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Mother Clelia Merloni: Once Rejected, Now Blessed

November 1, 2018
O Sacred Heart of Jesus, you who filled your servant Clelia with a profound love for the riches of the graces of your Heart, deign, we beseech you, to make use of her virtues, to draw many persons to the knowledge and love of your Sacred Person, and, if it be your holy will, that she be glorified on earth so that we may have recourse more and more to her intercession and may learn from her example to devote ourselves humbly and generously to your divine service. Amen.
The “Clelia” mentioned above is a woman named Clelia Merloni, and that prayer is a Prayer for the Canonization of Mother Clelia. She was a 19th century Italian, the Foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and someone who endured great persecution and suffering throughout her life. Right now, she is a woman who will be beatified by Pope Francis in only a few days on Saturday, November 3, a woman it wouldn’t hurt any of us to learn a little more about.
Born in northern Italy in 1861, Clelia Merloni lost her mother at the age of only three years old. When her father remarried, her new stepmother, along with her grandmother, educated her in the faith. Clelia became an intelligent, generous, and enthusiastic girl who welcomed the relationship with God growing in her heart. Not only that, but she soon longed to serve him and to work at awakening in others that same deep connection with the Lord, bringing them to understand his compassion and love.
This desire had a rocky beginning as Clelia joined but soon had to leave the novitiate of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Snows for health reasons, unsuccessfully tried to begin an orphanage for girls, and then entered the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence only to contract tuberculosis the following year. The illness brought Clelia to the verge of death, but she was miraculously cured and began feeling an even stronger call to help others and dedicate her work to the Heart of Jesus.
With this passion burning within, 1894 saw her begin the Institute of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Viareggio, Italy, becoming Mother Clelia and founding a small congregation dedicated to the service of abandoned orphans, elderly women, and the education of girls. These new “Apostles” were asked to imitate the zeal of the first Apostles, following in the footsteps of Christ and being sent out to serve others.
The Institute and its ministry began to thrive, but as it grew so did Mother Clelia’s struggles. Her father died in 1895, and a new, dishonest administrator created a financial disaster, forcing the Apostles to abandon Viareggio. In the midst of slander, gossip, and lawsuits, Mother Clelia and her congregation were welcomed by Giovanni Scalabrini, the Bishop of Piacenza, Italy. This was certainly a positive change, but while the Apostles served in this new diocese they were also asked to send missionary Sisters to the United States and Brazil. This parting created more difficulty as the Institute struggled to maintain its identity in the face of separation and opposing forces. Many began speaking ill of Mother Clelia, and this slander from both inside and outside the Institute led to her being stripped of the title “Mother General” for a time in 1904 and then for good in 1911.
In the midst of this humiliation, criticism, and division, Mother Clelia decided to do what she believed was best for the Institute, so in 1916 she left, receiving a dispensation from her vows and effectively being banished from the community. For over a decade, she was removed from her daughters in the congregation that she had founded and loved, but she always kept her Apostles and their work in her prayers. Mother Clelia offered outside support and wrote letters to them, while constantly increasing her own dedication to the Heart of Jesus. By 1928, her health had substantially weakened, and she was allowed to return to the congregation’s motherhouse in Rome. Though still secluded from much of the community’s activity, Mother Clelia spent her last years there, strengthening her prayer life and her love of the Eucharist before dying on November 21, 1930.
Mother Clelia’s life was one marked by immense hardship: sickness, slander, financial ruin, betrayal, and dismissal from those closest to her. In her final years and even at her death, she was still suffering the rejection of being pushed aside from a community she had dedicated her life to. Even with such struggle, however, she continued to find solace in Jesus and his Sacred Heart. Though constantly tested, Mother Clelia was able to keep living for others, focusing her eyes on our Lord and serving those most in need.
After her death, she was unceremoniously placed in Verano Cemetery in Rome, the Institute was renamed the “Congregation of the Sister Missionary Zelatrices of the Sacred Heart,” and Mother Clelia remained a much ignored part of their history. In what was quite a twist, however, her cemetery was bombed during World War II, fifteen years after Mother Clelia had died. When her body was found, it was perfectly incorrupt. This began a conversion of hearts and minds that, over time, led to a new appreciation for the Foundress and all that she had endured. Her body was moved in a solemn procession to the Generalate Chapel, the “Apostles” of the Sacred Heart of Jesus reclaimed their original name, and the work of love, kindness, and humility that Mother Clelia had exemplified began to flourish ever-new in the congregation.
In the place where she’s now buried, these words are found: “The Divine Heart of Jesus was the light of her existence. The poor, the oppressed, the unfortunate, her most tender heartbeat. She lived in purity, simplicity, and charity.” It was a profound connection to Christ that strengthened Mother Clelia through her adversity, and it was her truly holy life that has inspired others to continue the mission and work she began. As spiritual daughters of all that Mother Clelia encouraged, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have only grown in the decades since her death and now serve in countries around the world, including Albania, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Chile, Haiti, Ireland, Italy, Mozambique, Paraguay, the Philippines, Portugal, Switzerland, the United States, and Uruguay. Mother Clelia’s holy inspiration has been further recognized in recent years, as she was declared a “Servant of God” under Pope John Paul II in 1990 and named “Venerable” by Pope Francis in 2016.
As she is now beatified by the Holy Father in Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran on November 3, our hope can only be that we might be moved by her lifelong willingness to endure difficulty and rejection, all while keeping ourselves totally focused on the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Clelia once stated, “Understanding that God alone is all, we abandon ourselves to Him, we pour our hearts into His in order to love and serve only Him, to live for Him alone.” That’s how Mother Clelia Merloni lived her life, that’s how the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus continue to honour her memory, and that’s how we can try our best to live like her in all that we do.
For more information about Mother Clelia Merloni or the international mission of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, you can go to their websites: madreclelia.org</strong & ascjroma.org.
And if you’d like to watch the Beatification Mass of this incredible woman on November 3, it will be streamed live on the Apostole del Sacro Cuore di Gesù YouTube channel beginning at 6:00 AM Eastern Time.

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