Ven. Celestine Bottego: A Late Vocation Ahead of Her Time

Mother was always serene, with a smile, and deep faith in God’s will.”

(photo: Register Files)

Sr. Rosetta could understand why the other nun was so confused. It was only 1954, after all, and she and Mother Celestine stood out for almost disappearing among the long veils propped up on starched forms of many the other religious women in the room. They were all nuns serving in the diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, but in simple, contemporary suits, the foundress of the Missionaries of Mary and Sr. Rosetta looked like lay people.

“Do you know that this is a meeting of nuns?” another sister gently asked Sr. Rosetta.

“Yes, yes,” she said, with an Italian accent. “We are nuns, too.”

“Oh,” said the other sister, intrigued.

“We’re a new congregation of missionaries,” Sr. Rosetta explained.

Mother Celestine had found plenty of support for the unconventional but intentional habit of the new community.

 “I spoke with Bishop Fulton Sheen. He encouraged me and said that he was enthusiastic about the idea of our having a lay habit. He said we are the only congregation of this kind until now. He added, it was about time to change,” Mother Celestine wrote to Fr. James Spangolo in Italy.

Though renewal had long been on the mind of the Xaverian Missionary Fathers, Mother Celestine and Fr. Spagnolo weren’t trying to change anything. They were simply answering the call of God to bring the Gospel to people who had yet to hear to good news. It seemed simpler and more practical to wear plain lay clothes when looking to venture into far-off lands in Africa or Asia.

Perhaps it was also the Yankee-ness of her American citizenship or her upbringing in the Wild West or her mature age that made Mother Celestine more inclined to a practical approach to the religious habit.

Mother Celestine Bottego was the middle child of immigrants Mary Healy and Giambattista Bottego. Her Irish mother and Italian father had met in in California. Giambattista then moved to the booming mining town of Butte, Montana, and Mary followed soon after. There they married and settled. Celestine was born in 1895. From her father, she would inherit an Italian estate, and the vision of the explorer. Not only had Giambattista left Italy to make his way in the New World but his brother Vittorio had also become an explorer with the Italian navy. From her mother, Celestine would inherit an Irish love for literature, a sense of humor, and a calm, endearing demeanor.

“I hope they will grow well, so that they can find happiness in life. Their happiness certainly depends on what their mom taught them before they were born, even if a person can learn a lot through education... to be calm and happy,” Giambattista wrote to his wife.

Celestine was obviously growing up in a household where happiness was sought beyond material things. They stood in contrast to much of what they found around them. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth had open a school at St. Patrick’s Church in town but open prostitution continued unabated in the town of copper barons willing to exploit anything, and anyone, to make a fortune. The spring melt always revealed a few dead bodies behind saloons and beyond the city limits. In 1897, Giambattist’s brother had also died during his second expedition into the Horn of Africa. His commitment to family over fortune took Giambattista back to Italy in 1900 to care for his elderly parents. He took with him Celestine’s older sister Maria and her younger brother Vittorio. Mary stayed behind with 4-year-old Celestine to look after their real estate investments.

The next 10 years of Celestine’s childhood would be marked by the influence of her mother and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Mary loved poetry and introduced her daughter to the best in the English language. The two women spent much time in long conversations, too.

“I have always considered it a grace to have lived close to my mother. She was a strong and sweet character together; she had a great heart and a deep sense of humor. She also spoke with me of very serious things, we read books in English and memorized the poems she liked most,” Celestine later remembered.

Among the sisters at school, Celestine had two favorites — Sr. Mida and Sr. Perfecta. From Sr. Mida she took her confirmation name, Mida, and to Sr. Perfecta she confided that she wanted to be a nun. The inspiration of a religious vocation had come to her after making a short retreat at the convent. Celestine and Sr. Perfecta would keep up an epistolary friendship for years after Celestine returned to Italy. The future foundress was also an excellent student. In July 1910, Celestine earned the highest score on the state exams among eight graders in Montana. The Butte Miner reported her award-winning grades and captured her bright smile in a photograph, the same smile and clear eyes that would show in on photographs decades later.

In 1910, Celestine and her mother rejoined the rest of the family in Parma, Italy, on the family estate and farm. Celestine played soccer with her brother and continued her education at the University of Parma, studying to become an English teacher. She then started teaching in a local middle school. She also taught catechism in her parish church and was involved in the Red Cross and Catholic Action. She came under the influence, too, of the Benedictine Abbot Emmanuel Caronti, a leader in the liturgical movement of the time. Celestine embraced Benedictine spirituality and became a Benedictine Oblate in 1922, when she was 26. Two years later, her sister Maria entered the Congregation of Franciscans Missionaries of Mary and was sent to India. Religious life still tugged at Celestine’s heart, too, as she wrote to Sr. Perfecta.

“So your sister has made the sacrifice you contemplated so long. If ever you had a religious vocation, you have it yet. Do not let anything interfere with it, if you value your own happiness. The very fact that you have not married during all the time since you finished school leads me to believe a religious vocation. There is nowhere on earth where you are needed more than right here now…” the Irish nun chided and encouraged.

 But Celestine also felt a duty to care for her parents, and neither she nor Sr. Perfecta knew where Celestine would be truly needed. For the time being, Celestine poured her heart out in helping those around her and in prayer. Dom Emmanuel had encouraged Celestine to reach out to the poor of Parma. On the outskirts of the city, she found youth without. She turned the bottom floor of the family home into a place where they could find in her a concerned friend and a second home. She also gave them catechism classes and organized other activities to keep them out of trouble.

Celestine also had an exceptional capacity for friendship. Everyone in her neighborhood turned to her for advice and assistance. With her they had “a friendship that makes you remember God’s love in you” and found in her “a happy person who radiated confidence, serenity, and whose heart invited you to love Jesus and your brothers.”

Though Celestine’s mission had a small radius, within her own city a new missionary congregation was growing. The bishop of Ravenna, but a Parma native, St. Guido Conforti, was training and forming the Xaverian Missionary fathers to take the gospel to remote corners abroad. He had been named bishop of Ravenna at the ripe old age of 37 and was a remarkable figure of priestly dignity and humility, admired by fellow saints such as Pope John XXIII. With his missionary mind, he had encouraged Pope Pius XI to open an ecumenical council in Rome to reorient the church around missionary activity and interreligious dialogue, among other renovations. When Celestine met him sometime before his death in 1931, she too, was impressed. Neither of them knew though that she would become the first and founding member of the corresponding women’s community he had always wanted to start.

In 1936, at the age of 40, she visited her sister in India and spent a month helping in their mission. She joined her sister on visits to the outposts in small villages, bringing medicine, caring for the sick, and even baptizing. Celestine herself baptized some 40 babies during that month. In 1938, she started a new teaching position — English teacher at the seminary of the Xaverian Missionaries. Over the years, she got to know Fr. James Spagnolo, one of the congregations most influential priests. In 1943, he approached Celestine about starting a women’s branch of the Xaverian community. She laughed him off.

“I am more capable of destroying God’s works than making them happen,” she said.

But she didn’t quite feel at peace. From the outside, it looked completely strange that a 48-year-old with no experience of religious life would be suddenly called to found a religious community of missionaries. In fact, that is exactly what Celestine’s spiritual director thought. She was not cut out for religious life, let alone the person to undertake the formation of a new community. Still, perhaps the words of Sr. Perfecta or remembrances of the missions in India, and most certainly the Holy Spirit, kept her thinking about religious life and the missions.

But her personal struggled was momentarily eclipsed by the war raging around her. Her family home had become a refuge for anyone in need, from prisoners of war to bombed-out families. In the midst of the chaos, an Easter card from Fr. Spagnolo reached her. He wanted to drop one more hint. On the front was a copy of Velasquez’s crucifixion. Inside he had written a single word, “All.” It suddenly hit Celestine. If she wanted to give her all to God, this was what she had to do. She asked for the grace to never go back on her commitment.

“We have a foundress,” Fr. Spagnolo wrote in his diary.

In 1945, the Missionaries of Mary began to take shape. Several other women joined Celestine and they won the approval of the Bishop of Parma. Their initial mission territory was Parma itself, where the Bottego family home had become their convent. Celestine and Fr. Spagnolo consulted with Rome about the sisters’ habit and received approval to wear lay clothes. “Let love be your habit,” Fr. Spagnolo encouraged the new nuns.

In 1954, they received their first missionary call when the Xaverian fathers asked the sisters to support their seminary in Massachusetts. Cooking and doing laundry for the seminarians, working only within the seminary, was initially frustrating for Mother Celestine and Sr. Rosetta, especially knowing that there were so many needs in the world. But Celestine never complained. She stayed with Sr. Rosetta at the seminary for a year before returning to Parma to continue to direct the young community. In Massachusetts, more opportunities for mission work started to present themselves and the sisters expanded into education and charity, especially among Hispanics. Other foreign missions followed — Brazil in 1957, Japan in 1959 and Burundi in 1961.

“Always open arms … She was a mother. She was writing all the time and asking how the community was,” one of the first sisters remembered.

In October 1962, Mother Celestine attended the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. This event, too, she followed closely, welcoming its reforms and teachings. Over the years, the missions grew to include Cameroon, Chad, the Congo, Thailand, and Mexico. Mother Celestine visited her missionary sisters and followed them closely with letters. In 1966, the Xaverian Missionaries of Mary convened their first general chapter. To everyone’s surprise, Mother Celestine resigned her position as superior, preferring to leave room for younger members and to accompany her sisters by prayer.

“You can well understand as time goes on, how our work demands ever new and fresh energy and youthful gifts to respond to new challenges. Our work is moving forward, and it cannot slow its pace. I wish to withdraw, better observe and follow the activity of all of you, my daughters, and proffer spiritual assistance,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

She remained close to her sisters all over the world through her copious letters.

“I have many of your letters here that keep me in close union with each of you and keep me updated on all the activities ... In May there is Mother’s Day. I will celebrate all your mothers asking for the consolations that every mother wants, that is, that their children manage to assert themselves in life, according to their vocation, that they know how to bring a little light, joy and truth, honoring their family wherever they are called to live,” she wrote to them in May 1969.

Her spiritual guidance from the background would continue for another decade.

In 1977, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died on Aug. 20, 1980.

“Her eyes — they were brilliant,” one of her sisters recalled. “So much light was coming from them … Mother was always serene, with a smile, and deep faith in God’s will.”

She was declared venerable in 2013.