The Rosminan Sisters of Providence
Sister Maria Bruna Ferretti1
(Edited by J. Anthony Dewhirst)
‗The Sisters of Providence, instituted by me, are a branch of the same Institute of Charity‘. Antonio
Rosmini wrote this statement in a letter to the Marchese G. Anconati, from Stresa, on 6 January 1855,
some months before his death. These words of his show clearly how he regarded the Sisters of
Providence as his spiritual daughters, since they had come into existence through his spirituality and
were nourished by it.
Nevertheless, while speaking about their development, we must mention another generous, young
priest, Don G. G. Loewenbruck. As we all know he appeared in Rosmini‘s life suddenly, and casually
disappeared twelve years later, leaving the Institute which, in spite of his natural generosity, he had not
been able to love more than his own independence and way of thinking.
Although his presence in the Institute was short, his creative enterprise and endless zeal were the first
immediate origin of the Sisters of Providence. We already know, through Rosmini‘s biography, how
Loewenbruck met him at Count Mellerio‘s house on 8 June 1827. This meeting, certainly guided by
divine providence, was the starting point of a period rich in new situations and decisions that certainly
changed Rosmini‘s life.
Loewenbruck‘s desire to bring together and form priests who, through their holiness and zeal could
evangelise the people, struck Rosmini, who, at that time, was working out the ideas for the Brothers of
Charity, while awaiting enlightenment from above, according to his principle of passivity.
Loewenbruck was to become his first companion in the Institute in the process of its formation, and
Providence led them to Calvario in Domodossola. While there, Don Giovan Battista was always busy
preaching, hearing confessions and going through the Ossola valleys. He went wherever it was
necessary. He also discovered the high Formazza valley whose inhabitants, descended from a Welser
colony and speaking a special German dialect, were happy to receive this missionary priest who could
understand their language and communicate to them the word of Christ. After some months of
preaching, he knew the true nature of those people and in October 1829 he wrote:
‗I spend the whole day and part of the night in the confessional or the pulpit. Their tears of repentance
are moving…I am overburdened with work, yet overflowing with consolation…Truly, in the Ossola
region there are very many souls who are disposed to become angels on earth, if someone is ready to
give them a helping hand…I would never have believed that I should find such treasures and pearls
beneath the simple appearance of these mountain people‘ (La Nostra Prima Carissima—Madre Suora
Giovanna Antonietti, p. 4).
Loewenbruck speaks of having met hundreds of young women who had a sincere desire to consecrate
themselves to God.
‗In these mountain girls there were gifts and qualities that are hardly to be found among the rich and
cultured in the cities, the important ones being generosity and complete self-giving‘ (Ibid., p. 10).
Loewenbruck ‗would not think of such things as canonical grades of probation, formation and
profession. Besides, being ignorant of everything, those girls knew just one thing, perpetual and total
consecration to God. They were not worried about such matters as the choice of a religious order, or
rule, or what programme to follow, what habit to wear, what name to choose, what monastery or
convent to live in‘ (Ibid. p.10).
However these young women did need some element of stability. Loewenbruck had approached the
Visitation Sisters of Arona and also the Canossians, but these contacts came to nothing. Then he
remembered that in Lorraine he had known a congregation of sisters, called ‗of Providence‘, who were
dedicated to the poor and in particular to the education of their children. Wishing to find a place for all
these young women as soon as possible, Loewenbruck turned to these French sisters.
Founded by the Abbé Jean Martin Moye in 1762, they had flourished in France, where their houses
were numerous both in the country and in the towns. At that time the Congregation numbered more
than 1200 sisters. The mother house was at Portieux in Lorraine, and the superior was the Abbé E.
Feys, the parish priest of the town. Loewenbruck probably knew him,
Be that as it may, the only certain fact is that in 1830 he started an assiduous correspondence with him
about the possibility to have those sisters in Italy, where many aspirants to the religious life could
continue their works of charity. In his first reply (19 October 1830), Feys ‗advised that the aspirants
should not go to France because the consequences of the Revolution still made life difficult for
religious. He suggested that Lowenbruck should think of choosing some place in the diocese of
Novara, and should make sure that girls had the means of subsistence. The French congregation would,
he said, send three sisters to help establish the Italian aspirants‘ (Ibid. p. 11).
This was hardly possible! It was beyond Loewenbruck to deal with the Bishop, find a house, and
particularly to make sure that there were means to support the women. And as for finding a place, a
house, and postulants, he had no authority to do so. Also obedience kept telling him never to anticipate
the will of God, but rather to follow it in a docile way. All the same he was attached to his own ideas.
So when, in a letter of 23 November 1830, Abbé Feys proposed that he should begin sending to
Portieux three Italian girls to learn French and to teach Italian to the sisters there, he accepted it with
enthusiasm. Abbé Feys had changed his mind because he feared that the sisters of Providence might be
obliged to leave the country on account of political disturbances. The advent of Italian aspirants
therefore appeared to open the way to a foundation in Italy if the dreaded Revolution should force them
to depart. Certain unforeseen events prevented them leaving at this time. But when Loewenbruck
received a new letter from Feys (16 November 1831) urging him to send the young women to Portieux,
he lost no time in doing so. The four young girls sent to France were, Maria Alvazzi from Varzo,
Susanna Savio from Crodo, Lucia Manciga and Seconda Allegranza from Vagua. Without more ado
the departure was organised. A way was found using the carriage of Manciga‘s brother. Loewenbruck
accompanied them as far as Iselle and then turned back leaving them to pursue their journey alone.
‗It is an incredible story. They set out on 26 November 1831, and they did not arrive at Portieux until
sixteen days later on 11 December. It is hard to imagine how they survived the cold, hunger and fear; in
the midst of the snow and wind, totally isolated, enduring the nights in temporary shelter. They went on
foot for the most part (even obliged at times to take off their boots and go barefoot), or jolted along on
their dreadfully slow means of transport on a road that was steep and frozen, often losing their way,
either because of the inexperience of their driver or because the snow and ice completely obliterated all
trace of the Napoleonic route‘(Ibid., p. 13).
When they had ascended the 2000 metres of the Simplon Pass, they began to descend and finally
arrived at Portieux. They felt the cold so badly and they were so exhausted that the effects of that
journey remained with them for the rest of their lives. Fortunately at the Convent a warm-hearted
welcome awaited these generous and courageous girls, and they entered the novitiate with great
fervour. Maria Alvazzi being somewhat more educated than her companions, taught them to read and
gave Italian lessons to the two French sisters who were to return with them to Italy. She also made
some effort to learn French.
‗Within three months of their arrival Abbé Feys wrote to Loewenbruck giving an account of these
four pioneers saying, ―Your good daughters gave us great satisfaction by their docility and solid piety.
To sum up all we felt about them, there is nothing we could say to their discredit, and we cannot speak
highly enough of their goodness. The change of language and country have not altered their constant
equable character. In short, we wish all our Sisters here were like your four Italians who so edify this
house. They are happy, and they overlook nothing in order to make progress in their formation‖‘ (Ibid.,
23 March 1832).
Was Rosmini well informed about these facts? Certainly he was, as we can see from his Diary of
Charity (3 November 1831) and some letters addressed to Loewenbruck. He showed interest in the
matter and in a letter written to his companion from Trent on 12 January 1832 he asks for information
about the destination of the ‗Sisters of Providence‘ and the Institute which had received them. Knowing
the character of the Lorraine priest very well, Rosmini did not abandon Loewenbruck to his natural
impetuosity but he followed the development of those unclear beginnings very carefully.
While the young Ossolan women were at Portieux there still remained the problem of a house and of
financial backing. In 1832 Loewenbruck went to preach to some villages in Canton Ticino and one of
the parish priests introduced the missionary to some of the Locarno authorities, so a suitable place was
easily found—the old hospital of San Carlo which was abandoned and in a delapidated condition. The
walls were standing but the doors were in ruins with scraps of old mortar, rats and spiders—complete
squalor everywhere. However these were not matters to daunt Loewenbruck, even though the chronicle
says, ‗There was not a single bed, no glass in any of the windows, no cooking utensils in the kitchen‘
Anyway Loewenbruck went in search of his daughters and found a group of four: Orsola Ferrari,
Elizabeth, a widow, Marianna Curti and Anna Maria Curti. On 15 March 1832 at Pallanza they were
ready to take the ferry.
‗The crossing of the lake was against the wind. At the landing place at Locarno a squall made the boat
roll so much that none of the passengers could retrieve their luggage. In pelting rain our four travellers,
frozen and drenched, were led to the premises allotted to them. They had no clothes to change into, no
hot drink to refresh them, and the surroundings offered minimal protection from the cold windy blasts.
It was not until the next day that they were able to recover their bundles with some dry clothes, and
light a fire with a handful of wood given out of charity. Loewenbruck spoke to them, as only he could,
of the renunciation of the things of this world and of the privilege of giving oneself to God.
Gradually the little community sorted out their daily routine. They got up at 4.30 a.m. This was
followed by prayer, meditation, and Mass at the Church of the Capuchins. They also went there for
their visit to the Blessed Sacrament and their evening prayer with examination of conscience, since
their devotions were similar to the Brothers of Charity‘ (Ibid., p.15).
There was a lot of work in the house; and instruction in the catechism and elementary spirituality was
kindly given to them by a good local priest named Foruora. These fervent beginners endured many
privations. They laboured early and late, lived on the poorest food and strove to provide for the others
who were soon to join them and form a noviciate. Loewenbruck sent them what alms he could collect
during his journeys, but such severe privations were soon to affect their health.
On 3 July Lowenbuck arrived from Domodossola, accompanied this time by thirteen postulants who
were welcomed with sisterly warmth by the little community. Then he left for Mount St Gothard to
meet the four postulants returning from Portieux with two French sisters, and not four as he had
expected—Teodora Collin, who had to be the Superior and Saveria Droim, the Mistress of Novices.
These stopped at Locarno only long enough to organise and set up the new Congregation of
The young Italian women had not worn the religious habit while in France to avoid the possibility of
alarming the authorities and so incur consequent delays. But as soon as they had crossed the Italian
border, three of them received the religious habit and new names as a sign of a break with the past. For
the time being Seconda Allegranza, the fourth postulant, had to return to her family because the harsh
conditions of the Simplon crossing seven months earlier had damaged her health. The group arrived at
Locarno on 14 July, where many young people were waiting to be educated, instructed, and to receive
practical and spiritual formation.
The novitiate was opened on 31 July 1832. It was a severe training for novices. Even bread was
sometimes lacking. Also the French sisters had their own special trials for they had exchanged their
neat, well-equipped convent where there was a reason for everything, safeguarded by traditions and
rules, for a miserable overcrowded dwelling and absolute penury. The superior, Sister Teodora Collin
was at a loss to know how to improve matters because of the inadequacy of the place, the means which
she had at her disposal and the persons she had to deal with. The spiritual helps were few and
infrequent. There was no priest in the locality that knew their language. The disproportion between the
minimum instruction that the postulants were receiving and their very great need of it was highlighted.
The situation was all the worse since the Mistress of Formation, Sister Saveria, was not yet able to
express herself in Italian.
The confusion which reigned at Locarno soon led Sister Collin to apply to Rosmini for advice and
help. Up to then Loewenbruck had acted on his own responsibility, regardless of the recommendations
of his Superior and had not referred matters to Rosmini even when imprudence had led him into
difficulties. Every new possibility had an immediate and irresistible fascination because of his
temperament, and he went from one blunder to another as he tried to improvise ways of remedying his
Whenever he could, Rosmini would put right the imprudence and mistakes of his companion. He
wanted him to go ahead and follow up his initiative of forming the new congregation. Indeed he tried to
persuade Sister Collin to regard Loewenbruck as the spiritual father of the work which was his own
creation and which he so loved. For this reason Rosmini had sent Don Molinari to Locarno in
September 1832 and given Don Luigi Gentili the task of helping Loewenbruck and of meeting the
French superior. Also he had asked Don Carlo Rusca to interest himself in the house. This secular
priest was to be a real instrument of Providence for the sisters, for after he had entered the Institute of
Charity he became their director.2
In this period, since he knew French, he was a reliable help to the two foreign sisters and he gave the
postulants regular lessons in Christian doctrine. But Sister Collin sent a letter to Gentili for his superior.
She thanked Rosmini but emphatically begged him to take the situation in hand himself.
It was just then that the Bishop of Novara, Cardinal Morozzo, also wrote to Rosmini inviting him to
look into a difficult situation created in Turin by the impetuous Lorraine priest. Finally Loewenbruck
himself wrote to Rosmini asking his help and confessing that he was full of doubts about himself. He
had reached such a depth of discouragement that he left Locarno and immersed himself in his many
duties at Calvario. When Rosmini urged him not to forget the ‗daughters‘ he threatened to leave the
Institute. Rosmini fraternally bade him regain his equanimity, ‗This step would mean losing the
Institute of the Sisters of Providence and greatly upsetting the Institute of Charity‘. Because of his love
for the Institute, Loewenbruck, at one point, gave up all responsibility for the new Congregation and
resolved to put it in Rosmini‘s hands (Cf. Loewenbruck‘s letter, 11 December 1832).
Rosmini, the Founder
Because of these circumstances Rosmini became the real Founder of the Sisters of Providence, who
soon came to be known by everyone as the Rosminian Sisters, even if he did not want them to be given
this title. He at once turned his attention to the regulation and formation of the members. Gradually he
suggested to the French superior how to accept postulants and prepare them spiritually for living their
vows and also how to train them professionally so that they would be able to carry out charitable works
for their neighbour.
Rosmini examined the rules of the French sisters and found that a considerable change would be
required in order to adapt them to the scope of the work in Italy. But he made only some slight changes
at the time out of consideration for those two sisters who had dedicated themselves with good will and
some sacrifice for the sake of the newly born Congregation. When they had returned to their own
country (they left on 15 June 1833, about one year after their arrival), Rosmini asked the Marchesa di
Canossa (Santa Maddelena), who had founded the Daughters of Charity, to let him see her rules so that
he could take account of what was needed for the direction of a congregation of women. In the
manuscript of the Canossian rule additions and modifications can be seen written in his own hand. For
instance, from the beginning he showed perfect confidence in Providence, from which the sisters take
their name. There was also his recognition of the motherhood of our Lady of Sorrows. The changes,
which he felt impelled to make, transformed the spirit of the rule so that it is true to say that he gave the
sisters new rules conformable in everyway to the spirit of the Institute of Charity.
The Fathers of Charity assisted them both in spiritual and temporal matters, and from that time they
obeyed the Superior General of the Institute of Charity as their own Superior General. The modified
rules united the Institute of Providence and the Institute of Charity, so that they were two branches of
the same tree, animated by the same life and spirit.
The Spread of the Institute
In the meantime, various houses had been opened. The most important were Intragna and Cavergno in
Canton Ticino, and Turin, Arona, Stresa, Biella and Chieri in Piedmont. Casale Monferrato closed soon
after because of the bad living conditions that seriously compromised the two sisters‘ health. When the
French sisters had left Sister Eusebia Alvazzi, one of the four pioneers at Portieux became superior. In
1837 the custom of bringing together all the sisters to the central house for a retreat and the distribution
of offices began. Moreover in the same year, the community prepared to leave the central house at
Locarno; only the school was to remain for a few years. A group of thirteen sisters and eight novices,
led by Don Rusca crossed Lago Maggiore on 15 November for Domodossola, which Rosmini had
chosen as the site for the new central house. By now the old convent of the Ursulines had been rebuilt.
During this time of preparation Don Rusca directed Sister Giovanna Antonietti to relieve Sister
Eusebia, the superior, of a number of tasks, for she was in poor health. A particular mention must be
made of the former sister who was to be considered a foundation stone of the sisters‘ Institute.
Maria Camilla Antonietti (Carissima Madre)
Born at Baceno in 1809, Maria Camilla Antonietti was one of the first of the young girls from the
Ossola whom Loewenbruck advised to come to Domodossola for the purpose of forming a religious
community there. She endured the severest trials from the beginning of her religious life. Sister
Giovanna had manifested courageous piety, sound good sense and a spirit of mortification. She was
always humble, obedient and charitable. She became the first Rosminian sister, not because she was
acquainted with the philosophy of Rosmini, but because she lived, and taught her sisters to live, the
Rosminian charism. Rosmini declared that he had never met a woman of such great wisdom, and he
chose her as his collaborator, notwithstanding her own reluctance.
He decided she should be the foundation stone of the Institute in Italy, and therefore, in 1837, he
appointed her Superior of the central house at Domodossola, on which the other houses were to
depend. He wished the sisters to call her ‗Carissima Madre‘, or simply ‗Carissima‘. This title signified
the authority, wholly spiritual and affectionate, with which she would dedicate herself to her sisters,
and the daughterly trust with which they would respond.
Many problems were to be faced, since the needs were so great and the means were so few. The
sisters were generous and willingly sacrificed themselves, but too many were falling ill. There were
also defections. Another handicap was ignorance. At that time the government required teachers to
have qualifications. Rosmini provided for this need by seeking out training programmes and sending
teachers to learn specific subjects or methods, and even those who were actively engaged in teaching
attended a course during the holiday of August–November 1833. This gave them a qualification
recognised by the teaching profession.
However up to then no sister had professed the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, for it was
first necessary to organise the various aspects of community life and the apostolate. Sister Giovanna
and the other sisters made their profession on 3 November 1839 in the oratory with Rosmini himself as
celebrant and Don Rusca and Count Mellerio present. Only in 1852 did Sister Giovanna and twelve
sisters take their perpetual vows. For the first time a Mistress of Novices and an Administrator were
elected with the aim of allowing Mother Giovanna to carry out better her essential task which was the
spiritual guidance of the sisters. Later a Vicaress was added as the number of houses multiplied and
each of them needed regular visits from the Carissima Madre. Various houses were opened in these
The English Apostolate
Moreover, in 1835 a new and distant field or work was opened for the religious of the Institute of
Charity in England and Ireland. Let us see how, a few years later, the Sisters of Providence came to
join them in their work.
The foundation of a convent in Loughborough, the sisters‘ first house in England, was due to the
generosity of Lady Mary Arundell, the only daughter of the Marchioness of Buckingham. She had had
to keep her faith an absolute secret for years. Her daughter Mary became a convert when she was 20
years old, drawn to the faith through the piety of her mother.
Lady Mary Arundell married Lord Arundell of Wardour,a young Catholic nobleman. They were
friends of Lord and Lady de Lisle. Lord de Lisle, who was a convert to Catholicism, too, introduced
them to Rosmini while they were travelling in Italy in 1830. This meeting resulted in a sincere
friendship. Rosmini was completely edified and pleased with their piety and pleasant manner. On their
part they were filled with esteem and admiration for the man of God. From then on they shared De
Lisle‘s high opinion of the Institute of Charity and its Founder and both the Arundells and the De
Lisles became Ascribed Members of the Institute. Lord Arundell died that year in Rome. His young
widow became very close to the Institute and wanted to join it but her health was delicate.
She returned to England and placed herself under the guidance of the Fathers of Charity at Prior Park.
In 1840 she applied to the General, Father Rosmini, for some sisters of the Institute of Charity to come
over and open a convent close to Prior Park. But in 1841 the fathers withdrew from that College and
settled in Loughborough. Lady Mary came too and rented a house in the same town so that she was
close to the Institute and her friends the De Lisles. Encouraged by Father Luigi Gentili, she opened a
school in the grounds of her house and engaged a school mistress to run it. To satisfy her great wish,
on 30 October 1843 two Rosminian Sisters, Sister Maria Francesca Parea and Sister Maria Anastasia
Samonini came from Italy accompanied by two fathers, Furlong and Hutton. They arrived at
Loughborough after an adventurous journey which lasted twelve days (they had left Domodossola on
18 October). Father Pagani. The Provincial, who had just arrived from Oscott welcomed them at the
house of the Institute of Charity in Loughborough and afterwards he accompanied the sisters to their
new destination, Paget‘s House, that is, Lady Arundell‘s home.3 They were incredibly brave women.
The first year was spent in prayer, study and household duties. In this retired life they were joined by
the first English postulants, who received their habits in 1844. That year, on 25 March, they took
charge of the first Catholic day school conducted by religious sisters in this country. In 1845 they
began an evening school for the instruction of working girls.
Sister Francesca was the superior of the young community, while Sister Anastasia was made Mistress
of Novices and remained so, loved and esteemed, until her death at the age of forty eight. Sister
Francesca remained superior until the Provincial saw the possibility of appointing an English superior
in 1852. The sisters at Paget‘s House had shown such fervour and become so devotedly attached to the
Institute of Charity and its spirit that Rosmini judged it fitting to admit some of them to final profession
in 1849. This was a cause of great joy to all those so privileged, as it was the first occasion on which
perpetual vows had been taken by the Sisters of Providence both in Italy and in England.
Also three novices who had not yet made their triennial vows were granted permission to make their
final vows, namely, Sister Mary Agnes Amherst (1824–1860) was one of them. She had joined the
young community in 1846 and in 1852 she was elected to the office of Central Superior and remained
so till her death in 1860. Sister Francesca, who was now Vicaress, had to return to Italy in 1855, soon
after Rosmini‘s death, since he had some time prior to it expressed a wish that she should return from
England. This was indeed a great sorrow for her for she was devoted to the sisters whom she had so
lovingly and carefully trained in the spiritual life and who had generously responded to her efforts. But
it was a severe trial for Mother Mary Agnes, who was just beginning a new term of office, to lose the
good Mother whom she loved and esteemed so highly. But, although young, Mother Agnes was a
woman truly wise and holy. New houses were opened in those years, namely, in Newport, Rugby and
Cardiff, to mention only some of them.
Those early years of the Institute were surprisingly intense and fruitful both in Italy and in England.
Suffice it to say that when Mother Giovanna died in 1872 there were 50 houses of the Congregation in
Italy and 500 sisters, besides those who had already died.
How was all that possible? I think because the real foundation of the new Institute was the holiness of
those young, generous and brave women. They possessed the spiritual wisdom of those who find their
strength in the Lord and totally give their life to him. Just before dying Rosmini said to Mother
Giovanna and to all his spiritual daughters, ‗The Sisters of Providence, will flourish to the extent that
they are faithful in maintaining the spirit of poverty and simplicity‘. Those first sisters really proved
From then on the Rosminian Sisters of Providence have always kept the Rosminian charism alive with
love, both in their hearts and lives, and through the different and numerous works of charity entrusted
to them by Divine Providence. Esteemed, appreciated and needed in many dioceses, they spread
especially, but not exclusively, in the North of Italy. In 1946 in Italy there were 598 sisters who had
made their final profession, 115 juniors, 49 novices and 27 postulants, making a total of 789 members.
There were 99 houses. I have mentioned this particular year because, since 1946, they have been
constituted, as Rosmini wished, a Congregation of Pontifical Right within the Church. The English
branch, which, after its beginning, had developed separately, joined the Italian branch and formed
different Provinces within the same Institute.
Today their field of apostolate, besides Italy, England and Ireland, has been extended to Tanzania
(1955), Venezuela (1966), Colombia (1989) and India (1991).
I have simply mentioned highlights of this very interesting, rich and incredible history of the origin of
our Institute—a history in which the lives of people so different in character, culture, social condition
and country of origin interacted to form a wonderful reality.This reality was designed by God, first
through the creative zeal of a Lorraine priest, then through the intelligent, careful love of Rosmini,
whom the Sisters of Providence accept and revere as their Father Founder, since he gave them the ideal
of the consecrated life, by his love and the sublime example of a life entirely spent for God, for his
brothers and for the entire Church of Christ.
This is an edited talk given at Sacra Monte Calvario, Domodossola, 5 September 2000, to a group of Rosminian fathers and
brothers. Slight adjustments have been made to the text and subheadings inserted for the sake of greater clarity.
Don Carlo Felice Rusca became a member of the Institute of Charity as an ‗outside helper‘ on 5 July 1834 and as a religious in
June 1836. He was the sisters; director at Locarno till 1837 and then at Domodossola from 1838 –1845. He held important offices
in the Institute and died at Stresa in 1851.
Fr Pagani was appointed Director or Superior of the sisters by Rosmini. He always manifested a deep interest in the community,
and as General of the Institute from 1855 he never forgot the sisters in England, and visited them annually until his death i n 1860.