by Glenn Dallaire
Gemma was born on March 12, 1878 at Camigliano, a small town near Lucca, Italy. Her parents were Enrico and Aurelia (Landi) Galgani. From her earliest years she was remarkable for her intelligence and also her great interest in all that concerns God and heavenly things. About one month after her birth, her family moved to Lucca, where she remained the rest of her short life. In early childhood, she went to a school run by the Sisters of St. Zita, and she was well educated in the general studies of the time. Her grades show that she was an above-average student, her favorite subject being Religion. One day, one of the Sister-teachers decided to play a game with the young students. The game was “who will become a Saint”, and all the students were invited to draw straws, and lo and behold the winner was Gemma! Was this perhaps a presentiment on God’s behalf? She later was forced to leave the school due to her failing health.
Her mother died of tuberculosis when Gemma was only 8 years old (a fact that Jesus in a vision had warned her of a short time before), and her Father died when she was 19. His death left her and her family in great poverty. Because of this, she was sent to live with an aunt in a nearby city. The Aunt and her family were somewhat “worldly” and were not at least outwardly pious, and this caused Gemma great suffering in that she was not able to give vent to her strong desires for daily Mass, prayer, and other pious devotions. She prayed to Jesus and He intervened by sending her an illness (spinal tuberculosis) which forced her to return home. Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1899, bedridden and almost completely paralyzed by the spinal tuberculosis, racked with violent headaches and with tumours along her spine, she was miraculously cured after making a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in honor of the then Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque (now a Saint). During and after this novena, there were mystical appearances of the Passionist seminarian, then Venerable Gabriel Possenti (now a Saint, died 37 years previously, in 1862), who encouraged her to continue the novena, and he would pray with her to the Sacred Heart of Jesus during the novena each night. She thus became fervently devoted to him. On the morning of the last day of the novena, which Providentially fell on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Gemma recieved Holy Communion. Here is what she wrote in her autobiography:
She was frequently drawn into ecstasy, even several times a day, often after receiving Holy Communion, or at times of prayer, or even at times she would fall into ecstasy at the mere mention of the love of Jesus or of heavenly things. In her humility, the thought that others may discover the great graces being shown to her by God, caused her great suffering. She would always humbly seek to withdraw from others to be alone when she felt herself being drawn into an ecstasy. It was also noted by her companions that because of her great love for God, she would be horrified when she would hear someone blaspheming, or cursing the name of God. In ecstacy, she would see at times Jesus, at other times Mary, her guardian angel, the Saints etc, who would converse with her and encourage her to continue to offer herself as a victim for the conversion of sinners. Even when not in ecstacy (in a normal state), she would often see her guardian angel who would guide and instruct her on various matters. Like many mystics, she would also at times be tempted or tormented severely by the devil or the demons, who would often appear to her in bodily form. Her nickname for the Devil was "Chiappino". There were several occasions where he, appearing to her as a little man or a black dog, beat her severely, dragging her by the hair and on one occasion, he pulled her arm so forcefully, he caused it to become dislocated, "But afterwards Jesus came and touched my arm, and all was better" she wrote. Knowing her mission as soul victim, the Devil once said to her "You can pray for yourself, but if you pray for others, I will make you pay dearly for it"
Gemma wished to become a nun, especially a Passionist, but such was not God’s will, and either her poor health or her unusual mystical life prevented her from being accepted at the three different religious orders that she applied to. Eventually towards the end of her life she offered this disappointment to God as a sacrifice. Because of her miraculous cure in part through the intercession of the Passionist brother, St. Gabriel Possenti, and also her association with her spiritual director, Passionist priest Father Germanus C.P., after her death she was considered a lay Passionist. In fact, not long before her death when she was denied entrance into the Passionist community of Sisters in Tarquinia, enlightened by God she said “the Passionists will not have me in life, but they will have me in death”. And this in fact is exactly what happened.
In late 1902, Gemma fell ill once again, this time with tuberculosis. By Holy week, 1903 she was once again completely bedridden. On Holy Thursday, she began a period of intense suffering. On Good Friday, she suffered intensely, offering her sufferings to Jesus for the conversion of sinners. On Holy Saturday, April 11th, at age 25, she died surrounded by Giannini family and the local parish priest. He said, "She died with a smile which remained upon her lips, so that I could not convince myself that she was really dead."
Within a few years after her death, her spiritual director, Father Germanus C.P. published a biography of her life called “The Life of St. Gemma Galgani”, which includes a detailed first-hand description of her life of heroic virtue. She was beatified in 1933 and canonized on May 2, 1940, only thirty-seven years after her death. She was the first canonized Saint who lived in the 20th century. Her feastday is April 11th (May 16th in the Passionist community).
"I shall love You Jesus, I shall love You always; when day breaks, when evening turns into night, at every hour, at every moment; I shall love You always......"
-Saint Gemma Galgani