St. Gemma Galgani was an Italian laywoman and an extraordinary mystic. Gemma was born in 1878 to a pharmacist and his wife in the village of Camigliano, Italy, near the city of Lucca. She was one of eight children. Gemma’s mother died when she was a child, but not before inspiring her to a great love of prayer.
By the time of her mother’s death, Gemma had already begun receiving mystical visits, or conversations with Jesus, with the Virgin Mary, with her guardian angel, and with some saints. She had a unique relationship with the Passionist St. Gabriel Possenti, who had died just a few decades earlier. Gemma attended a school operated by the Sisters of St. Zita, was very well liked by her classmates and teachers, and was an excellent student. She first received Holy Communion in 1887, unusual for a child of nine at that time. It was an especially beautiful mystical experience for her, and enkindled a strong desire for union with God. As often happens with mystics, she also experienced demonic harassment. She had to withdraw from school because of recurring health problems.
Her father died when she was nineteen, and his debts caused the children to be left with almost nothing. Gemma was the mother figure for her seven siblings until they were old enough and then went to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle. A young woman of great beauty, she received two marriage proposals, but declined due to her strong desire to belong only to God.
Gemma returned home in early 1899 and became seriously ill with meningitis. She suffered partial deafness and paralysis in her arms and legs. Bedridden, she called upon her friend Gabriel Possenti for intercession and he indeed appeared to her to pray with her and obtained a cure from her illness. He laid the Passionist badge upon her and told her that she was going to receive a great grace. She sought to join the Passionist order several times, and because of her recurring health problems, she was rejected. In June of 1899, during a time of ecstatic prayer, Gemma was wrapped in the mantle of the Virgin Mary. Jesus appeared to her, with His wounds not bloody but rather afire. The flames touched Gemma’s hands, feet, and heart. When the apparition ended, she was left with that rarest of all mystical gifts, the stigmata, or the actual painful wounds of Christ in her body. The wounds were not constant, but appeared each Thursday night and then stopped the next day, leaving only white marks. As often happens to those who experience the stigmata, she was met with a great deal of skepticism and even mockery from both family and friends. Her spiritual director, Father Germano Ruoppolo, did a careful investigation of these occurrences and defended their authenticity. He also led her to live with the Giannini family, where she was protected from harassment and better able to pray. She helped the family with housework and the education of the children and was very grateful for them.
A DIARY KEPT
Gemma’s rapturous experiences in prayer were frequent, and both her spiritual director and a member of the Giannini family often recorded what she said while in ecstasy. She kept a spiritual diary and wrote many letters. From these chronicles, we learn that Gemma offered her many sufferings in atonement for offenses against the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her demonic harassments often took the form of a big black dog. She uttered the Name of Jesus more than nineteen hundred times during ecstatic prayer, and wrote it more than sixteen hundred times in her writings. She knew her guardian angel well and he is referred to on nearly every page of her diary. She often sent him on errands, including to deliver letters to Father Germano when he was in Rome. At the end of an ecstasy, she would resume her normal household activities. In early 1903, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was moved to a small cottage near the Giannini home. She became very ill during Holy Week and died Holy Saturday, April 11 at age twenty five. She died with a smile, which remained after her passing.
Despite her many years of suffering, St. Gemma was known for her kindness and her sympathy for the poor. She offered her sufferings in union with those of Christ in atonement for sins. She predicted that the Passionist order would place a convent in her hometown of Lucca. Not only did this happen, but her remains are lovingly housed at this convent. [St.] Maximilian Kolbe was so impressed with her remarkable diary that he found it more valuable to his spiritual growth than numerous spiritual exercises. St. Gemma was canonized in 1940. She is a patroness of pharmacists and of tuberculosis patients. Her feast day is April 11.