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The story of Venerable Maria Llorença Llong, founder of the Capuchin Poor Clares

How a paralyzed, 15th-century Spanish widow received a miraculous cure and ended up not only founding a groundbreaking hospital in Italy that saved thousands of lives but helped implement a reform of the religious life for women.

Left: 18th-century print with Venerable Maria Lorenza Longo's portrait (Wikipedia); right: Capuchin Poor Clares in prayer (Br. Christian Seno, OFM/Wikipedia)

When the Congregation for the Causes of Saints released its latest list of potential saints whose causes have moved forward, most news reports understandably focused on a Franciscan priest and a laymen killed in odium fidei (in hatred for the faith) near Los Amates, Guatemala.

Other stories were equally compelling, however. For instance, there was the Ukrainian priest who secretly ministered in the Soviet Union for 40 years.

And then there was that of a paralyzed Spanish widow who received a miraculous cure and ended up not only founding a groundbreaking hospital in Italy that saved thousands of lives but helped implement a reform of the religious life for women.

The widow in question is the Servant of God Maria Llorença Llong (or Lorenza Longo), whom Pope Francis recently declared Venerable. Although her life was extraordinary, she shows how even the most humble sinner can advance in the quest for holiness.

Born María de la Estirpe Richenza in 1463, probably in the Spanish city of Lleida, she was the daughter of the noble Requences family and a descendant of a famous Spanish navy captain. In 1483, she contracted a prosperous marriage to Juan Llong (or Longo), a lawyer and friend of Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragon (some sources say they were married in 1478).

The only episode that we have from her early life is that a servant tried to murder her. Apparently the servant did not like how his mistress had upbraided him for some reason, so during a family celebration he put poison in her wine glass. She did not die, but she did suffer great pain and became paralyzed (some sources say her condition was a more prosaic case of rheumatoid arthritis).

Despite this condition, in 1506 she and her husband, moved to Naples, where His Majesty had appointed him Viceroy (Spain ruled the city from 1442-1799). Sadly in less than four years, Juan was dead, leaving Maria, 43 years of age, alone to raise their three children.

Not long after her husband’s death, she made a long-desired pilgrimage to the Holy House at Loreto, Italy. Today the journey is a four-hour drive by car. Back then she had to be carried in a litter on sometimes uneven roads. Nonetheless, while making her prayers of thanksgiving after Mass, she received a complete cure of her paralysis.

She took this as a sign from Our Lord to devote herself to Him and all mankind. She adopted the habit of a Franciscan tertiary and took to calling herself Maria Lorenza. (Was this after St. Lawrence, deacon of the poor? We don’t know.) Upon her return to Naples, she arranged for care of her children and then went around doing good throughout the city, including at the Hospital of San Niccolò in Castel Nuovo. Some say she was “the soul of charity.”

Naples offered no lack of opportunities to help people, in both the spiritual and temporal realms. After so many years of forced inactivity, one could discern in her actions the desire to waste no time and to fulfill every need she encountered.

In 1519, Maria Lorenza met the noted philanthropist Ettore Vernazza, who had founded a hospital in Genoa and came to Naples to do the same thing. Using both of their immense fortunes, she built the city’s second hospital, which was needed because the increasing number of sick. She called this Santa Maria del Popolo dei Incurabili (Hospital of the Incurables). It was meant to serve those with chronic and incurable illnesses such as syphilis. It had a pharmacy, developed pain medication, housed a research lab, and had accommodations for patients’ relatives. Doctors and scholars came from around Europe to get the drugs sold in the pharmacy and learn the ideas being discovered in its lab.

Her dedication to the patients was so great that she moved into the hospital to be near them as much as possible. Later its services expanded to include pregnant women. In what we would today call a mission statement, Sister Maria proclaimed, “Any woman, rich or poor, patrician or plebeian, indigenous or foreign, while pregnant, knock on the door, and it will be opened.” Indeed many women were saved because of the expert Caesarean sections performed by the hospital’s doctors.

Then, in 1526 at age 63, she opened a home for prostitutes.

It is said that while in prayer after Mass one day, she heard the Lord speaking to her in the sanctum of her heart.

“Maria, did you love your husband?”

“Certainly,” she replied, “yes, I loved him”

“Do you love your children?”

“Of course!”

“So, why do you not love Me, I Who have done so much for you?”

This caused her to redouble her efforts, not only to aid the physically ill, but those whose maladies were moral. Aiding her in all of this was a cross-section of society, from those with modest means to wealthy nobles like herself. Under her direction, many became Franciscan tertiaries.

When the Capuchins moved to establish a presence in Naples in 1530, she first provided the friars lodging in the Incurables and then built for them a convent called Sant’Eframo Vecchio. Inspired by both a vision she received and the work of Matteo da Bascio, founder of the Capuchins, she founded the Capuchin Poor Clares and established the convent of Santa Maria in Gerusalemme. The new order even took the Capuchin habit as its own.

Interestingly, the spiritual director who encouraged Maria in this direction was not a Capuchin but St. Cajetan of Thiene, founder of the Theatines. Indeed, Cajetan had a profound influence on Ven. Maria, and he is the one who convinced her to give up running the hospitals in order to found the order.

Vocations flooded in, aided principally by many wealthy women who were keen to support such a work, especially after the order received approval from Paul III in 1538. Popes Leo X, Adrian IV, Clement VII, and Paul IV also greatly lent their aid and approbation to the society.

Starting a new foundation would have taxed someone several decades younger. Maria was in her earlier seventies. She couldn’t do everything she wanted, and this frustrated her to no end. Compounding this was an illness that caused her paralysis to briefly return, disappear for several years, and then return again, this time for good.

Maria insisted that the only women to be accepted into the order were those who lacked the usually required dowry for entry. So many women requested admission to the Capuchin Poor Clares that Paul III fixed the number of nuns accepted for admission at 33 (which is why people have always called the motherhouse, “Trentatré,” Italian for “Thirty-three”)

Soon the order spread throughout Italy and from there all of Europe. Today it is present throughout the world, including the United States.

In 1539, following the final return of her paralysis, Maria resigned her position as abbess. She dedicated the last years of her life to prayer and the formation of the Sisters. She died December 21, 1542.

Prayer (with ecclesiastical approval):

O Holy Trinity, as we deeply love You, we praise You and thank You for the innumerable gifts and thanks given to Your faithful servant Sister Maria Lorenza. Grant, we beg You, through her kind intercession that You will show the power of Your love and the greatness of Your mercy by giving us grace we ardently seek (name that now).

We also beseech You for Your greater glory and the sanctification of souls that You will soon shine the pure face of your delight on Your servant the halo of the Blessed.

Amen.

Say three Glory Bes.

The full list of those whose causes have gone forward can be found here.

About Brian O'Neel 16 Articles

Brian O’Neel writes from Wisconsin.

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