Her Birthplace and Childhood

Magdalene of Canossa was born in 1774, the second child of a noble family from Verona, the Marquis Octavius Canossa and Countess Maria Terese Szluha. The name “Canossa” has been connected with the history of Italy since the 11th Century A.D.

The famous Countess Matilda (1045-1115) exercised a strong political influence for nearly half a century. Even though the lineage is not clear, in the 17th century, the Canossa family in Verona held a prominent position in the city life.

During her early childhood Magdalene experienced deep suffering. At the age of five her father died in a geological expedition. Her mother remarried shortly after and left the Canossa Palace and her children behind when Magdalene was seven years of age. In the absence of parental affection Magdalene turned to Mother Mary for consolation:

"I wept . . . before Mary, invoking her in tears and calling her by the name of ‘mamma!’… little by little I placed myself in the heart of Mary."

Magdalene was 15 years old when the French revolution broke out and shook the whole of Europe. In Verona the real consequences were felt about seven years later, when, on June 10, 1796, General Napoleon entered the city as a conqueror.


Her Search for Meaning

The following year Napoleon was a guest at Canossa Palace and Magdalene, being the lady of the house, had to do the honours to the General. He would return in 1805 and 1807 as Emperor. On those occasions too he would be a guest at Canossa Palace, but by that time Magdalene was already undertaking the work she had long wanted to do.

After the revolutionary upheaval, Magdalene of Canossa, among the most influential women of her time, was the protagonist of a spiritual rebirth. In addition to her involvement with a charitable organisation in favour of the wounded and the sick, Magdalene gave special attention to girls living in poverty and those who had been abandoned.

She concentrated her efforts and energy on providing a safe place for them, receiving the first two girls at the “Canossa retreat” in 1801. In that same year Magdalene’s work earned Napoleon’s admiration for the “Charitable Establishment” erected in a suppressed Convent in a poor area close to the Palace.

Magdalene’s growing years were marked by suffering and trials. She lived in a society of contrasts between the very rich and those living in extreme poverty. The hierarchical society she grew up in was forgetful of God and dominated by arrogance and privileges.

It was in this environment that Magdalene discovered deep within herself the desire to share the life of Christ in the salvation of many who had been abandoned to their poverty, exploited by the egoism of the rich and oppressed by the evils of her day. Magdalene began to give of herself without reserve to children, youth and women who had to reckon with economic as well as moral, spiritual, intellectual and family poverty.

Her Goal Fulfilled

In 1808 Magdalene left the Canossa Palace definitively and with some companions, established herself in the poverty-stricken district of San Zeno where she was happy to give herself. This small group of women would become the contemplatives not of the cloister but on the street. Magdalen called her companions “Daughters of Charity” because their task was to reveal God’s love to humanity through works of charity.

A Heart Open to the World

"The spirit of the Daughters of Charity is to be detached from everything and everybody, to be available to serve the Lord in every country" (Magdalene of Canossa)

Magdalene’s vision implied a Missionary spirit. She was prepared to go anywhere and do anything so that Jesus would be known and loved. But this particular dream was not to be realised in her lifetime. Today the Daughters of Charity living the spirit of Magdalene are present in 35 countries around the world and the “Canossian family” comprising Canossian Sons of Charity (priests/brothers), the Secular Missionaries of St. Magdalene and the Association of the Lay Canossians.

On October 2, 1988 Pope John Paul II proclaimed Magdalene “Saint”, a prophet of Charity. Magdalene, with her life, has written a significant page in the history of humanity, a page that speaks of her personal journey in the Spirit, and above all, of the Greatest Love of Christ in a broken world.


Canossian Charism and Spirituality

Our Foundress, St Magdalene of Canossa possessed deep insights in the human person in her journey towards fullness of life. In her Plans which she wrote in response to different requests for her services, she identified 5 different ministries of charity: education, catechesis/evangelization, pastoral care of the sick, formation of lay leaders/partners and the Spiritual Exercises.

Magdalene’s whole life was a continuous longing to spread the glory of God especially through her ministries of charity. For her, the ‘glory of God’ is the manifestation of his greatness in humanity, of his power and especially of His goodness. The Spiritual Exercises, or Retreats, was for Magdalene ‘one of the branches of Christian piety which is most important and beneficial. These are the sacred moments of the year during which ‘God speaks to the heart of the one who invokes Him in solitude and silence.’ (Rules and spiritual writings by Magdalene of Canossa)

In the Rules dated 1820, she specifies, “The Institute has taken this branch of work for no other reason than to procure the spiritual welfare of souls, the good of their families and above all, the extension of Divine Glory”. This ministry which appeared initially to be for the noble Ladies alone, is in practice extended to every category of persons with whom the Sisters come into contact in the ministries.

". . . they receive them in the houses of the Institute those who desire to make the Spiritual Exercises for 10 consecutive days…at other times of the year, they receive the young girls . . . "

And for the young women in the residential teachers training courses, Magdalene provided: “five days of Spiritual Exercises” so that when they return to their homes, they can spread the knowledge of the Lord” and “devote themselves to working for the Divine Glory and the good of their souls.” The Spiritual Exercises thus ‘becomes... the completion and extension of the other branches” of the work of the Daughters of Charity. In fact, Magdalene was directly organising the retreats herself in the various Houses and would get others to pray for the fruitfulness of the retreats.

O God, Father of goodness, you revealed your love to the humble and to the children, by raising in your Church, St. Magdalene of Canossa to be the servant of the poor, grant that we may seek you above all things and serve the poor and the little ones in the true spirit of charity and humility. Through Christ our Lord.