How to Tell a Tree
by Its Fruit: Angelina Lo Dico, Franciscan Sister
by Luciano Calabrese
“It’s certainly not surprising
that, since the cross was so rooted in his heart, he did wonderful things,
which, coming from good soil, produced in turn wonderful flowers, branches, and fruit!
Nothing else, of a different species, could come out from this soil, which had taken the glorious cross for itself since the beginning…”
This is the comment by Tommaso of Celano, in Vita Seconda, chapter 75, to a vision appeared to Father Silvestro: “Indeed, he saw in a dream a golden cross coming out of Francis’s mouth.”
The title of this brief article about the Franciscan sister Angelina LoDico of Marianopoli, who died in sainthood in 1932, comes from Jesus’ words in the Gospels according to Matthew: “From their fruit you will be able to recognize them,” but the passage from Fonti Francescane could give us a key to interpret those words.
Of course, we don’t want to measure the length of her process to sainthood, however, we cannot ignore it. In fact, it’s precisely thanks to the fact it was a long process that it was possible to collect all the testimony and the documents related to her. In light of all the information that was gathered, we want to acknowledge the fact she was a Franciscan, and how this impacted her and the people she met.
“Marianopoli – This bucolic little town, whose origins seem to be linked to the Capuchin Friars of S. Cataldo […], it’s now also home to one branch of the Third Franciscan Order, which is under the direct control of the convent in Caltanisetta. The drive to build this new parish came from Miss Angelina LoDico, who explained her spurt of devotion toward the Seraphic Father by calling other children to follow him […]” This is the report of how the Third Franciscan Order was started in Marianopoli, taken from Fiamma Serafica, dated January 1926.
The character of Angelina LoDico emerges clearly, even from her name as sister Chiara (Clear), she who was the person to start the new parish of this Order and who explained her devotion to the Seraphic Father in her own way, by calling other children to follow him. In a few words, she is the one to extend the invitation, or the calling. She explains by calling. Here is the first key to understanding Angelina’s beliefs.
But who was Angelina LoDico?
To read Angelina LoDico’s life, we can consider two realities of faith, realities that are very simple yet fundamental, and for this reason linked to the core of Franciscan spirituality: the Cross and the Gospels. How much did they influence her path through faith? What was her relationship with them? Thanks to the answers to those questions, we will be able to enjoy the goodness of the fruit.
Given that we cannot cover her entire life in this article, we need at least to mention that Angelina was born to a pretty well-off family in Marianapoli, at the beginning of the 1900s, within a social context of extreme poverty. Her father, Giuseppe LoDico, was a pharmacist, and her mother a teacher. Angelina was the first of ten children, five of whom died at a very young age.
She studied with honors with the Dominican sisters. During her school years, she started asking herself what was her place within the Church, since she had a strong desire to offer herself to God through religion. Her parents did not want her to become a nun, therefore she became an elementary school teacher, and she made school and the streets into her convent.
The Gospels and the Cross! We cannot blindly separate them, classifying part of her life just under the Cross, and the other just under the light of the Gospels. In reality, it was one combined experience of a poor Christ on his Cross, following Francis of Assisi’s footsteps.
There is a beautiful testimony, very meaningful, given by a lady whom Angelina LoDico gave a notebook where she had copied the life of Christ, or the Gospels. “Life for the Franciscans of the Third Order is as follows – said article 2 of the constitution of the Third Franciscan Order, with clear reference to Francis’s testament – observe in an exemplary manner within the world of the Holy Gospels.” In an exemplary manner, that means becoming an example, example of the Gospels. Now isn’t it easy to see how Angelina keeps copying the charity of the Gospels into the pages of her life?
Among all the evangelical icons, Angelina probably personifies best the one described by Jesus himself in the Gospels according to Matthew: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me water, I was a traveler and you gave me shelter, naked and you gave me clothes, in prison and you visited me..” Using a Franciscan image, we can say that Angelina had definitely embraced, and especially she let herself been embraced by Christus patients, the suffering Christ, just like Francis of Assisi. It was actually her pastor, father Vullo, to remember that: “the poor people who asked her for help were always taken care for, because she saw Jesus Christ in them, old, sick, alone, she took care of them, cleaned them, helped them to die well.”
All of this came from an incredibly simple knowledge of God, not at an intellectual or academic level, but coming from life experience, to the point that her love for God became her life, her “personal truth,” to use the words of one of the greatest theologian of our time, Balthasar. “The blood and heart of a person – continues Balthasar – are connected to this truth.”
There are several episodes that show us how she was serving the extremely poor, the needy, the sick, both in her own town and in Tinchi, a small village near Pisticci, in the province of Matera, where she taught for many years, from 1921 to 1931, and where they remember her as “the holy teacher.” Angelina found herself fighting against extreme poverty. Since her school was totally inadequate, she used to teach in a small stable. She lived next to those families as one of their own, and to them she declared, in its simplicity, the love of God toward Man, not only with her words, but with her own life.
Angelina's residence in Tinci
Since she could not participate in the Eucharist every day like she wanted, on Sunday she walked 11 kilometers to go to nearby Pisticci on a dangerous and uneven road. She started to campaign among the residents of Tinchi for the construction of a new chapel, so they would not be deprived of the Holy Communion; in the meanwhile, she convinced the priest from Pisticci to go celebrate mass in Tinchi at least once a week, in the school that she transformed into a small church. Those were actually the first masses to be celebrated in that area. She was able to have some of her students volunteer to bring stones, bricks or sand every morning when they went to school, so that they would be able to build a small church. To raise the money, the teacher started working in the fields, and she gathered vegetables to sell in Pisticci on Sundays. Finally, all the families were able to participate in the blessing of a new chapel consecrated to Christ the King (now known as LoDico Chapel).
She prayed long hours for those who were now her children and siblings. Often her sister Rosa, who lived with her for some time in Tinchi, saw her on her knees all night long. During the day, if she had time, she loved to pray outside among nature.
Several episodes clearly show the greatness of her soul full of charity. It’s especially remembered how she offered her home and her care to a young field worker from Lecce, who was struck by an incredibly high fever. To one of her colleagues who pointed out how these arrangements were inappropriate, she replied: “But isn’t Jesus inside the young sick man?” Another example is when she let in a young homeless girl who had tuberculosis. Without thinking twice, Angelina took care of her in her house, and therefore she contracted tuberculosis as well. For this reason, she had to leave Tinchi and go back home, where, in the last 10 years, she had spent all her summers, and where she still worked.
She was actually engaged to a young man from her hometown, Virgilio Rizzo, but even though she loved him, she realized she could not live next to him as his wife. Virgilio’s faith was awakened by Angelina’s love. He did not believe anymore, did not go to Mass, and he could not have taken Holy Communion, not even on his wedding day. He lost the Christian path in life. His relationship with Angelina, even if short, brought him to rediscover God’s image within himself, and to ask himself seriously what God might want from him.
Children used to watch the couple as they often strolled on Via Roma in Marianapoli, to get to the parish gardens and then to the city park, further away, where Angelina used to talk to Virgilio about the beauty of faith and of prayer, and about the holiness of God, reading the Gospels and the life of the saints. Virgilio, after a while, decided to enter a convent, to be totally consecrated to God, but he had to leave the order to take care of his family. He still helped Angelina to take care of the old and the sick. Angelina had chosen to give herself completely to help her brothers, just like Francis of Assisi whom she was totally devoted to.
She was always active in the parish of Marianapoli, working with her pastor, father Luciano Vullo, who used her as a role model, especially after her death.
Aside from establishing the Third Franciscan Order, within which she was elected several times as teacher for the novices, she also started the women branch of the Catholic Action and of the Apostolate of Prayer, living fully within the harmony of these different realities of the Church. Father Giuseppe of Salemi, then guardian of the convent in Caltanisetta, after visiting Marianopoli on August 3, 1930, decided to create the Catholic Youth Organization within the Order. She was the soul of the Catholic Action within her parish, aiming to make the Third Order the growing force, the oxygen, and the base of that organization. Again, she was the soul of that organization within her parish, though prayer, the Word of God, her example, and her penitence, therefore living fully the program of “Eucharist, apostolate and heroism.”
According to the verbal records of that period, the local director underlined several times how much Francis of Assisi loved Jesus on the Cross. It was actually during the last celebration of Saint Francis to which Angelina participated, on October 4, 1932, that the capuchin father Felice of Gangi, who was sent to Marianopoli by father Giuseppe of Salemi, “reveled once more the secret of Saint Francis’ and Saint Theresa’s holiness: knowing, loving , and imitating Christ.” The little Saint Theresa was too, throughout Angelina’s life, a steady companion in her path of faith. The young Sicilian girl interiorized the words by the saint of the small road: “die of love,” and those words became her life plan.
Here is another moment painted in the mind and heart of father Antonio of Polizzi, which represents the entire life of belief and suffering of Angelina LoDico, expressed through his words: “She accepted the cross, she embraced it: she hugged it to her heart, then she lay upon it and made it into her sacrificial altar…” Of course, father Antonio was referring to the last moments in Angelina’s life, moments that actually uncover her entire spiritual life.
Knowing/accepting, loving/embracing, hugging to your heart and imitating the Cross, laying upon the Cross, participating in Christ’s sacrifice. It’s a wonderful comparison between the words of father Felice of Gangi, which revel the secret of Francis’ and little Theresa’s holiness, and the words of father Antonio of Polizzi, which revel Angelina’s unique secret.
After contracting tuberculosis
because of her service to the sick, she hid her suffering behind the smile
of faith, and from her bed she did not see anything else but the Cross.
In a letter to her uncle the priest, father Immordino, one of her relatives
describes how: “she was praying with the Cross to her lips, and she died
praying,” wanting to tell everybody, with Francis: “I know the poor Christ
on His Cross, and that’s enough for me.”
On November 5, at 4 o’clock in the morning, she fulfilled her long-held dream: to die of love, to slip away from the world to finally join God in Christ; “Cupio dissolvi et esse tecum” (I desire to depart and be with you) was her last wish, her final testament, poor and rich at the same time.
Her life is similar to that of others who died in sainthood. One example is Maria Chiara Magro of Palermo, whose life, even though original, seems to be thought and written by the same author. Both wanted to dedicate themselves to God though religion, but since they couldn’t because of different obstacles on their paths, they, just like Saint Pina Suriano, offered themselves as “living wafers consecrated to the world.” The Franciscan world represented their ideal of life and their steady point of reference.
The Franciscan paper Fiamma Serafica of December 1932 announced her death describing her as “Apostle, Teacher and Mother.” Even the magazine Vieni e Seguimi, dated November 30, 1932, talked about her, the “little Wafer who offered herself generously to the Lord to sanctify the Church and to save souls.”
A very dear friend of hers,
now a nun, said that she: “used to revolutionized everybody, she was a
true daughter of Saint Francis.”