Sister Giuseppina Nicoli set out for Cagliari on January 1, 1885 having just reached the age of 21. In the short course of one year, she had left her family, entered into Postulancy and then the Seminary, and now she was already on her first mission. She had abandoned everything to follow her vocation as a Daughter of Charity, which had seized her heart in a compelling way: to give herself totally to God to serve poor persons especially young people towards whom she felt a natural attraction.
She was born on November 18, 1863 in the village of Casatisma in thet region of Pavia. Her family was from the bourgeoisie class, her father was a judge and her mother was the daughter of a lawyer. The fifth of ten children, Giuseppina was loved by all. Her gentleness was a natural gift, giving her the nickname “sweetie-pie”. She received her early education from the Augustinian Sisters of Voghera. Then in Pavia, she acquired a teaching certificate with the secret desire to dedicate herself to the education of poor children during a time period when the illiteracy rate among poor persons was very high.
This desire had grown in her as a result of the suffering her family had experienced with the death of several of her brothers, most especially the death of her brother Giovanni for whom she had become his personal and very helpful nurse. At the school of suffering, she had come to better understand the value of life. The fragility of the human realm had made a great impression on her. She was not attracted by worldly riches. Under the guidance of a priest in Voghera, Father Giacomo Prinetti, chaplain of the “Charity” in Voghera, she began her journey along the path of spiritual perfection. It was during this time that he introduced her to the Daughters of Charity.
In October 1883, she postulated at the Alfierri Carrn Institute in Turin; then, remaining in Turin, she entered the Seminary of the Daughters of Charity at Holy Savior. Upon completion of the Seminary, she spent three months at the Sappa House in Alessandria, but towards the end of December she was missioned to Sardinia, to Cagliari, where she arrived after a sea voyage of three days. The date was January 1, 1885. Forty years later, on January 1, 1925, a crowd of mourners would accompany her casket to the cemetery in Bonaria: exactly forty years of a life totally given to poor persons in Sardinia had passed…
On this January 1, 1885, she thus found herself in Cagliari at the door of the Institution of Divine Providence. This Institute for the education of young girls had been founded in the preceding century by a Jesuit from Turin, Father Battista Vassallo. Sister Nicoli enthusiastically entered into this educational experience of 15 years that would have a lasting impact on her. Her gaze was not limited to what took place within the four walls of the Institute. Impelled by her growing desire to live out the charism of serving poor persons in order to unite herself with the Crucified Lord – whom she called “her spouse” – she began to widen her circle of action in the city. Although health was not in her favor, she did not spare herself at all – at age 30 she had begun coughing up blood, a sign of pulmonary tuberculosis, which would slowly take its toll on her for the remaining 30 years of her life. In 1886, during a cholera outbreak in the city, she and her companions dedicated themselves to helping the poor families in the city in the brief periods of free time from school, offering to help in the “soup kitchens” organized by the civil authorities. This allowed her to meet many young people who had been left to fend for themselves in the streets of “Castello”, the hilly districts of the city of Cagliari. She gathered them together at the nursery school “Umberto and Margherita” on Sundays for catechism classes and organized an association for them called “I Luigini” (the Little Louis boys). She encouraged them to help one another in the difficulties of life, teaching them healthy ways of living. Due to her influence, many were able to turn their lives around.
This zealous activity was interrupted in 1889, when she was named Sister Servant of the Orphanage of Sassari, another institution created on the model of the Institution of Cagliari. Although she was merely 36 years old at the time, this is where her feminine vitality matured and blossomed both spiritually and apostolically. She gave new life to the Association of the Children of Mary, gathered together the Ladies of Charity and guided then in the service of poor persons. She encouraged the development of catechism classes that brought together each Sunday nearly 800 boys and girls, and above all, founded the “School of Religion” for young people in secondary schools and universities in order to prepare them to be qualified teacher; imbued with Faith, especially to prepare them to teach in the inland region of Sardinia. Father Manzella provided precious support to her in generously bringing his missionary perspective to the spiritual life at the Orphanage. In order to provide care to prisoners, she arranged for the Sisters to serve in the prisons. She also raised the standards of study at the Institute in order k counter the Masonic ideas being presented in Sassari that tended to weaker the Catholic influence in the city.
In 1910, much to everyone’s surprise, and in the midst of her full involvement in Sassari, Sister Giuseppina, was named Provincial Treasurer. She obediently set out for Turin, not without personal cost, although from that time on she learned to purify her detachments. Eighteen months later, when the Seminary Directress became ill, Sister Giuseppina was chosen to replace her. She dedicated herself completely to the formation of young women beginning their lives as Daughters of Charity. Her notes on spirituality that she used to instruct the Seminary Sisters during this time of service are still in existence. As she also became very seriously ill, she was only able to remain there nine months, whereupon by doctor’s order she was sent back to Sardinia so that the milder and more temperate climate would help heal her lungs damaged by tuberculosis.
Upon returning to her former mission at the dearly loved Orphanage, a veritable Calvary experience began within her. Misunderstandings and calumnies on the part of the Administration obliged the Superiors to change her mission. She remained completely available to their decision, adoring the mystery of the crucified Christ, accepting in silence the most painful and humiliating accusation that could be made of her: that she was incapable of managing this work. In the face of this humiliation, she would tell herself: “This will do you good, Giuseppina; learn to be humble.”
It was in this way that Divine Providence on August 7, 1914 would lead her to the last stage of her life in the “Marina Nursery School” in Cagliari. The “Marina” district was the center of a very large urban development plan, but also a place where many poor families lived. These families lived in squalor and survived by their wits, at times in dishonest ways. Because the children were poor, they were refused the right to an education. This absence of schooling in turn led them to engage in corrupt activities. The declaration of the First World War made the situation eve more complicated.
Face to face with this material poverty and destitution, Sister Giuseppina also discovered the even more hidden scourges of moral and spiritual poverty. She continued promoting the need for formation of young people through the School of Religion and in classes of the “Marina Institute” that enabled her to bring the youth together. She also took care of the young people in the city working in large numbers in the tobacco factories and assembled them through the efforts of spiritual retreats.
She was also concerned with the young girls who had come into the city from the outlying areas of Campidano to seek employment in the homes of wealthy families. In additional to providing the young girls times of joy and relaxation together, Sister Giuseppina taught them catechism and gave them with opportunities to learn to read and write. She established for them a very popular Association of “Zitines” – as she had placed them under the protection of Saint Zita.
The bishop named her the spiritual director of the “Dorothy” association of young lay women consecrated in the world, whom she brought together in the “Marina” offices and encouraged them to participate in charitable services.
She also began the first Catholic Women’s Action Circle in Cagliari and the Saint Therese Circle in the parish of Saint Augustine.
Her concern for poor persons gave her no time to rest. In the district the number of families in need was greater than could be cared for by the Sisters. Sister Giuseppina thus chose the most enterprising from among the young people she knew and created the “Junior Ladies of Charity for home visiting of poor persons”. This was the first foundation in Italy. With the help of this group, she was also able in 1917 to care for numerous cases of tuberculosis and rickets among the poor children through the establishment of “Marina Summer Camps” in Poetto that welcomed hundreds and hundreds of children.
Above all else, though, Sister Nicoli’s renown is connected with the “is piccioccus de crobi” (basket boys) who were well known throughout the city because of the special tools of their trade: “crobi” (basket). These “boys” became her most constant concern. Hordes of these barefoot adolescents, poorly clothed and malnourished, would crowd around the market area in the city adjoining the Marina Nursery School. They earned a living carrying luggage for those who were coming into the city, via the station or the port, or by transporting the goods purchased by the ladies going to the market. The youth would often knock on the door of the School to ask for something to ease their hunger. At times they would steal in order to have something to eat. The local official was at a loss as to how to rid the squares and the markets from these “good-for-nothings”. He had thought of putting them on file, and required the police, upon arresting them, to have them wear a little chain around their neck with an identification number that would immediately identify them in case of future wrongdoings. It seemed quite an energetic undertaking but did not take into account their pitiful situation of abandonment.
Sister Nicoli, on the other hand, accompanied by the young Sisters in their free time after school, would approach these young people with the gentleness of a loving mother. She won them over. She responded to a profound and inexpressible need they had, and even though they often displayed their frustrations and lack of manners, she nurtured in them a dream of a better future. Through her trust and friendship, she guided them to find the Lord. She re-baptized them with the name “Marianelli” (Mary’s little ones) or the “monelli di Maria” (Mary’s little rascals), confiding them to Mary’s protection. She gave them classes, prepared them to carry out a profession, and instructed them in the faith, providing them with an educational basis that sent them back into society with a better awareness of their own dignity.
Every day at 5 o’clock in the morning, a Sister would pass under the arcades along Rome Street or through the streets of the neighborhood ringing a bell to awaken these young boys who would come to a Mass celebrated for them by the bishop in the little Saint Lucy chapel, with the following goal in mind. Immediately afterwards, they would go over the Marina School for breakfast. The boys who followed after the Sisters numbered about one hundred.
In spite of all this good, in 1924, during the final year of her life, she and her Sisters in the “Marina” suffered an offence that was recorded in the city’s newspapers.
This was the period in which fascism had recently come into power, and the new Director of the Marina School was involved in it. He wanted the Sisters’ teaching to be under his control. The Sisters did not accept this, and even reached the point of severing the agreement with the Administration rather than being subordinate to him. As a result, a series of articles appeared in the city’s newspapers denigrating the Sisters, saying that they dined on “sumptuous meals” while the children in the schools received “broths of little nutritional value”. In communion with the Visitatrix, who was kept well informed about the developments of the situation, and with the bishop, Sister Nicoli accepted this calumny in silence, until the President of the Administration had to retract his position and recognize his error.
On her deathbed, the humble charity of Sister Nicoli granted him entrance in to see her, and she forgave him with a broad smile.
She died on December 31, 1924. Her funeral took place on January 1, 1925.
Her process for Beatification, begun by Bishop Ernesto Piovella of Cagliari, reached completion in 2006. The signature of Pope Benedict XVI on the decree of beatification was given not long afterwards; thus the date of her beatification ceremony has been set for February 3, 2008. Numerous graces have been obtained and continue to be granted through her intercession. The miracle that led to her beatification involved a young military man in Milan who was cured of cancer of the vertebrae with lumbar swelling.
Charity was “the rule of all her thoughts, all her words, and all her action,” in the words of Sister Tambelli who was her closest collaborator in the Marina Nursery School. In her journey of humility in which she hid from public acclaim, she sought to be enfolded in the Love of Christ and imbued with the mystery of Charity towards poor persons as an act of Love for the Lord, who in turn glorified her.