By Leonardo Rossi
Figure 1: A young Elena Aiello in the religious habit
By the end of October, the summer season has ended and you rarely see tourists in Cosenza. So my big suitcase and the city map I was holding drew the attention of some of the people who were also making the not-so-easy journey from the airport to the Calabrian town. I explained that I was in Calabria to do research on the blessed Elena Aiello (10 April 1895 – 19 June 1961). I was surprised to discover that almost no one had ever heard about her. Especially since in 2011 her beatification was a great event for the city, involving the most important religious and civil authorities and attracting thousands of faithful from all over Italy. Moreover, between the ‘30s and ‘60s she had been a media celebrity, about whom numerous articles had appeared in several national newspapers. However, when I elaborated a little more on the mystic woman and her extraordinary gifts (such as stigmata and prophecies), I learned that in Cosenza Elena was simply called by her nickname, ‘Holy Nun’. Here, in fact, she is perceived as their saint’, ‘canonized’ from below (although officially she is ‘only’ Blessed), a contemporary and familiar presence. By opening schools and orphanages, she created better opportunities for hundreds of children. Growing up, these children engaged in spreading her fame and in the idealization of her profile as a holy nun.
The Calabrians may remember Elena as an orthodox Catholic heroine, but during her life her name was associated with a sort of ‘black legend’ that can be reconstructed from the analysis of the documents kept at the Holy Office. Before she became a founder of the Institute of Minor Sisters of the Passion of O.L.J.C., and before the order was officially recognized, Aiello was very famous for her controversial mystical phenomena (visible stigmata) and for apocalyptic prophecies which she communicated personally to the most important politicians of the time, dividing Italian society between believers and skeptics.
Fig. 2 An article about her Passion Fig.3 Elena’s stigmata
On 25 March 1926, the Franciscan Father Agostino Gemelli, the famous friar-scientist founder of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, wrote to the Holy Office about the popular and media fame achieved by the Calabrian woman. Gemelli read an article by a Milanese journalist who had gone to Calabria to document her Friday Passion (the phenomenon was repeated three years in a row). In addition, Elena’s attending physician, Dr. Turano, sent a detailed report to the Franciscan friar asking for medical advice. With the complaint of Gemelli and the request for a personal intervention in the delicate issue, the news of the stigmatization of Elena Aiello arrived at the Vatican. The fragmented information created a climate of suspicion and concern. All that was known was that from March 1923 onwards she sweated blood from the forehead and displayed stigmata on hands, feet and chest every Friday of Lent. Contrary to the common opinion that called her ‘holy nun’, Aiello was technically not a sister. In 1920 she entered the convent, but after an accident and a serious illness she was forced to return to her father’s house before being able to profess perpetual vows (she only took them in 1949). The alleged affiliation with the religious state was perceived by the Church as an attempt of self-legitimization in order to enhance her status in the eyes of the people.
Fig. 4-5 Ecstasy and visible stigmata during the Holy Friday
In addition, to make matters worse, a series of anonymous letters arrived at the office of the Holy See. According to them, Elena was responsible for selling magic dust and ‘relics’ stained with her blood. The former was allegedly used for the preparation of love potions, while the latter was said to have miraculous-curative effects. For these reasons the secretary of the Holy Office, Cardinal Carlo Perosi, wrote to the archbishop of Cosenza asking for information about the mystic. From the correspondence between the Vatican and the Episcopal See, we learn that Msgr. Tommaso Trussoni tried to protect the reputation of the stigmatic by harshly criticizing women who accused her of false sanctity and partially blocking the influx of pilgrims to her rooms. However, his answers did not satisfy the Holy See, which maintained its suspicion towards her for the whole of the ‘30s.
As attested by the national media, her fame spread immediately in the small village in the province of Cosenza, Montalto Uffugo, attracting a crowd of curious. Every Lent their number increased, as did the number of journalists who stormed her home. Photographs appeared in the Giornale d’Italia, one of the major newspapers in the country, depicting Elena in a position of pious meditation or completely wrapped in a mask of blood. They evoked a strong compassion in the faithful, and an ironic condemnation in the sceptics. In any case, she became a controversial religious celebrity who sparked a wide public debate in the years in which Italians looked with interest to the story of the famous Capuchin friar, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968).
Fig. 6 Letter to Mussolini Fig. 7 Letter to Roosevelt Fig. 8 Letter to George VI
Meanwhile, the fame of Elena grew. Not only her Friday of passion, but also her philanthropic projects attracted public attention. Elena moved with some of her companions to Cosenza and there she founded the Institute of Minor Sisters, with the aim of saving orphans and giving them an education and a job. During the Second World War, her name was often associated with apocalyptic prophecies and desperate appeals for peace. Already in 1923 the mystic professed to have the stigmata as a victim soul for the sins of men: ‘You will have to suffer and be a victim of expiation for the world and in particular for Italy’. In addition to her passive role of sufferer, she also took an active role writing to the leading political leaders of the time. On 23 April 1940, through her sister Edvige, Elena sent a letter to Benito Mussolini in which she claimed that Christ ordered him not to participate in the war, otherwise divine justice would punish him. Threats of defeat were again addressed to the Dux three years later, when in another letter she lamented the disastrous ruin of Italy and announced the fall of the dictator if he did not conform to God’s will. The stigmatized nun also wrote to the American president Roosevelt, imploring him not to bomb the peninsula; and she sent a fierce invective to King George VI of England. According to her, he was the one who was really responsible for the conflict because he was a ‘cruel and godless man’ and Hitler represented the divine punishment.
The fame of Elena Aiello, similar in some aspects to that of the Capuchin of Pietrelcina, was quite controversial. On the one hand, indeed, she was described as ‘living saint’, heroic victim soul, god-inspired prophetess and charitable founder. On the other hand, the ‘black legend’ persisted. Her detractors regarded her as hysteric woman, fake nun, cunning witch and manipulator of crowds.
Fig. 9-10 Some ‘relics’ of Elena (linen soaked by her blood)
During the ‘30s anonymous letters of complaint continued to arrive at the Holy Office in which the management of the orphanages and the moral conduct of Elena and other nuns were condemned. From the archive of the Roman Inquisition we learn that a father inquisitor was sent to Cosenza to investigate her case (because the local clergy refused to actively collaborate with the Vatican). The latest news concerning the nun at the Holy Office dates back to November 1938. World War II appears to be a turning point. The investigations ended, probably due to the delicate political situation, but also because her reputation improved considerably among the Vatican clergy. From 1940 Elena made several trips to Rome, during which she met important religious figures who promoted the creation of the Roman house of her order. Eight years later, in 1948, it was approved by papal decree. From that moment the Institute of Minor Sisters spread quickly throughout Italy, with the increase of houses, schools and nuns.
Elena continued to attract media attention for her extraordinary mystical phenomena, but they were essentially perceived as a divine confirmation of her ‘holiness’, and lost the troubling traits that attributed to her black legend. As in the case of Padre Pio, her reputation transformed radically, from suspect nun and seller of magical powders to exemplary founder and heroic soul victim for the salvation of the Church and Italy. Even before her death, in Rome on the 19th of June 1961, Elena’s reputation as saint was acclaimed and spread by the faithful, especially by Calabrian people who regarded her as a regional saint. Thus, 50 years after her death and after a regular process of canonization, Elena was declared Blessed on 14 September 2011 in Cosenza. In this celebration every dark element of her history had been erased, making her a perfect Catholic model. The road to holiness is still open and the process of canonization is currently under way.
- Aristide de Napoli, Elena Emilia Santa Aiello: la “Monaca Santa” di Montalto Uffugo, Cosenza, SATEM, 1978;
- Francesco Spadafora, Suor Elena Aiello, La monaca santa, Rome, Citta nuova, 1964;
- Vincenzo Speziale, Dio scrive a Mussolini: le profezie del 2000 per l’Italia e per il mondo negli scritti della monaca santa venerabile madre Elena Aiello, Udine, Segno, 1996;
- Id., Le profezie della beata madre Elena Aiello, Udine, Edizioni segni, 2014;
- Congregatio de Causis Sanctorum, Cosentina Canonizationis servae Dei Helena Aiello, fundatricis Sororum Minimarum a Passione D.N.I.C. Positio super virtutibus, Rome, Tipografia Guerra, 1989.