Saint Gemma Galgani: Mystic Saint or Mental Case?

Yesterday, on the way back from my English class at the paint factory, with the sun shining at last,  I decided to visit (again) Saint Gemma’s sanctuary and monastery just outside the city walls of Lucca. The saint is buried in the domed church which one sees on the right when entering Lucca by train from Bagni di Lucca. Contiguous is a small museum containing relics relating to her life. These include the rough, somewhat shapeless, black gown she wore when going out, her bed and her diary with the pages scorched, it is said, by the devil.

Saint Gemma is one of the most famous “victim” saints (others include Saint Teresa of Lisieux – known as Santa Teresa del Bambino Gesù in Italy). According to catholic theology this type of saint has been specially singled out for suffering to parallel Christ’s own passion. Indeed, Saint Gemma (full name Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani) is one of those persons who received the stigmata (or the signs of Christ’s nails on the cross – others in recent times include (now Saint) Padre Pio and Natuzza Evolo).

Gemma was born in 1878 at Borgonuovo near Camigliano and died in 1903 aged only 25. Her birth house is now looked after by one of the two orders of Passionist nuns associated with her. (The enclosed order is at the sanctuary, the missionary order is at Borgonuovo). She was the daughter of a pharmacist and is the patron saint, together with San Giovanni Leonardi of nearby Diecimo, of that profession. As she was a very good schoolgirl (excelling in music, maths and French) Gemma is also patron saint of students who are often seen praying at her sanctuary before their finals. (Indeed, when we were at the monastery shop – which sells copies of her extraordinary diary, letters and ecstatic vision reports, besides small relics made up of fragments from her clothes – bodily relics are now longer allowed to be sold by the church – we met a young man eager to complete those studies which would allow him to ask to become a Franciscan novice. When we asked him why he had chosen this way of life he replied “ God is calling me” – and we realized that the etymology of the word vocation  is “calling”).

Saint Gemma was termed by locals “the virgin of Lucca” while still alive and was regarded with mixed feelings. Some admired her pure, simple and direct character, others thought she was just plain weird (including her elder sister Angelina who derided and bullied her). Shortly before her death Gemma had a nocturnal vision where the Virgin Mary appeared to her with Christ, who bestowed his wounds upon her causing her to bleed heavily. To his credit, her father confessor (who also edited her writings after her death) asked his protegée to pray for these marks to be removed.

There are several places associated in and around Lucca with this saint ( surprisingly quickly canonized in 1940, less than forty year after her death) which may be visited: the house where she became Doctor Giannini’s house-keeper after she was orphaned, the house where she received the stigmata and the room where she died of TB. Even if one is not a devotee of Saint Gemma the places are all well worth visiting as, in their furniture and fittings, they display, like a time-warp, the way of life of a Luccan middle-class family at the end of the nineteenth century – everything is truly as it was when she lived there, zealously preserved by the order of nuns.

Today, with the advent of psycho-analysis and the growth of religious skepticism Saint Gemma may be regarded by many as someone who suffered from a mental disease, even hysteria and from sexual repression. Furthermore, with the current aim of medical science to reduce patients’ pains, her Passionist emphasis on suffering as way of getting closer to Christ may seem absurd and stupid. I repeat what I said in a previous blog: one may think another’s beliefs are a load of codswallop but one must respect the right for that person to hold those beliefs. I wonder what would have happened if Saint Gemma had lived today. Would she have been rescued by social services and put into a hostel with the assistance of child-psychiatrist and a youth-councilor to help her develop her own sexuality in a positive way and avoid cranky pseudo-mystic beliefs? Then we would never have had a Saint Gemma and that, in my opinion, would have been some loss!

Here are some pictures I took, associated with this endearingly loveable saint including my favourite photograph of her which is this one:

St Gemma Photo

Subsequently, I realised that I had unwittingly visited the sanctuary on her anniversary…

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9 thoughts on “Saint Gemma Galgani: Mystic Saint or Mental Case?

  1. If St Gemma had lived today, she would have recovered from her bone tubercolosis:
    no more pain, no more ecstatic visions. Try to imagine the actual pain she suffered from TB: together with her firm religious belief she created something positive from pain and physical suffering, in order to simply survive to them. People around her did the rest, catholicism is still a stronghold in today’s Italy, imagine more than 110 years ago in that social and cultural context.
    Reading about her now gives people a sense of passion, poetry and good old times, but actually she was a poor girl severely hit by tubercolosis in a characteristic context.
    ” bodily relics are now longer allowed to be sold by the church”
    I remember when a clergyman friend of mine in early 1980s bought small fragments of her bones as relics: I was revolted and sick of such a commerce! a piece of human body conveniently sterilized (bone TB!!!). And I think they stopped selling that stuff only because they run out of bone fragments…

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