sr. Maria Caspi

Daniel Comboni’s First Born

On the evening of the last day of the year 31st December 1871, Fr Daniel Comboni, accompanied by a young 19 year old girl, knocked on the door of the Zago sisters, who were of Montorio in Verona. Since they had offered their home for the future missionary sisters for Central Africa, he came to ask if they would give hospitality to his first candidate. It was important she be admitted that day since next day, he had to present himself to the Council of Superiors of the Works of the Good Shepherd and assure them that there were already aspirants so the new congregation of women for the mission – the first in Italy to be exclusively so – could be considered founded.

In fact on 1st January 1872, Daniel Comboni was authorized by the bishop of Verona to consider himself Father and Founder of the “Pius Mothers of Nigrizia”. Maria Caspi thus became the “first born” and he as Founder always called her this.

In the Montorio house, Maria did not remain alone for long. Before the end of January she was joined by Maria Teresa Scandola, later called Maria Giuseppa. When on 14th September 1872 Daniel Comboni, by now Provicar Apostolic of Central Africa – returned to Montorio to help them move to the house he had  acquired for them in Verona, they were three aspirants and a fourth was already in the house in Via S Maria in Organo. They were young “Women of the Gospel” who knew in whom they had put their trust, they were willing to wait trustfully the hour in which they would realize their dream that for the moment seemed just that.

From/In two in two years…

The wait cannot have been easy. First two years passed before the official noviziate could begin with the coming of Maria Bollezzoli, their mistress and formator; then two more before they could make their Vows which would consecrate them to the mission forever. 

On 15th October 1876, Daniel Comboni wanted personally to preside over the religious celebration  which marked the beginning of a stream of “his” sisters, the “Pius Mothers” of the least, the excluded, the oppressed…

Maria Bollezzoli and Teresa Grigolini were the first. Then one by one, followed Maria Caspi, Giuseppa Scandola, Rosa Zabai…

Then, finally they were ready to leave. On the evening of 12th December 1877, Verona greeted the Bishop of Khartoum who was taking his first group of Pius Mothers of Nigrizia to Africa. That was the name he gave them: he had also given each of them a red cord with a Crucifix on it, they were going to proclaima and witness to this Crucified One. The significance of the red cord was obvious: their commitment, if necessary, would be to the end, to death, never pulling back.

To offer one’s life can also mean to be reconciled

For Sr Marietta Caspi, the first born of Daniel Comboni, the moment she was called to give her life was in May 1880. She was in El-Obeid, in the heart of Sudan, where, since 1873, the  “Women of the Gospel” had begun a “work among the women of Kordofan”, something their founder wanted so much.

The previous February, when the sand of the desert had covered the body of Sr Maria Bertuzzi, the first of the Pius Mothers to die on African soil – she was only twenty years old – Sr Marietta had thought she would quickly follow, she was so ill. She had shared this with Demetrio Prada, the young Milanese explorer, after a terrible attack of dysentery and fever had brought him to  beg hospitality at the mission.

Thinking of his mother far away, Demetria confided in his nurse. But she told him not to worry, she would go first, willingly offering her life so that a distant mother could embrace her son once more.

Then she suddenly understood. Her generous gesture would be a sign of her own reconciliation with her own mother. In giving back this son, Demetrio to his mother, she finally forgave her own mother, whom she had never known. In a mysterious way, she was embracing her own mother. 


If you want to read more:

PEZZI, Elisa. La primogenita. Roma, 1980.

VIDALE, Maria. Maria Caspi: la “primogenita” di Daniele Comboni. In: Archivio Madri Nigrizia, 10-A/1(2005)11-35.