nowhere be found.
To remember the great miracle, Maria adopted a second name, Lorenza (suggested by Loreto); and at the foot of the Virgin of Loreto she decided to spend her remaining life in God’s service to the sick. At that time, she also joined the secular Franciscan order.
Founding of the Hospital of the Incurables
On her return to Naples, Longo worked for seven years as a nurse at St. Nicholas al Molo Hospital, hoping to remain in quiet obscurity, but God had a more challenging plan in store for her. In the years prior to this, huge numbers of invading soldiers with loose morals had raged through Italy, leaving countless victims suffering from what were then considered incurable venereal diseases. The Oratory of Divine Love movement, begun by Franciscan Bl. Bernardine of Feltre and fanned into flame by St. Catherine of Genoa and her friend Hector Vernazza, resulted in hospitals for the incurables being established in Genoa, Rome, Venice, and other parts of Italy.
Vernazza came to Naples to persuade Maria Lorenza that God was calling her to undertake such a mission in Naples. Eventually Longo stepped forward and with the help of many friends in the nobility, including Maria Ayerba, the widowed duchess of Termeli, she founded, and for 16 years personally administrated the Hospital for the Incurables, which is still in existence. She lived in the hospital, not just as an administrator, but also as one who personally cared for the sick and spent long hours praying both for and with them.
Hospitality to the First Capuchin Friars in Naples
Maria Lorenza first became involved with the Capuchin friars in 1529, just a year after the Capuchin reform of the Franciscan Order began not far from Loreto. When members of the new reform, led by one of its founders, Louis of Fossombrone, were permitted to come to Naples, Maria Lorenza offered them lodging at her hospital, and helped them obtain a more permanent home at Sant’Eframo Vecchio Friary. They in turn offered her their ministry in the hospital.
Longo offered such assistance also to some of the first members of the Theatine Order, including their co-founder St. Cajetan of Thiene, who in turn helped her with considerable administrative and spiritual advice.
Over the centuries, at least 19 other canonized saints and blesseds are known to have ministered to the sick at Bl. Maria Lorenza’s hospital, including St. Andrew Avellino, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Joseph Moscati, Bl. Bartolo Longo and Capuchin Bl. Jeremiah of Wallachia.
Call to Religious Life
By 1534, the hospital had grown to 600 patients. Maria Lorenza was 71 and convinced she was no longer equal to the task. She and her close friend Maria Ayerba felt God was calling them to give themselves to God entirely in a cloistered life of prayer. They were concerned, however, about who would keep the hospital going.
St. Cajetan consulted his superior and suggested that the duchess stay and run the hospital, while Longo would bring together a group of women who wished to join her, and they would begin to live in community. Cajetan sent a petition to Rome and on Feb. 19, 1535, Pope Paul III approved the beginning of a religious institute of Franciscan sisters of the Third Order, living in community, with Maria Lorenza as its leader. The first sisters were invested in the presence of the Capuchin friars, while the foundress made her profession into the hands of the celebrating priest.
The name of the new monastery was St. Maria in Jerusalem, in deference to Longo’s unfulfilled lifelong dream of visiting the Holy Land. Though the sisters were called Franciscan Tertiaries, Maria Lorenza formed them and directed them toward the strict observance of the ideals of Francis and Clare under the direction of the new reform of the Capuchin brothers.
They began observing the enclosure and the austerities of the first Poor Clares in Assisi, and within a year, the Pope declared that they were Poor Clares, and placed them under the spiritual care of the Capuchin friars. He set a limit to their number at 33, in reference to Christ’s 33 years, and to this day the proto-monastery is also called the Monastery of the Thirty-Three.
Maria Lorenza died at the age of 79 on Dec. 21, 1542. Taking leave of the other nuns, she had a moment of ecstasy and then said, “Oh, what I have seen! I’ll go, I’ll go!” and then added, “You think I’ve done great things. In nothing of myself, do I trust, but all in the Lord,” and showing the tip of her little finger, “A little bit of faith has saved me.”
Mother’s best friend, Maria Ayerba, died within a year; and according to their wishes both were buried in the same tomb.
In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII authorized four of the nuns of Naples to move to Rome and begin there the second house of the Capuchin Poor Clares. Today there are 163 monasteries in 19 countries on five continents, where over 2,000 nuns pray throughout the day for the Church worldwide, especially the residents of their own regions. About half of the nuns are in Mexico.
The Sisters came to Denver’s Our Lady of Light Monastery from the house in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1988, at the request of the friars of the Province of St. Conrad, now headquartered nearby.
Among other things, the sisters support themselves and their prayer ministry by baking and selling cookies under the name Clarisas Cookies.
Joyous celebration at Naples (in cathedral, in streets, and at her monastery): https://www.facebook.com/100009232349983/videos/159007486430587
About the Denver nuns: capuchinpoorclaresdenver.org