sr. Maria Rosa Colpo

“Sister  Smile”

“As she died she seemed to be smiling still…
We buried her in the shade of a tree near the house”…
(Teresa Grigolini).

Sister Maria Rosa Colpo was 33 years old when, in the village of Malbes, Sudan, she passed into eternal life, just three weeks before the Founder whom they called Father.

“A fortunate Sister! – commented Daniel Comboni when he received the telegramme telling him for the third time of the death of a young missionary sister – she died a saint and heroine, happy and joyful more than a bride on the day of her wedding”…

Truly, the characteristic of Maria Rosa from the first day she left her native Marostica (VI) to enter the novitiate in Verona, was her sense of humour, a quality which was much appreciated by among others, Daniel Comboni.    

After a year spent at the Women’s Institute in Cairo, becoming acclimatized and learning some Arabic, Sr Maria Rosa was fortunate enough to be included in the caravan which left Cairo for Central Africa guided by the Founder.

“I tell you, dear brother – she wrote on 16th December 1880 – that on 29th of this month, in obedience I shall leave for the centre of Africa… Our caravan is made up of 16 people . . . and is led by his Excellency the Most Reverend Mgr Daniel Comboni, Founder of this Mission”…    

In those days the journey took “only” 29 days… A journey during which Maria – we are told in the diary kept by Elizabeth Venturini – was the “happy note”  since during the tiring crossing of the desert “she lifted the spirits of the tired Sisters and consoled the paternal heart of Mgr Comboni, who would say to us: Look my daughters, how good and happy Maria is, copy her example”.

Besides being happy, Sr Maria Rosa was generous and brave. We read in Sr Elizabeth Venturini’s diary that the author, “fell off the camel” during the crossing of the desert, “and hurt her lungs, losing blood. Stopping the caravan was impossible. Sr Maria stayed alone to look after her with cold compresses and soon everything cleared up… Mgr liked Sr Maria’s charity and courage very much and it consoled him”.      

Destined to Malbes in the heart of the district of Cordofan, where Daniel Comboni had started an agricultural village for young Christian couples, Sr Maria Rosa arrived in the summer of 1881, with Sr Concetta Corsi, to open a community of Sisters. There they found the Parish priest Fr Anthony Dobale, the first African priest of Daniel Comboni, educated at the Mazza Institute in Verona, with 23 resident families. It seemed that the great dream: “To regenerate Africa with Africa” was finally being realised.     

Instead, as the Gospel reminds us, the seed must fall into the soil and die before it gives fruit (Jn 12:24). At Malbes the first to die, cut down by a mysterious illness was Fr Anthony. While they were burying him, Sr Teresa Grigolini was told that Sr Maria Rosa was also very ill. “I hurried to her – she later wrote to Daniel Comboni – we arrived at Malbes at nine thirty in the evening on a moonless night, travelling on  roads that were full of water and mud… Sr Maria had a very bad night… my heart was in agony… she realized how upset I was and very quietly asked to make her confession. She was always serene but we could see her making great strides towards death.. With her smiling face she praised God and thanked him for the great grace of having been able to prepare for death, fully conscious. She thanked him for the graces she had received, made many acts of ardent love of God, of sorrow for her sins, of hope in the divine promise. She praised God for his great goodness with such a sweet, light voice that Fr Joseph (Ohrwalder) sobbed… Finally she began her death agony which was calm and short. She died and seemed still to be smiling”.   (Grigolini to Comboni, 20th September 1881)

In his turn, Fr Joseph Ohrwalder wrote the day after to the Founder: “God be praised, Mgr, that there is another soul in heaven. This evening once again we shall wrap the body in a mat since we do not have wood to make a coffin and on Sunday morning we shall carry the body to the magnificent mimosa tree, twenty paces from the house, and lay the body to rest in the shade of that tree”…

In 1980 Elisa Pezzi wrote a booklet of 31 pages in memory of Sr Maria Rosa Colpo – thinking in particular of the young aspirants to missionary life – entitled: In the Shade of the Baobab.