Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Her research has been published in multiple articles and seven books. Prof. Murzaku is currently writing a book entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Centerpiece (Paulist Press 2018). She is a regular contributor to media outlets on religious matters including the Associated Press, CNN, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, Salt and Light, The Record, The Stream, Radio Tirana (Albania), Vatican Radio, and EWTN (Rome).
Our society owes much to the genius of women as St. John Paul II said in his Letter to Women in 1985. In fact, the Church cannot do without the genius of women, without the feminine, who have repeatedly saved Catholicism. What would have become of St. Benedict without St. Scholastica? St. Francis without St. Clare? Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa without St. Macrina? Blessed Giacomo Cusmano without his elder sister Venerable Mother Vincenzina Cusmano?
On May 4, Pope Francis approved the decrees on the heroic virtues of seven servants of God, who may now be honored by the faithful and called “venerable.” Among the venerable is the Palermitan native Sister Vincenzina Cusmano (1826-1894), first superior of the Sisters Servants of the Poor. Although Vincenzina is not quite a saint and the Church is waiting for proof of a miracle through her intercession, she was crucial to her brother Blessed Giacomo Cusmano (1834-1888), with whom she shared a mission and a charism: to serve the poor.
Who was Mother Vincenzina Cusmano?
Vincenzina was born in in the city of Palermo, Southern Italy, on January 6, 1826, when the city was part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, an absolute and corrupted monarchy where people’s sustenance depended on the caprices of the monarchs. It was a time of skepticism and disbelief and all those who wanted to practice their faith were called obstructionists and disillusioned. The Cusmano family was well-to-do and lived in the Albergheria, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Palermo. The eldest of five children, she learned to mother her younger brothers at an early age. Vincenzina’s mother died during the cholera epidemics which devastated Palermo when Vincenzina was only eleven. As was the custom of the time for the girls of well-to-do families, Vincenzina studied music and literature at home.
Fr. Domenico Turano, the future bishop of Agrigento, professor of letters and philosophy quite well known in Palermo, was Vincenzina’s spiritual director. She was rather timid and reserved, with an intense desire for interior prayer. A lover of intense prayer and interiority, she had turned one of the rooms of the house into a small chapel, where she retreated in prayer, dreaming to become a cloistered Carmelite nun. Probably she would have never fathomed that she would be called to do the exact opposite – active apostolate - in the streets of Palermo, side-by-side with her brother Giacomo, serving the poor.
It was a tradition in Palermo to save a boccone – morsel of food - from each member of the family for a poor person, who showed promptly at the door. The lesson is simple: this is how Jesus came alive. He was not only present in the Eucharist to be adored, but living in the poor to be fed. So ingrained was this tradition that the future Blessed Giacomo Cusmano a medical doctor and a priest, started an institution for his poor patients that he called Boccone del Povero (Food of the Poor).
On May 13, 1880, the Blessed Giacomo Cusmano presented the religious habit to the first six missionaries, founding the order of the Sisters Servants of the Poor headed by Vincenzina. Thus, another strong bond was forged between brother and sister. “You wanted to enter a small monastery but the Lord wants you to serve in a very large monastery i.e. the entire world”: this is how Giacomo welcomed his sister to active ministry of serving the poor. Brother and sister joined forces and worked together, setting an example of bountiful charity, providing food and shelter to the unwanted and the abandoned, the sick and the poor, the elderly and the orphans, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
However, Vincenzina is known not because she was the sister of Blessed Giacomo Cusmano, but because of her extraordinary human experience and profound faith. Vincenzina Cusmano was the first superior of the Servants of the Poor, the female branch of the Cusmanian family. She was the first to deserve the title “mother of the poor” and the founder of a chain of “Houses of Mercy” all over Palermo. If one has to count the virtues that marked Vincenzina’s life, they are: profound love for Jesus in the Eucharist and a model of humility, obedience, and maternal love for her biological brothers, religious sisters, orphans and the poor.
Vincenzina was motherly and sisterly, a sustainer and an encourager of her brother’s mission and capable of combining contemplative prayer with active charity. Parallels can be drawn between the Blessed Mother Mary and Vincenzina. Mary and Vincenzina unleashed their feminine genius and miracles happened. Mary mothered the Son of God; Vincenzina mothered her brothers and her order, and was a constant support to her brother’s calling and success. How appropriate that Pope Francis chose May, Mary’s and Mothers’ month, to declare Venerable Mother Vincenzina.