Among the ranks of the Church's most beloved young saints is Maria Goretti. She was murdered at age 12 while defending her purity against an aggressor. Today, she remains one of the most popular role models in the Catholic faith.

Serving as an important place of pilgrimage for youth and those involved in pro-life movements, the shrine containing the body of this celebrated saint is located just outside Rome.

Maria Goretti was born Oct. 16, 1890, the third child of her family. She lived in poverty and at the age of 10 lost her father to malaria. After his death, the Goretti family moved to Ferriere di Conca near Nettuno. Too poor to afford their own home, the Gorettis moved in with the Serenelli family, Giovanni and Alessandro. With the death of her husband, Assunta Goretti had to undertake chores in the field, leaving Maria in charge of the household.

As a pious girl, Maria prayed the rosary often, had a special affection for the Virgin Mary, and was greatly devoted to Jesus in the holy Eucharist. Vulgarity and ill-mannered behavior offended her deeply. Although she never learned to read, she knew her prayers by heart. Whenever she went to the market, she always visited the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Graces.

Obedience, meekness, and cheerfulness marked her character. She often accepted a spirit of mortification for the benefit of others. Knowing the family was poor, a generous storeowner once gave Maria an apple and a sugar cookie. Maria immediately thanked the merchant for the items and quickly put them into her bag. When the storeowner questioned if she was going to eat them, she replied that they were for her brothers and sisters.

Living with the Serenelli family was very trying for the Goretti family. The father and son abused alcohol, posted pornographic pictures on their walls, and practiced no faith. Alessandro, the son, also developed a liking for Maria, which made matters worse.

On July 5, 1902, while both families were outside working, Alessandro seized the opportunity to approach Maria, who was mending a shirt inside the house with little Teresa next to her. Alessandro grabbed Maria by the arm, dragged her into the kitchen, and attempted to rape her.

Maria struggled and gasped for air. “No! No! It is a sin! You will go to hell,” she said.

As she continued to struggle, he pulled her dress up and began stabbing her with the broad blade of a brush hook.

Maria responded again in desperation, “What are you doing, Alessandro? You will go to hell!”

Seeing blood everywhere, and knowing that he had wounded her mortally, Alessandro threw the blade away and ran into his room.

The incident caused little Teresa to wake up. Hearing Teresa's cries, Assunta summoned her son, Mariano, and Alessandro's father, Giovanni, to check on the baby. Upon entering the house, they found the mortally wounded Maria lying on the kitchen floor.

The last 24 hours of Maria's life were the most moving. Unable to receive any medicine, anesthesia, or water due to the severity of her wounds, she bore everything with forgiveness and love. In her final hours she received Holy Communion and the last rites and was made a Daughter of Mary. Witnesses said that at this time she had a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary.

Her road to sanctity culminated in the forgiving of her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli. Maria spoke these words to those around her: “Yes, for the love of Jesus, I pardon him, and I want him to come with me to paradise. May God forgive him because I already have.” With these moving words, she gave up her soul to God, just after three o'clock the afternoon of July 6.

Alessandro, sentenced to 30 years in prison, remained unrepentant. Then one night, while in his cell, he had a dream in which Maria Goretti approached him with lilies in her arms. As he received the lilies from her, he experienced a complete conversion of the heart. After serving 27 years of his sentence, he left to spend the rest of his life serving as a gardener at a monastery.

Maria Goretti was beatified April 27, 1947. She is the only saint ever to have had family members, including her own mother, present at the canonization ceremony.

Today, the shrine that contains the body of this holy martyr, attracts pilgrims from around the world. Many who journey here, come on pilgrimage to pray and seek her intercession. As the chaste body of Maria Goretti lies in a glass reliquary in the lower part of the church, pilgrims can get up close and catch a glimpse of the young saint. For most, this proves to be an extremely powerful experience — especially for children, who often identify with this young saint.

Along with spending time at the sanctuary, pilgrims can also visit the farmhouse in which Maria was martyred. The home is located about eight miles from the Nettuno shrine in the town of Le Ferriere di Conca. A small monument marks the spot in the kitchen where the saint died defending her chastity. Today, the room also serves as a chapel. The best way to arrive at the house is by taxi. On request however, the shrine can provide a bus for transportation of a group of 10 or more people.

Most pilgrims arrive at the shrine on pilgrimage between spring and the end of the summer. The greatest day of celebrations takes place July 6, the feast day of St. Maria Goretti. Thousands of pilgrims arrive for the various festivities and events, including the eight mile pilgrimage walk from the shrine in Nettuno to the house in Le Ferriere di Conca.

Arriving at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace & St. Maria Goretti in Nettuno is easy. From Rome, head south on S148 “Pontina” to the junction of Aprilia and turn right onto S207 “Nettunense,” then head south to Nettuno via Anzio.

By rail, there are almost hourly departures from the main Rome train station, “Stazione Termini.” The trip takes about one hour. To arrive at the shrine from the Nettuno train station, take the street directly in front of the railway station (v. Colombo) and head toward the beach. At the end of the street, look to your left and you will see the shrine located alongside the beach.

For more information on making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Maria Goretti, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or contact the shrine's pilgrimage office at: Basilica Madonna delle Grazie e S. Maria Goretti, Piazza S. Rocco, 00048 Nettuno, Italy; (tel.) 011-39-6-98-575- 828; (fax) 011-39-6-98-54-076; or contact Mr. Valenti, Secretary, Friends of St. Maria Goretti, in Nettuno, 011- 39-6-98-585- 71.

Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.