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    Gandhi, Saint Francis, and a Prostitute

    Who set the Italian-born “Mother Teresa of Somalia” on such an unlikely path of radical service and self-renunciation?


    October 5, 2022

    Stronger than Death, reconstructs the remarkable life of Annalena Tonelli. In this excerpt the author asks what led Tonelli to leave family, home, and country to serve in East Africa.

    At four o’clock in the morning Annalena Tonelli biked across the town of Forlí, Italy, with schoolbooks in her backpack and a knife in her pocket. She carried the knife out of obedience, not fear – no one would ever accuse Annalena of being afraid. Her father, Guido, was afraid for her and the only way she could leave home, alone, in the dark at such a dangerous hour was if she carried that knife. Since he placed this single condition on her, Annalena complied. She biked across the cobblestone streets to her friend’s house, where they studied for upcoming high school exams.

    The time, hours before sunrise, wasn’t early for Annalena. She read that humans spend, on average, a third of their life asleep. She determined not to waste her time sleeping and began training her body. It was stubborn and wanted to sleep; she fought back. She called her body “Brother Donkey,” as Francis of Assisi had called his, and refused to give in.

    The streets weren’t actually very dangerous, but Guido and Teresa Tonelli had lived through World War II. In 1944, Fascists denounced partisans in the Emilia-Romagna region. The partisans were captured and executed by the Nazis. One corpse swung from each lamppost that circled the central square, Piazza Aurelio Saffi, near where Annalena now biked. She was born too late to fully appreciate the horror of World War II, but the town of Forlí had stories.

    Piazza Aurelio Saffi in Forlì, Italy

    Piazza Aurelio Saffi, Forlì, Italy

    Jews and sympathizers had their hands tied behind their backs and were shot at the Forlí Airport. At the time of the airport killings, Annalena was six months old. She would nearly lose her own life during another airport massacre, forty years later and a world away.

    Guido trusted Annalena to be safe and she had an excellent academic record to maintain, so he allowed her to go out. But images like bodies hanging from lampposts and corpses at the airport are hard to shake, and so he insisted on the knife.

    The battle that finally freed Forlí from Nazi and Fascist control left Forlí ravaged. The Nazis blew up all the prominent towers. First the Civic Tower crashed down into the Teatro Communale. Ten minutes later the clock tower exploded. Ten minutes after that, the sound of a bell ringing seemed to call people to worship while it plummeted forty-two feet through the cathedral, shattering wooden beams on the way down.

    By the time Annalena studied for her high school exams, the churches were restored and the bodies mostly forgotten. Still, some memories remained, especially in an area known as Casermone. During the war the cathedral had housed over three hundred refugees. When it was destroyed, the people fled to Casermone, an intricate weave of narrow streets and rundown housing that was home to prostitutes, people with disabilities, abandoned children, thieves, and bullies. Until the end of high school, Annalena didn’t know Casermone existed.

    “No one knew,” Maria Teresa, Annalena’s closest friend, told me. I had assumed Annalena grew up in a family focused on helping the poor or that she volunteered through the local parish and that this was how she found Casermone. But according to Maria Teresa, the church wasn’t helping the people there, schools weren’t helping, the government did almost nothing, and Annalena’s family would have preferred she stay away.

    “Who formed her?” Maria Teresa said, anticipating my question. “Where did she learn?”

    Maria Teresa sat next to me, our knees almost touching under a metal desk. She wore a modest, navy-blue polyester dress with buttons up the front. The material between buttons bulged and stretched over her round belly. Her eyes were animated and sharp, bright enough to shine through her oversized, tinted glasses. She pronounced my name with a strong Italian accent, “Raqueley,” and she usually shouted it. I liked her immediately.

    “The church had too many boundaries and limits,” Maria Teresa said.

    “She was too strong for the church,” Bruno, Annalena’s brother, said. He sat next to his wife, Enza, across the desk from Maria Teresa and me. We were in the offices of the Comitato, an organization Annalena founded during her university years to fight world hunger.

    “She was in love with people and with Jesus Christ, but not through the traditional church,” Bruno said.

    “She didn’t follow a normal Catholic path,” Maria Teresa said. “She met poor people and it was a call from them.”

    If she wasn’t following a path laid out by her local community or family and she wasn’t working within the bounds of the church, what or who launched Annalena into what would become thirty-four years of radical commitment to the poorest of the poor?

    The answer came immediately to Maria Teresa’s lips. “Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi.”

    Annalena met Gandhi in books during high school and took his writings so seriously she eventually referred to him as her “second gospel.”

    Maria Teresa said, “She learned from Gandhi that to love one must willingly and deliberately strip away self and restrict one’s own needs.” She went on to loosely quote several of Annalena’s favorite sayings of Gandhi’s, sayings that Maria Teresa, too, had been radically changed by.

    “True religion is reflected in love for and service to man.”

    “Our true teacher is every suffering man or woman. No act of worship is more pleasing to God than serving the poor.”

    And the words that profoundly impacted both Annalena and Maria Teresa: “You have to be ashamed of rest and a hearty meal when on earth there is a single man or woman without work and without food. It is to eat stolen food.”

    Annalena with her close friend Maria Teresa

    Annalena Tonelli and Maria Teresa Battistini, 1974

    According to Bruno, from the time Annalena started reading Gandhi, she stopped listening to music. She didn’t take an extra glass of water and would rarely sit down to a full meal. “She never wanted to take more than the poor would have,” Bruno said. This was around the same time that Annalena began training her body, her Brother Donkey, to sleep four hours a night.

    This was the time of the Second Vatican Council, the early 1960s and radical shifts in Catholic attitudes toward lay people and global issues. For the first time in over four hundred years, church theology was seriously reexamined and updated. One of the most obvious changes was that the church no longer required Mass to be conducted in Latin. Dialogue with other religions was encouraged and antipathy toward Protestants faded into respect. Also, lay people were encouraged to live out missional, apostolic vocations both locally and globally.

    Maria Teresa said Annalena would, with a faint smile on her lips, suggest the most difficult and uncomfortable situations, like the time she proposed students spend a day at the Instituto Santa Teresa di Ravenna, for the mentally ill and disabled. She introduced a motto from Don Lorenzo Milani, “I care,” which was a stark contrast to the Fascist motto me ne frego, “I don’t give a damn.” Caring and sharing is what Annalena expected students and her own siblings to do, when they followed her around Forlí.

    The most radical thing Annalena did, and the activity that most directed her future life choices, began with a chance encounter with a prostitute. Other than a brief mention of meeting this woman outside a shantytown, it isn’t clear how Annalena got involved at Casermone. But what is clear to Bruno and Maria Teresa is how shocked they were at her regular forays into this dark and dangerous slum.

    Dilapidated buildings – once a monastery, then a military barracks, then a refuge for war victims and dysfunctional families – Casermone consisted of long, dank corridors, garbage-strewn yards, and the echo of hostile voices. Residents generally hated affluent people like Annalena. Another student leader declared that anyone visiting had to go in pairs and there had to be one male. But Annalena went alone, after dark.

    Annalena took children from Casermone to medical appointments; she paid school fees; she even clipped toenails. The phone at her house would ring, someone would demand wood or coal, and off Annalena rushed.

    “People would say these poor people have no mind, no heart, nothing,” Maria Teresa said. “But there we found the sobering truth. The people who have no one to care for them, they become thieves and troubled. But others, who have someone to care for them, can flourish.” She paused. “To flourish. To make others flourish, that was our ideal.”

    “We started to think about a place where we could live poor, “Maria Teresa continued, “literally, among the people. Not to assist them but to share with them – the poverty, the risks of life, the diseases.” They wanted to identify with and help the poor, two aspects of the same thing, which Annalena would come to call love.

    A bronze bust of Annalena hung on the wall over Maria Teresa’s head at the Comitato and I glanced at it while we talked. I snapped a photo of it and Maria Teresa waved dismissively. “This is so ugly,” she said. “But someone sent it to us, so we hung it up.”

    The bust depicted an image of what I started to call “Saint Annalena,” one of the most widely circulated photographs of her. In it, she wears a blue scarf with a thin, lighter blue hem the same shade as her eyes, draped over graying hair. Age spots mark her temples. She smiles without showing her teeth. The fine lines of her cheekbones and nose have softened, wrinkles spider out from the corners of her eyes. She gazes into the distance and I imagine she is thinking of Wajir, her “paradise on earth.” A light hits the side of her head and casts a glow over her hair and face. She looks like an elderly, Italian Virgin Mary. It is a pose. The serene smile, the steady gaze, the halo, crafted to present an image of a woman people would attempt to beatify. Crafted to mask the fury, stubborn nature, and earthiness of a woman few understood. And yet, it also conveys a sense of faith and confidence, equally true of Annalena. This was the Annalena I thought I was researching, the holy and superhuman.


    “I hate this picture that makes her look like a saint,” one of her coworkers later told me. “If you have a photo of Annalena, you need one of her laughing.”

    “She was not a saint,” Maria Teresa said, that first day we talked in the Comitato. “As long as we are alive, we won’t let the church take her.”

    She couldn’t be a doctor, according to her brother Bruno. She couldn’t be a missionary, also according to Bruno; she was too strong for the church. She couldn’t be a nun; later she would write that she wanted to be married to the desert and to desert people, specifically Somali nomads. People would call her a doctor, a missionary, and a nun. And, they would call her a saint. Were Maria Teresa, Bruno, and Enza wrong? Should Annalena be made into a saint?

    That was how I thought of her, at first. I only knew the high points in Annalena’s life. I knew nothing of the dark valleys, her secret and controversial compromises.

    I knew she had accomplished something remarkable, something about tuberculosis but also about love and faith. She lived a life I had also attempted in Somalia, but I had a growing suspicion that I had missed something essential. I couldn’t yet identify it, though I knew it had something to do with what motivated Annalena, what sustained her, and how she defined success and failure.

    Contributed By RachelPiehJones Rachel Pieh Jones

    Rachel Pieh Jones is author of Stronger than Death and Pillars. She has written for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Runners World, and Christianity Today.

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