Aug. 20 marks 35 years since the death of American-born foundress whose cause for canonization is now underway
In 2013, Pope Francis formally recognized the heroic virtues of a U.S.-born woman, Celestine Bottego, founder of the Missionaries of Mary religious congregation. The move granted Bottego the title Venerable and puts her one step away from beatification.
Celestine Bottego was the daughter of an Irish mother, Mary Healy, and Italian father, Giovanni Bottego, who had immigrated separately to the United States and first met in California. After Giovanni moved to Butte, Montana, for work, Mary joined him, and they were married there. The couple had three children, of which Celestine was the middle. She was born Dec. 20, 1895.
Early years in America
As the years passed, Giovanni and Mary worked hard, leasing property and making wise investments with their money, so that they came to be financially secure. But in 1900, the couple made the difficult decision that Giovanni would return with two of the children to Italy to care for his elderly parents and Mary would temporarily stay behind with Celestine, then 4, to attend to the family’s business interests in Butte.
Celestine and her mother ended up staying in Montana for another 10 years. It was just before they, too, went to Italy that Celestine, at age 14, was named the best grammar school student in the state of Montana. A photo of Celestine, with a warm smile and dressed in a lacy white dress with her dark hair pulled back in a bow, appeared that summer in the local newspaper.
Together again back in Italy, the family purchased a large and impressive villa in the town of San Lazzaro. Celestine earned a teaching degree and soon began teaching at a middle school in nearby Parma. She served as a catechist at her local parish and often engaged in what would today be called youth ministry, providing many opportunities at Villa Bottego for local young people to socialize, play games and pray the Rosary together.
In 1922, when she was 26, Celestine became an oblate of the Benedictine abbey in Parma. Two years later, her sister, Maria, joined a Franciscan missionary order and soon was assigned to India, where she would spend most of the rest of her life. Celestine continued to live the life of a single woman and a teacher. When she was 40, Celestine spent a month in India with her sister. It was no vacation; with her sister, she traveled to tiny villages, bringing medicine and caring for the sick. She even baptized 40 babies during her time in India.
Called to give ‘everything’
In 1938, Celestine accepted a position teaching English at the seminary of the Xaverian missionary order in Parma. This work brought her to the attention of Father Giacomo Spagnolo, an influential priest of the Xaverian order who saw a need for a women’s order in the Xaverian spirit. He first approached Celestine in July 1943 about the possibility of her helping to found such an order, but she did not think she was called to such work and rejected the idea, though she later said she had never quite been at peace about her response.
About a year later, as World War II raged and the German army occupied much of Italy, Father Spagnolo sent Celestine a greeting card for Easter. On one side it bore the image of the famous painting by Velazquez of the crucified Jesus, and on the other, he had written just a single Italian word above his signature: tutto, “everything.” The image and that one word had a profound effect on her. Now rejecting the advice of her confessor that she was too old and lacked the right qualities for religious life, Celestine told Father Spagnolo that she would accept his invitation. On that day, May 24, 1944, he wrote in his journal, “The society has its foundress.” Celestine was 48.
Together, the two created the Missionary Society of Mary (known more commonly as the Missionaries of Mary). Its motto was, “All for Mission.” The first postulant joined Celestine in July 1945, the community was approved by the Bishop of Parma a few months later, and gradual growth began from there. Celestine was referred to as “la madre” and Villa Bottego in San Lazzaro became the community’s home.
“Her arms were always open to embrace everyone,” said Sister Rosetta Serra, one of the earliest members of the Missionaries of Mary, in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor. “She always had a smile, and everyone who knew her came to love her.”
The serenity, cheerfulness and sharp intelligence that marked Celestine’s personality served her well as head of the Missionaries of Mary.
“Love is the motive force of our consecrated life, and prayer its powerhouse,” she wrote once in a letter.
From the beginning, the Missionaries of Mary did not wear a religious habit, for the sake of simplicity and convenience in view of the difficult mission work that lay ahead. This was a significant innovation at the time, two decades before it became common in the wake of the reforms in religious life that followed the Second Vatican Council. In a 1954 letter to Father Spagnolo, Mother Celestine wrote, “I spoke with Bishop Fulton Sheen. He encouraged me and said that he was enthusiastic about the idea of our having a lay habit. He said we are the only congregation of this kind until now. He added, it was about time to change.”Sister Rosetta recalls an early meeting that the Missionaries of Mary attended in the United States with members of other women’s religious orders. She said their absence of a habit drew curious looks from others sisters until finally one person said, “Do you know that this is a meeting of nuns?” “Yes, we are nuns, too,” came the reply, and it made for interesting conversation among those present.
The first move of the young community outside of San Lazzaro came in 1954, when the Xaverian order asked Mother Celestine if the Missionaries of Mary might provide support, in the form of cooking and laundry service, to an Xaverian seminary in the United States, in Petersham, Massachusetts. She accepted the invitation and went personally with Sister Rosetta to begin the work. For two women who wanted to do direct mission work, the task was initially frustrating, but Sister Rosetta said that Mother Celestine did not complain.
Eventually, the community moved into other areas of more direct ministry in the United States, including education and social ministry, particularly to Hispanics. Mother Celestine worked with Sister Rosetta at the seminary for over a year before returning herself to Italy. From there, the order’s growth began to pick up pace.
It established communities in Brazil in 1957, Japan in 1959 and Burundi in 1961. In October 1962, Mother Celestine, now 66, was present for the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. Over the next four years, she followed the events and teachings of the council closely, and she welcomed the reforms it called for. A priest she knew later wrote of her, “During the years of the post-conciliar reform, I found her always open and enthusiastic regarding the liturgical changes which were proposed as part of the reform. I can say that the liturgy, and especially the Mass, were at the center of her spiritual life.”
Withdrawing into prayer
In 1966, the Missionaries of Mary convened its first General Chapter. At this important gathering of its sisters from their homes around the world, Mother Celestine, now 70, unexpectedly resigned from her role as superior of the order. She wrote to her sisters: “You can well understand as time goes on, how our work demands ever new and fresh energy and youthful gifts to respond to new challenges. Our work is moving forward, and it cannot slow its pace. I wish to withdraw, better observe and follow the activity of all of you, my daughters, and proffer spiritual assistance.”
From the time of her resignation, Mother Celestine willingly took a place in the background of the order’s work. She dedicated herself to prayer and much letter-writing. In 1977, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery for it the following year. Mother Celestine died on Aug. 20, 1980.
Today, the Missionaries of Mary continue to work in the U.S., Mexico, Japan, Cameroon, Thailand and elsewhere.