Getting to Know ‘Nennolina’

Antoinetta Meo (1930-1937) very much wanted to receive her first Communion and so began her correspondence with Caro Bambino Gesú (Dear Baby Jesus).

Antoinetta Meo (1930-1937) loved Jesus so much.
Antoinetta Meo (1930-1937) loved Jesus so much. (photo: public domain)

Most visitors to Rome head for St. Peter’s Basilica. Those with a little more time usually visit the four papal basilicas: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Rome has, however, more than 50 other minor basilicas. One of them — the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) is also one of the “seven pilgrim churches of Rome,” churches visited by pilgrims during the holy year to gain its indulgence. It’s just a few blocks from St. John Lateran.

The Basilica of the Holy Cross is noted as the site where instruments of Christ’s passion, including fragments of the True Cross collected by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, are kept. But I want to focus on a more modern relic found there: the tomb of Antoinetta Meo.

Antoinetta Meo (1930-1937), known affectionately as “Nennolina,” was born, baptized at and grew up near the basilica. An active and friendly little girl, she lost her leg at age 5 to bone cancer, a disease that within two years took her life.

What makes Nennolina stand out were her “letters.”

Nennolina very much wanted to receive her first Communion and so began her correspondence with “Caro Bambino Gesú” (Dear Baby Jesus). They are the letters of a little child, written with the sincerity of a little child, a child to a Child with the concerns of a child — and the longing of that child to receive the Child. They’re not very long, usually three or four sentences, telling about what’s going on in her life and her longing for Jesus. They brim with the directness of a child and often include regards to his Mother, “Madonnina,” and usually close “baci e saluti dalla Tua Antoinetta” (“kisses and greetings from Your Antoinetta”). There are more than 160 of them, along with her own little diary and collection of thoughts.

Her faith is simple and direct, as when she writes about her deceased grandparents:

“I entrust to you also the souls of the poor dead, especially my Grandpa Anthony if he hasn’t already gone to Paradise, and also the other grandpa, John” (Letter 156).

Elsewhere, although she herself suffers from a mortal illness, she asks simply, “Make Mommy heal” (100). She also asks pardon for her own faults:

“Forgive me, dear Jesus, who has been a little bad, and also my sister, and I promise that tomorrow I will be much better” (38).

Sometimes, she also wrote to God the Father: “I love you very, very much — I mean lots — I know that I wrote that to you in the beginning but I want to say it to You another time” (111).

She made her first Communion at Christmas 1936. On Dec. 13, she wrote Jesus, “thank you that only 10 days are left. I will be very happy when I receive You” (Letter 94). On Dec. 15, she wonders “how beautiful that day will be” when she makes her first Communion — and mentions in passing that today is her birthday, and “thank you that today I turn 6” (96). On the 16th, she tells Jesus that she will prepare “a beautiful, soft, soft, little crib, dear Jesus, so You can rest well” “[in] my heart” (97). Matter-of-factly, she writes on Dec. 17, “tell God the Father that I am happy that He inspired me to make my First Communion on Christmas Day, because it is the very day You were born on the earth to save us and die on the Cross” (98).

Indeed, her first Communion is in some sense so much expected and anticipated that, on that day, her letter simply tells Jesus, “Merry Christmas. I love Mom and Dad so much. Antoinetta” (106). The next day, she adds that she asks for “those graces that I didn’t ask you for when I made Communion,” while promising “I want to be always good” and — with a reference to Italy’s colonial war then underway to seize Ethiopia — praying to “make many sinners convert, especially those who are in Abyssinia [Ethiopia] and don’t know you” (107).

Her last letter (162) is touching, a kind of child’s last will. “[T]hank you for sending me this illness, because it is a means to arrive in Paradise.” She asks for “the strength necessary to endure the pains that I offer for sinners.” She then, to Jesus, writes, “I entrust to You my parents and Margherita. … I send you so many greetings and kisses.”

Two months later, she was dead.

Her case was referred to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1972, and Pope Benedict XVI declared her “Venerable” — the first step toward possible beatification — on Dec. 17, 2007.

I first encountered the story of Nennolina by chance, on a Sunday afternoon in Rome in 2013. I had never before visited the Basilica of the Holy Cross; and, while I knew of its association with Christ’s passion and Helena’s quest for the True Cross, it was only by accident I wandered in to her tomb.

Most of what has been written about Nennolina, including her letters, appears to be in Italian. A translator named Austin Schulz has posted his translations of her letters, texts which seem proper. I generally follow them here.

It would be a good thing to see this child’s words published and broadly available in English. I can’t think of a better little book to put in the hands of children preparing for first confession and Communion.

Ex ore infantium (“from the mouths of babes”) God finds perfect praise, as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 21:16, quoting Psalm 8:2. On this Corpus Christi, it would be a good time to get to know the little girl who wanted so much to receive her first Communion: Antoinetta Meo, “Nennolina.”

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.